[Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of three posts from Carrie Bettencourt about her backyard makeover. Read the first post describing the makeover project. Read the about third post about installation day.]

CedarLast Raised Bed with Greens

I am not an expert on seed starting, but I am a total convert to the process. So much so that I envision myself starting seeds year-round now — nothing like going from zero to all in! Don’t get me wrong, I have started seeds in the past, but I gave it a half-hearted effort and had mixed results.

Tomato seedling

Carrie started most of her plants from seed.

So what brought on this change of heart and action? It started when I began testing new raised beds from Gardener’s Supply Company. The raised beds were arriving in January and Gardener’s wanted me to photograph the beds, with plants, in mid February.

February? Ummmmm… Here in warm southern California, that’s too late for a true winter garden and too early for a spring garden. So what’s a girl to do but start some seeds and try to fool Mother Nature a little — a task that’s doable in our climate. Once I made the decision to give it a go, it turned out to be a pretty fun way to be in the gardening game in December.

Light matters. I started by reading the “how to” article on seed starting on the Gardener’s website. That and other research convinced me that I needed a grow light to really give this a shot. Yes, it’s warm here and the sun shines most days. But a grow light would give me the ability to:

  • Control the light level, no matter the weather.
  • Increase the “day length” from our 10 hours per day in January to the 16 hours that’s optimal for seedlings.
  • Grow the seedlings indoors, protected from outdoor temperature fluctuations.

Next: Which grow light should I order? I finally decided on the Stack-n-Grow unit for a couple of reasons. First, I could start with the base unit, and then stack additional units on top or take them off to increase or shrink the growing space as my needs changed. Second, it looked good and I knew I wouldn’t mind having it in my main living area for a while.

Young plants in raised beds

Salad garden in CedarLast Raised Beds

Deciding what to plant. Now to the most fun part, choosing seeds. Shopping for seeds is an eye-opening experience — so many catalogs and websites, so much information! — but the information was amazing. Recommended growing zones, germination times, space requirements, soil preferences, taste descriptions — wow!

I quickly realized that my seed choices were the secret that was going to take me to the next level. The detailed information was always there, but I just hadn’t given it my full attention. Plus, there were so many unique plant options that I would never find in my local nursery. I ordered seeds following the 90 /10 rule — 90 percent practical and 10 percent fun and different. Plus, I ordered some flower seeds to keep the bees happy.

Healthy seedlings ready to transplant.

Time to sow. By January 2, my grow light was here and assembled and seed packets were organized. Plus, I had gotten an amazing care package from my friends at Gardener’s, which included a GrowEase Seed Starter Kit, Pop-Out Pots, Organic Seed Starting Mix and Plant Markers.

Confession: I had started one group in Gardener’s Seed Starting Mix and the other group in a not-to-be-named, well-known brand of seed starting mix. There was a noticeable difference in the two groups. All of my seeds in the Gardener’s organic seed starting mix thrived. That was not the case with the other group. The other mix handled water differently, leaving some my seedlings too moist and growing mold, and others would dry out overnight. Realizing how easy it was to start more seeds in better circumstances, I let most of the suffering seedlings go and started a new batch with the Gardener’s organic mix. I call it “Magic Soil” now.

I started planting seeds and turned on the grow light. I followed all the instructions and began keeping a notebook of the planting details — truly a first for me! Looking back at my notebook now, I see that my first seeds came up on January 8 and I was thinning seedlings on January 17.

Transplants growing in Pop-Out Pots

I looked at the containers everyday, talked to them, and generally did everything you would for any newborn. The result of all this love and attention? I had some strong plants ready for their new raised bed home in February. The photography goals were achieved and my attitude was changed. Seed starting is a game changer! I know everything about the resulting plants — when they were started, when to plant them, what to expect about their growth, and when I will be harvesting them. All that used to be left to guesswork.

FYI, get a grow light! There is a reason there are so many for sale — they work. Consistent good light makes a difference. I know, I am the last person on earth to realize this…..

Why seed starting is great:

  • You know your plant’s history — seed, soil, key dates.
  • Good seedlings make good plants. My seedlings just looked better and stronger than what I saw in the nursery.
  • Plants started at home do not bring in unexpected guests — garden pests.
  • Using good Organic Seed Starting Mix meant I was starting disease-free and chemical-free, resulting in fast germination and a strong germination rate.
  • Seed options are exciting! I started beans that are descendants of beans carried by the Cherokee Indians on the Trail of Tears. Amazing! I also have this crazy little chard that grows like a head of lettuce and has a mild flavor. Find that at the nursery.
  • It is so much easier and simpler to start seeds than I ever thought. I had great equipment from Gardener’s Supply, but that is not a must to receive good results.
  • You have control. So much of gardening is out of our control, but seed starting done right is predictable.

— Carrie

Carrie has a passion for cooking using ingredients fresh from her garden and the abundant farmer’s markets in California. She’s learned how to garden in different spaces and climates, from east coast to west, and has loved all the joy and challenges along the way.

Check out her Instagram account and blog for inspiring photos of her beautiful kitchen garden, as well as delicious recipes and gardening tips.