Spring is coming. The robins are returning. My mind keeps daydreaming about gardening. Half way through January I started sketching garden layouts and looking at the seed catalogs that kept arriving in the mailbox. We took our first trip of the season to Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company ( The Whole Seed Catalog From Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds 2017 ) in January and back again in February. It has finally come time to start some seeds in the house and it is time to start getting my hands dirty, literally.
Seed Starting is Essential
Starting seeds inside is essential for the homestead. Purchasing seedling packs or individual plants from the nursery is just not cost effective when the homesteader's goal is to feed a family. For the cost of one 6-pack of tomato plants, a homesteader can sprout 30-100 tomato seeds depending on the variety and brand of seeds. Additionally, most homesteaders will need more than a 6-pack of any particular vegetable to raise enough food to preserve and store for their family's use over the year.
The upfront costs to starting seeds indoors can range from very minimal (seeds, soil, planting trays and a sunny window) to very expensive (greenhouse, temperature controls, lighting and watering systems). Only the homesteader can determine what level of expense is right for them and how simple or elaborate their system needs to be in order to satisfy their goals. However, over time, the upfront cost to begin starting seeds indoors will pay for itself.
On our homestead, we keep it more on the simple side. We make soil blocks in seed trays. We use one heat mat, 4 grow lights with bulbs, and 2 inexpensive shelving units. This will allow us to start 16 trays of seeds. Each tray holds 50 seedlings making 800 total plants. Our total upfront cost for reusable materials and equipment was less than $200. At the end of the season, we will carefully pack everything back up and store it for the next year.
In addition to saving money on the homestead by starting seeds indoors, you also extend your growing season. There are several garden vegetables than need a longer growing season than a homesteader's area allows. For instance, brussel sprouts generally take 85-110 days to maturity depending on variety. Other garden vegetables don't tolerate the heat of the summer, like broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower. These benefit from a head start inside in order to beat the heat.
When to Start Seeds Indoors
When determining the right time to start planting seeds indoors, homesteaders must first determine the “last frost” date for their area. Each homesteader's part of the country has a predetermined, generally accepted, date of the last frost. It will be very different in your area than in mine. In fact, it will be different in Phoenix, AZ than in Flagstaff. Different in Milwaukee, WI than in Superior. And different in Springfield, MO than in St. Louis. To look up your area's last frost date, go here: Dave's Garden Frost Dates
After finding the date of last frost, homesteaders can start planning their dates to start seeds. Most seed packets provide information about how far in advance the seeds should be started indoors. Refer to the general guidelines in the next column for popular garden vegetables.
Some vegetables do great or even prefer being directly sown into the ground. Those include beans, beets, corn, cucumbers, kale, lettuce, melons, peas, spinach, squashes, and Swiss chard.
Homesteaders who would like to harvest their vegetables throughout the growing season rather than having them all ready at the same time can utilize “succession planting.” Raise your hand if you've ever had 20 heads of broccoli ready to pick all at the same time. It's overwhelming! But, if homesteaders start broccoli seeds every 7 days, they can expect a few heads to be ready each week. In regards to indoor seed starting, succession planting works well for broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage.
|Vegetable||When to start indoors (before last frost)|
How to keep track of it all? A good ol' list. Or spreadsheet. Or calendar. Maybe there's an app for that?! Whatever works best for you, use it. I guarantee that you will not remember when to plant the first round of broccoli seeds versus the last round. Homesteaders have so many other things to remember, and things come up! Like, the goats getting out, or the tractor breaking down. I use a notebook and a pencil, and I create a handwritten schedule for myself.
How to Start Seeds Indoors
Ok, now let's get down to planting seeds. I use a soil block maker rather than the special plastic seed tray liners. It's very easy. I can sprout and grow 50 seedlings per tray, and I don't have to struggle with those little plastic seed tray liners come planting time. But, I do have a confession to make. I cheat on the soil mixture...and this is why.
I was researching the recipes for soil block mixtures. Some said use peat moss, others said use coconut coir. Some said use perlite, others said use vermiculite. Some said make this fertilizer additive recipe, others said use that fertilizer additive recipe. AND, I live 1.5 hours away from any store that would carry those ingredients! I was so overwhelmed with what to do. So we said, the heck with that craziness! We decided to try using 50% Jiffy Seed Starting Mix and 50% organic compost. It works like a dream!
With this mixture, I use 3 bags of seed mix and 1 1/3 bags of compost to make 7 trays of soil blocks. This allows me to sprout and grow 350 seedlings. The total cost of soil mixture for 7 trays was $19.50 which ends up costing 5.5 cents per seedling. Not bad!
Making the soil blocks themselves is very easy. Watch my video for detailed instructions (subscribe to our YouTube channel while you are there). It takes me about 20 minutes to make a batch of soil mixture and about 10-15 minutes to fill one tray with soil blocks. Once your tray is filled with soil blocks, put a seed or two in each hole and place a small amount of soil mixture on top. (Don't forget to label your tray or create some kind of list so you remember what is planted in each tray. I've learned from experience that I won't remember...and then the garden is a mystery garden. Oops!)
Cover your seed tray with a plastic cover and set them on a heat mat or in a warm place. Use a spray bottle to keep the seeds moist (I do this at least twice a day). Pour water into the bottom of the tray to moisten the soil blocks as needed (I do this about every other day). The soil blocks need to stay moist and should not dry out. But, they can't be sitting in standing water either. When the seeds start to germinate, turn the plastic cover so that some airflow can occur. Transfer them to a location with a lot of sunlight or turn on your grow-lights. When most of the seeds have germinated, turn off the heat mat and remove the plastic covering all together. Keep them in bright light for at least 12 hours a day until they are ready to transplant into the garden.
A couple of miscellaneous tips. Seedlings will grow long and gangly if they are kept too far from their grow light. To prevent this, I keep the seed trays very close to the grow lights. I inch them farther away as the seedlings grow. Also, to help them grow thick, strong stems that won't tip over and break with the first gust of wind in the garden, I run an oscillating fan in front of my seedlings.
Once the weather starts getting warmer, start moving your seedling trays outside a little bit at a time. This is called “hardening off.” Your seedlings need a slow transition to their new environment. Start with one hour the first day, and increase an hour each day. After a week, they will be ready for transplanting.
What to do with all these plants?
If you are anything like me, you start at least 25% more seeds than you really need in the garden just in case you have a terrible germination rate. Or, you get carried away and don't realize your garden area is not large enough for all of these seedlings! (I would be lying if I said that has never happened to me.) So what on Earth are you going to do? Good heavens, sell them! Make back some of the money you spent! Offset those costs. Feed your family for free. Sell to friends, family, or at a farmer's market. Selling just a few of each will, at the very least, cover the cost of the seeds themselves.
This is what it's all about!
At Living Traditions Homestead, starting our own seeds, growing and raising our own food is what "homesteading" is all about. It's why we sold our home, moved out of the city, and left "corporate America." Homesteading allows us to provide a simple life for our family that focuses on sharing time together, working together, honoring our values and honoring God through the blessings He has provided to us.
Be a part of our adventure by following our blog site, our YouTube channel and our social media. We would love to hear from you!
Take care and God bless you,