Starting a Vegetable Garden: Should you Choose Seeds or Starts?

If you have never started a vegetable garden, you may think it’s as simple as picking up a few veggie starts from the local hardware store, digging a hole, and popping them in the ground.

However, this is where many new gardeners go wrong. While it’s not a hard task, there are a few basics to get right when starting a vegetable garden to ensure your garden is a success.

To avoid some of the common mistakes, I’ll go over some of the things I have learned over the years about starting veggies indoors, direct sowing your plants in the garden bed, and many other useful tips.

One of the best resources out there for growing vegetables is the Farmer’s Almanac. They have a ton of information on planting dates and the average last frost date in each gardening zone, so you can be sure to start your garden at the right time of the year.

The online version also has up-to-date weather information and even a custom garden planner where you can type in your zip code, then find out the best month for starting seeds indoors, outdoors plus the planned harvest date.

Starting Veggie Seeds Indoors- The Basics

starting peppers inside in plastic cups

If you have never started plants from seed indoors, I suggest you try it, it’s fun, easy on the wallet, and very cool.  

If you have kids, choose one of the easy-to-grow vegetables like cherry tomatoes, green beans, or peas. It’s especially fun for them to watch the first sprouts pop out of the soil.

You will also benefit from the numerous varieties that seed catalogs have, instead of just the popular plants that nurseries carry.

Growing your own vegetables from seed is also much cheaper, especially if you plan to grow a large garden. And if you’re on a really tight budget you can get free seeds from places like the seed swaps or catalog promotions.

The plants I start indoors are, tomatoes, peppers, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, and swiss chard. I also usually try something new each year. Until you have a bit of experience under your belt, start small and easy with maybe one or two varieties from seed, and for the rest, I use starter plants.

How to Start Vegetables from Seed

  1. First, you need to buy your seeds, an heirloom tomato variety is a perfect one to start with. These are the tried and true favorites of our ancestors which haven’t been mucked around by scientists.
  2. Gather your seeds and some small containers.  Four-inch pots or even milk carton bottoms with holes work very well.
  3. You will also need seed starting soil, water, a sunny windowsill or a few grow lights if you want to grow them past the seedling stage.
  4. Next pre-moisten your soil. You can do this by pouring the soil into a bowl or bucket, adding a little water then mixing it with your hands.  The soil should be only moist not too wet. You know the soil is the right consistency when you grab a bunch by your hand and it just holds together but isn’t dripping wet.
  5. Now take and fill your containers with soil, tapping lightly on a table until there is about 3/4 of an inch from the top of the rim.
  6. Next, take and make three little holes spaced out at the top of the soil. Use your seed packet to determine how deep to plant the seeds.
  7. Place a seed in each hole, cover with soil
  8. Cover the pots with plastic to keep in the moisture.
  9. Then place them on the windowsill and you’re done.

Your seeds should sprout in a few days to a week depending on the variety.  Once the seeds have sprouted and grown a bit, save the strongest of the three seedlings by carefully plucking out the two weaker ones. 

Be careful not to disturb the roots of the strongest plant when you do this.  You can also just snip off the other 2 seedlings at ground level.

Growing your Seeds Past the Sproutling Stage

If you want to grow seeds successfully inside for more than a week, you will probably need a stronger light source.  Otherwise, your vegetables will get too tall too fast.  This makes the stems weak as the plants get older. You have 2 choices: add grow lights or set the plants outdoors early.

  1. Grow lights.  You don’t need a complicated setup to grow seeds indoors.  A simple shop light setup can get you going for a small cost.  Shop lights work great since they have adjustable heights.  Another option is an LED light in a small clamp such as a task light that works great for just a few plants.
  2. Setting out in the sun.  If you don’t want to monkey around with grow lights, just start setting your plants outside a few days after they’ve sprouted.  You will leave them outside a little bit longer each day, so the seedlings get used to the change in temperature.  Start with just an hour or two on the first day in a sheltered location.

Helpful Hints for Starting Seeds Indoors

  • Keep your soil damp.
  • Rotate your containers so your plants don’t grow lopsided towards the sun.
  • Don’t fertilize young plants, it makes them grow tall and leggy.
  • Before planting, harden them off by placing them outside during the day, out of direct sunlight. Make sure you bring them back in at night.

Direct Sowing Seeds In The Garden Bed

Some vegetable plants don’t take well to being transplanted and are better off started from seed planted in the ground, these include, peas, cucumbers, corn, carrots, and beans.

Along with these vegetables, spinach, lettuce, squash, zucchini, pumpkins, beets, and radishes are easily started from seed and sown right in the garden.

Growing carrots in the vegetable garden
Root vegetables like carrots are best grown from seed in the ground

The first seeds I plant every year are peas and spinach, they can go in as soon as the soil can be worked, and will tolerate light frosts, even snow. Mid-March is when I shoot for.

About a month or so later, I will get some lettuce going, you can also start onions, carrots, beets, radishes, potatoes, and other root vegetables.

For the rest of my seeds, I wait until I do my full vegetable garden planting. (mid to late May) These include cucumbers, beans, a second round of lettuce, and any squashes or melons.

Checking the back of your seed packets will give you a good idea as to planting time and seed depth. They also give recommended seed spacing.

Planting Established Plants

Now whether you have started your own plants or bought them from a nursery, (a local farmers market is a great place to buy starts) you want to plant them on either an overcast day or later on in the evening, when the sun isn’t so strong.

Water all your plants before transplanting, and take care not to let the roots dry out. Prep all your holes and then plant.

How to Plant Vegetable Starts in the Garden

  1. Dig all my holes, add a little water to them and mix in some organic garden fertilizer. (No fertilizer for peppers, they prefer poor soil)
  2. Then I carefully remove my plant from the pot, if it seems root bound, I will gently loosen the root ball with my fingers and stick it in the hole. (Bury your plants a little bit deeper than they were in the pots, this makes them a little sturdier)
  3. I then fill the hole in, patting down the soil with my hands, water again, and move on to the next one. Simple.

You will want to keep a close eye on your plants for the first couple of weeks until they become established vegetable garden plants. Lack of rain, heavy downpours, and late frosts can devastate a newly planted garden.

Should you Buy Seedlings or Grow from Seed?

This all depends on experience and time.

  1. Plant starts are sometimes easiest for complete beginners
  2. If you don’t have much time to devote to watching your seedlings in the early stages, then buy your veggies as young plants.
  3. Choose seeds when you are growing large rows of vegetables to save time and money
  4. If you want specific varieties, seeds may be your only option, since garden centers stock the popular types.
  5. Get a head start by starting seeds indoors if you live in a cooler climate and have a very short growing cycle.
green peppers growing in the veg garden
Large rows of veggies like these peppers are easier to start from seed directly in the ground

I like starting my own plants, for the reason of knowing that I will have true organic plants, starting from the seed, it also saves you a little money.

There are a few plants that I do purchase from a trusted source every year, these are, onions, scallions, leeks, potatoes, and maybe a different hot pepper or something else new I want to try.

When you do go out to buy plants, talk to the grower, and find out what type of seeds they used. Ask if they have used any fertilizer, and if so, what kind. This way you will have a better idea of what you’re starting with.

In Summary: How to Start a Vegetable Garden

Here are the facts in a nutshell:

  1. Review the farmer’s almanac to get the planting dates for the vegetables you plan to grow.
  2. Decide early on if you want to grow seeds or purchase seedlings.  Seeds will need to be started a few weeks ahead.
  3. Keep an eye on young seedlings to make sure they are getting enough light and water.
  4. Obtain grow lights if you decide to grow seedlings for more than a week inside.
  5. Give your plants enough room in the garden so they can grow to their full potential
  6. Enjoy!

Good luck with your vegetable garden planting, if you have any questions please feel free to contact me.

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