Save Money By Starting Seeds For Vegetable and Pollinator Gardens

Save Money By Starting Seeds Indoors

Have you ever wandered into a garden center intending to purchase a few seedlings and ended up with a wallet-busting wagonload of must-have plants? It happens to me all the time. Even when I plan on buying only a few perennials to even out the border, or a few vegetable seedlings to pop into the kitchen garden, the sight of all that eye candy makes my imagination run wild. Suddenly, I feel like I should purchase enough to plant in drifts, achieve four-season interest, and feed the pollinators, as well as the people.

Seeds are often situated at the front of the garden center. It’s easy to blow right past the racks and reach for the mature plants. One thing we must keep in mind, though, is that garden center plants are sometimes staged to bloom earlier than they would in nature. Vegetable seedlings sold in April may not survive a late frost. In many ways, starting plants from seed at home allows for greater choice and control of a plant’s health.

Starting plants from seed indoors is an economical and rewarding endeavor. Perusing seed catalogs or garden center seed racks allows time for planning a multi-season garden, and also offers the opportunity to try new or unusual varieties. Seeds are far less expensive than mature plants, and one seed packet will usually provide more than enough abundance to fill a need.

Now is the perfect time to think about starting seeds for late spring or early summer planting. Tender vegetables, such as tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants need 5-7 weeks to germinate and grow into seedlings before they’re planted outdoors. They should not be planted outdoors until night temperatures are consistently above 50 degrees. In Virginia’s three regions, the last killing frost may occur as late as April 21 in the Tidewater area, April 30 in the Piedmont area, and May 15 in the mountain area. However, it may take several more weeks for temperatures to warm enough for tender seedlings to survive in the ground. For example, in the Piedmont area, we typically plant tomatoes in the ground around Mother’s Day. Adrian Higgins, garden writer for the Washington Post, recently published a timetable for starting seeds in the DC area.

Late-blooming perennials can also be started in later winter or early spring. Why not plan a butterfly or pollinator garden, and save some money by starting it indoors? Try starting milkweed, aster, borage, coneflower, and coreopsis for a rainbow of pollinator-friendly color.

Here are a few simple steps to get you started with seed starting:

My husband built this light stand, using a basic shelf set-up.
Extension cords drop behind it, to allow for multiple lights and heat pads.

  1. A good light source is essential. A bright window with southern exposure may provide enough warmth and brightness, but too little light will result in weak, leggy seedlings. A fluorescent light stands with one warm and one cool bulb that works well and is easy to set up. It can be comprised of a simple shop light fixed over a tabletop, or a grow light made specifically for seed starting. I use a timer to provide 12 hours of light at first, with the lights set just a few inches above the seed trays.
  2. Next, you’ll need a sterile, soilless mix containing 50% peat and 50% perlite. Soilless seed starting mixes can also be purchased. Seeds don’t need rich garden soil until they’ve emerged. All of the nutrients for germination are contained within the seed.
  3. Moisten the soilless mixture before putting it in the planting tray. The soil should stick together, but not feel muddy or loose. Spread it evenly in the planting container. Drop 2-3 seeds in each cell, gently covering them with the soilless mix. Check the seed packet for appropriate planting depth.
  4. Cover the tray with cellophane wrap or a plastic cover. Water will soon condense on the top cover, providing all the moisture the seeds will need until they emerge. Remove the cover as soon as the seeds emerge.
  5. When the first true leaves appear, transplant the young sprouts to small containers filled with enriched potting mix.
  6. Avoid overwatering the seedlings. Use a spray bottle to keep the soil evenly moist, or water the trays from the bottom. Raise the light source so that is about 2 inches above the plants, and gradually reduce the length of light until it’s about 10 hours per day.
  7. When seedlings are 5-7 weeks old, begin to harden them off by setting them outdoors, in a shaded location, for several hours a day. After 4-6 days, they’ll be ready to plant in the ground.
  8. It’s best to plant on a cloudy day, to avoid scorching early on. Carefully water, weed, watch your garden grow.

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