How to Grow Plants from Seed

Growing plants from seed may seem daunting at first, but once you've taken that crucial step towards growing your own food, the best is yet to come.

8/7/20236 min read

How to Grow Plants from Seed


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The miracle of seeds germinating on seed tray

How to Grow Plants from Seed

3 Techniques for Seed Starting Success

Getting your plants started may seem, at first, a daunting process. But once you've taken that crucial, first step towards growing your own food, the best is yet to come.

You may have gotten your necessary materials together: a pot, a packet of seeds, and soil. You open your packet of seeds and bury some seeds in the soil and water. Then you wait and wait.

This stage of gardening can be the most frustrating and yet the most rewarding for the patient gardener.

Sometimes you wait weeks, and nothing appears.

Sometimes many seedlings poke their way out of the soil.

This whole process can seem like alchemy when starting your seeds for the first time. So let's perfect your seed starting by understanding these three steps really well:

  1. How to Start Your Seeds

  2. How to Space Your Seeds

  3. When to Start Your Seeds

1. How to Start Your Seeds:

There are numerous ways to start your seeds. But here's one method that we've found most effective.

Start Your Seeds the "Grow Biointensive" Way

We have certainly wrestled with techniques in seed starting and had limited success until we learned about "biointensive" growing (different than "biodynamic").

Biointensive growing, pioneered by John Jevons, founder of Ecology Action aims to grow the most amount of food in the least amount of land in a sustainable way. His particular method in its entirety is called GROW BIOINTENSIVE and spelled out in that all-caps style means that you follow all the eight elements of the official technique. We aim to give you a Cliff's Notes version here.

While GROW BIOINTENSIVE overlaps with permaculture principles, it stands out because of Jeavons detailed research on starting seeds in flats and transplanting them efficiently into raised beds for maximum productivity.

When asked about the effectiveness of the GROW BIOINTENSIVE method, which is known to produce 2–6 times the yield with a fraction of the resources usually used to do the same, John Jeavons is the first to say,

"You are the solution. GROW BIOINTENSIVE isn't. Grow Biointensive is a tool. It's our choice what we do. If you don't do GROW BIOINTENSIVE sustainably, with all of its aspects, you're going to kill people with it."

Clearly, regenerative agriculture is at the heart of Jeavons work.

In this article, we are only focusing on Biointensive Seed Starting: one of many practices Jeavons teaches in his book, "How to Grow More Vegetables."

The main takeaway we got from Jeavon's book is that the most effective way to start seedlings is in flats or seed trays.

Long, shallow, rectangular trays such as the one shown below are best.

They are often called 10/20 trays because of their size in inches.

Notice that they do not have any holes for drainage because, at the beginning stages of a seed's life, you want a lot of water to burst open the seed that you are trying to germinate.

For those who would like to use a non-plastic alternative, there are instructions at the back of How to Grow More Vegetables for building your seed flats from wood.

Notice that this 1020 flat has no drainage holes so as to provide the seeds with as much water to germinate.

There are myriad recipes for the soil used to germinate your seeds, not to mention ready-made potting mixes that you can purchase in garden centers. But another thing we like about Grow Biointesive Seed Starting is that the seed starting mix is very simple:

Soil for Seed Starting Recipe

50% finished compost + 50% native topsoil + water

We would like to add to this a sprinkle of mycorrhizal fungi and azomite to ensure that you have both beneficial life in your soil as well as mineral nutrients that may be lacking.

50% finished compost
+ 50% native topsoil
+ Water
+ Mycorrhizal fungi
+ Azomite

Pro Tip: Do not start your seeds in peat pots. They can still germinate in there, but there is not much nutrition in peat. Using peat pots is very fiddly and will require you to keep on watering the pots and checking on them. We're all about "lazy gardening" in permaculture.

Soil mix recipes used by a farmer we met in Montana.

What Soil Should I Use for Starting Seeds Indoors?

2. How to Space Your Seeds:

The video above shows you how to start seeds of different sizes.

Closer than you may think

In Biointensive growing, you spend time making sure the seeds are spaced evenly with minimal spacing.

It's quite normal to plant 180–300 seeds in one flat.

The idea is to mimic nature, where seeds don't naturally land in long spaced-out rows. But you're improving upon that process by making sure you have as much germination as possible due to optimal soil and temperature.

Seedlings don't need a lot of space for root or leaf development, so most of the directions on seed packets are overly conservative and don't affect the growth of the seeds (just the number of plants you can grow in one flat).

Reference this PDF to know how to space seeds for the fall.

Another tip we've found immensely helpful from the book is to plant seeds as deep as their size.

Most of us bury our seeds much too deeply; many seeds require light for germination, so if you bury them too deep, they'll never end up germinating.

This video shows you how deep to plant your seeds.

How deep should I plant my seeds?

3. When to Start Your Seeds:

Our SAGE garden planning app allows you to see the "Planting Windows" of many commonly grown crops.

Never miss a planting window.

We start our seeds year-round.

Some people in temperate climates are surprised that they can grow outside of the warm seasons.

If you would like salads and harvest lettuce year-round, you can start your seeds every 2–3 weeks the first year. In the second year, you will find that as long as you harvest only the tops of the lettuce and leave the base for it to regrow, you can do so at much less frequency.

Thomas Jefferson suggested sowing a thimble full of lettuce every week in Virginia from February through September.

Of course, you should not start "cool weather crops" right before the summer. But you can start certain "cool weather crops" at the very end of summer, right before the fall, when the weather starts getting cool again.

" Sow a thimbleful of lettuce every Monday morning from February first to September first."

Print out the PDF below to successfully start seeds like beets, kale and lettuce!

Dig Deeper

1. Seed Starting PDF

Watch the video below to learn how easy it is to start your seeds!

2. Seed Starting Video

3. Experience seed starting and more by attending a workshop!