Spring Planting Made Simple

Give your garden (and your dinner table) new life by growing plants from seed.
Campanula/Bellflower

You might not have the greenest of thumbs, but growing your own plants—flowers, vegetables and herbs—doesn’t have to be an intimidating endeavor. We consulted Sunnyside Gardens’ owner Mike Hurley for his surprisingly simple suggestions on how to coax leaves from seeds. With a little tending, you’ll soon have a garden of greenery you started from the ground up.

Choosing Plants

Plants of all varieties can be begun from seed, from flowers that beautify a yard or walkway to vegetables and herbs that will make your meals the epitome of “locally grown.” To get a jump on spring planting—and make sure seedlings are strong enough to face the elements—Hurley suggests seeding plants indoors and transferring them in mid-May, when the frosts have abated.

Depending on the variety, plants may spend up to eight weeks indoors. Check the seed packets for specific information on germination time, seed depth and the ideal amount of sun.

Herbs like basil, thyme, parsley, sage and oregano work well in a short-term indoor herb garden, and can generally be seeded in early to mid-April, allowing for about six weeks of growth before moving outside.

If you’re interested in growing flowers, Hurley suggests choosing varieties with long bloom times—those that will flower throughout the summer—that are also winter hardy. Perennials like bellflowers, dianthus, delphinium and columbine can be grown from seeds, says Hurley, and do well in Minnesota. (Keep in mind that perennials generally take a year to get established and may not flower until the following summer.)

When getting a jump start on your vegetable garden, tomatoes, cucumber, zucchini and squash are popular choices. Germination times vary, but vegetables generally don’t need as much time indoors as herbs or flowering plants. Fast-growing plants that they are, vegetables can even be seeded right in the garden, generally around mid to late May. Give extra room to viney vegetables like watermelon, squash and cucumber, as they need plenty of room to crawl.
   
Seeding

Next, find a home for your seeds. Sunnyside sells plant trays made specifically for indoor seeding. Because moisture is the most critical element in seed germination, some trays come with plastic covers that help contain crucial moisture. You can also plant seeds in simple peat moss pots. For both pots and trays, Hurley recommends using a seed planting soil, which is very fine and holds moisture well.

If your seed tray has a cover, remove it once the seeds have sprouted and be sure the plants are in a sunny window. Keeping them in a dark area will make them stretch for light, says Hurley, resulting in leggy, unnaturally long plants (and a very visible indicator of your skill as a gardener). 

Transferring

Transferring plants from the house to the garden is a delicate business. Getting seedlings accustomed to the elements—a process known as “hardening off”—can take a few days, but such tough love is worth it for a successful move.

For your plants' first jaunt outdoors, choose a cloudy or partly cloudy day. Leave them outside for a few hours and be vigilant of the conditions: a blustery day can make your seedlings wilted and wind-whipped, while too much sun could scorch their leaves. A few afternoons outdoors will make your plants stronger and able to flourish once they're permanently transferred.

When preparing the seedlings' new outdoor home, Hurley recommends adding peat moss to existing garden soil. Seedlings still need care after transferring, too: consider using a mulch—pine bark, cypress, cedar or divine-smelling cocoa—that can help keep moisture in and fend off weeds throughout the summer.

Top Tips for Seeding Success

•   Make sure the soil is thoroughly moist. Dryness is fatal to a small seedling.
•   Once planted, the seed should be completely covered with soil. Seeds should generally be    
     one-eighth to one-half inch below the surface; seed packets will specify what's best for a particular 
     variety.
•    If using a tray with a plastic dome, remove it upon germination to prevent plants from becoming, in
     Mike Hurley’s words, “long, funny things.”
•    Moisten plants with a light mist by using a spray bottle, which eliminates the risk of seeds becoming
     shuffled and exposed during watering.