How to Start Plant and Vegetable Seeds
From tiny sprouts a glorious garden grows. Here's how to cultivate your own—from seed
One of the most hopeful—and wondrous—things any of us can do is to grow our own garden from seed. Whether we're nurturing 'Mortgage Lifter' tomatoes, French marigolds, or garlic chives "from scratch," the process brings us closer to nature—and teaches us a thing or two about patience, commitment, and luck.
Coddling tender seedlings is the trickiest part of seed starting but well worth the effort, considering the benefits of home-sown plants. The cost savings alone is a major perk. At big-box stores, tomato starts command up to $3 per plant—the same price as a packet of quality seed. Plus, "there are hundreds of hybrids and heirlooms available as seeds that you'll never find at garden centers," says Niki Jabbour, an author and radio host based in Nova Scotia, Canada, who grows enough produce in her backyard to keep her family stocked year-round. As a gardener who's learned many lessons the hard way, Jabbour advises to "always plant fresh seed at the right time." Germination rates decline as seeds age, and starting seeds indoors too early yields weak, wiry plants.
To figure out when to sow, use your region's average last frost date as your planting (or transplanting) target and, if you're starting seeds indoors, consult the seed packet for the number of weeks it will take the seedlings to mature. Germination time varies by crop, so don't plan on sowing your entire vegetable garden on the same day. Then give the seedlings a solid start with the following step-by-step guide.
Shown: With each packet yielding dozens of plants, seeds are the most economical way to fill a garden fast.
Decide Whether to Start Inside or Outside
Although heat-loving tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants need a head start indoors, you can sow most flowers and edibles directly into the garden once nighttime temperatures hover above 50 degrees F. Check the seed packet for details on spacing and planting depth, and sow sparsely in rows to make thinning less of a chore. A seed dispenser (shown) or folded postcard can make tiny seeds easier to handle.
Tip: To encourage seeds to sprout a little sooner, soak them in warm water for a few hours right before sowing.