Welcome back! If you haven’t already checked out our blog post on planning and prepping your garden, we suggest you go back and read those first (click here to go back)
In this post we’ll be giving you a brief overview of how to start seeds indoors, how to direct sow, and how to transplant your starts into your garden. We will also give you our recommendation about when the best time to do all those things is – so let’s jump into it!
This post will serve as a great starting point and general guide to starting seedlings and a timeline, but we cannot stress enough the importance of reading the seed packet or seed website to best determine the timeline for the specific crop you are growing. If our guide and the seed packet have mixed information, go with the information on the seed packet!
TERMINOLOGY TO KNOW
“Direct sow” means planting a seed directly into the soil in your garden, raised bed, container, etc. It will grow right there in the spot you plant them. No special equipment or light needed, it will just need sun, soil, and water to grow.
The most successful vegetables to direct sow are cold tolerant vegetables like: lettuce, kale, spinach, fava beans, peas, carrots, radishes, beets and arugula. They are good options because they can be planted out early and still grow despite the cool temperatures.
You can also direct sow vegetables that grow quickly, but you will sow them later in the season when it gets warmer. Since they grow quickly there will still be plenty of time for them to grow even though they get planted later. These include: beans, cucumbers, squash, pumpkins and corn.
“Sowing indoors” means you will plant your seeds inside to keep them protected from the cold weather. They will grow indoors in sterile seedling soil for several weeks until they are big and strong enough to survive outside. At that point, the weather outside will be warmer and it will be time to move them outside and transplant them into your garden.
Sowing indoors is ideal for tender crops that cannot withstand cold soil temps such as tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, cucumbers, oregano, thyme, etc.
“Starts” (also referred to as veggie starts, vegetable starts) is a seed that has grown into a bigger plant and is now big enough to be transplanted into the garden. Some people will purchase starts (like you see at garden centers) and some people will grow their own starts by starting seeds indoors.
DETERMINE THE ‘LAST FROST DATE’
Most vegetables/herbs (unless they are cool weather crops) need to be transplanted after the last frost date. This date also determines when seeds need to be started indoors. The ‘last frost date’ is the average date where there is no longer a risk of freezing temperatures. This date is different depending on where you live and honestly, it is really a best guess calculated by using historical weather data and averages. There are a number of websites that have tools to determine the date for your area. In our experience, we find the estimation from these websites for our area to be way, way off. Here in Boring it suggests the last frost date is in the first week of April. It is our recommendation that you do NOT use that date if you live around here (Portland & surrounding areas).
Why? Because these calculations do not account for the outliers in the data like the fact that almost EVERY year we get a ‘false spring’ in Oregon. It warms up and people start to transplant…then, when we least expect it, we get some very cold and rainy days between April and Mother’s Day weekend that completely wipe out your tender crops like tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers. I’m sure some of you are nodding your head right now because you know the pain of losing all your veggies during this unexpected cold spell all too well.
Instead, our recommendation is to transplant out into the garden AFTER Mother’s Day weekend (and no sooner). If you are a patient person, Helen actually recommends waiting until closer to Memorial Day Weekend since this gives the soil extra time to warm up. But, we know it can be hard to be patient, so anytime after Mother’s Day should work just fine and still be a safe option.
Exceptions to this rule are cooler weather crops like: lettuce, spinach, kale, radish, fava beans, peas, carrots, and arugula. In most cases, these can be directly sowed into the soil in early spring because they can still germinate in the soil before it warms up. Seed packets for these types of crops will typically read “direct sow as early as soil can be worked in spring.”
WHEN TO DIRECT SOW SEEDS (for our area)
WHEN DO I START SEEDS INDOORS?
If you’re starting your own seeds, it’s recommended you start them between 6-10 weeks before your last frost date. The exact number of weeks will be listed on your seed packet, but you can see our general guidelines below… and remember that we use Mother’s Day weekend (May 8th) instead of the last frost date in our area.
We created a handy table to help guide your planting. We based ours on a transplant date of May 15th which is a safe date the week AFTER Mother’s Day Weekend so it’s easy to remember
If you plan to transplant on a different date, or your seed packet recommends a different timeline than what we used below, you can use this handy tool to calculate the number of weeks between dates. Enter your transplant date, and enter the number of weeks the seed packet recommends to determine your seed starting date: https://planetcalc.com/8123/
Don’t see the veggie you are looking for?
Check out these handy charts for more veggies (they are both for our local climate)
HOW DO I DIRECT SOW?
To direct sow, use the guidelines on the seed packet to determine how deep and how far apart your seeds need to be- pay attention to spacing and depth. If you plant your seeds too deep they may never sprout. If you plant your seeds too close, it will overcrowd and they won’t have room to properly grow.
Many people stagger plant crops to extend the harvest season. This is particularly helpful for greens and other plants that grow very quickly or ripen all at once like lettuce, carrots, spinach, and radishes. To do this, you plant seeds every couple of weeks for the first few of months of spring. This allows you to enjoy those crops all summer long.
1. Ensure you have good, loose soil and sprinkle some slow release fertilizer in. Mix that into the soil so it is evenly dispersed. When direct sowing, you do not need to use seedling soil. Level out your soil use your finger or a trowel to make a shallow, long ditch in your soil
2. We recommend you place your label in front of this ditch now so you don’t forget what you planted later!
3. Place your seeds in the ditch according to spacing listed on your seed packet
4. Cover your seeds with soil so that your seed is approximately the depth on your seed packet
5. Gently press down the soil on top of your seed so it’s slightly compacted. If you haven’t yet, ADD A LABEL. It is SO easy to forget what you planted in a day or two.
6. Water your seeds gently using a mist or shower setting
*Do not use a regular hose or strong setting or you risk displacing your seeds
7. You will want to check your seeds at least once a day and ensure the soil is evenly moist. It is important that they are moist all the time until they germinate.
8. To help accelerate your seed growth, you can cover your freshly sowed seeds with clear plastic to help create a greenhouse effect. This will also help your seeds stay moist. You will need to remove this once they sprout above the soil or else they could stay too moist and mold.
9. After your seeds have sprouted, you will want to thin them out according to the seed packet directions. This means cutting off the tops of some of your seedlings to help space them out and allow the strongest ones to grow without overcrowding. I know, I know…all your hard work, but I promise this leads to a stronger, better plant for those that are not thinned.
10. Check your seedlings regularly and keep them evenly moist. They are still babies and are not strong enough yet to tolerate a lack of water, especially on hot days.
11. As your seeds grow, some veggies will require support from a trellis or need something to climb (beans, peas, cucumbers) so once they are growing tall enough, add necessary support.
12. Continue to monitor your plants daily for watering needs. Water the SOIL, not the top of the plant for best results. To know when to water, look at your soil. If the top is dry, stick your finger about 1” into the soil. If it is wet under the top layer, it can wait another day. If it is dry underneath the top layer, water! Also look for wilting leaves and water immediately. MOST plants at this stage can recover as long as it hasn’t been too long.
13. Liquid fertilize 1 x per week and replenish slow release fertilizer into the soil every 3 months. Make sure the slow release fertilizer gets mixed into the soil around the plant well.
14. Harvest your garden! Before you know it you will see your hard work pay off!
If you’re a beginner gardener, or are a visual learner, I found these videos to be jam packed with information:
HOW DO I START SEEDS INDOORS?
To start seeds indoors, you need to start early! Many crops need between 6-10 weeks to grow before they are ready to be transplanted into the garden. Make sure you check your seed packets and the table above to know when to start. If it’s already past the date listed on the table above or in your calculations – DO NOT PANIC! It just means you’ll need to transplant them out a little later. So if you were supposed to have peppers planted by March 5th but you don’t do it until March 10th, just plant them out in your garden a few days later. It will still be early enough that they have plenty of time to grow.
Double check that whatever you’re planting your seeds in has drainage holes – if not, add them. Most commercial seed trays will have them but if you’re using plastic containers, etc you need to add them. More is always better!
You will also want to make sure you have your setup with light (natural or artificial) and your warming mat ready to do. Make sure this spot can withstand watering. If indoors, you may need to put your containers in a tray/baking sheet to catch water and put that on top of your warming mat. Some people use towels or plastic table cloths under their seed containers/trays to catch the water.
Fill your container or seed trays with a seedling soil mix. Seedling soil mix is light and allows for seeds to easily root themselves out.
If using a seedling tray with cells or plastic containers roughly the size of a yogurt or sour cream container, plant 2-3 seeds in each cell or container. Cover with a light dusting of seedling soil mix and press down gently.
LABEL YOUR SEEDS! Lots of little green sprouts can all look the same and you will want to know which seedling is which
If you are using a plastic container that is bigger than a yogurt container, you may be able to fit a few spots with 2-3 seeds in the container. Once you have planted those, cover with a light dusting of seedling soil mix and press down gently.
Mist or use a light shower setting to water the soil so it is moist. You will want the soil to remain moist (not soggy) at all times while waiting for it to germinate.
Place your newly planted seeds in their containers on your seed warming mat and turn it on. Some have heat settings, refer to the seed packet for germination temperature and set it accordingly. Some don’t have a heat setting so just make sure it’s plugged in.
Cover your seed trays or containers with clear plastic – seran wrap, press and seal, clear vinyl, a clear tablecloth or even a plastic jug or lid would work fine. This will create a mini greenhouse over your seeds with the warmth from the seed mat and keeps it humid and moist at all times (which seeds love). You will remove this once they have sprouted so the seedlings can get airflow and not get moldy.
Once your seeds have sprouted, remove the plastic cover but continue to keep them moist. You CAN remove them from the heating mat at this time if you need it for other things, but it won’t hurt for it to stay on the heating mat until you plant them out into bigger containers.
Once they have grown a couple of inches tall, you will want to thin out your seeds so they aren’t competing for resources. Remember that you planted 2-3 seeds per cell/container, because not all seeds will grow. But, oftentimes 2-3 seeds will sprout in one cell and now they will struggle to grow if they continue to stay in the same tiny cell. This means you need to cut the tops off all but one seedling in each cell. Typically, you’ll choose to save the strongest seedling or the most centered one. If you can’t bring yourself to kill other seedlings, you can carefully lift the entire cell or container of dirt out of the container and split the seedlings. This means you very carefully separate each seedling and replant them in their own cell. This does not have a 100% success rate, but it can be a good way to get a few extra plants out of your seeds rather than just killing them when you cut the top off.
For best results, most vegetables/herbs should be planted into bigger containers to allow them to grow bigger and stronger before they are ready to transplant. This gives them more room to grow and they won’t get root bound – which is where their roots start to bind together and don’t have anywhere to grow into. They are ready by the time your seedling has 2 leaves and is at least a couple inches tall. We move ours up into 4” nursery plastic containers but you can use anything as long as it’s at least 4” in diameter and deep.
To plant them into bigger containers, fill your new container with potting soil and a pinch of slow release fertilizer granules. Mix fertilizer in to evenly disperse. Using something like a skewer, bamboo stick, or even a nail, carefully slide it between the wall of the cell/container and the soil and lift the whole plug (your seedling and it’s soil) out of the cell or container. DO NOT PULL STRAIGHT UP ON THE SEEDLING OR IT CAN BREAK OR KILL IT. If the bottom of the plug where the soil has lots of white roots, gently pinch a couple of those roots and break them apart so they can grow out in the new container, then plant into the bigger container. Press the soil around the seedling and pack down gently. Water them once they’ve been planted – focus your water on the soil, not the seedling for best results.
DON’T FORGET TO LABEL THEM in their new containers 🙂
Monitor your plants daily for watering needs. If the top of the soil looks wet, no need to water. If the top of the soil looks dry, stick your finger into the soil. If it’s wet under the top layer, no need to water it that day. If it’s dry underneath too, water them. We recommend you liquid fertilize 1x per week once they are in the bigger containers, again, ensuring you are watering the soil, not the plant.
Once the last frost has passed (or after Mother’s Day weekend if you’re following our recommendations, it will be time to transplant the starts out into the garden! We’ll go into detail about that in our next section, so keep reading…
HOW DO I TRANSPLANT STARTS INTO THE GARDEN?
It’s finally time! The danger of frost has passed, your garden is prepped and it’s time to put those plants out into the garden. Maybe you’ve been growing them from seed, or maybe you just stocked up at the local farmers market – however you got your starts, it’s time to plant them.
Before they are ready for the real world, they need to be hardened off so they don’t get shocked by the weather and temps outside – since most starts have been in a climate controlled setting. You will want to start hardening them off about a week before you plan to transplant.
Here is a great, simple video about how to do that:
Now that your starts are hardened off and your garden or containers are prepped, it’s time to start!
**DO NOT TRANSPLANT STARTS IN THE HEAT OF THE DAY as they will get stressed out! First thing in the morning is the best choice, but evening can work if you don’t have any other choice (just make sure not to over-water at night).
Mix a handful of slow release fertilizer granules into your soil (we use osmocote) and mix well to evenly disperse. This gives your plants a little dose of fertilizer every time you water it.
Use seed packets or google to determine proper spacing for your crop.
Dig a spot out in your soil that’s deep and wide enough for the whole start (and it’s soil).
Gently pull the start from it’s container (if you are using pulp/paper/peat containers for your starts they can be planted directly into the soil since that will break down overtime with water) and gently pinch and break up the roots in a few places
Place the start in the soil and pack soil around it and press down to firmly keep the start in place in it’s new home
Label the variety that you planted to help keep track of what is where!
Water the start, focusing on the soil not the leaves!
Enjoy your garden! Continue to monitor your plants daily for watering needs. Water the SOIL, not the top of the plant for best results. To know when to water, look at your soil. If the top is dry, stick your finger about 1” into the soil. If it is wet under the top layer, it can wait another day. If it is dry underneath the top layer, water! Also look for wilting leaves and water immediately. MOST plants at this stage can recover as long as it hasn’t been too long.
Liquid fertilize 1 x per week for best results!
Enjoy your garden and the fruits of your labor. Be sure to pick your crops as they grow so they can use energy to push more growth and ripen more veggies. Greens and herbs need to be cut back regularly in order for more growth to come on – we will cover that in our next blog post – how to maintain your garden!
WHEW! If you’re still here, thanks so much for reading. We hope you found lots of great info. We know it’s a lot of information, but once you get the hang of it gardening is so rewarding and we can’t wait to hear all about your gardening success!
Check back next week for more information about maintaining and preserving your garden all summer long!