Seed Starting for a Lifetime of Gardening

By Monica O’Malley-Tavares

seed starting 2

Finally! As I look out the window I can see a bit of snow in the woods; however my path to the garden is clear! A quick jaunt down on a recent misty afternoon allows for a quick assessment. The melted snow has saturated the ground and the recent rain is puddling on top, waiting its turn to soak in. Fingers crossed that by mid-late April I can turn over the beds and clean up around the perennial borders. But for now, it’s all about the seeds.


So have you gathered your seeds and made a plan? (See part 1) I have all of my old faithfuls ready, as well as a few fun new varieties that I am looking forward to trying. A trip to Marvin Grain in Dartmouth for my favorite seed starting mix, Faffard Organic, and the retrieval of my well-cleaned and stored seedling starter trays, have me ready to plant. I also have some old, sturdy cafeteria style trays that I use underneath; however you may want to purchase the seed starting pots and trays as a set. I also like to have white plastic seed labels for each flat for easy identification.

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If you don’t have a shed or potting area for planting, set up a folding table as a temporary workspace. Here’s my routine, adjust as it fits your needs and lifestyle:

1. Lay out your seedling trays. Lay packets of seeds on top, deciding approximately how many plant cells you will need for each vegetable, herb or flower variety.

2. Pour potting mix into a clean bucket. Add a small amount of warm water. Mix. This allows you to plant the seedlings right away in a warm, moist mix, rather than watering and possibly displacing seeds right after planting.

3. Fill generously all of the cells of your seedling trays with moistened soil.

4. Plant seeds in trays according to package directions for depth and spacing. (I tend to overplant and don’t mind thinning).

5. Label plastic tags in permanent marker and insert into sides of seedling pots.

6. Cover all seedling pots with something that will help with insulation, as heat is more important than light, (for most plants), during the germination stage. I use extra large food storage bags laid across multiple pots. Many pots also come with greenhouse style lids. You want to keep the heat in during the germination phase. Grow lights are helpful, but not necessary.

7. Keep plants in a warm location. I usually keep them on a large shelf in my dining room until germinated. Check plants daily for growth, and water gently when necessary. Don’t allow seeds to dry out, (but don’t flood them either). A small paper cup or a misting bottle can come in very handy during this delicate phase.

8. When seeds have sprouted, remove plastic and allow them to receive light. Rotate trays to avoid plants from becoming leggy by reaching for the sun. Thin to your strongest one or two seedlings per pot.

9. Transplant to larger pots when/if needed. Leggy stems benefit from a transplant. Don’t be afraid to gently bend the stem as you transplant, especially with tomatoes. This will give the plant a sturdier start.

10. Keep plants in a warm location with plenty of light. A small greenhouse can be helpful, but unless heated, still remains too cold in most New England locations for delicate seedlings / young plants. A warm, sunny spot indoors is ideal.

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Don’t forget to get your kids involved! Planting seeds can be a fun activity on a rainy afternoon. As a teacher, I am always surprised at how many children have never planted before. Just the simple act of pushing the seed into the soil excites them. Allowing them to help water, measure, photograph and care for the seedlings and plants, at all stages, can be so rewarding. It can be just what they need to encourage a lifetime of gardening.

(Please use caution with seeds. Many seeds are poisonous if ingested. Use caution with young children and pets).

Stay tuned for Part 3: Preparing your seedlings for the Garden

Monica O’Malley-Tavares is a mom, math and science teacher, lifelong gardener, garden writer, and photographer. She spends her free time plotting and planning for the following year’s vegetable and flower gardens on the 2 acres she and her husband call Prince Snow Farm.  She lives on the south coast with her husband Kevin, also an educator, and 2 children.

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One Response to Seed Starting for a Lifetime of Gardening

  1. Victoria says:

    This is SUCH a helpful guide, Monica!!! I love your set up! With the tips you offered, I feel like I could get some seeds started too. 🙂 Thanks for sharing!

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