February in Minnesota. The days are noticeably longer – we gained an hour of daylight in January. Woo hoo! And a girl finds her attention turning to the pile of seed catalogs that started accumulating in December when spring wasn’t even a distant hope.
Starting your own garden vegetables and flowers from seed can be a great cost-saving strategy. Besides saving money, the other great benefit to starting your own plants is choosing what you want instead of what the nursery has. Extreme caution is advised, though, because the renewed hope of another growing season can lead to unrestrained seed selections and wasted money. Edit your seed selections several times before you send it in.
First: Plan your garden
Know your space—how much sun do you get in the different areas? Put your parka on and go outside. Imagine the trees are fully leafed-out. Imagine the sun moving high across the sky. Most vegetables need a lot of sun. Leafy greens can do well in more shaded areas and may actually produce larger leaves valiantly trying to absorb as much sunlight as possible. Save the sunniest areas for tomatoes, peppers, and other fruiting plants. Carrots and other root vegetables will tolerate some shade.
How much growing area do you have? If you only have room for 6 tomato plants, is buying a 100 seeds worth it? Maybe. Talk with your gardening friends or family. Can you share packets of seeds? Most seeds will remain viable for a few years. Store the excess in an air-tight container (jar) and keep in a cool, dark, dry place. You can get dozens of plants from a $2-$3 packet of seeds.
Second: Start your seeds
Now that you have made your wish list, pared it down to match reality and sent it off, what’s next? A lot of flowers and vegetables can be seeded directly into the soil. Read the seed packets for planting times and instructions. In short growing seasons, like Minnesota, many plants should be started a month or two before they can go outside to get the most out of them.
Save your clear plastic clamshell packaging—lettuce, berries, etc. These make great seed-starting containers because you can control the moisture and warmth with the lid. And, save your other plastic tubs—yogurt, sour cream, anything you can punch a drain hole into and holds soil (for transplanting the little starts into later on) will work. You can even make your own pots out of newspaper or toilet paper rolls. The worldwide web is full of how-to’s.
Set up your own seed-starting nursery when the timing is right (read the packets). I recommend spending money on seed-starting potting mix. I’ve tried regular outdoor dirt and general potting soils, and had my heart broken. You’ll need more light than what comes through the windows. I bought a used 4 foot fluorescent light fixture that I attach to a wire storage rack on chain so I can adjust the height of the lights. Regular fluorescent bulbs have worked just fine, no need to spend a lot of money on fancy grow lights. Seeds need warmth to germinate so I start them above the lights draping aluminum foil over the containers to help hold in the heat. Move the newly spouted seedlings to under the lights, keeping them about 2 inches from the light. Adjust the lights as the plants grow. It might be tempting to leave the lights on 24/7, but plants actually need a rest, too. Sixteen hours of light is a good rule of thumb.
If you planted many seeds in the clamshells, they will need to be thinned to allow room to grow. That’s where the larger containers you saved come in—transplant the babies after they have “true” leaves and can safely be handled. When the days are warm enough, gradually move the plants outdoors. Give them an hour or two in a protected area outside to start, increasing the time and exposure to sun and wind over a week or two until they are out all night (keeping an eye on the forecast for danger of frost.) The soil will dry faster outdoors, so be mindful of watering.
Third: Direct seed and transplant
Need to establish new gardening beds? See our post on building your own. Your cool weather plants can be directly seeded when the soil is warm enough to work. Think kale, lettuce, peas, radishes…
After the danger of frost has passed (mid to late May in my neighborhood), you can transplant your babies into their permanent locations. Plant your tomatoes deep, up to the first set of good leaves. They will develop roots along the stem, will be stronger and more drought resistant. Plant your seeds for beans, cucumbers and other warm weather plants directly into the soil.
Bask in the beauty of your efforts!
Were you inspired by my post on raising worms for fertilizer and now have a good stash of worm castings? Give your plants a nutritious boost to grow bigger and more beautiful. If raising worms doesn’t fit into your lifestyle, there are plenty of other ways to feed your plants, organic or not.
When your neighbors tell you how wonderful your garden looks and ask where you got the unusual tomato varieties, you can proudly say you grew it all from seed! Have too much produce? Donate it to your local food shelf and feel good about providing lovely, fresh produce to others. All for the price of a few packets of seeds.
Do you have any gardening, food, or money saving tips? Share in the comments below.
Author Mary Ellen Kaluza is a Financial Counselor at LSS Financial Counseling. She is also a gardening guru and cyclist extraordinaire. Visit www.ConquerYourDebt.org or call 888-577-2227 to learn more about the service LSS Financial Counseling has to offer!