Free Seed Project Gardening Guide
Welcome to the Free Seed Project!
Now that you have received your seeds, or will be receiving them soon, it’s time to figure out how to turn these seeds into vegetables, herbs and flowers!
(NOTE: For beginner gardeners that are not a part of the Free Seed Project, you are still in a good place. This guide is designed to help you start growing food and be successful at it).
Here at the Free Seed Project, we don’t want to just give out free seeds. We want to support you in becoming a successful gardener for yourself and your community.
In this article we have created a resource guide and FAQs to help you. This guide is geared largely toward beginner and first-time gardeners because well, experienced gardeners don’t need our help as much! Our goal with this guide is to get you started successfully and get you past the parts you may be nervous about. We want to empower you and activate you into growing your own food and sharing it with your community. And once your confidence level has risen and you feel like you’ve got the hang of it, we’re confident that you can figure out the rest!
So again, this guide focuses on the basics of growing food and provides a general rule of thumb with ideas. We believe we’ve covered mostly everything here to get you past the hard parts.
Before getting into the guide we’d like to suggest that you join the Free Seed Project Community Facebook group. In the group you can:
-Ask questions and get answers from experienced gardeners. We have partnered with Humans Who Grow Food and they have invited dozens of experienced gardeners to the group to help you become a successful gardener.
-Talk to other people who are starting gardens with Free Seed Project seed packs and find out what’s working and not working for them.
-Post photos with updates from your garden. Use this group as a source of motivation from other new gardeners and share your successes and failures with the other gardeners to motivate and encourage them too.
For those with little or no experience with gardening, first we want to say to you, that you can absolutely do this. Gardening can be very intimidating to those of us who have not done it before. But the good news is once you get the basics down, most of the rest becomes common sense. Keep in mind:
You will have some failures. Even the most experienced gardeners do. Expect failures and embrace them. Don’t let them get you down. Without failed attempts at growing food you will never create a bounty of fresh, homegrown food.
Sometimes things will die because you didn’t take care of them but often plants will die or do poorly even if you do everything right. It’s more than okay to make mistakes. You will make many.
Growing food successfully will be a journey. Just as you would never expect to become a professional athlete overnight or to gain a college degree in a few weeks, you can’t expect to make the garden of your dreams in one season. Remembering this is likely just as important as any of the basics of sun, water and soil. Your attitude can affect your gardening experience just as much as any of the earth’s elements.
Gardening will be work but if done correctly it should be enjoyable and rewarding work. Sometimes it may feel like a chore, but at other times it will feel like there’s nothing in the world you’d rather be doing.
And remember, you will not have a “black thumb” as long as you follow the basics and remain dedicated to your garden and your mission to grow your own food and share it with others.
Some top tips and advice
Start small to ensure that you do not get overwhelmed. “A small, well maintained garden is better than a large, messy one.”
Plan your garden on paper before planting. This will help you to use your space more efficiently and plan out what plants will do best next to each other. You should take into account the very basics: dimensions of your garden space, the spacing that each plant needs to thrive and the orientation of the sun.
Use a garden journal. Keep track of when you plant, your first and last harvest, when you add compost or fertilizer, important weather events, etc.
Seek local resources. One of the easiest ways to become a successful gardener is to spend time with successful gardeners in your area.
How to get started
Where do you get information specific for your area?
One of our best suggestions to help you successfully grow food is to seek out local information and resources. In the past this was standard practice, but as our communities have fractured and become less connected, it is not as commonplace. But it’s still possible! Here are our suggestions:
Find a community garden in your area. The American Community Gardening Association has a helpful tool to help you find a garden near you. Connecting with the people at a community garden will open you up to an endless supply of knowledge of growing food in your region.
Find other gardeners in your area. Maybe you don’t have a community garden near you, but there’s almost certainly some people that garden nearby. Keep your eyes open for gardens and then talk to the people who tend them. If you see someone in a garden, just walk up to them and tell them you are new to gardening and hoping you could learn from them. If you see a house with a garden, don’t be too shy to knock on the door. Gardeners are usually friendly, often even excited to share their knowledge, seeds and abundance with you. Maybe you can help them with weeding their garden, or do garden sitting when they go out of town and in exchange they can give you lessons.
Go to the local nursery, garden centers and botanical gardens. There’s a good chance they will either be a great resource or be able to connect you to great resources.
Find local classes. Garden centers, botanical gardens, universities and community colleges often offer classes. See if there’s a Master Gardening class offered near you. The American Horticulture Society offers this search feature to help you find a class near you. They also have a search feature for societies, clubs and organizations.
Go to your public library. Often libraries will have gardening books specific to your state or region that you can check out. Libraries aren’t just full of books though, they are often a knowledge base of local initiatives and programs. Some libraries even have seed libraries.
Seek out garden clubs or meetups.
Search for local seed companies.
Search for books written about gardening in your state or region. Go to the local bookshop, library or do an online search.
Use the Cooperative Extension office near you. We’ve saved one of the best for last here. Your local Cooperative Extension office “provides” research-based advice on agriculture and horticulture that is specific to your region. The U.S. Cooperative Extension System offices are staffed by experts who can help answer your questions about pest and disease management, growing conditions, sustainable agriculture, farm management, and more. Local educational programs and publications are also offered… Each U.S. state and territory has a state office at its land-grant university and a network of local or regional offices.” Learn more about Cooperative Extension Systems here as well as other valuable resources like this and find your nearest Cooperative Extension office here. All the help and information you can imagine is at your fingertips if you get connected to your local office.
Where should you place your garden?
Where you have easy access. You want to locate your garden where you will naturally go every day. If you tuck it into an unnoticeable spot you are much more likely to neglect it. If it’s a task just to get to it, you’re more likely to get lazy and not maintain it. For example, if you walk through your front yard every day to leave your house, then your front yard is a perfect place. You’ll have your eye on it multiple times per day and are more likely to do the quick things needed like weeding and pest control when you notice them. If there’s a tucked-away side of your house, where you haven’t been in weeks, then we’d recommend choosing a different place if you have the option.
Near to the water source with easy access. If you make your garden a hassle to water, it’s more likely that you will neglect watering it. For example, if you’re using a hose, make sure the hose easily reaches all corners of the garden. If you’re using rainwater, make sure the rain barrel is near the garden with a clear path.
In an area with good drainage. You don’t want to plant in a low-lying spot that is always soggy and wet. This will drown your plants. Similarly, in a dry climate you don’t want to plant in the place most likely to dry out, such as the side of the house that always gets dry wind. This varies drastically depending on whether you are located in a desert, a semi-tropical region, or somewhere in between.
In one location to get started. If you are spread out all over and have to water and maintain many different places, you are more likely to forget or neglect plants. Start in just one place, and once you establish that garden, you can start spreading food everywhere that it will grow.
In full sun.
Away from tree roots that can suck up all the water and nutrients, leaving less for the plants in your garden.
How much sun does your garden need?
You should plant your garden in a location that receives full sun. Full sun is at least six hours of direct sunlight. Any amount over eight hours is a sure bet for full sun.
You may not be accustomed to knowing how much sun an area receives. To learn this, simply take note of when the sun first hits the location in the morning and check periodically throughout the day to see when the area becomes shaded. Keep in mind that the sun changes positions in the sky. The amount of sun the location gets will be much greater in the summer than during the winter. Pay attention to whether the location will be shaded by trees when the sun changes position in the sky.
Plants that are grown with too little sun are less likely to produce fruit and will grow spindly and stressed, opening them up to pests. One of the simplest pest controls is making sure to plant in the right areas.
What size should your garden be?
Our recommendation at the Free Seed Project is to start small. Don’t feel like you have to plant all the seeds in your pack. You can always share your seeds with others or save them for later in the season or for next season.
The seed packet you have received has the ability to make a pretty sizable garden. Just a few good-size kale plants can be enough to provide the kale needs for a small family, and this kit has about 30 seeds! That is far more kale than a family will eat. Don’t underestimate the amount of food just one tiny seed can make.
If you are feeling extremely overwhelmed, we’d encourage you to choose just five or ten of the seed varieties to get started with. You can always plant more later in the season once you are feeling more confident. You are more likely to be successful if you keep the gardening manageable for you. The size of your garden can always grow, as you grow in confidence and skill.
“A small, well-maintained garden is better than a large, unkempt one. There is no shame in growing one tomato plant or one cucumber plant.” If the tomatoes or cucumbers do well and you love them, next season you can grow as many as you’d like!
How do you grow food in small places?
What plants to grow?
Our recommendation for new gardeners is not to start by choosing the favorite foods you buy at the grocery store but instead find out what grows exceptionally well in your area. This will drastically increase your chances of success and your skills at the same time. Once you have successfully grown the easier vegetables in your region, then you can try growing specialty foods that you may be eager to have in your garden. A new gardener who starts with specialty items is likely to walk away from gardening for good, saying they have a “black thumb.” Rather than focus on what you can’t grow, focus on all the amazing things you can grow in your region.
The free seed pack intentionally focuses on easy-to-grow foods that are adaptable to many climates and regions across the United States. So, we have already done a lot of the work for you in choosing these seeds. However, the United States is an enormous nation with an incredible diversity of growing regions. We recommend you check to see which of these seeds is easy to grow in your area. See tips to find out what grows in your area.
With that being said, do focus on growing foods that you, your family and friends will want to eat. There’s little point in growing a bunch of food that will never be eaten.
When do you plant your seeds?
Timing is very important to be successful with growing food. Because of the extreme diversity of climates in the United States, it’s not possible for us at the Free Seed Project to tell you exactly when to plant your seeds.
For, example northern Wisconsin is in a different climatic zone from southern Wisconsin, so the planting dates vary between the different regions within the state. While the winters in Wisconsin make it nearly impossible for most people to grow food outdoors, the gardening in central and southern Florida is at its prime. And while gardening is at its prime in most of the northern states in the summer, the heat and humidity of mid-summer makes vegetable gardening far more difficult in Florida. Those examples should give you an idea of how widely planting dates can range.
The good news is that the work has been done already and the resources are out there for you to learn when you should plant your seeds.
The Garden Calendar Planting Guide from The National Gardening Association is an extremely helpful tool. Simply enter your zip code into the guide and they will provide you with information on when you should plant in your area. The guide includes both spring and fall planting dates and information. It also gives advice on whether you should directly sow seeds into the garden or sow them indoors to transplant seedlings into the garden.
As far as accuracy of this guide, they say: “For nearly all locations, we are confident in the dates. There are, however, some difficult areas of the world that don’t match up perfectly with the dates we have given. For that reason, we recommend you use this guide as a very good starting place, but don’t interpret the dates as absolutely perfect for every location.”
Better yet though is to find a regional planting schedule. One way to do this is to find your local Cooperative Extension office discussed above.
You can also do an internet search by typing your state name or region along with “planting schedule.”- For example: “Tucson planting schedule.”
With a regional planting schedule, you’ll know basically everything you need to know as far as planting dates. We highly encourage you to seek that resource out. We have provided a few additional tools here, but they are not needed for beginner gardeners if you have found a planting schedule for your area.
Visit PlantMaps to obtain average frost dates and other data for your area. In regions of the country where frost occurs (which is most of the country), your planting dates are largely dictated by frost dates. You can also use The Old Farmer’s Almanacs tool to find your first and last frost dates.
Once you know your average last frost date or “frost-free date” you can use Johnny’s Seeds Seed Starting Date Calculator. This tool figures the dates when it’s safe to plant particular early crops outside, based on the frost-free date that you specify.
Look up what Plant Hardiness Zone you live in. This map will help you find your zone. You can also look it up by zip code here. The “USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map is the standard by which gardeners and growers can determine which plants are most likely to thrive at a location.” “Hardiness zones are based on the average annual extreme minimum temperature during a 30-year period in the past, not the lowest temperature that has ever occurred in the past or might occur in the future. Gardeners should keep that in mind when selecting plants, especially if they choose to “push” their hardiness zone by growing plants not rated for their zone.”
Once you know your hardiness zone you can use that to decide what you should and shouldn’t plant. Take note of what zone you are in, as you are likely to use that information in your gardening as you advance.
Note: The seeds we provided will grow in most hardiness zones across the USA
How often and how much should you water the garden?
When you first plant your seeds and your garden is getting established, the soil should be kept moist and should not dry out. The soil should be watered every day until the plants sprout and then every day or every other day while they are establishing, whether it is a substantial rain or your hose. If you transplant veggies they also need frequent, light watering for their shallow, young roots.
Water the soil where the roots are, not the plant. Soaking the plant is more likely to open it up to diseases. The water is needed in the roots, which are below the soil. If you are watering by hand then aim the hose at the soil, rather than spraying it around overhead.
Water in the morning, not during the heat of day or in the evening. If you water in the evening the plants are likely to be wet overnight and are more prone to diseases and fungus. By watering in the morning, the plants are able to dry out before nightfall. However, if your garden is dry in the evening, it’s better to water it; don’t let the plants go without.
Watering during the heat of the day is wasteful, as a large portion is burned off through evaporation and water droplets on the leaves can intensify the sun and burn the leaves.
Deep, infrequent watering is better than frequent shallow watering. By watering deeper, you encourage the roots to grow deeper where they will stay moist. Frequent shallow watering will result in roots near the surface, which creates weak plants that are more likely to dry out and need constant water.
A very easy rule of thumb for watering is to stick your finger into the soil up to the second knuckle. If the soil at your fingertip is dry, then you should water your garden. If it is moist, then you don’t need to water.
Another rule of thumb is to look at the plants and see if they are drooping. If they are drooping in the cooler morning or evening, then they are most definitely in need of water. However, if they are drooping in the midday heat only and not in the morning or in the evening, then they may not need water.
Know your soil type. Overly sandy soil has high drainage and doesn’t hold on to moisture, meaning it will need to be watered more often. Soil that is overly abundant in clay is heavy and difficult to work with. Soil that is too heavy in silt will not drain properly. Knowing your soil type will help you know how much to water.
Top Tips for Using Water Wisely
Mulch. Mulch reduces evaporation by protecting the soil from direct contact with the sun. It also helps to moderate soil temperatures, protect the beneficial bacteria and fungi in the soil, suppress weeds (less weeding for you!), and adds organic matter to the soil as it breaks down. Two to three inches of mulch is ample. You can use leaves from your (or your neighbor’s yard), woodchips, straw, and many other things. It is a good idea to give the garden a good watering before you lay down mulch the first time.
Amend your soil with compost. Organic matter holds moisture. Sand, on the other hand, which is not organic matter, holds very little water. Adding compost to sandy soil will increase moisture retention, meaning you have to water less. No matter if your soil has too much sand, silt, or clay – compost will help.
Do not use above ground sprinkler systems. They are the most inefficient of all.
Grow plants in the correct season. If you grow crops when they shouldn’t be grown they are likely to need more water than in the correct season, resulting in using far more water.
The most efficient watering systems are drip irrigation or ollas. And both save a lot of time spent watering.
How far apart do you plant your seeds?
Each plant has different spacing needs. The link, What’s in Your Free Seed Project Pack, lists each seed and includes a link to the seed on Johnny’s Seeds. This link gives the plant spacing.
A general rule of thumb is to plant:
Radish and turnips 1”-2” apart
Beets 3” apart
Smaller greens like lettuce, arugula, and herbs 6” apart.
Beans 6” apart
Larger greens like kale, collards, Swiss chard, cabbage 12”-18” apart
Tomato and pepper 12” apart
Small squash, such as zucchini 18” apart
Large squash, such as pumpkin 24” apart
There are different methods of planting with different spacing. Square Foot Gardening for example, packs plants closer together to utilize small spaces and get the highest yields in small spaces. Plants are likely to yield less by being so packed in, but it provides a great yield per space. To get the best usage of your Free Seed Project pack, we recommend giving ample space to each plant. If you have the space, this will give the most yield per seed. For example, kale planted just 6” apart will grow, but if they are given space such as 12” apart, the plants can grow much larger. Packing plants in too tightly makes them compete for water and nutrients and leaves them more vulnerable to pests if it is not done correctly. Again, there are different methods and both work. Which method to choose should depend on the space you have available. If in doubt, use the general distance information we provided. You can always plant them closer together next time if you find that the plants didn’t fill the space.
How deep do you plant your seeds?
There are two common rules of thumb for the depth of planting seeds.
One is to plant small seeds 1/8 to 1/4-inch-deep and larger seeds ½ to 1 inch deep.
The other is to plant seeds only as deep as the seed’s diameter.
Most of the seeds in the Free Seed Project pack are very tiny, which means you just barely cover them with soil.
Swiss chard, spinach, beet, radish, cucumber and cilantro will be planted deeper than the rest, at about 1/8 inch. All others should be just barely covered with soil.
Direct sowing seeds vs. transplanting
All of the seeds in this pack can be planted directly into the garden. You don’t need to start any seeds indoors or have a greenhouse to have a successful garden.
In fact, some of the seeds in this pack- we strongly recommend against starting indoors. Only plant these seeds directly into the garden; do not start indoors to transplant.
We recommend only direct planting into the garden for carrots, radishes, turnips, basil, Bee Feed Mix, and Beneficial Insect Attractant Mix. We advise against starting these seeds indoors. Also, beets and mustard greens are best direct-sown but also can be started indoors.
Both directly sowing seeds into your garden or planting seeds indoors and then transplanting the seedlings outdoors have their pros and cons. Some seeds prefer to be directly sown into the garden and typically should not be grown indoors to transplant seedlings into the garden. This typically includes beans, peas and squash.
The main benefit of transplants is that you can get a head start on the growing season by starting them in a controlled environment where they are protected from weather. The downside is that the plants can undergo transplant shock, get root bound in the container and it takes more materials than direct sowing.
For more information see:
Johnny’s Direct Seeding Guidelines for direct planting outdoors
Johnny’s Guidelines for Starting Healthy Seedlings: Tips & Troubleshooting Advice for starting seeds indoors to transplant
How do you deal with pests and weeds naturally?
One of the main ways to naturally deal with pests is to attract beneficial insects. We have included Beneficial Insect Attractant Mix to help you with this. Watch this video to learn about beneficial insects.
For tips on weeds, see Got Weeds? Targeting Annual & Perennial Weeds
Johnny’s knowledgeable team of experienced growers will answer your gardening questions for free!
Johnny’s Seeds Grower’s Library
Johnny’s Grower’s Library contains an extensive selection of helpful product and methodological information, including manuals, charts, planting and growing guides, technical articles, instructional videos, and more. Browse information specific to each of our seed and plant product lines: vegetables, flowers, herbs, and farm seed, as well as tools, supplies, methods, organic certifications, labels, and material safety data sheets.
This provides a listing of the vegetable, fruit, flower, herb, and farm seed lines they offer, with links to full listings for each line. Their key growing information pages provide the essential crop-by-crop sowing, planting, and growing steps you need to get started.
Humans Who Grow Food features stories of home gardeners, farmers and community gardens across borders & cultures. This page is great for inspiration from other gardeners.
Food is Free Project is a nonprofit growing food & community in the front yard, while helping gain independence from a broken agricultural system.
Women Who Farm is comprised of strong women supporting sustainable agriculture. Imagine an organic farming revolution, one that builds soil rather than depletes it and saves seed rather than destroying them.
Attainable Sustainable Learn all about the lost art of self-reliance. Browse hundreds of DIY articles and tutorials on recipes, canning, gardening, and livestock management that will make you an expert at self-reliant living.
More frequently asked questions:
Does Free Seed Project provide seeds to people outside of the USA?
Seed packets are available for United States addresses only, due to the high cost of shipping internationally.
How did Free Seed Project choose the seeds in the pack?
We want to help as many people to become successful gardeners as possible, so we focused on the seeds that are often the easiest to grow. Size and cost were also two important factors. In order to keep this project affordable, we could only send smaller-sized seeds so that they’d fit into the cost of a standard envelope. This meant we couldn’t do large seeds like beans or pumpkins. Some seeds are far more expensive than others. Kale seeds, for example, cost us just two cents to include thirty in a packet. Tomatoes on the other hand, are over a penny a piece.
How did Free Seed Project choose the number of each seeds to send?
This came down to a combination of how much food the seeds produce, size (for fitting into the envelope) and the cost of the seeds.
Where can you purchase more seeds?
Here’s our recommendations if you’d like more seeds:
First search your area to see if there’s a local seed company. In San Diego, for example, there is San Diego Seed Company.
For more, see Mother Earth News article Best Vegetable Seed Companies