Sow what? Everything you need to grow vegetables from seed, starting now

Dig in and “grow your own” early for a personalized produce section at home!

Dig in and “grow your own” early for a personalized produce section at home!

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

There is nothing quite like that sense of pride you get from picking produce you've grown yourself — and then tasting it. While you will find seedlings at your local garden centre come spring, planting from seed allows you to explore different and new-to-you varieties. "It's a true joy to push seeds into the soil and, days later, see a tiny shoot emerge," says Emily Murphy, an expert gardener and author of Grow What You Love. Seeds can be ordered from catalogues, bought from grocery stores and garden centres, or purchased from local events, like Seedy Saturdays, which take place in so many communities across Canada. But where to start and what to do when you get those seeds home? Here are some tips to help you start growing at home, right now.

Choosing what to grow

If you're totally overwhelmed deciding what to grow, think about your grocery list. What items find their way onto it on a weekly or monthly basis? Think of edibles you might use a lot of like lettuce, herbs, and in the summer months, tomatoes! "Fresh herbs change everyday cooking into something wonderful, and when you let herbs, like thyme and oregano, go to flower you also have a pollinator mecca," says Murphy.

It's also fun to try new-to-you varieties or edibles you've never tried before, such as cucamelons, tomatillos or ground cherries. "I always grow cucumbers and lemon cucumbers, in particular," says Murphy. "They're something I grew up eating summer after summer because my grandfather grew them. So, now I do too."

Purchasing seeds

If you don't know where to start, research companies that are local to you and read about their seeds. I look for labels like "untreated," which means that seeds haven't been chemically treated before being packaged. This is a personal preference. By choosing seeds with organic labels, you know that no toxic pesticides and only organic fertilizers have been used on crops. It's worth noting some seed companies use organic practices, but don't have organic written on their labels, which is why it's worth researching the companies you'd like to purchase from. Other things a packet will indicate are things like whether to start your seeds indoors or outdoors, how many days to germinate and how many days to harvest, etc.

Many botanical gardens and seed companies keep trial gardens where they plant edibles each year and rate them on their performance — factors including flavour, yield and hardiness. All-America Selections is an independent testing organization whose mission is "To promote new garden varieties with superior garden performance judged in impartial trials in North America."

Gather a few tools for growing

There are a few items you'll need to get started. There are lots of great starter kits out there. Some kits come as plastic trays with lids and peat pellets inside with planting instructions. Or you can purchase your own empty cell packs, adding soilless mix before sowing your seeds. Self-watering kits are handy if you plan on going away for a few days because you don't have to leave anyone in charge of watering. You simply fill the reservoir and a water gauge shows you when it's time to refill.

"I'm lucky to have a big, south-facing window with a flood of intense sunlight most days," says Murphy. "If it weren't for this, I'd probably use lights. Many seeds don't need light to germinate, but they need lots of light to reach maturity once sprouted."

Once you get at least one growing season under your belt, you may want to opt for grow lights. Many gardeners create their own shelving units with lights strung above each shelf, but there also are some great tabletop grow light systems on the market, as well. These could be placed in a home office or furnace room, wherever you have space.

Sowing seeds

Murphy's number one tip for starting seeds is to read the seed packet before you begin. "Seed packets generally provide the number of weeks before your last spring frost in which to start seeds indoors, or whether they can be sown directly outdoors after the last spring frost," she explains. (Keep in mind that some plants, such as root vegetables do better when the seeds are planted directly in the ground.)

The Old Farmer's Almanac has a tool that allows you to enter your postal code and determine your frost dates — the last light freeze in your area. The Art of Doing Stuff blog has a handy seed calculator that will help you determine the best time to start your seeds.

Nurturing your seedlings

The seed packet will also tell you how to care for your wee little plants, with directions like "keep soil moist, but not soggy, and very warm." If the package doesn't state this, do a little online research to make sure each plant is getting the care it needs to thrive. One thing you might find, especially with planting in pellets or small cells, is that you might need to transfer your seedlings to bigger pots before the weather has warmed up enough to put them in the garden.

If you sow seeds too densely, you may want to thin them, which means sacrificing a few so one plant can grow to be big and strong, without any competition. You'll also want to keep an eye out for things like mould (if plants get too wet) or seedlings that suddenly wilt or become discoloured, which could indicate that your seeds have a fungal infection called damping off.

Whether it's a cucumber that evaded a nuisance raccoon or herbs you were able to pick before they went to seed, it is very satisfying to grow your own herbs and veggies.

Tara Nolan is a freelance writer who covers gardening, décor, travel, and cycling, mountain biking and other outdoor adventures for a variety of publications. She is also one quarter of the popular gardening website Savvy Gardening.