How to Successfully Start Seeds Indoors
Buying seedlings from nurseries works for the new gardener. But, soon you will be looking for something other than yellow squash and beefsteak tomatoes. You may want to grow Mexican sour gherkins or try a funky vegetable that will get your kids excited about the garden. For these rare plants, you will need to start your plants from seed. Growing food from seed makes you a protector of plant diversity and saves money in the process.
It All Starts With a Seed
Buying seeds online will give you the most varieties to choose from. Most seed companies will send you a free catalog (sometimes called “garden porn”). Use those cold winter days to dive into some seed catalogs and get your orders placed. You want to be ready to go before spring arrives.
Time Your Planting
You can control the climate inside where you will be starting your seeds but they will be moving out in 4 to 6 weeks. Warm weather crops do not like cold weather and will die in the frost. Identify your last spring frost date and start your seeds 4-6 weeks before this. Consult the seed pack for specifics.
Gather Your Materials
1. Seed Starting Tray
If you are starting a small amount of seed you can reuse materials like yogurt or paper cups, just poke some small drainage holes in the bottom. I prefer to use seed starting trays to accommodate larger plantings.
2. Soil: The Stuff of Life
Do not use soil from your yard for this! You need a light, fluffy and sterile seed starting or potting soil mix.
3. Popsicle Sticks and a Permanent Marker: You Will Forget What You Planted
Use popsicle sticks and a permanent marker to make labels. Include the variety, date and any other information you may want to remember like seed company, etc…
This is for wetting your soil.
- Start by filling a bucket or container with the amount of seed starting mix you will be using. Slowly wet it and mix it around. You want the mixture to have the moisture of a wrung-out sponge.
- Read the seed pack for directions on seed depth. Some seeds can be sprinkled on top of soil while others are buried. For most seeds, I bury them under a very thin layer of soil.
- Fill your containers or cell trays with the seed starting mix. Tamp it down to provide a small space for the seeds to go.
- Sprinkle 2 or 3 seeds into each container or each cell of a cell tray.
- Label your plantings using a sharpie and popsicle sticks. Make sure to include the variety and date planted.
- Using more of your damp seed starting mix, spread a thin layer of the mixture over your seeds.
- Water your seeds using the ‘mist’ setting on a hose attachment or lightly with a watering can.
- Cover your containers with some plastic. You can use a dome designed to fit over your tray. I often use one of the plastic coverings that the dry cleaner puts your shirts in. This will hold moisture and heat in. As soon as plants emerge remove this cover.
Light The Way
Place your seeds in the sunniest window you have (south facing is sunniest for the Northern Hemisphere). Plants love the light and will stretch towards it. Rotate the plants every couple of days so that they do not stretch too much in one direction.
I don’t use grow lights but also live in a land of perpetual sunshine. If you do not receive adequate sunlight in your home you can put grow lights on your plants. Set the timer for 15 hours a day.
Water Them Gently
Water your seeds with a mister or watering can keeping them moist but not soggy. Ensure good air circulation by opening windows or using a fan. Poor air circulation and soggy conditions can lead to fungus growth in your soil.
Kill Them Softly
You are going to have to get mean and kill some plants. If more than one seedling emerges in a cell choose the one you like the most and kill the rest. Do this by gently pulling them out by the roots. This allows the best plant to grow without competition.
Your plants have gotten used to the indoor life and will have to adjust to being outdoors, this is called hardening off. About one week before transplanting your plants outside, start putting them outside in a sheltered place for a few hours a day. Each day increase the length that they are outside. Make sure to bring them in at night.
The time has come for your babies to leave the nest. Gently transplant them outside into well-prepared garden soil. Ideally, you will do this on a cloudy cool day. Water them immediately to ease their transition. Visit them daily to remind them you love them.
I was recently reminded that a gardener is judged not by how many plants they kill but by how many they keep alive. If your plants die, learn from it and try again. Gardening is rhythm, patience and art.