Paper pots

A paper-pot system for transplanting plants is used at Sunborn Gardens. John Hendrickson,outreach-program manager for the Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, learned about the system in Japan and has taught American growers about it. Visit for more information.

We had a preview of spring not too long ago and with those rising temperatures come sprouting plants. You may be beginning to notice the swelling of buds on tree branches and even a daffodil leaf or two sticking out. All are signs that spring is on its way.

Another way to bring the growing season one step closer is to plant seeds inside, giving you a head start on gardening. There are several benefits to starting your own plants from seed rather than buying transplants from the store: cost, selection and plant health, just to name a few.

Cost is one of the most notable benefits of starting your own seeds. A $2 package of seeds contains more future plants than a $5 package of four transplants. With a little bit of extra work, there is plenty of money that can be saved every season from using seeds.

In addition, you have a much wider selection of vegetable varieties when starting with seeds. Catalogs and seed racks typically have more varieties than a store with prepared transplants.

The third, and arguably the most important benefit of starting your own seeds, is the knowledge that they do not have any unusual pest infestations, either insects or disease. Some, not all, stores that sell grown plants carry the risk of introducing new pests in your garden. This concern stems from the volume of plants that are all susceptible to the same issues – the larger the population of identical plants, the larger the risk of pest problems becomes.

Now that you have decided to start your own transplants from seeds, you will need a few special materials. There are plenty of prepackaged seed starting kits and while they are convenient, they are not fully necessary. When selecting a container, the most important aspect is drainage. If there is not adequate drainage in the pot, your seeds have a higher risk of rotting before they germinate.

Outside of drainage, nearly anything can be used as a container. My personal favorite to use is an egg carton. They are compact, small enough for seeds, and when it is time to move to a larger pot, the seedling can stay in the carton and it will degrade right into the soil.

Once you have the container, the next three components are equally important: moisture, heat and light. To keep the moisture levels high around your seedlings, it is best to place some type of clear covering to trap any evaporation.

Most seeds germinate when the temperature averages around 70-75 degrees Fahrenheit. If your house is slightly cooler a heating pad or placing the plants near a heat vent will help raise the temperature immediately surrounding them.

Finally, seedlings need plenty of light. Specialty grow lights are available, but they are not necessary for starting seeds. A fluorescent light fixture with 32- or 40-watt tubes will be more than sufficient. Seedlings need 12 to 16 hours of light each day and the fixture should be no more than 4 to 6 inches away from the growing plants.

Starting your own seeds for transplants is a wonderful way to begin gardening before the ground has fully thawed and gives you the opportunity to try a new variety while saving money. March and April are the best times to start growing.

If you have more questions on starting seeds Iowa State has a wonderful publication that can be found here:

Dawn Henderson, is a horticulture program coordinator with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. Reach her at 712-472-2576 or