Begin your individual seeds to get a head begin and get monetary savings gardening


By Dorothy de Souza Guedes, correspondent

The pandemic-triggered enthusiasm for home gardens will continue in 2021. With tight budgets and insecure food supplies, many of you rushed to order new plots last year or to plant in patio pots and raised beds. They took whatever was available and put it in the ground.

This year is your time to start your own seeds. This gives you access to a wider variety of plants and can save you money. You don’t even need a fancy greenhouse. All it takes is planning, a little more time, and some basic supplies.

Don’t worry, you didn’t miss your opportunity. Gardeners in the corridor still have time to collect seeds, which will take eight weeks or less indoors. This includes many varieties of tomatoes, peppers, lettuce, and eggplant.

In cold weather, plants – carrots, lettuce, cabbage, root vegetables, cabbage – can be planted before the last frost.

The key to healthy seedlings, also called transplants, is to read the seed package instructions and wait for the time to come. In our growth zone (zone 5), the average last frost date is usually around May 15th. That means many seeds shouldn’t be started indoors until mid-March.

Feed Iowa First’s Emmaly Renshaw, Farm Manager, and Kit Kirby, Farm Coordinator / Americorps Vista, and start thousands of seedlings for urban lots or additional rows in commercial gardens across Linn County. They are also starting seeds on a much smaller scale for their home gardens and offer these tips to new gardeners.

Renshaw, mother of four, advises parents to plant things that their children like to eat. Cherry tomatoes rarely make it into their house: their four children eat them straight from the vine. Just for fun this year, she bought five bushel pumpkin seeds that could grow up to 100 pounds or more.


Your older children start with heirloom tomatoes in plastic layers that stand in front of a large, sunny, south-facing patio window next to air vents.

Kirby starts this year’s garden with seeds bought last year. She uses the same plastic trays from year to year. She creates floor blocks, installs grow lights, and keeps trays warm with thick foam insulation. She also grew in a 55 degree basement with a shop light and shelf surrounded by insulation, and the plants were fine, she said.

If you have some seed debris from last year, most of them will likely germinate. If you are storing seeds from one year to the next, it is best to put them in the freezer. Then to test their germination rate before taking your time and space in your garden, put a few seeds in a damp paper towel, keep it moist for germination time, and see what percentage germinate.

“Seeds, especially if they’re new, last at least two seasons,” said Renshaw.

Kirby said she could expand her own garden this year.

“I’m rebuilding my own site this year. I’m planning a 12 foot by 16 foot fenced area, ”Kirby said. “I can get overly excited and expand that.”

Both Kirby and Renshaw encourage new gardeners not to be too eager to transplant outdoors. Warm weather-loving plants like tomatoes and peppers should not be planted outdoors until May 15. And while many Iowans tend to plant Mother’s Day weekend, they recommend waiting another week to be on the safe side.

“A cold night with these warmer plants can do a lot of damage,” said Renshaw.

Seed start guide

Start your own seeds? Follow these basic tips for starting seeds indoors.

• Read the back of the seed pack or the online description before purchasing. If the instructions seem too complicated, choose a different type of seed to begin with.

• Remember to only grow vegetables and herbs that you enjoy eating and flowers that you enjoy.

• To make this easier, you can purchase a seed starter kit that contains everything you will need except the seeds. The kits usually contain a tray, individual plastic cells or peat pots, a clear plastic cover, and growth medium, stoppers or pellets. Most cost less than $ 20 and can be used for several years. The more expensive kits contain waterproof heating mats.


• Follow the package instructions carefully: When do you start heating, lighting, planting depth and watering? Pay attention to whether and how much seeds should be covered with soil or not.

• Don’t start the seeds too early. To find out when to start seedling indoors, simply count back the number of recommended weeks. March 21st is roughly eight weeks before the expected final frost date. That said, this week is perfect, for example, to start many varieties of bell peppers.

Starting seeds too early can result in long-legged, weak plants that may not survive after transplantation. Seedlings that have been grown indoors for too long can also become root bound and have difficulty adapting to the garden.

• Successive planting – starting the seeds in batches one to two weeks apart – ensures that your favorite vegetables are delivered over several weeks instead of all at once.

If the package says that seeds should not be started indoors, do not do so. Some seeds hate being transplanted and are best sown right in the garden.

Pro Tips: Buy seeds ASAP to make sure you are getting what you want. Inexpensive seeds often have a low germination rate, resulting in fewer plants. Can’t find what you want? Ask friends for extra seeds.

Start medium

• Do not plant seeds indoors in regular potting soil or in the rich, dark soil of iowa. Both hold back too much water and are too dense for tender, early roots. Also, do not reuse soil. It could harbor diseases that could wipe out your entire crop.

• Use a sterilized starting medium or a germ mixture. These products are lighter and looser than earth due to additives such as perlite (small white balls that look like styrofoam) or vermiculite. This makes it easier for seeds to take root and draw water.

• Coconut shells, which are sold in blocks or pellets, are another great option. Hydrate the water before placing it in containers.


• Do not push the start medium into the container. Fill loosely, then tap a firm surface to remove air bubbles.


• If you can poke drainage holes in a container, you can probably use it to start seeds. Just make sure it isn’t see-through: roots don’t like the light. Try smaller cottage cheese containers, paper cups, or paper milk cartons. Wash with soap and water and disinfect with a dilute bleach solution. Rinse thoroughly with water.

Pro tip: for seeds whose roots you don’t want to be disturbed by transplanting, use biodegradable pots, and then plant the entire thing – pot and everything – in the ground.


• The starting medium should be moist, but not wet, before the seeds are set. The mixture should stick together if crushed between your fingers, but you shouldn’t be able to squeeze any water out.

• Place the containers in a shallow bowl and water the plants from below. When the seed package indicates that it would like to be kept moist, gently spray the top.

• Use a clear plastic cover to keep the container warm and moist during germination. Plastic wrap from your kitchen is suitable for smaller containers. Turn over clear plastic bags over larger containers, or use a large, clear plastic bag. Once you see growth, remove the plastic cover.


• A large, sunny south-facing window provides sufficient sunlight for germination. Roll up the blinds and open the curtains fully. There isn’t too much sunlight.

• Without a south-facing window, you need artificial light. You can find Grow Lights in every home and garden store, in large stores, and online. Shop lights work well with daylight lamps.

• Grow lights must be near the plants – 4 to 6 inches – and grow taller as the seedlings grow. Hanging lights on chains attached to the bottom of the shelf works well. Set a timer to give plants 10 to 16 hours of light each day, or mimic the daylight pattern.


• Seeds won’t germinate if it’s too cold or too hot. The temperature must be between 80 and 85 degrees. Thin, waterproof heating mats (around $ 10) heat the floor from below.

• After germination, most seedlings will continue to grow at a comfortable room temperature. Refer to the seed packet: some like warmer temperatures.

Pro tip: place bowls of seedlings on a heater opening or near a radiator. In a colder room like a basement, heat the air with a space heater or slide a waterproof heating mat under planters and surround the shelves with foam insulation to keep the heat in the room.

Label container

• Label each cell or container with the variety, planting date, and date the seedlings will be transplanted outdoors. Keep the seed package for reference.

Toughen up

• Seedlings are not happy if they go straight into the ground from a sheltered indoor space. Get them used to nature before planting.


Bring the seedlings outside after the average last frost date. First protect the plants from the midday sun and wind. Start with an hour or two outdoors. Gradually increase your time outdoors over several days. Then plant according to the instructions in the seed package.

Pro tip: plant seedlings in the late afternoon. You avoid the harsh midday sun and have the evening to get used to being outside before the cooler hours of the night.