How to grow your own seedlings

seedlingsMarch 1 is a landmark day if you have a home garden. In 6 weeks, you can safely put cold weather vegetable seedlings — like broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts and cabbage — into your garden. Those seedlings should be about 6 weeks old when you plant them, and that brings us right back to March 1 — the day to start your cold-tolerant seeds indoors.

Those cold weather seeds are just the start. In coming weeks you can start to plant other vegetables that are ideally started from seed — tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers for example.

If you are new to this, you may be wondering 2 things: How much hassle is it, and how much will it cost? The answer to the first question is “not much,” and to the second question, “it depends.”

A final question to ask is, “Is it worth it?” I think it is, but it really depends on how much stuff you want to grow. You can make a safe bet that you’ll pay about $3 for a six-pack of vegetable seedlings at a garden store or big box store. If you are growing about 24-36 plants, the $3 six-pack is probably a good deal for you. But if you are planting more than that, you may want to consider growing your own.

What do I need?

Here’s the simple version:

  • A bag of seed starter soil ($6-$24, depending on the size)
  • Seedling trays ($1 each at Agway)
  • Empty six-pack containers ($1 for 8, which is what a seedling tray can accommodate)
  • Seeds ($1.50 to $3 per package; usually a package contains about 30 seeds)
  •  A south- or southwest-facing window that gets lots of light.
  • Shelving or a desktop for the window.
  • An empty spray bottle ($2 or so)

What to do

You can easily do the planting in you kitchen, as watering is a big part of the process. The easiest way to do it is put the six-packs into the trays, then fill each cell with soil to within about 1/4 inch of the top. Then gently, and evenly, pour in warm water. The soil will bubble up and make a mess if you pour it in too fast, so go slow.  This process will take some time and may require repeated pouring of small amounts of water. You’ll want to get the soil moist, but you don’t want to have a pool of water at the bottom of the tray.

These tomato seedlings are too close together. They should have at least an inch between each plant.


Next, gently press down the soil with your fingers, in order to compress it and make a firm base for your seeds. Now plant your seeds per the instructions on the package. I usually put in 2-3 seeds per cell. It’s important to keep them separate, because in a few weeks you’ll be pulling the rootballs out of the cell and replanting the seedlings. Next, put down a layer of soil — 1/4 inch is fine — and them use the spray bottle to gently spray this dry top level of soil. Once it’s good and wet, set out the seed tray at your window. Be sure to record what you planted — for instance, take a popsicle stick and write down the vegetable’s name, and plunk that stick down into the soil. If you don’t do this, you might forget what you’ve planted.

It can take anywhere from a few days to 2 weeks for seedlings to emerge. In the meantime you’ll want to keep an eye on soil moisture, light and heat. If your house isn’t too drafty, your seedling heat situation should be fine.

There’s several popular vegetables that are ideally suited for starting from seed indoors: Tomatoes, Broccoli, Cauliflower, Brussels Sprouts, Cabbage, Eggplant, Peppers (peppers are a bit hard to grow as they require very high soil temperatures to germinate).

If you’ve bought 1 seedling tray and the 8 6-pack containers that fit in it (and you put 2-3 seeds in each cell), you now have the potential of seeing about 100 seedlings sprout. That’s a big number! Planting your own seedlings is a major cost savings if you are planting a moderately-sized garden.

If all this seems too much of a hassle, Farmer John’s can help. This spring we’ll have a good assortment of organically-grown seedlings for sale at our farmstand.

John Macone operates Farmer John’s Organic Foods in Amesbury, Mass., a neighborhood organic farm. You can find out more about the farm’s offerings at

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