Gardening is a wonderful pastime, provides exercise, and provides delicious veggies to eat. Once your garden is established, it provides a restful place to decompress after a hard days work at the office or the household. When we start our garden, I know we are tempted to go to Home Depot, Wal-Mart, or any other nurseries and buy those nice six-packs or single plants. Some even have flowers or vegetables already. Do not be tempted as these can be quite expensive. But no worries, there is an easy and more affordable way to get the garden going. And this can be started as you prepare your garden soil for planting. Its called Seed Starting. And its easy and inexpensive.
One drawback you may have noticed when buying established plants is that the choice is quite limited. For example there might be only two types of tomatoes plants offered, cherry tomato and beefsteak. However, if you look at the seed packet selection, there might be a dozen different varieties as well as coveted heirloom types. If you decide to buy seed from the many seed catalogs, then the choice of seed varieties is virtually endless. This applies to seeds of all other garden plants as well. In some cases you might obtain some very rare or unusual seeds for your garden. And, for the same price or less, you get potentially hundreds of plants for your garden rather than one.
Overly mature plants
Another drawback with potted plants is that they may already be rootbound. In other words, the roots have already filled the small pot and started to intermingle with each other. When transplanted, his may lead to stunted plants in your garden. Like I said earlier, you might be seduced by the pre-existing flowers or small veggies already on the plant. This is just a sign the plant is over mature and may not thrive once transplanted. Avoid these potted plants.
Starting the Seeds
Once you have selected your seed packets, you need to sprout them. There are many ways to do this but basically the seeds need to be in firm contact with moist soil in some type of container. Many containers will work adequately, from store-bought to homemade, you can even reuse the six-packs if you have bought them in the past. My favorite is the recycled styrofoam egg carton. They are watertight unlike the paper egg cartons and are quite sturdy. start by cutting off the top, but save this as it will become your drip tray. Then, with a nail, drill, knife or hot soldering iron, make holes in the bottom of each egg "cup". These holes allow excess water to drain into the drip tray and also allow excess water to be reabsorbed if it starts to dry out. But some seed starting mix such as miracle grow, moisten with water, fill each cup about 2/3 full with mix, level it out and tamp it down gently with a tool such as a short piece of 1/2" wood dowel or similar device that fits into the egg cup. Distribute the seeds as directed on the back of the packet. Ignore row spacing for now as you will consider that during the transplanting phase. With fresh seeds, usually 3-5 seeds per cup is fine for small seeds such as lettuce and basil, but larger seeds such as beans or zucchini should be sown at 1 per cup. Remember, you have so many seeds in one packet that it is economical to oversow, then discard extras....if you can.
Once the seeds are sown, cover with about 1/4 inch of the moistened seed starting mix, level and tamp as before. Now, since the seed staring mix is already moist, there is no need to water from the top. Simply add a little water to the drip tray, and place the planted egg cup portion on top. Place the whole thing inside a plastic grocery bag (I know we all have thousands of those things building up) and close bag with a twist tie or just knot the handles to make an enclosed system. Put in a somewhat warm but not sunny place (68-75 deg F) and let sit undisturbed. In a few days, you should see little sprouted plants. If you used clear bags, then great. If your bags are opaque white then you will need to open and take a peek. Once the notice sprouts, you should remove from the bag and place in a location that is warm as before, but out of direct sunlight.
At first, the newly sprouted plants may not look like they are growing very fast and may only be displaying the cotyledons. Do not worry, they are developing a root system. After a few weeks the plants will have grown considerably and should be displaying the first true leaves or more. At this point, depending on available time of the gardener and outdoor weather, they may be transplanted into larger (4 inch) pots, or directly into the garden. Once transplanted, make sure to keep the ground around the plants moist until established: maybe a week or two. Keep an eye on your babies and soon you will be harvesting delicious homegrown veggies on the cheap!
If you would like to read a great book on gardening, I recommend Square-foot gardening by Mel Bartholomew. I read for the first time many years ago, and the updated version is awesome.
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Alright, the seedlings have all been transplanted and they appear to be established. Noe is the time to enjoy the fruits of you labor. Now, different vaeggies have different maturity times. Some you can each very quickly, such as lettuce and spinach (no need to wait for a full head to develop, just pick a lower leaf from each plant) other may take a while, such as peppers, tomatoes and Squash. Just be patient and harvest as you go, if something looks good to eat, it most likely is. Baby zucchini and summer squashes are wonderful.
Hope this helps. Happy gardening!