This article was excerpted from The Tiny But Mighty Farm: Cultivating High Yields, Community, and Self-Sufficiency from a Home Farm by Jill Ragan, published 2023 by Cool Springs Press.
We have reached my favorite chapter in the book. I hope it is as fun for you all to read as it’s been for me to write. Who doesn’t love spending their day covered in dirt in the greenhouse? If that’s not you, hold tight, I might change your mind by the end of this chapter.
This chapter covers topics from the benefits of starting seeds to step-by-step how-to’s, deep diving into the differences between hybrids and heirloom varieties, and so much more. I think back to when I started my first garden; I had a handful of watermelon seeds and some plants from the local hardware store about 5 miles (8 km) up the road. I never purchased organic plants, I treated them with harsh chemicals, and my garden sure as heck didn’t thrive like I thought it would. While it did grow wild and free, it left a lot to be desired.
A few years later, I transitioned my entire life to a more sustainable, organic, and healthy lifestyle. At that time, I started leaning into growing and expanding my garden, but I also spent time and diligence researching and understanding heirloom and hybrid varieties and which of them would be better for my tiny organic farm.
I could spend an entire chapter explaining all the cool facts about seed starting, but to spare you what a “fun” afternoon with Jill looks like, we’ll keep to the essentials. I urge you to look up more fun and interesting facts about the seeds you plant, such as where they are bred and sourced, how they’ve evolved through the years, the various sizes of seeds, information about rare varieties, and the endless growing possibilities available to you.
Oh, so, back to those seed-starting essentials I promised to stick to. Let’s start with why we should start our own seeds instead of just buying plants. Isn’t that too much work? That’s certainly what I thought many moons ago. Now I can’t imagine a season passing by without a greenhouse full of freshly seeded trays. Here’s why I choose to start from seed and hope you will do the same.
If you’ve never grown hybrid varieties before, here is your permission to buy the seeds and see how they will forever change how you view production crops.
Why Grow from Seed
Starting seeds is an excellent way to get a head start on your growing season. Plus, it’s more cost effective to start your plants, especially if your goal is high production. One potted plant from a nursery will likely cost you more than an entire package of dozens or even hundreds of seeds. One plant versus 50–200 seeds? That’s a no-brainer for me.
The good thing, too, is that planting from seed gives you the liberty to fail and try again. The cost of starting seeds (even for the second or third time) is significantly less than buying multiple potted plants from a nursery.
My favorite thing about starting seeds is the thousands of varieties I can choose from; these are unique varieties I would not be able to find as plants at my local nursery. Tromboncino squash has made its way into my garden for the last four years, and I can assure you I would not be able to find a Tromboncino squash plant for sale in nurseries anywhere near me.
I grow food for more than the yield. I grow food for the experience. The experience of trying new varieties, of seeing vegetables I’d never know if I didn’t grow them for myself. That feeling of growing something new that I started from seed for the first time is nothing short of extraordinary.
Starting seeds does not have to be a terrifying endeavor, but here are a few things to consider before jumping in. Growing from seed allows you to get a head start on the growing season, to grow more unusual varieties, and to get more plants for your money.
Starting Seeds Indoors
Starting seeds indoors has many advantages, especially if you aim to grow intensively and implement succession planting. You can either start your seeds in a greenhouse (which I’ll discuss later) or indoors, using racks and grow lights. Reference the equipment sidebar below to set yourself up for success.
Equipment needed for starting seeds indoors:
- Containers (your choice of size) with drainage holes
- Deep 10 x 20-inch (25 x 51 cm) plastic trays (with no holes for bottom watering and housing your seedlings if starting them in single pots)
- Seed-starting potting soil of your choice
- Metal racks (if growing a large quantity) or shelves
- Grow lights (these can be anything from inexpensive shop lights to fancy LED lights specific for growing plants)
- Seedling heat mat (optional)
- Humidity dome
There is no right or wrong way to start your seeds. Some of mine are started in the glass greenhouse in the cottage garden. The majority are started in my 14 x 36 feet (4 x 11 m) seed-starting tunnel, but every season I ambitiously start a few indoors using a rack and a grow light.