March is a very exciting time when you’re into gardening. This is the month that everything starts happening. I try to walk around my garden once a day throughout the winter, but that tends to be more about making sure things aren’t getting weird out there. Once March rolls around, I start to notice new life beginning. It’s not unusual for me to see a pansy or two blooming and snow drops doing their thing. Around the end of the second week, I’m not surprised if I get an iris showing off its technicolor beauty. March is also when I start the orchestrated dance of growing my flowers (and some veg) from seed.
The majority of my seeds need to get going around eight weeks before the last frost. Here in Michigan, this concept can prove daunting. To understand when your last frost date is, you first have to find out what grow zone you are in. This is easy thanks to the internet. This is one of the few times that the internet isn’t riddled with opinion and inaccuracy. When you have determined what zone you are in, there are several different sites that will show you what your estimated last frost date will be. This is the interesting part. I tend to go through a sort of “Mandela effect” every year when I check what our date is. I just looked on a couple of sites while writing this and they both agreed that Detroit and its surrounding area has a last frost date of May 2nd. I swear that last year it was May 15th.
Furthermore, if you strike up conversations at local garden centers like I do (I’m really annoying like that) and ask others when they put out their seedlings, most will go by the tried-and-true “wait until Memorial Day weekend.” I want to believe that I can put out my flowers in the beginning of May, I really do. It’s the sort of hopefulness that I have always aspired to have. Unfortunately, the reality of our state’s weather issues makes this a general headache for me. That said, I tend to go with mid-May and then proceed to view my weather app like it’s the most harrowing and possibly horrific thing I have every seen. It is quite normal for my neighbors to see me running around with burlap and garden stakes, setting up little tents, so that my precious little seedlings will get through the late season frosts that the mitten is sure to serve up. That’s why this year I am going to wait until sometime in the week leading up to Memorial Day weekend. I’m really trying to take as much stress out of the process as possible, because stress doesn’t belong in the garden.
“Stress doesn’t belong in the garden.” ~ Jamiel Dado
So now that you have found out what grow zone you reside in and have decided when you want to transplant your future little baby plants outside, it’s time to get some seeds! If you’re like me, you have become the target of every seed company in America and already have been receiving catalogs since before Christmas. If not, you can find all of the same information in digital form online.
If you do decide to go purely digital, I would suggest one exception. You should highly consider purchasing the Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds “Whole Seed Catalog.” It is a beautifully made book, with five-hundred pages of rare seeds, recipes, and informative articles. It is also the only catalog you have to purchase, but I feel that it is worthwhile. They do offer a free version, but do yourself a favor and splurge.
Seed buying is one of those not so rare times that I tend to go overboard. I go with an aspirational approach as opposed to a more realistic one. I have a giant green binder with the label “big book of seeds” on it that is very full of aspiration. I keep it in the basement where it stays cool and I haven’t yet had trouble germinating older seeds. Last year, I grew a couple of huge basil plants using seeds that were purchased six years prior. You probably don’t need to be overzealous like me, but if you do, you can always do what I do and make little packets for friends and future friends. Last fall, I had an exterminator at my house, and he commented how he liked my garden, so I sent him on his way with several seed varieties to try at home.
In addition to store bought seeds, I make sure to collect as many of my own in the fall, so I don’t have to repurchase my favorites year after year. It is important to note, that when collecting your own seeds, to make sure that it was not a “hybrid” plant. Most seed packets will let you know if it was “open-pollinated” or “heirloom”. Seeds from these types of plants will result in flowers that look the same year after year. Hybrid plant seeds must be repurchased yearly if you want the same variety. Otherwise, the seeds you collect will resort back to one of the “parent” plants and you might not get what you want. That said, if you like a bit of surprise in your life, go right ahead and roll those genetic dice. If you don’t like what you end up with, you can always give it away.
Most seed packets recommend starting them six to eight weeks before your last frost date. Some, like my begonias and impatiens, recommend starting three months early, but if you start a little late, don’t worry about it. There is plenty of summer to be had and it’s always nice to add more flowers to your garden as the season progresses. This is a great way to continually add to your container garden. There are also many seed varieties that give you an option of starting early indoors or direct sowing after the last frost date. Zinnias and marigolds are a really common example of this. I have yet to start my zinnias inside early because they grow rather quickly, and I like to throw down more of their seeds at the beginning of each month of June, July, and August. It’s a fun way to ensure that you will have an ever-changing landscape to enjoy all the way through summer into the fall.
Also, I start so many seeds inside, that I do not have the space to start any seeds that offer me the choice of waiting. If you happen to only want to grow zinnias and marigolds, feel free to start them inside. That way you will have flowers much sooner than if you wait to sow them outside in May.
When it comes to the equipment needed for growing from seed in your house, there is a wide gamut that runs from the bare minimum to the over the top “bells and whistles” setup. One universal need, in my opinion, is having some sort of seed starting growing medium. I have never attempted to just grab some soil from my garden and germinate seeds in it. I don’t see why this wouldn’t work, but you definitely would have to sterilize the soil first so that you didn’t have all sorts of random plants germinating and other assorted nasties. I used to sterilize soil for use in planted aquariums by placing it in a large plastic storage bag that I would leave open and microwave for about two minutes. This should kill the nasties. At the end of the day, I would just recommend getting some seed starter. It doesn’t have to be too fancy or expensive. I have purchased big blocks of coco coir online for really cheap and that would work fine. Seeds have everything they need to germinate and grow for a bit. If your growing medium doesn’t contain any nutrients, you will need to add some food as they start to grow. Usually at diluted strength.
In addition to seeds and growing medium, you need something to grow it in. There are many options out there, but I like using covered seed trays that can be purchased in many different locations. I’m sure you have seen them in your local big box store or garden center, The plastic trays with the little individual “cells” and a clear top. What I like about these is that this is likely all you will need, especially if you have a nice sunny window to place it in. As your seedlings grow, you might find it necessary to transplant them into bigger containers, but if your timing is right, you are probably good to put them right into the garden from this.
If you are intent at making as little purchases as possible, then you could germinate your seeds in an old carryout container, you know the ones that basically look like a seed starting tray with the clear top. If you go this route, you will need to move the seedlings into small plastic pots when they have a couple sets of leaves. For these, you can poke drainage holes in the bottom of old yogurt containers or something similar. This is a great method for people who really like take-out and yogurt and hate waste.
If you don’t have a sunny window or you are growing more trays than can fit in said window, you will want to look into getting some grow lights. Any grow lights will work, but I prefer SunBlaster T5HO lights. I have used many different kinds of lights, including old aquarium lights, and these have been my favorite. I like to zip-tie them to my OMAR shelf from IKEA. I use multiple ties that I gradually tighten as my seedlings get taller. I find this to be an easy way to adjust the height.
If you are the type of person who is entertaining the idea of grow lights and thinking about growing more than a couple of trays of plants, then you might also be the sort of person who would want a grow tent. Last year I decided to get a giant walk-in grow tent for my basement, mostly because my cats were always threatening to mess with my seedlings and were forcing me to keep all my trays in unreachable places. Now I just like the humid and contained environment that my tent offers me. I have my OMARs in it and I can use the lowest shelves without worrying about any feline issues. My tent has also become an oasis for me where I get to dream about the upcoming summer season. I now look forward to spending time in it every morning checking on all my little buddies. There are a lot of choices out there, but I recommend Vivosun brand. They are well made and easy to put together.
No matter which method you decide, I implore you to give growing from seeds a try this year. There is an immeasurable sense of pride that comes from enjoying your garden knowing that you were a part of it every step of the way. Even with the investments I have made with lights and tents, I would have spent far more if I bought all my flowers every year from a nursery. For me though, that’s not even the point. I am fascinated with watching plants grow from their earliest beginnings. As I am collecting seeds in the fall, I am already in awe at the life that will emerge from such a humble beginning.
Jamiel Dado is passionate about plants and wants to spread his love of gardening to anyone who will listen.
Featured photograph by Tima Miroshnichenko.