Sunday, February 22, 2015

Start Seeds for Herbs and Vegetables for Under $100

There might be nine inches of snow at my house, but yesterday was time to start gardening. Plants are expensive and it pays to start your own from seed. I've heard of people who spend an absurd amount of money to grow a garden. This isn't one of those guides. If you have some basic gardening equipment and a place outside to grow plants, you can start growing herbs and vegetables from seed for well under $100. You can re-use the most expensive equipment (a hanging fluorescent light).

Before you buy anything, though, assess your situation and make a plan. If you have a sunny porch or yard and you're willing and able to frequently tend to some plants, you can make this happen. If this is the case, first, look up your average last frost date and length of growing season (click here if you're in the US). When I plug in my location, it tells me my average last frost date is May 17 and my growing season is 132 days long. With that information, I can see what I can grow here. Artichokes, taking 150 to 240 days to mature, aren't going to make it here, but arugula and bush beans can. Keep in mind that the growing season is an average figure--half the time, the growing season is shorter. Pick plants with some wiggle room so you don't end up with frozen, unripe vegetables.

Next, make a list of what to buy: seed starting mix (I use Miracle Gro); a seed tray with a tray, pots and dome (like this one; they're five dollars at the nursery where I shop); seeds; and a hanging shop light and fluorescent tubes (regular bulbs are fine). Later on, you can get some patio pots and potting soil (if needed) and a few bags of compost if your garden will be in the ground. (If I were just growing a few plants, I'd plant them in plastic cups with holes in the bottom, set on a tray, with a small fluorescent light.)

Look at the back of the seed packets to see when they should be started inside--it's stated in number of weeks before your average last frost date. Mark on your calendar when you're going to start each kind of seed. If you start them too late, it'll be too hot when they're ready to plant; if you start them too early, they'll get limp and overgrown before it's time to plant them. Note that some seeds should be planted directly wherever they're going to grow--they don't transplant well.

When you're ready to plant the seeds, fill the seed tray with seed starting mix and water it well (it may take a few hours for dry soil to absorb the water). Read the seed packet to see how deep to plant the seeds--some of them need light to germinate; others need darkness. I use a disposable ball point pen cap to indent the soil. Plant a few seeds per cell (thin them to one after they sprout), cover them or press them into the soil as needed, and put the cover on the seed tray. To know what I have planted, I mark the seed tray with roman numerals using nail polish and make a diagram of what's planted where. Finally, put the seed tray in place and hang or set the shop light so that it's a few inches above the tray. The seeds won't get enough light if it's farther away.

Keep the tray moist but not soggy and turn off the light at night. Use something that will water the soil very gently so the seeds don't wash away (a liquid measuring cup works well).

Around your average last frost date, put the seed trays outdoors in a semi-shaded spot to harden them off. (Too much sunlight all at once will burn them--think of cubicle dweller who goes to Mexico on vacation.) Bring them in at night if there's a chance of frost. Once you think there's no chance of frost, plant them in soil that's had the compost spaded into it, or in pots (at least a few gallons for vegetables; herbs can grow in fairly small pots). Read the seed packet to see how far to space the plants.

How much the plants need to be watered depends on your weather and soil. Here in dry, sunny Denver, pots need daily watering; vegetables growing in the ground, a little less frequently. Herbs need less care (cilantro and borage grow in my lawn, which gets little care, being buffalo grass).

You reward will be vegetables that taste wonderful--nothing like what's in the supermarket--and herbs  that don't cost five dollars for a tiny bundle. 


Lowcarb team member said...

Agree home grown vegetables taste gorgeous.

All the best Jan

Lori Miller said...

Yes--it's like the difference between a soy burger and filet mignon. It's worth the effort to taste a home-grown tomato or cucumber.