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How Can I Garden if I Don’t Have Seeds or Plant Starts?

The question "How can I garden if I don't have seeds" has been coming up a lot as beginner and experienced gardeners alike look to take charge of their food supply.

EJ Hurst, New Society Publishers' Sales Manager, and a home gardener, shares some suggestions on how you can get on the garden path by raiding your own pantry.

If you have more suggestions to share please think of joining our Facebook Group, Positive Solutions for Troubled Times.


Where to Start

Don’t dig your garden too much or use a tarp or cardboard to kill weeds. Instead, lightly mix the top 4 inches or so of soil and stand back to see what happens. You are looking for...



It is surprising how much life is left in your garden from last year. If you let any plants go to seed, the seeds will be ready to sprout. Even if you didn’t, there is a good chance there are seeds that didn’t sprout that will grow this year; root vegetables that you missed when harvesting will enter their second year of growth.

Look closely at comes up and don’t be too quick to pull “weeds”. Most vegetables will sprout two dicotyledan leaves first. With experience (and a little help from google perhaps) you will be able to tell the weeds from the vegetables. For example, Russian kale has a purple tinge to the leaves and they are a bit fuzzy. Carrots have long thin grass like leaves. Potatoes are obvious, they look just like the sprouts old potatoes start growing when you leave them too long before eating. Lettuce is the hardest because so many weeds look similar. You may have to let some volunteers grow until they have a few more leaves to be sure what they are.

Root vegetables can either be eaten immediately before they use up too much of their stored energy or can be left where they are to produce seeds for next year. Potatoes will grow more potatoes. Other volunteers can be gently lifted, getting as much of the root as possible and transplanted where you want them.


Check the fridge

Vegetables like squash, cucumbers, zucchini, and tomatoes may all have viable seeds. Tomatoes seeds need to ferment before sprouting so best to look up specific seed saving instructions for them. Testing the seeds for germination is a good idea. (see number 5 below) The seeds may have had the terminator gene added to them to make them sterile. (yes, another issue with the industrial food system you might like find out about). A note about hybrids; hybrid seeds will grow but often revert to one of the original species so what you grow may not match what the seeds came from.


Raid your pantry

It is amazing how many seeds you can find in the pantry. I once grew two almond trees from some trail mix I had thrown into the compost. Here are some places to look: dried beans, rice, pulses, chia seed, trail mix, sunflower seeds and other seeds, whole grain cereal mixes, spice rack. Dried beans can be eaten when they are still green and fresh as green beans. Seeds and nuts may not have to bes in their shells. The almonds I grew were not in shells.


Will it grow?

You don’t want to spend a lot of time planting some sunflower seeds you found left over in the kids’ lunch pack without knowing if they are going to grow.

Here is a picture of how to determine the germination percentage of seeds. These are some coriander seeds from my pantry. Coriander is the seed of the cilantro plant.

  • Take a paper towel and divide into a grid that is a multiple of 10 (for easy math. Tip for homeschooling check out the Power of 10 math program).
  • Place one seed in each square.
  • Cover the seeds with another paper towel and add enough water to make everything damp.
  • Cover it with plastic to help keep it moist and place in a sunny place. Watch closely so the seeds don’t dry out. It might take up to 2 weeks for the seeds to germinate.
  • Once the seeds germinate, divide the number that germinated by the total number of seeds, multiply that number by 100 and that will give you germination percentage.

This will help you know how thickly to plant the seeds. If the germination percentage is low, you will want to put several seeds close together.


Reverse Guerilla Gardening

Our domesticated plants manage to find their way out of gardens and into the wide world quite often. When out for a walk, keep your eyes open for vegetables growing in public spaces. Our local provincial park had an outbreak of chervil (edible herb). I am quite sure the park staff would be happy for you to dig out a few of these non-native plants and take them home.


Neighbourhood Swap

A little friendly neighbourhood snooping can go a long way. Who has a garden? What are they planting? Casting a curious eye over some back fences from the alley way might give you lots of information. Of course, in these times you might not want to go knock on the door but if you are looking at their house, you can most likely see their address. Pop an introductory note in the mail, or leave it on their gate letting them know you are a fellow gardener. Chances are you will find a kindred spirit.

This might seem intimidating, especially if chatting with your neighbours is not something you usually do. In this challenging time, connecting with your neighbours and starting to build community might be one of the most important things you can do. It is something that you will be able to build on into the future to help create some local food resilience for your family and for everyone around you.


Save Seeds

If you do grow some plants in your garden, let some plants go to seed and start saving seeds for next year. Never again will you have to ask the question, how can I garden without seeds or starts?

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