One of the many gardening lessons I learned last summer at the community garden was that plants that can be started from seedlings should be. You will have increased vigor (meaning your plants are healthier and grow faster), and you will have increased yield (meaning you get more produce).
To save some money, and ensure the quality and safety of your transplants, do it yourself. Seeds are cheaper than seedlings. Also, you can't be sure that the seedling you purchase is disease or insect free. If there's an unseen problem at the greenhouse, you are bringing it home to your garden. I want to be sure that you enjoy as much success as possible in your garden, especially if you are new to gardening or you believe you are cursed with a "brown thumb".
So let's make some starter homes for your new seeds, and let's do it with some items you have around the house.
Here's one that we call a water jug greenhouse. This is what you use to start your seeds by broadcasting them (sprinkling them all over) on your seed starting medium (which I'll get to in a minute). This way, you will be able to choose the best growing seedlings to transplant for further growth in your garden. If you have a bunch that are doing really well, you may be able to swap with family, friends and neighbors. Start with a humble water or CLEAN milk jug.
Take a Sharpie, and using a ruler, make a straight-ish line on three sides of the jug just below the handle. I start where the vertical plastic seam line meets the thicker plastic just below the base of the handle.
I mark around three sides, leaving the fourth side as a hinge. So I can remember which side to leave whole, I DO NOT MARK the side with the label. Oooooh - very clever! Actually, it just makes it easy for those of us who suffer from over-40 memory loss.
Once you've marked your lines, you're going to cut them. If you have kiddos helping with this project, this is definitely something for the grown-up to do. You can use an Exacto-type knife or sharp scissors. Poke your sharp cutting object into the center of one side of the jug on/close to the line. Then just keep cutting around the jug as close to the line as you can.
To use as a seed starter, fill the bottom with a good single layer of fish tank gravel or small rocks. The layer just has to be thick enough to evenly cover the bottom. Then, fill the bottom section most of the way full with a good quality (and organic if you can get it) seed starter mix, which is generally peat moss, vermiculite and perlite. This is also called soil-less mix. Give the starter mix a good soaking with water. It should be consistently wet all the way through from top to bottom, but not completely waterlogged. Lightly sprinkle seeds over the mix, pressing in gently if required by the directions on the seed packet. I never push in deeper than about 1/2" inch, which is about half way to the first knuckle on the top of my index finger. Yes, you will get a dirt manicure, but in some circles, that's highly fashionable! Also, you don't need as many seeds as you might think, so sprinkle sparingly.
Read this article to determine which of your seeds to start indoors. It has some great advice for beginners. And for the record, this year, I'm starting my viney things (like watermelon) indoors first. Also, the back of the seed packet will tell you if you should start your seeds indoors or not, and when. You can find your location to determine your frost date on the hardiness map provided on the backs of most seed packets or at the USDA website.
As your little seed babies begin to grow, you can flip the top down after giving them a good water (secure with masking tape if you need to), and set them outside in a sunny place. We often mark off a portion of our driveway, so delivery drivers don't accidentally crush our future plants. By setting them out to sunbathe, you are warming the soil and getting some much needed sunlight to your little plants. If you are expecting a warm, but gentle, rain, leave them outside to get some natural watering. Bring them in at night to keep them warm. We have the bottom of a large box that holds about 15 jugs, and when we expect significantly lower temperatures, we even cover the jugs with a blanket at night to help hold in the heat.
Also, these need to stay moist, but not soaked. Watering the first few days, and even a little bit after those first leaflets appear, can be done with a handheld spray bottle. You can get these at any dollar-type store, or in the personal care part of the pharmacy section of a supermarket. Fill with warm water, then mist the soil (NOT THE PLANT) until it is moistened at least once a day, preferably twice. This is a fantastic job for littles!
When your seedlings start to develop true leaves (leaves that look like what a mature plant would have), it's time to transplant them into their own individual starter pots. Here's a quick and easy way to make them. This is also a great one to get the kidlets involved in. All you need is some newspaper.
So, the next step will be the actual transplanting. I'd love to show you this RIGHT NOW, but we've got to let our own seeds do some growing. In the meantime, start with your milk jug greenhouses, get your own seeds going, and when we both have something worth transplanting, we'll talk about this some more.
Are you getting excited?!