From Seed to Successful Garden

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Why start a garden from seed when you can have the instant gratification of buying ready grown plants? For one thing, you can grow most or all of the plants for your garden with little effort. Seed starting is easy, enjoyable, gratifying – and economical if you pay attention to the environment you are in control of.

When to Start

“Plant after the danger of frost is past” is the standard advice on most every seed package. BUT, from an environment perspective, it depends on how much of the environment you can/have taken control of. Remember: Plants can’t read the calendar. They respond to environmental triggers to “calendar” their “TO DO” list. If you manage the light, temperature, moisture, etc… to the needs of the plant, you manipulate the implementation of the “TO DO” list. So, it stands to reason that the more you know about the environment needs of a particular plant, the more control you can exert when growing it. Know before you go. Most annuals should be sown indoors about six weeks before the last frost date for your USDA Hardiness Zone. For the Sanford area average last spring frost date is April 19th give or take 12 days. See the link at the bottom of this article for frost date information.

Most perennials and biennials can be started outdoors at any time during spring because they don’t bloom until their second year. In fact, you might as well wait until temperatures are warm enough to start them. BUT Some of these plants do have a wonderful habit of blooming their first fall if they are planted early enough. Coreopsis is particularly good at this. And how drought tolerant! What a bright cheerleader in the garden! Plant these beauties about 2-3 weeks before the annuals and get them going in the garden a couple of weeks earlier than the annuals – even though we may very well be looking at a frost related smack down. We need cheerleaders! If we are lucky with the weather, we get a bonus of not having to wait until next year for the blooms.

Planting the Seeds

To make a good growing medium, sift the topsoil through a piece of hardware cloth (rugged screening) once or twice. If the soil seems overly heavy, add some Perlite or vermiculite component to make a fluffier mix, then fill the planting trays 2 inches deep with soil. Level this mix, plant your seed to the correct depth and gently water in. The soil will settle, leaving a small water reservoir space at the top. Remember, you want the water to come in, do its job, then leave. Otherwise, you will have an entirely other issue to deal with from overwatering.

Now make three ½ inch deep furrows in each tray. If you are a measurement person, a ruler works well here. Space the seeds an inch apart by gently separating them out of the package. A folded white piece of paper is a useful tool. Pour your seeds into the crease and then push the seeds apart so that you can tap 1-3 seeds into the space you designate. Some of these seeds will be REALLY SMALL, and hard to see, let alone manipulate. Spacing is important because if the seeds are bunched together at transplanting time the roots are entangled. Very likely thinning out will be necessary. Because separating clumps of young plants without damaging the roots is unlikely, just snip the shoot portion off the unwanted, weaker seedlings and leave the root systems alone.

Cover the seeds with very fine soil to the depth recommended on the seed package. Putting the soil you are already using through a strainer works well for this, then firm it in over each furrow. Know your seed – investigate whether the plant seed needs light or darkness to germinate and sow accordingly. Hand pat it down for firm soil connection and make sure you label what seeds are planted where and the date you planted the seed. “The faintest ink is more powerful than the strongest memory.” From there you will be able to figure out just how successful you are or if you need to begin again with new seed.

Spray a pint of water over the surface, then cover with plastic or other light transmitting surface to make a “humidity dome”. Some seed-starting kits come with them, but clear plastic wrap works too. Elevate the plastic off the soil with some height creating pieces such as cut off pieces of drinking straw or tooth picks. A heat mat with thermostat will help maintain a consistent soil temp. Again, read the plant seed label for germination temperatures for that plant, but often it will be about 65-75 º degrees. If the seeds have a different temperature requirement (like broccoli, collards, mustard greens, etc) then prepare for that and skip the heating pad.

Once sprouted, the plants will need sufficient watering, good air circulation and adequate sunlight. When true leaves appear, start watering at one quarter strength liquid fertilizer. As the shoots grow, and roots grow in tandem to keep up with the supply needs, water needs increase as well. Check them often. If they begin to wilt, it’s time to water.

Before You Transplant

Prepare your planting beds ahead of time. Aerate and amend the beds according to the results of your soil test. Transplant your seedlings when they are about 4-5 inches tall, have a healthy, full root system and the outside temperatures meet the needs for your plants, after the last spring frost date. Consider transplanting into your garden on an overcast/cloudy day or evening to minimize heat stress and shock.

Start with plants with a history of success. Annuals: Cosmos, Marigolds, Nicotianas, Zinnias, Dahlias, Baby’s Breath, and Straw Flowers. Perennials: Coreopsis, Black-Eyed Susans, Coneflowers, Shasta Daisies. Biennials: Foxgloves, Holly Hocks, English Daisies. Now, sit back (but not for long) and enjoy your garden. Know that you grew all this yourself! For more in-depth information, review the horticultural leaflets online noted below.

Minda Daughtry is the Horticulture Agent for North Carolina Cooperative Extension in Lee County.