Chef's Garden Tour | Edsel Little via Flickr

Chef's Garden Tour by Edsel Little \ CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr

Getting started

Timing: When you start your seedlings depends on where you live. Check a gardening map to find out which zone you are in, and the average spring frost-free date in your area. Then use a planting calendar, such as this handy one from You Grow Girl, to figure out when to start seeding. Remember that some varieties can be planted directly in the ground, while others do a lot better if they are started indoors and transplanted outdoors as seedlings.

Space: Which varieties will do well in your garden depends on what kind of space you can give them. Do you have a large garden? Are you hoping to plant in containers on a patio? Will your plants get good sunlight? Check the guidelines on seed packets, and pick crops and varieties that do well in your conditions. Remember to only plant as much as you can fit! Squashes, for example, need a lot more space than most greens do.

Soil: Do you know much about your soil? If you are starting a garden for the first time, it may be a good idea to add compost and/or manure to amend the soil before you plant. If it's not your first year gardening, remember to rotate your veggies, so that you end up with light feeders or nitrogen fixers, such as beans and peas, in the spots where you previously grew heavy feeders such as tomatoes.

RELATED: Learn About Sprouting, Rain Gardens, Micro-Farming and Seed Saving

The three essentials

Light: Not all seeds need light to germinate, but once they have sprouted, all seedlings need light to grow. This is what allows the little plants to photosynthesize and make energy to get bigger. Bright light is very important! A sunny window is often not enough – sometimes you may have to add grow lights to make sure your seedlings get the start they need to be strong and productive for the rest of the season.

Heat: Some seeds need warmth to germinate, while others can tolerate cooler weather. If it is too cool though, your seeds may germinate slowly or not at all. (This is the reason we can’t just plunk seeds in the ground in the spring in colder growing zones!) Most seeds germinate at room temperature (optimum germination temperatures for many garden vegetables are between 15˚C and 30˚C). If you find that your seeds aren’t germinating (and you are sure that your seed isn’t too old), you may want to consider moving them somewhere a bit warmer, or adding a heat pad under your trays.

Moisture: Seeds need moisture to germinate and seedlings need moisture to grow. But not too much! A good rule of thumb is to make sure that your seeded soil doesn’t dry out until the seeds germinate. When your seedlings have come up, water when the soil is starting to look a bit dry, but not so dry that your seedlings are wilting. Make sure when you water that the moisture gets to the bottom of the container or cell your little plant is in – that’s where its roots are!

RELATED: How to Start a Community Garden

Two common problems

Most seedling starting problems can be linked back to one (or both!) of two problems:

Too much moisture: Do your seedlings look well and healthy for a few days, and then fall over because the stem seemed to have shrivelled up at the base? This is called damping off, and happens when your plants are getting too much water. Make sure you let the soil dry out a bit more between waterings, and sprinkle some cinnamon on the soil to help keep fungus at bay.

Not enough light: Are your seedlings long, spindly and “leggy”? Are they not quite strong enough to hold themselves up? If so, they want more light! Leggy seedlings make leggy plants, which are not quite strong enough to be productive. Move your seedlings to a sunnier spot, or better yet, set a grow light up above them, and keep them as close to the light as possible (without touching).

Two great resources

You Grow Girl has pretty much all the information you need to plan your garden, start seeds and care for seedlings, troubleshoot, and even harvest and preserve your produce later in the season.

High Mowing Seeds has a handy database of growing instructions you can search by crop type. 

Taarini Chopra is the publications coordinator at Seeds of Diversity Canada and researcher at the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN). Taarini was the associate editor at A\J for three years and now serves on the editorial board. She has worked on organic farms in Ontario, was co-chair of the Waterloo Region Food System Roundtable, and worked with the Global Food Politics Group at the University of Waterloo, where she also completed graduate research on global food policy and the politics of GM crops and foods.

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