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GROWING your own vegetables is both fun and rewarding. All you really need to get started is some decent soil and a few plants. But to be a really successful vegetable gardener — and to do it organically you’ll need to understand what it takes to keep your plants healthy and vigorous. Here are the basics.

Where to start

Select your seeds. One of the many benefits of growing your plants from seed is that you have a much larger variety of plants to choose from. Visit a local nursery or head online to look for the perfect seeds for your garden. Keep in mind that unless you intend to keep your plants indoors, you’ll need to choose varieties that thrive in your local environment. When you purchase your seeds, pay attention to the ideal soil temperature, water requirements, nutritional needs, and light needs for each species of plant.

When you look for seeds, keep in mind that there are hundreds of species you likely haven’t heard of, because they are only available as seeds (not as starts or cuttings).

You can buy more seeds than you may want to plant at once, but there is a less likely chance of germination the older the seeds get.

Prepare a soil mixture. Seeds can be planted outdoors, but suffer a much higher chance of dying if done so; garden soil is full of plant diseases and insects that can quickly kill of seeds. Therefore, start your seeds indoors in a soil-less potting mixture. Make your own mixture by combining equal parts of peat, vermiculite, and perlite, adding ¼ tsp of lime per gallon of potting mix created. This will create a loose, disease-free material for your seeds to quickly germinate in.

  • Soil-less potting mixture holds no nutritional value, so you’ll have to add fertilizer to your mixture as soon as your seeds have sprouted.

Peat is highly acidic while lime is basic; you can do a pH test to make sure your mixture is near 7 (neutral) before planting your seeds for greater success.

Prepare your other supplies. When planting indoors, you’ll need a few things in order to ensure proper germination of your seeds. Purchase a set of seed trays or small containers for your seeds; biodegradable containers are appropriate, you don’t just have to buy plastic or ceramic pots. You’ll also need a heat and light source of some sort, because windows aren’t good enough at providing both for your seeds. Pick up a heat lamp or plant lamp to keep your seeds plenty warm and bright. If you’re able, you may also want to get a heat pad to go under your seed trays to keep the soil at a proper temperature.

You can use a fluorescent lamp to heat and light your seeds, but get a special white bulb which reduces heat and will keep from burning them.

If you plant your seeds far in advance, you may have to replant them into large pots before moving them outside (if that is your intention).

Learn about your seeds.
 Before you plant, you need to know a few important things: the ideal growing conditions for that particular plant, the length of time the seeds take to germinate, and the earliest they can be planted outdoors. These will vary from plant to plant, and will determine what time of year you should begin planting. Typically, seeds should be planted 4-6 weeks prior to being moved outside, but this is not consistent among different seed species. You may have to plant your seeds indoors a bit earlier or later than usual as well, depending on what the outdoor weather conditions are like in your area.

Where to plant

  • Sowing in seed trays:

Seeds can be sown in seed trays (called ‘flats’ in the US), either outside or in a cold frame or greenhouse. Fill the tray with compost – use whatever is easiest to obtain in your area, as most brands will work – and firm gently. Either sow the seed broadcast, in rows, or singly, depending on their size. Cover lightly – about the same depth of compost as the width of the seed is the traditional rule.

I like to water the compost before sowing the seeds to prevent them being washed out of place, but you can water them carefully after sowing if you prefer.

Some seeds need to be kept dark, some need light. I usually leave small seeds uncovered and poke large ones into the compost with my finger. If they don’t germinate, I stir the compost with the label, which moves the seeds that were covered into the light and those that were uncovered into the dark. You may prefer to be more methodical and cover the seed tray with a newspaper. You can also cover it with a sheet of glass to prevent it drying out.

Because you are using compost, nothing should come up in the seed tray except the seeds you sowed.

  • Sowing in trays of individual cells:

This is a cross between sowing in seed trays and sowing in individual pots. Cell packs are plastic trays which either fit into seed trays or can be used on their own. They provide an individual cell for each seed (or group of seeds for small seeds). Sow seeds as for seed trays.

  • Sowing in individual pots:

Seed trays are fine if you want large numbers of plants, or if you have plenty of seed. If you are sowing a small number of seeds, particularly if they are difficult to obtain, you might prefer to sow them in separate pots for each variety. The size of pot will depend on how many seeds you have, the size of the plant, how fast it grows, and when you intend to pot up the seedlings. I use plastic pots about two and a half inches square, because 15 individual pots fit into a standard sized seed tray. For large seeds – those of trees or shrubs, for example – giving each seed its own pot will save having to disturb the seedling until it is fairly well established. For small seeds giving small seedlings, having them in a pot of their own means you can keep an eye on them easily and they won’t be overlooked, as they might be in a large seed tray.

Fill the pot with compost – you can afford to provide a different mix of ingredients more suited to the individual plants if they have their own pot (adding more grit for alpines, for example). Firm it gently, water, and then sow the seed, covering or not as appropriate. Some people like to add sand, grit or vermiculite as a top dressing.

Sowing seed in individual pots makes it easier to give each type of seed the appropriate care – moving them when they have germinated, for example, or keeping them in a frame if they are expected to take more than one season to germinate.

  • Sowing seed in a propagator:

Seeds of tropical plants usually need higher temperatures to germinate. This is most easily provided by sowing the seeds in individual pots and keeping them in a propagator. There are many types available, from large, sophisticated (and expensive) models with thermostatically controlled temperatures to a simple seed tray with a ventilated plastic lid. If you have an unheated propagator, the bottom heat these seeds prefer can be simply provided by keeping the propagator on top of a boiler. If you have no propagator at all, a couple of small plastic trays such as those used for packing meat or suchlike in supermarkets can be used. If they need to be kept in the dark, the individual pot can be put inside a plastic bag, the bag closed with a wire tie, and put in an airing cupboard or warm cupboard in the kitchen. Remember to check it every so often to see if the seeds have germinated.

Seeds of tropical plants often need to have a hole made in their seedcoat to enable them to take up the moisture they need to germinate. This is called ‘scarification’. Use whatever is appropriate to the thickness of the seedcoat – Mucuna may need a hacksaw, most others can be punctured by nicking with nail clippers or filing on sandpaper. Be careful not to damage the embryo. Sometimes, they also need to be soaked in warm water before sowing.