Growing your own seedlings has many benefits, including:
- It can be better value, as a packet of seed, some pots and seed raising mix can cost less/ produce more, than buying seedlings (saving your own seed, reusing pots and making your own seed raising mix can save you even more)
- An exciting wide range of unique varieties to choose from that you may not be able to source as seedlings, and this way you can help protect biodiversity
- Reduce negative impact that can be associated with packaging, distribution and production of conventional seedlings
- Be resilient against possible food shortages or price rises, or food distribution issues, by knowing how to grow from seed
- It is satisfying and enjoyable hobby
- You can connect with other seed savers
There can be challenges, including that it does take more time (to actually pot up the seeds, but then also waiting weeks for them to grow big enough to transplant), you need somewhere to raise them with the right conditions, and there may be poor germination rates, pest issues etc.
Seeds for growing veges and herbs need the right amount of warmth, moisture, light and oxygen to help them to germinate and grow. To create the right conditions to germinate the seeds, and support the growth of the seedlings, you will need:
- Seed Raising Mix (fine soil which retains moisture, is light and airy, and has some nutrition to support the growing seedling)
- Mini pots, seed trays or other containers
- Sunlight & Warmth (12 to 16 hours a day of good quality light, with consistent warm temperatures)
- Water (using a spray/ misting bottle, or small watering can/ bottle with fine nozzle)
- Seeds (bought, saved or swapped)
- Labels/ labelling system like cut up plastic containers with permanent marker, or a removeable chalk pen directly on the pots
What do we raise them in?
There are many types of containers or set ups, that you can use to raise the seeds, for transplanting.
- Plastic pots You may keep and use pots that previously purchased seedlings have come in. You may be able to buy pots, or ‘seed trays’ second hand at a tip shop, or find them on a buy/ swap/ sell group. Of course, you can buy new plastic seedling pots at the hardware store or nursery. You can also get seedling trays to hold the pots.
- Seed trays or Punnets (AKA flats) are shallow plastic trays, with individual sections for one seedling, or seed trays refers to trays with only one large section that fit multiple seedlings in them. They have drainage holes in the bottom. You may keep and use punnets/ trays that previously purchased seedlings have come in. You may be able to get them secondhand, or you can buy new.
- Plantable pots that can be planted into the garden bed with the seedling, to reduce ‘transplant shock’ (by not disturbing the roots, and by slowly integrating to the garden bed as the pot breaks down), such as peat pots or coir pots, coco pellets, soil blocks, or newspaper/ origami pots, or egg shells or toilet paper tubes/ rolls
- Other pots/ options include recycled and DIY options, like milk cartons (cut in half), yoghurt containers; egg shells and egg cartons, toilet paper rolls
OTHER EQUIPMENT/ MATERIALS TO CONSIDER
- Mini greenhouse you can buy various styles of mid-sized greenhouses which have layers of shelving & soft plastic zip covers that you secure to an outside wall or fence, or even set up shelving outdoors, with a simple plastic cover over it. Or you can buy mini greenhouses, which include a hard plastic cover that goes over seed trays/ pots, or make your own (using plastic covers from sheet sets/ quilts that you’ve bought, over pots, held up with wire coathanger or chop sticks/ small branches. You could also use large plastic storage boxes (with lids) either with the pots in them, or seed raising mix directly in the bottom (either drill holes in the bottom of the box, or do not overwater).
- Grow lights – make your own, or buy a system, that encourages growth with artificial lighting
- Heat Mats – electric mats or pads, that the seed trays sit on to boost warmth required for germination and growth
A NOTE ON Seed raising mix
Seed raising mix is a fine blend of materials that encourage the germination of seeds, and growth of the seedlings. It needs to retain moisture, but not become saturated or compacted. It needs to be light and airy, so roots can grow and breathe easily. It needs some nutrition, but not so much that it overwhelms the seedling. You may be happy to buy bags of seed raising mix, or you may want to make your own mix.
Some varieties of vegetables and herbs only grow well by planting them as seed, directly into the garden bed where they will grow, as they do not transplant very well into the garden bed after germination occurs (they get ‘transplant shock’). These include carrots, beetroot, radishes, swede, turnip, beans, peas, silverbeet/ chard, spinach, corn, kohlrabi, coriander, parsley, dill.
Other produce can be either sown direct, or raised as seedlings and transplanted. What you choose to grow will depend on the space you have, the climate or zone you are in, what season it is or what you are heading towards, and what you eat.
In areas like Canberra, the warm season is quite short, so ‘extending the season’ means potting up warm season seeds and raising seedlings in advance (several weeks), which enables a head start once the soil has warmed up enough and the risk of frosts has passed, in Mid Spring.
I highly recommend checking out Gardenate (they also have an app) to work out what climate/ growing zone you are in for your country, and the guidelines for what is recommend for you to plant in what season/ month. You can see their suggestions on what can be sown direct/ potted up, and transplanted, and the timing required.
Easy to RAISE Cool Season vegetables & herbs
- Onion/ Leeks/ Spring Onions
- Try in plantable pots: Sugar Snap Peas, Snow Peas, Peas, Asian greens
Easy to RAISE Warm Season Vegetables & Herbs
- Tomatoes – cherry or grape tomatoes
- Try in plantable pots: Cucumber, Sunflowers, Pumpkin, Squash, Melons, Beans
Easy To RAISE Year Round + Perennial vegetables & herbs
- Herbs (chives, sage, tarragon)
OK, now that you have made your plans of how you will raise your seedlings, and what you want to grow, let’s get ready to pot up.
- seed raising mix
- containers to grow in
- hand trowel (or use a small pot, to scoop up seed raising mix into the containers/ pots)
- dibber (or use the end of a pen)
- gardening gloves
- watering can or spray bottle
- labels and pen (I use plastic ice cream containers and lids, cut into strips), or a chalk pen that doesn’t come off unless rubbed off
Some seeds need special handling before planting, to bring them out of dormancy, and induce germination. This information should be available on the packet, or do some research if you have saved your own seed. For example, some seeds may need soaking (for several hours or overnight), to remove a chemical coating, or scarification, which is ‘roughing up’ or breaking the coating.
- Line up all your pots (use a seedling tray or a shallow box to hold any small, tall pots upright)
- Fill with seed raising mix to almost full
- Make labels (or write on the pots with chalk pen) for the number of pots you are allocating for that type of vege/ herb
- Make a small hole for each seed (with your finger/ pen) to the depth required
- Place the seeds in the hole
- Cover up with more seed raising mix
- Put a label in (or write on with chalk pen)
- Repeat for the other varieties/ type of seeds
- Locate in a sunny spot, with warm fairly consistent temperatures
- Gently spray or water each day or every second day, until the soil is moistened, not saturated
- Depending on the variety, they could germinate (start to grow and pop up above the soil) in as little as 2 days, up to 2 weeks.
GROWING + GETTING READY TO TRANSPLANT
- After the seeds have germinated, they will have little ‘seed leaves’ (see bottom photo below) which help feed and nourish the plant, then they form their ‘true leaves’ after that, at which point you can start to use a diluted liquid fertiliser (worm tea/ juice) once a week
- If you put several seeds into each pot/ seed tray, you may need to thin, or ‘prick out’, any seedlings that are growing too close to each other (as this will inhibit quality growth if left too crowded) by removing some of the germinated seedlings
- It may take several weeks from potting up the seeds, to germination, to then reach the size when the seedling can be transplanted. They need at least 3 to 4 ‘true leaves’.
- You may also use cloches once the seedlings are in the garden bed, to help them acclimatise.
- See the Beginners Guide to Edible Gardening for information on transplanting the seedlings into your garden beds/ containers.
If your vegetable or herb seed didn’t germinate, ask yourself these questions:
- When did I pot it up? Does it simply need more time?
- Did I bury the seed too deep, or not deep enough?
- Is the tray/ pot getting enough sunlight? Is it staying warm overnight?
- Is it getting enough water? Has it gotten too much (and possibly rotted?)
- Was the seed old/ beyond it’s Use By date? Had it been stored incorrectly? Can I contact the company for a replacement?
- Any pests or diseases? Could it have germinated already, but been eaten?
If your vegetable or herb seedlings are not thriving, ask yourself these questions:
- Is it getting enough sunlight, warmth & consistent watering?
- When did it germinate? Does it simply need more time to grow?
- Was the seed raising mix good quality? Does it need a gentle feed?
- Does it need plant feed? Is there competition for the nutrients?
- Any pests or diseases?
If your vegetable or herb seedlings have become lanky/ spindly, ask yourself these questions:
- Are they getting enough quality sunlight?
- Are they too hot & undergoing rapid growth spurts?
- Are they getting enough water?
- Are they too close together & need thinning?
- Are they getting too much feed/ fertiliser, causing rapid growth spurts?
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