Monday, April 8, 2013

Gardening: how to start seeds indoors (part 1)

As spring is just around the corner (knock on wood) here in Vermont, I can finally let my thoughts turn again to gardening.

It's difficult, over the course of the long winter, to think about next year's garden when it feels like the cold and the snow might just last forever. But once March rolls around, I begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel and start planning my garden.

Each spring, I make a graph-paper map of my garden and decide what plants I'm going to put where, being mindful that most crops should be rotated around the garden space annually, rather than being replanted in the same place. At the end of the gardening season, I make notes on that map, delineating the successes and failures, yields, pest issues, amounts of mulch and compost used and any other significant items that I want to remember -- because, if you're like me, you can't remember details from one month to the next, let alone from one year to the next. Then, in the spring, when I make my new plan, I consult the previous year's notes and use those to guide my plant selection and placement.

A few weeks ago, I drew my plan for my 2013 garden and decided which vegetables I would grow. Now it's time for the fun part: seed starting.

I'm fortunate that I don't have to bother to spend time with seed catalogs over the winter months (although for some, this is gardening porn!) because I live right near Gardeners' Supply, which carries an amazing variety of seeds from a myriad of companies, including several local ones. I just set aside one day as a "seed day" and go shopping for my packets.

Mind you, I didn't always start my plants from seed. In my earliest gardens, I felt too much the novice to tackle seed starting so I simply bought seedlings from a local garden center and the farmer's market. This is still a fine way to plant a garden but can present several issues:
  1. You are limited to only the varieties of vegetables and herbs that your supplier grew. If you want to try some unique heirloom tomato varieties, for example, they might not be available.
  2. If your garden is large or even medium-sized (mine is 20' x 26'), the cost of all those seedlings can really add up. For the price of a single potted seedling, you can buy an entire packet of seeds that will often yield rows and rows of plants.

Once I gained a little gardening confidence (and was reassured by my gardening pals and DIY web sites that it isn't difficult), I began starting my seeds indoors. I quickly became hooked, especially now that I live through much harsher winters, because the seeds I grow bring images of my garden and thoughts of warm summer days to mind sooner than the outdoor weather ever could.

And, even though I still consider myself a novice gardener, I want to share what I have learned with you, with the hope that I might inspire another novice to take the plunge and start her own seedlings this year.

How to Start Seed Indoors

Please note: there are many, many ways to start seeds; I'm only sharing with you the methods and tricks that work for me. Read as many other gardening and DIY blogs as you can to find the combination of methods and materials that work for you.

1. Create a Seed Starting Schedule
The first thing you'll want to do, after deciding what plants to grow and how many of each you need, is create a seed starting schedule. This schedule will help you decide when you need to plant each type of seed so that your seedlings are ready to go into the ground as soon as the time is right in your area. In a nutshell, you should determine the last possible frost date for your area and then, based on the information provided on each seed packet, count backwards and determine when you need to plant each type of seed. Kathy LaLiberte wrote an excellent article for on exactly how to create your own schedule: start there.

2. Gather Your Supplies
Here's what you'll need to get started (again, based only on how I start my own seeds):
  • Seed packets
  • Seed starting mix (this is not potting soil or garden soil but a light, often peat-based medium that encourages germination and root growth)
  • Mixing container and spoon (I use a plastic paint container from the hardware store and an old plastic kitchen spoon)
  • Fiber/paper/peat starting pots (I prefer these because I can plant the whole container directly into the garden, rather than risk damaging the fragile roots by prying them out of plastic trays or containers. If you'd like to try making your own, Sweet Domesticity has a great tutorial on making paper pulp pots.)
  • A spray bottle (another cheap hardware store item)
  • Plastic trays and covers (I save the plastic containers from store-bought salad mixes -- they make great little starter greenhouses and, once the seeds have germinated, perfect containers for bottom watering. If you don't have any of these, you can get "official" trays and covers at your local garden center.)
  • A grow light setup (Frankly, if you're not willing to rig up some sort of grow light, I'm not sure I'd bother trying to start seed indoors, as the seedlings need about 16 hours of direct light each day to be robust -- I linked to one example that is not very expensive but you can also make your own setup [I love Eric and Garden Fork TV!!!])

3. Plant Your Seeds
First, put some of the starting mix into your bucket and add water, a little bit at a time, until the mixture is just moistened. You're not making mud here, just ensuring that the medium is moist. Fill each little peat pot about 3/4 full of the mix. Use your pinky finger or the eraser end of a pencil to make a small depression in the center of each cup, to whatever planting depth is indicated on the seed packet for each type of seed. Be sure to put a few seeds in each hole (not just one), in case some of the seeds don't germinate. If they all germinate, you can carefully snip off the extra plants at the base later. Add a little bit more of the moist starter mix on top and gently tamp down the soil.

Note: You should always plant a few more seedling cups of each vegetable type than you think you will need. If you don't, you could find yourself with not enough plants if some of your seeds didn't germinate and you end up with a "dud" pot or if some of your seedlings don't make it to adulthood, for whatever reason. Never worry about having extra seedlings: you can always find someone to take them off your hands!

4. Wait for Germination
Place the pots in the plastic trays; be sure to keep like seedlings together and label each container -- I just use painter's tape on the outside of the tray. Mist the surface of the soil of each pot lightly with your spray bottle and place the lid on the tray/container, creating a little greenhouse. Put the containers in a warm part of your house (not in direct sunlight) and check daily for germination by lifting the lid (it usually only takes a few days). If the surface of the soil looks at all dry, feel free to mist it again very lightly with your spray bottle, but do not saturate the soil. As soon as you see any little bit of plant poking out of the soil, remove the pot and place it under your growlight (this should be set up in front of the sunniest window in your home).

5. Growing Under the Lights
As I noted above, your baby seedlings need lots of light -- about 16 hours per day -- but some darkness as well. I turn my growlight on when I get up in the morning and off when I head to bed. Also, keep your grow light extremely close to the surface of the seedlings, for maximum light exposure. Once the seedlings begin to grow, you'll need to adjust the height of your light accordingly.

At this early stage, the seedlings do not need any kind of additional nutrients but they do need to be kept moist. Water the plants from the bottom by pouring a small amount of water in the plastic container and letting the plants absorb it from the bottom up. Be very careful not to overwater or saturate your fragile little seedlings (moist, never dripping wet).

Note: I won't be covering heat mats here because I don't use them. I grow my seedlings at a cooler room temperature (63-68 degrees) and have never had any issues, but some folks like to speed up the process a little by putting the trays on heat mats (kind of like a heating pad for plants!). If that interests you, make sure to do some research since I can't really help you.
Now you've made it through part one. That didn't seem too scary, right? You can do this!

In the upcoming parts of this seed starting series, I'll tell you how to care for your growing seedlings, avoid over-caring for them (sadly, based on my own experience!) and how to get them ready for their big debut in the garden. Stay tuned.

Do you have any seed-starting tips or tricks to share? What seeds are you the most excited about starting this year? The Ninj would love to hear all about it.

Note: a shortened version of this article also appears on Vermont Life's web site.


  1. I have no tips or tricks, other than move to the south and buy a house with a greenhouse. Wish I had your tips a month ago when I started my seeds, LOL!! So far my seeds are doing very well, much to the delight of the youngster who helped me plant them. Now we'll just have to wait and see if they produce any actual vegetables.

    1. I'm sure they will produce -- keep me posted!

  2. Here in North Florida the Spring/Summer garden has been planted. It is a beautiful time of year that does not last long enough before the sweltering heat arrives.

    Great post. Thanks for sharing.


  3. Thank you for sharing with the Clever Chicks Blog Hop this week; I hope you’ll join us again!

    Kathy Shea Mormino

    The Chicken Chick