Start Your Own Seedlings Review – Does It Work?

3 out of 5 leaves

3 out of 5 leaves

Many gardeners start planting their beds in early to mid spring, after the threat of frost has passed.  Most commonly, small seedling flower and vegetable plants are purchased from a local nursery, or from a large garden center that has the seedlings shipped in from corporate nurseries.  But could starting your own seedlings be better?

The Good

  • Saves Money – a packet of seeds can be purchased for about the same price as a single seedling
  • Better for the Earth – home grown seedlings have a much smaller carbon footprint than nursery grown
  • Gardening fun starts sooner in the year – for those who enjoy tending plants, you can start 6-8 weeks sooner
  • Learning opportunity – for families with children, growing plants from seeds can be a wonderful home science lesson
  • Better quality plants – each has received your loving care, rather than being one of a million in a large nursery
  • Better variety – there are many more types of seeds available than seedling plants

The Bad

  • Can be messy and time consuming to get all set up
  • Must remember to care for every day (watering, turning to sunlight, etc)
  • Each seedling has different special requirements, so a mix of plants can be very complicated to tend
  • If transplanted too early, seedlings are not successful

My Experience

Beautiful Sprouts

I have always loved gardening.  My favorite thing about my favorite season (Spring!) is waking up the garden beds that have been resting all winter.  There is a certain joy I find in digging through the cool, moist soil, pulling the winter weeds, chatting with earthworms, and preparing for spring planting.  I love the feeling of satisfaction I have after spending a day working and seeing the bare, moist beds all ready for seedling.

For most of my life I have always focused my attention on the front of the house, and planted beds full of gorgeous blooms.  Last year, after moving into a house with huge backyard beds, I decided to do a vegetable garden for the first time.  We went over to the large home improvement center by our house and picked up a number of seedlings that looked good to us: some herbs, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, a couple different melons. I planted them all in a prepared bed, watered all spring, and by the end of the summer we had a decent harvest.  I couldn’t wait for the next summer to try it again!

In January this year, as I was doing some shopping at Target, we wandered over to the outdoors section they were setting up for springtime.  My son stopped dead in his tracks when he saw the large display of seed packets for all sorts of flowers, fruits, and vegetables.  He started asking about them, and I decided right there that we would plant our own seeds.  What a great opportunity to teach him about seeds and plants!  We  chose some veggie seeds and also picked up a seed starting tray that had everything we needed to get them going.

Can't wait to harvest all these yummy vegetables!

After carefully mapping out which seeds were going into which cells, we (the three year old and I)  got to work preparing the soil pods, and planting the seeds.  While it was a great learning opportunity for him, I found much patience is required when involving a toddler in a indoor task involving dirt and water.  But we got it done, cleaned up the massive mess, and set the planter in a warm sunny place.

The sprouts came up quickly and within a few days the plastic humidity dome had to be removed. This posed another little problem: I had 72 little pods of dirt open in the middle of my dining room.  1- and 3-year-olds found this to be an incredibly tempting play and explore opportunity.  As the dining room was the only place in my house that has enough sunlight for seedlings, I had to quickly improvise.  I quarantined the tray of sprouts on a transplanted end table, with a cardboard privacy screen duct-taped around it.

After a few weeks of growing, some sprouts were already quite tall with multiple leaves.  Others were starting to lay down: growing still, but not growing UP like happy little sprouts.  I was feeling a little worried.  As some of the more robust seedlings started getting super big, I decided it was time to transplant.  (Here in Los Angeles we can start planting any time after March 1st).  I mapped out the garden on paper, and started transplanting.

Sprouts all ready for the garden (or so I thought...)

While planting I found that the biggest, strongest seedlings with thick root balls transferred the easiest (obviously).  The smaller seedlings, that were really still just sprouts did not transplant well at all (in retrospect, obviously).  There was nothing to hold the soil pods apart and they just fell to pieces.  Also the seedlings that the toddler grabbed by the stem and ripped out of the pods before handing to me didn’t fare so well either.  I looked at the seedling tray with some plants still in it and debated taking them back to the dining room for a few more weeks.  But really, it was all just too much to think about.  I don’t need any more babies than I already have, even if they are just  vegetable babies.  We sowed leftover seeds directly into the ground to replace the lost seedlings, and went off to the home improvement store for some tomato seedlings.

Overall, I found that while a great idea, seedlings should be left to the professionals, for me, in this stage of life.  I think growing seedlings from seeds would have worked much better for me if 1) I didn’t have small children underfoot, 2) I was patient enough to wait until the seedlings were actually ready to plant, and 3) I took the time to understand the individual needs of each seed type (apparently broccoli wants to be sown directly in the ground).  I will definitely try this again next year, but do my homework ahead of time to ensure success.

Have you ever done your own seedlings?  What worked best for you?  Please share your tips and tricks below!

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12 Responses to Start Your Own Seedlings Review – Does It Work?

  1. Ashleigh says:

    I tried seedlings last year and the cat ate most of them. This year I sequestered them in the office with the door shut, but that made it harder to remember to water them! I lost all the lettuce, broccoli, and parsley I started indoors; the only seedlings to survive were the tomatoes. Still waiting for peppers to sprout. BUT, I had all the seeds left over from last year, so it didn’t cost me anything to get started this year. Also, I had much better luck with the Jiffy seed-starter – same concept as yours, except they are little peat moss pellets wrapped in mesh, so they are easier to transplant.

    • Victoria says:

      Hi Ashleigh 🙂 I like the idea of transplant-able seedling pods. I’ll certainly try that next year. The seed tray I was using was self watering, otherwise it’s quite possible mine would have dried up too.

  2. Shannon says:

    Last year I attempted to start seeds and it was a complete disaster. I felt it was yet another “chore” for me to find time for. I also have three little ones so I can relate to the mess they make! This year was different though. I took the winter to study the seeds and plant requirements and set up a growing center (with lights) in our storage room. So far, we have really good success but I won’t know how well they transplant until May 15th here!

    • Victoria says:

      Having a self watering tray helped me a lot on the “chore” aspect, Shannon. I am also going to work through the winter this year to make sure that I do better next year.

  3. Jeanette says:

    I’ve not had much success in the last few years, but this year things are going well. We got a fluorescent shop light set up–it was only $21 , and the seedlings have not grown tall and spindly like years past, but stayed shorter and thickened up nicely. We wait to transplant until they have at least one full set of the real leaves grown after their little sprout leaves. We’ve transplanted tomatoes and squash outside already, and I’m happy to say this year is turning out much more of a success than previous years:-)

    • Victoria says:

      Thanks for the tip Jeanette! Maybe I’ll try out the special indoor lighting next year.

  4. April Harris says:

    I have always struggled with the time and care required to start my own plants from seeds and have therefore always bought seedlings. We travel a lot as well, so seedlings are just easier. I was so interested to read your post though, and I love how honest you were about the challenges starting your own seedlings can bring – especially with little ones running around!

    • Victoria says:

      Thanks for reading, April! I want to try again next year – maybe with indoor lighting in a different space.

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  6. Dea says:

    I have done my own seedlings in the past with mixed results. This year I am on hold in the gardening department as we will be moving. What I have found in the past is that there are several very important issues that must be addressed for your seedlings to succeed.
    First, and most important is light. A sunny window may provide enough light, but unless you have lots of windows, or very few seedlings, an alternative light source will be needed for healthy seedlings. If you use an alternate light source, place it CLOSE to the seedlings so they do not have to stretch to reach it. This is why seedlings get tall and spindly rather than bushy. If you are using window light only and they are spindly you need more light than the window is providing.

    Second is room to grow. a crowded seedling is competing for light, nutrients and water. I start all my seedlings in 4 inch pots. I sow 2-3 seeds in each pot, then cull all but the strongest after they are well established. NO, this is NOT wasting seeds, it is saving resources. Your time, money and effort is valuable. do not waste it on sick or weak seedlings that may produce a poor harvest at best.

    Third is nutrients. A good potting soil will start seedlings, but once they start thriving they will need additional nutrients. I water mine with manure tea once a week. Remember, these babies are dependant on you for all their needs for two months! I do not buy self watering trays…I up-cycle old cookie sheets that are past the cooking quality. (They stack neatly when not in use) I water each morning, 5 minutes for 15 trays. (If you are on city water, draw your water the day before and let sit uncovered to allow the chlorine to evaporate before using.) It is ok to allow the soil to be only moist, (feels cool to touch, not damp) but do not let the soil dry out, the seedlings will not be strong enough to survive dry soil. Also, do not let them stand with their feet in mud…constant wet causes seedlings to damp-off. They will rot at the stem and fall over.

    Fourth is Hardening. This is seldom done by home gardeners, and failure to harden-off is the biggest killer of seedlings in the garden. About a week before planting in the garden, place the seedlings in a partially shaded area outside. They will need additional water during this time as they are exposed to true sunlight. Finally, as you plant, remember that this is another stressor, so watch them carefully for about a week. Plant in the evening, or during a cloudy day, water immediately and provide some sun protection (if needed) until established.