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I get a lot of questions from my clients and in my classes asking where and how I choose to start my vegetable seedlings and my plants. Do I use grow lights? Do I grow indoors? Do I grow outdoors?
The answer to this million-dollar question is that my personal preference is to keep things simple and grow outdoors.
Sustainability is very important to me and I find this is the most sustainable approach to seed starting. I do not use grow lights, and I opt to use upcycled materials versus buying something brand new to use.
Sustainability in vegetable gardening allows for it to be cost-effective. When we spend a ton of time, energy, and money on creating a very controlled environment for our seedlings, yes we will probably have slightly higher results, but at what cost?
In this blog post, I'm going to be covering a few different factors that you need to consider when you're deciding what is best for you and your garden, and whether you want to start your seeds indoors or outdoors.
One of the first things to consider when you're growing outside rather than indoors is light. We do have the ability to control the level of light exposure, but with growing seeds outside we are not going to be able to control the temperature.
You will want to find a location in your yard that has nice morning sun rather than afternoon sun. This is a really important piece to growing your seedlings outdoors. I personally have my seedling set up out back by my shed. In the morning, they receive filtered sun from the oak trees so that they have plenty of light to grow upright, and not get leggy but they also do not get too hot in the afternoon sun.
Another factor to consider in addition to the light is the temperature.
One of the advantages of starting in trays versus in the garden itself is getting a jump on the seasons. But when you do grow outdoors, that can be a little trickier. When your seeds are conveniently in trays you can provide them with a little extra TLC, if that’s shelter from extreme temperatures, perhaps extra warmth in winter or shade in summer.
If you were growing a very sensitive crop and you're growing outdoors without any sort of protection, you wouldn't be able to get a jump on the season as you would if you were growing in an indoors or enclosed environment.
When temperatures are high, I would definitely make sure to put your seedlings in a shady location that has good airflow for growing outdoors to give them those slightly cooler temperatures than if they were out in direct sunlight.
Another extremely common question I get when I say that I grow outdoors is, what do you do about the pests?
I typically use an integrative pest management approach where I choose to take the least invasive measures and allow nature to do its thing and it will usually balance itself out, I do have losses. If I see a caterpillar on a seedling that I'm about to transplant, I'll hand pick it off, and toss it to the chickens. But to be clear, I will sustain higher losses than if I were to have grown indoors.
One benefit of growing from seed is that it's not a huge cost investment per plant, and if you are saving your own seed year after year-it is literally free. Even if you purchased a packet of seeds- the cost per seed is very inexpensive.
Therefore if you do sustain some damage or losses due to pests in the area it’s not going to be a major hit to your pocketbook like it would be if you had purchased a bunch of starts from a nursery or big box store.
Since I know that there might be some casualties along the way, I always make sure to over plant more than I expect to need. If I need three to four plants, I might plant five to six, maybe even seven, depending on how much I really want all of those plants, just in case something happens.
In the case that all of them survive, you can share with a friend or plant some more.
No matter if you are growing outdoors or not, it is always a good idea to put not just one seed per spot but potentially two or even three seeds in each cell of your seed tray.
This ensures that you will get the germination that you want and that you're going to get the desired number of plants in the end that you actually want to plant.
This is a good rule of thumb not just for seed starting trays but also out in the garden.
One of the last things to consider when growing outdoors is watering.
Heavy driving rains can easily wash seeds or young plants out. So you will need to provide some sort of shelter for them. Perhaps a covered shelf, under the eave of a house, on a patio, or even under a dense shade tree which will break up the rain before it reaches the plants.
In addition, as already discussed, temperatures will be inconsistent and typically warmer than a controlled indoor climate. You will need to check regularly to see if your seedlings need to be watered.
You will typically need to water more frequently when growing outdoors.
One thing you do want to make sure you do with all seedlings, not just ones grown outdoors, but indoors as well, is to make sure to adjust your plants to their ultimate destination slowly over the course of a few days.
This gives them time to acclimate to the ambient temperatures and the sunlight.
You may think that because you're growing outdoors, you don't need to give them that transition time, but because they're going to be going from a semi-sheltered location with partial sun to a garden that probably has considerably more sun, it is still a good idea to do that transition.
This avoids putting additional strain on your plants during the transplanting process.
Starting vegetables from seed doesn't have to be as complex and expensive as we may think it needs to be. Seedlings are incredibly resilient and stronger than we would ever anticipate. With starting seeds outdoors although it does have some caveats, it's really not as difficult as it may seem. Plus it’s an extremely sustainable option and low cost.
If you are looking for some more support in learning how to start from seed, check out my on-demand online class, Sowing Success: Mastering the Art of Growing Plants from Seeds. In this course,you will learn the art of growing plants from seeds with "Sowing Success." By the end of this course, you will master seed starting techniques and nurture healthy, thriving plants from scratch.
This recorded video class is good for beginner to intermediate gardeners. It is three modules with homework, quizzes, and a challenge at the end of the class. It also includes downloadable cheat sheets, instructions, and a materials list for easy reference to help you spend less time Googling, and more time in the garden. You can get started here. Click HERE to sign up.