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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. 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.

how to start seeds

Most seed companies will send you a free seed catalog.

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.

How to start seeds

The back of a seed packet will give you all the growing information you need.

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. 

seed starting

It only takes a few simple materials to start seeds.

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…

4. Bucket

This is for wetting your soil.

Get Planting

  • 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.
starting seeds

Fill your starter tray with your moist seed starting mix.

  • Sprinkle 2 or 3 seeds into each container or each cell of a cell tray.
seed starting

For larger seeds like corn and peas plant one seed per cell. For small seeds like these kale seeds, sprinkle 2 or 3 seeds per cell.

  • 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.

    Make sure to label your plantings. Then spread a thin layer of your seed starting mix over the seeds. Water and 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.

seed starting

I know it’s hard, but you’ve got to kill the weakest links.

Hardening Off

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.

seed starting

Plants are ready to transplant when their roots have filled out the cells of the tray.

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. 

how to start seeds

They grow up so fast.

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