Growing vegetables from seeds is an inexpensive way to start a vegetable garden. Some vegetables, such as corn and radishes, actually grow best when directly sown as seeds in to your garden. This guide provides you all you need to know about growing vegetables from seeds.
If you’ve ever wanted to grow vegetables from seed, this beginner’s guide to growing vegetables from seed will help you start your garden right this year.
If you’ve always wanted to try your hand at growing plants from seed, now is the time to get started. This series will start with the basics; how to choose your seeds, what you will need, and when to plant them. Then I will share with you potential problems and solutions. As the season progresses, I’ll share information on transplanting and directly sowing seeds into the garden.
Ready? Let’s get started…
Choosing Garden Seeds
Walk into any garden center at this time of year and row after row of colorful seed packages entice you to buy them. Before purchasing your seeds, it’s important to plan your garden. Otherwise you may end up with too many seeds, and they don’t keep well from year to year.
A little preparation….
- If you already have seeds saved from prior years, conduct a seed viability test. Follow my directions here: Seed Viability Test.
- Make a quick plan for your garden, anticipating how much to grow and what types of vegetables you wish to grow.
When to Plant Seeds
Growing vegetables from seeds means you have to estimate when the seeds will germinate (sprout) and when they will be ready to move outdoors and plant in the garden. Knowing when you plant is a skill every gardener needs. When you start seeds indoors, you need to anticipate when they will be mature enough to transplant outdoors into your garden. The two pieces of information that will help you calculate when to start seeds inside include:
- Your gardening zone or “last frost” date for your area: The USDA has created a hardiness map, which averages the last frost date for the year and estimates the first frost date of the year to determine an area’s gardening zone. It’s the last frost date in the spring that you need to know for spring planting. Nearly all vegetables should be planted close to or after that frost free date, except for a few super-hardy cold tolerant veggies like lettuce, greens, radishes and a few others. If you’re planting tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant or any other vegetables that thrive in a hot climate, these should only be planted outside AFTER the last frost date. But in order to have the plants mature enough to move outdoors, you have to plant the seeds at the proper time inside.
- Your plant’s requirements: How long will the seeds take to mature into a healthy seedling? The back of the seed package should offer suggestions based on your location as to when you should plant them.
Understanding Gardening Zones
When you read about gardening, many writers refer to gardening zones. That doesn’t imply a zen-like, serene experience – zoning out – although that sounds prettier than the real definition. Gardening zones are areas of the country created by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and based around two days that like tax day and your birthday, you’ll want to add to your calendar. These days are your average frost-free date and your average first date of frost.
Average Frost-Free Date
Knowing when to plant means knowing when Mother Nature can zap you with frost. Frost is the enemy of tender plants like most flowers, vegetables, and herbs. Frost is the sparkly white stuff you see on the lawn, on cars and on windows on a cold morning. It’s created when condensed moisture vapor or dew freezes.
Frost kills tender plants. Some plants are what is called ‘cold hardy’. This means that they can take cooler temperatures. They don’t mind a sudden frost.
Gardening zones were created for the United States to help gardeners get a general idea of when to plant fruits, vegetables, trees and shrubs.
There are 11 zones. To figure out your zone, all you need is your zip code. Scroll down my blog and look at the very left side of the page. There is a box with a dark green band around it that lets you enter your zip code. Once you click enter, your gardening zone appears.
Once you know your zone number, you can compare it to a USDA Zone Map, which shows you the average frost free date and date of first frost. These dates tell you:
- Frost free date: The average last day of spring when a frost can hit. Note that it’s the average day. This year may be a little earlier or later. Use this as a general guide about how early you can plant most annual flowers, perennial flowers, vegetables and herbs.
- Frost date: The average date in the fall when the first frost occurs. Like the spring date, this one is also an average, so this year your area may get a frost earlier than this date, or later. If you have tender plants outside, such as geraniums, that you want to keep alive over the winter, you must bring them inside or otherwise protect them from the frost or else they will die.
When to Plant Seeds
If you’re new to growing vegetables from seeds, or new to using seeds to start a garden (both flowers and vegetables), the back of the seed package will either have a map with different colors on it or it will tell you when you can plant the seeds.
The map with different colors on it roughly corresponds to the hardiness zone map. Look for your state and the area where you live. Compare it to the color key with the map. That will tell you about when you can plant the seeds directly into the ground.
Seed packages will also tell you whether or not the seeds should be planted directly into the ground or whether you should start them several weeks ahead of the outdoor planting date or frost free date. Some seeds take a while to get going. Tomatoes and peppers, for example, need heat to grow. Start them about 8 weeks before the last frost free date and make sure that outdoor temperatures don’t drop below 70, or else you’ll kill your seedlings. At the very least, they’ll be shivering.
Some seed packages just have a lot of words on the back. Here’s the translation of that planting information:
- “Plant as soon as soil can be worked”: You’ll see this phrase on the back of packages for cold-hardy vegetables. These seeds can usually be sown in early spring. Watch out for soil that’s so wet it sticks to your tools. It may be too wet or early to plant. Wait until it dries out a bit.
- “Plant after all danger of frost is past”: This means just what it says. Don’t rush it. Wait until it’s warm and the trees outside have leaves. If the maple trees and oak trees have their leaves, it’s probably warm enough to plant seeds outside.
Other information on the seed package will tell you what kind of conditions the seeds need in order to germinate, or sprout. Some seeds need light, so you don’t plant them very deeply. You might just sprinkle them on top of the soil. Others need darkness to sprout. Just look at the seed package and do what it tells you.
Are Organic Seeds Worthwhile?
Depending on your gardening goals and lifestyle, you may choose to purchase organic garden seeds. Organic seeds are no better or worse than conventional seeds. Organic refers to the method by which the seeds were produced.
I’ve discussed the pros and cons of organic seeds on Home Garden Joy here.
More Seed Starting Information
Growing Plants from Seed for Over 40 Years!
I’ve been growing vegetables from seed as far back as I can remember. My dad would eagerly peruse the Burpee and Park Seed Company catalogs and place his order. That small box of promise containing myriad packets of seeds would arrive one day, and by the weekend, the plant lights in the basement would be set up, the seeds sown into little plastic flats. Sometimes my dad used peat disks, and my job would be to soak the peat disks until they attained their full height. Then I would place them in the trays for him. (Peat disks, for those new to gardening, are flat disk-shaped compressed peat rounds. You soak them in water, they expand into little pots. They’re good for seed that don’t like to have their roots disturbed during transplanting because you just dig a hole and insert the peat pot and little plant all in one.)
Today, I grow fewer plants directly from seed, and those that I do are grown for a specific reason. Most of the time, that reason is simple: I can’t find the variety I want at a local garden center. Sometimes I start perennial flowers from seed so that I can grow more for less money than purchasing the plants. I have successfully grown columbine, monarda, Echinacea, and lavender from seed.
Some seeds are more challenging to grow than others, but all are worthwhile. There’s nothing like the feeling you get when you walk through your garden and realize that you’ve lovingly nurtured many of the plants from seed to flower.
This post was originally written January 2015. It was updated in January 2022 with new information, additional links, new videos and new pictures.
Jeanne Grunert is a certified Virginia Master Gardener and the author of several gardening books. Her garden articles, photographs, and interviews have been featured in The Herb Companion, Virginia Gardener, and Cultivate, the magazine of the National Farm Bureau. She is the founder of The Christian Herbalists group and a popular local lecturer on culinary herbs and herbs for health, raised bed gardening, and horticulture therapy.