For growers challenged with short summer seasons, indoor seed starting is an important strategy to help get an early jump on slow growing crops, but today I find myself turning to seed starting because of the many other benefits. I think several of these benefits are often overlooked, so in this post, I will outline the reasons we tend to favour transplanting more and more each year we grow a garden.
Before we get started, I should clarify that when I say “start your own seeds” I mean raising your own vegetable plants indoors to later transplant into your outdoor garden. In some cases it is still most appropriate to start your seeds by planting them directly outdoors, but we'll leave that subject for another time.
So what benefits can you expect from starting your own seeds? Here are the eight benefits that we appreciate most. The order of this list is of no significance as these benefits are all pretty important for us.
Increased Crop Selection
Starting your own seeds indoors expands the selection of crops that you can grow. This is especially relevant for those of you in a cold climate with a relatively short growing season. We are growing in zone 3 so slow maturing crops like peppers, onions, leeks, celery, and tomatoes have to be started before spring in order for them to reach maturity during the summer months. We publish a detailed list of our seed selection each season for our Classroom members, so if you are curious to know more about the specific varieties we grow and where we get our seeds, just head to the Classroom and type "seed selection" in the Classroom search bar. You'll be able to download the full list. Here's a direct link to our 2020 Seed Selection for those of you already logged in.
Starting your own seeds indoors enables earlier harvests. If I transplant an already growing crop at the same time that I seed directly into the field, the transplanted crop will mature first. In the case of snap peas, our soil is usually warm enough to plant outdoors in the last week of April. If I seed snap peas directly into the field at that time, I can expect slow germination in cool soil and a first harvest at the start of July. If I transplant the first crop of snap peas at that same time, I can enjoy a first harvest in mid June, almost 3 weeks earlier. If you're wondering how early we start our seeds and when we transplant them outdoors, check out our Seed Starting Table in the online Classroom.
Ideal Germination Conditions
Starting your own seeds indoors greatly improves germination rates and speed. Because we can control the indoor environment so much better than conditions in the field, I can create the ideal situation for each seed variety and guarantee good germination every time. A higher percentage of the seeds will germinate and they will come up faster too. In the field, seeds will likely need to overcome the challenges of irregular planting depths and more extreme temperature and moisture variation. Indoors, it is much easier to control the moisture of the potting mix and seed depth, and we can even look up the ideal germination temperature for each crop on our Germination Temperatures Table and set our heat mats accordingly.
Optimum Plant Health
Plants that have a good start to life are much more likely to flourish as they mature. We have found the quality of our transplants to be much greater than any that we could possibly purchase from a local nursery. Their stems are thick and sturdy and their leaves are broad with rich green colour. Our plants also grow more vigorously once transplanted and their improved health makes them more resistant to disease and other stresses that come their way during the growing season. It’s clear that if we want the healthiest plants in the long run, we need to grow the healthiest transplants to start with.
Perfect Plant Spacing
If you want a garden with proper plant spacing, transplanting is the best way to make it happen. You have likely read instructions on seed packages that say something like “plant 20 seeds per foot and thin to one plant ever 6 inches”. This practice of over seeding and follow up thinning wastes seed, adds labour, and doesn’t even necessarily result in perfect spacing as there still may be gaps in your row from poor germination. Alternatively, if I start my own seeds, I can pick the strongest plants and transplant them with perfect spacing in the garden. Thanks to the perfect spacing, the crop matures more evenly and the garden space is used at its full capacity.
The days of planting only one crop in each bed of our garden are long passed. We have learned ways to grow 1, 2, or even 3 different crops in the same space one after the other. This practice is called relay planting, because the bed is transitioned from one crop, to another, and then another. Time is especially precious when relay planting because to pull it off in a short growing season we need to stretch the limits of our spring and fall growing conditions. We can transition from one crop to the next much faster if we use transplants. One relay planting we used last season was an early crop of onions followed by fall crop of Chinese cabbage. We transplanted 3 week old cabbage plants right after the onions were harvested, thereby increasing the length of our growing season by 3 weeks. In the photo below, sweet corn is transplanted on July 11 after an early harvest of new potatoes. Without the quick transition enabled by transplants, this relay combination would not be possible in our short growing season. For more information about how we use our Garden Planner to schedule relay planting, just type "relay planting" in the search bar of our online Classroom and you'll find a video tutorial on relay planting with specific examples.
Starting your own seeds indoors can help you save a lot of water. During the germination period, a seed bed needs to be kept moist for an extended period, and this task requires a lot of water when the seed bed is large and exposed to the drying effects of wind and sunlight outdoors. It takes much less water to irrigate a small tray of seedlings indoors. Further water savings are possible when transplanting. The most efficient way to irrigate your garden space is with drip lines, and transplanting is very compatible with drip systems since plants can often be spaced strategically in line with drip line emitters to make sure the water provided goes straight to the root zone around your plants.
Improved Weed Competition
Transplanting your vegetable crops gives them the upper hand in their competition with weeds. What’s lurking below every inch of your garden soil waiting to take advantage of any opportunity to expand and multiply? Weed seeds! Your large transplants will take control of the bed much quicker than newly planted seeds and the canopy that their leaves create over the growing bed will further reduce weed pressure as the season progresses. We are often asked how we garden with so few weeds and the use of a lot of transplanted crops is one of the secrets. Shhh!
In general, the benefits of seed starting all relate in some way to increasing the control you have over your garden space. When I have the opportunity to control a variable in my vegetable garden, I usually take it. There are so many unpredictable factors that come into play once plants are in the field, so it seems foolish not to control the things we can. Raising your own transplants allows you to give your vegetables the conditions they need to thrive and thrive they will. Get these conditions right and the return for your investment will be larger more dependable harvests.
Now that you understand the many benefits of starting your own seeds it's time to take action. If you're not sure where to begin, check out our list of Essential Equipment for Starting Your Own Seeds in our online Classroom.