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By Pam Leibfried
A couple of weeks ago, my local PBS station aired an episode of This Old House that featured the installation of a fancy hydroponic gardening system that cost hundreds of dollars. It was very impressive, but unless you have limited yard or patio space and need to garden vertically, it’s probably not a smart way to spend your gardening dollars.
For most vegetable gardeners, one goal is to grow food yourself so you spend less on groceries. An easy way to increase the savings realized from your gardening hobby is to start your own plants from seeds instead of buying plants at the local garden center or from a garden/seed catalog. For example, if you want to grow Burpee’s “Fresh Salsa Tomato” plants, a packet of 30 seeds costs $3.95 while a set of just three plants costs $16.95.
Another advantage of buying seeds is that you’ll have more varieties to choose from, as many garden centers only carry a few types of tomatoes, peppers or other veggies. By purchasing seeds, you have more varietal options, and can plant the exact variation that you need – the one that is best for your garden’s soil and lighting and best for your particular cooking needs. Whether you like sweet cherry tomatoes for salads or large, juicy tomatoes for canning veggie juice or ketchup, seeds are readily available, while you may have more difficulty buying a seedling of a specific variety to transplant.
In order to start your seeds, you first need something in which they can grow. You can buy seed starter kits with dirt included – they even sell kits that are self-watering – at garden centers or online, or you can buy flats of connected plastic pots that you fill with dirt yourself. Even purchasing these supplies, you’ll still save money vs. buying your vegetables in a store, but an even more economical method is to use egg cartons.
Buy eggs in cardboard cartons rather than foam or plastic, as cardboard cartons are biodegradable. As you finish the last egg in each carton, just stash it away in a closet or the garage until it’s planting time. Then fill the cartons with soil, plant your seeds, water them and you’re on your way. After the plants have sprouted and are big enough to transplant, cut the sections of the carton apart and plant them in the ground, carton and all. Most vegetable’s roots will grow through the cardboard with no problem, but you may want to do some online research to be sure that the types of vegetables you are planting have roots that are strong enough to do so. If not, you can just cut or tear off the bottom of the carton before planting, being careful not to damage the roots. Just wet the carton to make it more pliable and easy to tear.
If you have an established garden, it’s tempting to save a few dollars by using soil from it to start your seeds, but garden soil is often too heavy for starting seeds, and you could inadvertently bring insects into your house, so you are probably better off purchasing a premixed potting soil. If you want to make your own potting soil, you can purchase peat moss (aka sphagnum moss), vermiculite and perlite and mix them in equal parts.
Once your seeds have sprouted, they’ll need lots of light and warmth to grow – 14 to 16 hours of light each day for some varieties. If you have south-facing windows or patio doors that get light all day in a room that stays warm, you should be set. If not, put the seedlings under fluorescent lights or grow lights in a warm room or place them on top of a refrigerator or other warm appliance. Another alternative is to purchase a heat mat made especially for plants. Check your seed package for specifics of the temperature that each vegetable needs to sprout, so you can group similar ones and keep them in the right area of your house. And be wary of placing your seedlings on windowsills. Even though they may get a lot of light there, windowsills have broader temperature swings than other areas of the house, which can harm seedlings.
To germinate, seeds need moisture. Follow the instructions on each seed packet for the level of moisture needed and to find out if you need to cover the planters with plastic to keep them moist until they’ve sprouted. You can use tap water, but with a couple of limitations. Tepid temperatures only…ice cold or hot water will shock the plants. If you have a water softener, the salt could kill the plants, so fill your watering container from a hard water faucet. If your water is chlorinated, fill your watering container daily and let it sit overnight before you use it to water your plants. This will allow the chlorine to dissipate while also bringing the water to room temperature.
If you’re a novice who doesn’t have an expert gardener among your family or friends, talk to someone at your neighborhood garden center or call your local cooperative extension office. There are myriad online sources for advice from both experts and amateurs. One thing to keep in mind when searching online is that you need to make sure you are reading advice for your specific temperature zone. If you live in northern Minnesota and follow the schedule for transplanting peppers in Florida (or vice versa), your plants will suffer. That’s one of the reasons that your local garden center, gardening club or cooperative extension office are a safer bet for advice that will benefit your garden.