How to Grow Vegetables from Seed

by Maria G.

I wrote a recent entry about how I grew some beautiful lettuces from seed. Today, at a garden center, I came upon a rather expensive shallow pot filled with the same types and colors of lettuce that I had successfully cultivated myself. These ready-to-eat lettuce plants were large, and evidently heavily fertilized. Looking at them, I thought: “Why would I want to eat that, and who would pay that price?”

My seed packet cost less than $2.00 and had yielded beautiful, organic results. I also observed that the spacing of the plants in this store’s container would surely not allow them to flourish for long.

Next I took a look some other vegetable seedlings they had on display; also very large, growing closely together, and of course pricey. To a new gardener, those seedlings may have looked like a good deal. However, a seasoned gardener would know to pass them up and opt instead to start from seed.

If you’re not a seasoned gardener, there’s no reason why you, too, can’t get started growing your own organic vegetables from seed. In fact: your homegrown veggies will taste even better when you nurture them into being from the very beginning!

Which vegetables to direct-sow in your garden beds:

Cold hardy vegetables such as beets, carrots and parsnips can be planted directly in the prepared and fertilized garden bed early in the season (in NJ zone 6, that’s the first week of April). Peas are finicky about being transplanted, and should be sown directly in the garden as well… in this part of NJ, plant your peas by St. Patrick’s Day. Corn and beans also prefer to be direct-sown in the garden. Plant corn no earlier than May 1, and beans around the second week of May, for NJ gardening zone 6.

(For a complete list of which vegetables to seed on which date, click here.)

Note: when I direct-seeded butternut squash into my garden beds, squirrels dug out and ate the seeds. To remedy this problem, I removed the top and bottom from a tomato can and placed it atop the spot where the seeds were planted. I gently watered and checked on my seeds daily, waiting for my little seedlings to emerge from the soil.

Individual container seedlings:

For vegetables that allow you to transplant them with care, place in individual containers one seed or plant per space. Cucumbers, musk melons, squash and watermelon all fall into this category.

Seeding in flats:

Veggies that can be grown in flats include: broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, celery, eggplant, leeks, lettuce, onions, parsley, peppers, tomatoes, cauliflower. Each seed requires its own, individual space.

Eggplants, tomatoes and peppers are sometimes started in shallow flats, and later transported into deeper containers for some additional growing before going into the garden.

Note: pepper seedlings prefer warm temps, and can do well when a heating pad is placed under your seed containers if the area where you keep your seeds tends to be on the chilly side.

Plastic pots and other creative containers:

Most garden centers sell plastic pots for seed starting. You can also use any type of small, plastic food container to sprout your seedlings. For example, this year I filled the plastic compartments from a “fancy” chocolate gift with the proper soil, and started my pepper seedlings there. I also used an empty mushroom package for some other types of plants; of course, I sterilized the container first and poked drainage holes in the bottom (see below for sterilization tips).

Note that the little plastic pots with holes poked in the bottom should also sit in a secondary, outer tub (one that does NOT have drainage). This year, I stored some of my little pots in a cleaned and sterilized, 3-lb. plastic tub that once held ground turkey. You need this type of reservoir to ensure that the seed-starting mix does not dry out, and parch your seedlings along with it.

Grow lights:

Start your seeds under ordinary, “Cool White”, 40-watt fluorescent bulbs. Many stores also sell “grow lights” which fit this description. Light bulbs should be 2 to 3 inches from the tops of your growing seedlings to prevent them from “reaching” for the light and becoming leggy. The strongest light is in the center of the fluorescent bulb. Move or rotate containers regularly, to ensure that the plants won’t “bend” toward the light.

Type of soil:

Your local garden center will hopefully carry a commercially prepared “soil-less” mix for starting seeds in. I prefer to have mine on hand in the garage or basement so that I can start my leeks and onions from seed in January or February. The mix is a combination of peat moss, vermiculite and/or perlite and ground limestone to balance the pH, with added fertilizer to ensure good plant growth.

Sterilizing your seed containers:

To avoid “damping off” fungus which is known to attack potted seedlings, be sure to surface-sterilize your planting containers before each use. Dip each into 9 parts water to 1 part bleach, then rinse in clear water.


Don’t forget to label your seed containers, particularly if you’re a new gardener who may not be familiar with the way different plants look when they’re first growing. Most seed starting kits come with white plastic labels that you can label with a pencil or crayon and then bury in the side of each container. You can also find these sold separately at any garden store.

Planting instructions:

Moisten your seed starting mix, and fill the containers with it halfway. Plant each seed to the correct depth according to the instructions on the seed packet. To do this, mark the exact measurement on a pencil or stick (wooden kabob sticks work well) using a pen. Then use the pencil or stick to make 1 hole in each pot, and drop your same-type seeds into each one.

Cover seeds with more seed starting mix, and gently water or mist. Place your filled seed container in a plastic bag. Store in a warm place so the seeds will germinate – the top of the refrigerator is a good, warm spot.

Seed viability:

What to do with leftover seeds that you don’t plant? Likely you’ve noticed that when you buy a packet of seeds, there are many more than you will typically need for that season’s plantings. Can you save these to use next year? The answer is yes – if the proper seed storage conditions are met. Each type of seed has its own “expiration” date if you will – the number of years that it will remain viable.

For example: cabbage seeds can remain viable for as long as 5 years; chard seeds, for 4.

DO NOT LEAVE YOUR UNUSED SEEDS on the back porch, in the heat of summer. For a good seed viability chart, click here.

For more detailed instructions on how to start garden vegetables from seed, we recommend The New Seed Starter’s Handbook from Nancy Bubel: