seedlings - starting vegetables

It sounds like a lie, but it is, in fact, time to start thinking about planting seeds and growing veggies and herbs for the coming year. If you’re a seasoned farmer, you probably already know this and are way ahead of the rest of us, but for the novice, here’s a brief guide to getting started on growing your own food from seed.

Space considerations

Unless you’re a farmer or a land baron, you probably won’t have a lot of space to get this done. You’ll have to think not just about where to put your seed trays, but also where the grown up food will live until you can eat it. Fortunately, most herbs and vegetables grow really well in containers, and containers can be put in many space-saving places, or even hung. Many varieties of vegetables have been developed specifically to grow in small spaces.


Seeds can be planted in just about any container, as long as it’s 1-2 inches deep, and has some drainage. You can make your own pots out of newspaper, or use generic flats or terracotta pots. Some gardeners will plant seeds right into large containers and keep only the strongest plants, while some will use small containers to get started and then transfer to bigger ones.

Your soil should be a potting mix, a seed-starting mix, or contain a peat moss, fine compost, or other material that will provide enough air spaces that the tiny, tiny roots can grow. Stay away from regular garden soil, as it will be too dense.

When, exactly, to grow

To figure this out, you’ll have to calculate backwards from when the last frost typically happens in your area. Veggies with a later harvest, like melons and squash, can be started 2-4 weeks before the last frost. Eggplant and tomato need 6-8 weeks, but plants like onions, leeks, peppers, cabbage and lettuces need anywhere from 8-14 weeks to get going. Check seed packages, or look at specific gardening websites to find out when certain vegetables should be planted.

What to grow

In the best of all worlds, you could just grow the food you found most delicious. In reality, you’ll have to think not just about space, but about climate, eventual soil depth and plant height when you decide. Seeds of all kinds need to be put where they can get 6-8 hours of sunlight a day. Following that, you can choose the right veggies to grow based on some general guidelines for what plants need:

Herbs (rosemary, oregano, etc.) – need a soil depth of 6-8 inches, full sun and plenty of water. They like warmth, so they might need to come inside when the weather gets chilly. They can be grown close together, but often benefit from having their own pots.

Crucifers (cauliflower, cabbage, kale, etc.) – soil depth of 6-8 inches, partial sun and lots of water at every stage of growth. They need to be spaced 1-2 plants/container.

Greens (lettuce, spinach, collards) – soil depth of 6-8 inches, partial sun and plenty of water at every stage. Can be grown close together.

Nightshades (tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant, peppers) – soil depth of 8 inches, full sun and lots of water. Since they’re large plants, they should be spaced 1-2 per pot and will need a stake, cage or other support as they grow.

Root vegetables (carrots, beets, parsnips) – soil depth of 8-10 inches minimum, partial sun, water when dry. They only need moderate space (2-4 inches) between plants.

Squash and melons – soil depth of 12 inches, full sun, minimal watering. They trail, so they’ll need room to spread out.

Legumes (beans, peas) – soil depth of 8 inches, partial-full sun, light water as young plants, but heavy water needed when flowering. Can be grown close together, but will need a trellis or lattice to grow up.

How to plant

  • Wet your starting mix so that it’s damp but not dripping wet and fill your containers loosely. The mix shouldn’t be packed tightly.
  • Make small furrows for the seeds (¼-½ inches deep) with your finger or a pencil.
  • Sow the seeds along the furrows, keeping an inch between large seeds, ½ – 1 inch between medium-sized seeds and ½ inch between small seeds.
  • Cover the seeds lightly with mix. Note: some seeds need light to germinate and should be left uncovered, so check the packages of the seeds you’re using.
  • Mist the containers gently to water them without drowning the seeds or washing them away.
  • Cover the containers (either with plastic wrap or a clear cover if they need light, or damp newspaper if they need darkness) and put them in a warm place until they germinate.
  • Once the plants start to sprout, keep them in sunlight according to what the plant prefers.
  • REMEMBER: All baby plants will look alike. Label your containers/rows so you’ll remember what you’ve planted where.

How to maintain

Keeping soil moist by misting and keeping plants happy with adequate sunlight is really all the maintenance they need. Once they’ve sprouted two sets of true leaves, they can be fertilized. Weed out the weaker looking plants as they grow so the stronger ones have more space. I know. It’s harsh.

Once the last frost is over, your wee plants can start to go outside—initially for half days in sheltered spots until they become acclimatized. They can then be transferred into larger pots if needed, left on the balcony or deck, or put into the ground if you have the space for a garden.

It’s easier than it sounds, and surprising what you can grow even in the smallest spaces.

image: DrStarbuck (Creative Commons BY)