Starting Seeds

TEXT by Celine MacKay | PHOTOGRAPHS by Jesse Senko


Garden Planning, Part 1

EVERY YEAR, PRETTY MUCH WITHOUT FAIL, I wait to sow my vegetable seeds until the ground is thawed and they can be popped right into the ground. For some vegetables, this is fine, but for most, this means that I don't get any goodies until August, at least, and to make matters worse, it's ready all at once. This is a direct result of one thing only: terrible planning (or make that NO planning). So this year I vowed to change this frustrating cycle and sowed some seeds! It's only been one week, so I'm no expert, but so far things are going swimmingly. I have some great gardeners in my life so granted I'm not operating totally in the dark, but I wanted to share the experience with the PGM community in the hopes that it might help you get your veggie garden organized as well. 

To kick things off this growing season, the main thing to start indoors with plenty of time left is tomatoes, and other plants that require a long time to reach maturity (all seed packages will list the number of days this takes, do the math from when the risk of frost in your area has passed and you'll have an idea which plants needs to be started indoors). Another clue are plants that like really warm weather. An example of plants that meet these criteria are:

  • basil
  • beets
  • broccoli
  • cabbage
  • cuccumber
  • herbs
  • lettuces
  • onion
  • peas
  • sweet peppers
  • tomatoes
  • watermelon
  • zucchini

However, do not go planting all of this now. We'll be starting seeds in two batches based on time to maturity and how quickly things grow. The vegetables that are in bold type are the ones you might want to think about starting now. The rest you can wait until you are no more than 4 weeks away from the risk of frost outdoors.


WHAT YOU'LL NEED TO GET STARTED (available at most hardware stores):

  • a seedling tray
  • organic seeds
  • organic seed starting mix
  • a grow light
  • spray bottle with water
  • wooden popsicle sticks & a permanent marker

Notes: There are ways to make your own seedling containers, for example by rolling them out of newspaper, but I really don't think it's worth the effort. The seedling tray is reusable, and keeps everything all togther, and I'm unsure about all the chemicals from the ink leaching into the soil. 


  1. Fill your seedling tray 95% full with the potting mix. Make sure you sift through and pick out any bit of larger debris (mine had some small sticks in it). Anything too large might inhibit the plant's ability to push through the soil at this delicate stage.
  2. Moisten the soil with warm water using the spray bottle. You don't want it sopping, but it needs to be evenly wet.
  3. Take each seed type and pour a small amount into your palm. Painstakingly place no more than 3 seeds in the center of each plant cell in the tray. This is laborious but you want your seedlings manageable, not going all hog wild on you before you've barely gotten started.
  4. Label each row as you go (for simplicity's sake I made sure each row had only one type of plant). Do not forget this step, there is nothing worse than not knowing what's what once things have gotten going. 
  5. Once you've got all your seeds planted, sprinkle dry potting mix over top. The seeds need to be just barely covered.
  6. This part is now done. In order to germinate, your seedlings need 3 main things, darkness, warmth and water. Place a bit of plastic wrap over the tray (this is one of the only times I condone the use of plastic wrap!) to trap heat and moisture. Place the tray somwhere warm and fairly dark. An awesome spot is on top of your fridge! Keep an eye on them and spray lightly with water if they feel dry. 
  7. Once the plants are starting to sprout through the surface, it's imperative that they have light. Window light is usually not sufficient at this stage, it's too weak and directional. This is where your grow light comes in. Get it set up so that it's no more than a couple of inches above the plant, adjusting as necessary. The reason of this is two-fold: one, lots of light help protect the plant from fungi, and two, if your plants are reaching for light they will become "leggy" (stems are too long), and then they will become floppy, and their chances of survival kinda suck. So get that grow light.
  8. Keep your plants under light for about 18 hours per day, and keep the soil moist but not wet.


"Potting Up"

Planning Your Garden & Maintaining Seedlings