Let’s start some seeds! Today I’m going to share how to start plants from seeds indoors weeks or months before your planting season so that you can have your own seedlings when it’s time to plant.
Starting vegetables from seed can be less expensive (although it can be expensive if you buy a lot of specialized equipment the gardening stores and catalogs want to sell you!), but the main reason I start my vegetables from seed is control and selection. I can choose new varieties I want to try, or plants specialized for my region, or types I’ve read about, without being at the whim of a nursery buyer. AND I can start them when I want – I can stagger dates, and have some seedlings for July or August for fall planting when it’s nearly impossible to find starts in the stores.
It’s not hard, but it always helps to have pictures I think, so here’s a step-by-step of my technique (such as it is!):
I reuse potting cells and pots from nursery plants in plastic planting trays that come with clear domes and plant in a soil mix that’s made for starting seeds to make sure it’s sterilized.
Here is the basic equipment you need to start your own plants from seeds:
- A plastic planting tray unit with a clear dome and twelve 6-cell pots (usually around $5, like this tray on Amazon - affiliate link) which last a number of years. Note: lately it seems much easier to find units with “Jiffy Pots” in them instead of the 6-cell pots, but I don’t like Jiffy Pots – they dry out faster and they stunted the growth of some of my plants when I planted them directly into the garden as they instruct (the roots weren’t able to “grow through” the membrane well and became sort of root-bound).
- The trays can also be purchased without the 6-cell pots and you can reuse 18 4-inch nursery pots to fill them. I like to use this set up to plant peppers and tomatoes in the bigger pots – it means one less transplant I have to do, because I like these plants to be really big before I put them in the garden.
Confession: I never wash out old pots with a bleach solution like many books I’ve read suggest. I don’t like using bleach, and basically I’m lazy – I’m doing good if I just get them washed with a spray of water! So that’s all I do, and I’ve never had any problems with fungus probably because I always use the other item in the picture:
- Sterilized seed starting mix. I’ve never skimped here and don’t try to “reuse” or sterilize my own (again, too many steps for me…I need to keep it as easy as possible, or I might not do it). It’s not too expensive – the huge bag here was $10.00 and will last all through the season including what I do later for the fall. You can buy smaller bags but it’s harder to find after the spring if you run out.
- Plastic garden labels & sharpie marker. This type of marker sold on Amazon is my favorite kind, though they’re sold lots of places I think. I’ve even cut up old milk jugs for markers before – but they didn’t work very well!
- Optional: mixing bowl for container and spoon/scoop for mixing and chopstick or small tool.
How to Start Seeds:
1. The first step is to wet the seed mix. If you put it directly in the cells and then try to wet it, the centers will still be dry and you’ll have to try and stir each individual pot. I use an enamel pot, fill it with stating mix add water. It takes awhile to get it thoroughly mixed, depending on the amount of peat that’s in your mixture.
2. It will probably be somewhat clumpy, and may not go into the cells nicely for you, so don’t be afraind to get dirty! Just start pushing the mix into the cells (and pots – whatever you use) with your hands.
3. Fill them full, because when you water them the dirt will sink a bit and you want as much soil as possible for your little seedlings.
4. Gather your seeds to plant.
- Here’s my simple and basic seed-saving system: a portable file box (should be opaque so light doesn’t get through) with a lid and hanging files with alphabet labels. I put individual seed packets in baggies according to type (i.e., all broccoli varieties together in one baggie). The baggies make it easy to find the packets when I want to plant carrots or whatever, and they are supposed to help keep the packets better for storage. Then the baggies are filed alphabetically. These hanging files also have a pocket where I can add individual packets – usually of flowers (the yellow packet in the photo). I have used 5 year old seed from this system and had them sprout.
- Where to find seeds: online catalogs have the best selection, but there’s nothing wrong with buying from the store. I love going through the catalogs, though – it’s the thing I wait for after the holidays – and there’s a LOT if growing information in them. You can go here to see a list of catalogs I like to buy from.
5. Use a sharpie or garden marker to write the seed varieties on plastic labels and put them in the pots first to “map” out where you want the seeds and have room for.
6. Use a chopstick or other small tool to make a shallow indentation, then sprinkle in 2 or 3 seeds. Flat, bigger seeds are easy to add to the indentations with your fingers, but for those tiny seeds like onion and broccoli, a small spoon makes it easy to add only a couple. Note: I use just 2-3 seeds on newer packets but more on older packets because the germination rate goes down as it ages. Yes, it means there will be thinning involved which seems wasteful, but believe me, it’s no fun to do all this and have only two seeds germinate in a cell and then have to do it all again, only this time much later (can you tell this has happened to me?).
7. Gently cover the seed back up – most of the seeds we start inside are not big ones that need to be deep in the soil, so just barely cover the seed. You can use a bit more of the dry mix or push some of the moist soil back over the seed.
8. After all the seeds are planted, spray the cells with warm water, watering them all in well - I always think it’s good to give them a little head start and the warm water seems to help. Note: the dryish looking cells in the front ARE dry…but only on top. I sprinkle onion seed on top of the soil because onion can be started more closely together, before covering with seed mix. It takes a couple sprays to get it wet, but this is easier with small seed like onion.
9. Place the clear dome on top and…you’re done! They don’t need light at this point (a few seeds do, but they’re mostly flowers that do – check the seed package) and the dome is only to retain moisture until the seeds sprout.
10. As soon as there are sprouts, even if not in all the cells, remove the lid. The extra moisture could cause fungus problems on the newly germinated seedlings.
Now, WHERE to put these trays, and HOW do they get light when they’ve germinated? The most basic source of light is windows, of course, but it’s usually not strong enough to produce strong, stocky seedlings. The seedlings will strain towards the light, growing tall and leggy. So I suggest a light source directly over the pots – but not an expensive grow light, just a basic 2 or 4 bulb shop light (like this one on Amazon) with both cool and warm flourescent bulbs (here’s an example of a cool bulb on Amazon and here’s a warm bulb example).
You don’t have to have a lot of room to start seeds, either – this corner of my kitchen hides my seed-starting station for most of the year. You can just see the end of a shop light peeking out on the right side in the top photo. When I start my seeds and need the light, I move the storage jars and lower the light for the rest of spring.
Use a basic shop light with chains on eyehooks screwed into the base of the cabinets, shelf, etc. The chains are important, because you need to be able to have the light as close to the seedlings as possible and raise it as they grow. It helps keep them from getting “leggy.” I’ve also used a simple structure out of 2x4s that we hung the lights from and kept in an office. Wherever you keep the light though, it should still be in the house, though, or at least someplace where it doesn’t get too cold (a porch?). Some people have had seedlings sprout faster using a heated grow mat, but at $50 bucks each, I haven’t tried one. Update: I was able to find a mat for half that price and and it really does help seeds that are harder to sprout like peppers emerge sooner – I love mine! Click Here to see the exact mat I use on Amazon (affiliate link).
Update #2: I now have a dedicated seed starting station in our mudroom, as seen above. I love not having to move items out of the way when I want to grow some seeds! Though I sometimes have problems with a crazed dog who’s discovered a mouse…
Curious about the varieties I planted? On this early March day it was tomatoes, peppers (sweet and hot), cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, head lettuce and onions. I usually plant carrots, beets, and leaf lettuces outside in April.
Do you start plants from seeds?
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