How to Start Seedlings Indoors

      37 Comments on How to Start Seedlings Indoors
Getting ready to start seeds in the late winter!

Getting ready to start seeds in the late winter!

Your Complete Guide to Starting Seedlings

This article provides a complete tutorial on starting seeds from scratch for folks who want to be more self reliant and save some green on their gardens this year! Be prepared, this post is jam packed with how to information for the do-it-yourself homesteader and gardener.

 This post contains affiliate links for products you may find useful. Please see disclosure below.

My Background in Seed Starting

I’ve been gardening since I was 3…I still remember helping my Dad plant bean seeds in our garden as a little tyke. 🙂 Somewhere around 25 years ago I began growing my own seedlings in windowsills in the spring. I was hooked and soon after created a homemade seed starting set up in my basement that has served me very well.

 


I also know what it takes to start seedlings on a commercial scale. You see, I have a degree in horticulture. In greenhouse management and annual production classes we were required to grow flower and vegetable starts according to greenhouse industry standards. So I think it’s safe to say that I have a unique perspective on starting your own seeds from scratch.

Are You Getting Your Homestead Ready for Spring?

Why Start Your Own Seedlings?

  • Save money
  • Control over pesticides and fertilizers
  • Access to more varieties
  • Green therapy!
  • Learn a new skill

 

Keep more money in your pocket!

Keep more money in your pocket!

Save Some Green

The cost of greenhouse production is enormous. Besides the investment in the facility itself, there are costs for heating, cooling, watering, chemical applications, labor, growing medium, seeds, containers, and transportation. Once the flats reach the retail nursery they still need to be cared for – more labor. Plus, everyone wants to make a profit off those little plants. Of course you pay for all of that when you buy seedlings.


A popular non-organic fertilizer...I don't think this color occurs in nature.

A popular non-organic fertilizer…I don’t think this color occurs in nature.

Chemical Cocktails

In my annual production class I was surprised at the volume of non-organic chemical applications used to produce those gorgeous flats of veggies. There are insecticides, fungicides, miticides, fertilizers, and hormones for regulating growth. I felt a little sick thinking about all of the non-organic chemicals applied to all those starts I’ve tucked into my ‘organic’ garden over the years.


Starting Seeds

Variety is the Spice of Life

I don’t know about you, but I like to grow more than 1 variety of eggplant, sweet pepper, pumpkin, or broccoli. When you go to the nursery for 6 packs of vegetable starts, your choices are limited. Starting your own seedlings opens up a whole world of colors, flavors, and shapes! For anyone interested in trying new things, this alone is reason enough to start your own.

 

starting seeds

Green therapy = my little greenhouse!

Green Therapy

By the time I start my seedlings in the late winter, I can’t wait to have some new green growth to care for. The garden is still sleeping and houseplants are old hat. I need this sense of renewal and promise for the bounty of summer still to come. I think most gardeners are ready for some prima verde (first green) by the time February or March rolls around.


Fresh peas from the garden!

Fresh peas from the garden!

Getting Started

This project might seem overwhelming at first, but if you take it step by step you’ll be off to a great start! Let’s begin with what you need for your indoor seed set up.

  • Seeds
  • Growing medium
  • Containers
  • Lights
  • Miscellaneous (heat mats, labels, fan, mister)


This 'One Too Many' Pumpkin is a hybrid variety.

This ‘One Too Many’ Pumpkin is a hybrid variety.

What Kind of Seeds Should I Buy?

There are so many choices – heirlooms, hybrids, organic. How do you know what to buy? If you would like to save seed from your plants for next year, choose heirloom or open pollinated seeds. If you don’t care about saving seed, but you want the biggest tomato, the earliest watermelon, or the most disease resistant pepper, hybrids may suit your needs best. If you want to be sure that your seeds have not been treated with heavy metals, choose organic.

Be sure to choose seeds for crops that you enjoy growing, eating, and preserving. If no one in your house likes broccoli, don’t plant it. Do a little research to make sure your choices will grow well in your area. There is a wealth of information available online and through your County Extension Office. Talk to local gardeners who have experience or find a garden club in your area.

 

Fast growing greens, like spinach, can be direct seeded into your garden.

Fast growing greens, like spinach, can be direct seeded into your garden.

Should I Start All of My Seedlings Indoors?

You won’t want to start all of your seedlings inside. Many crops do best planted right where they will grow. These include root crops such as radishes, turnips, carrots, beets, and parsnips. Other crops to start right in your garden are beans, peas, corn, and fast growing greens like spinach and Swiss chard. You can start lettuce indoors, but I tend to start half a dozen plants for a quick start then direct seed the rest, since it grows so quickly. If you have a particularly long, stable growing season you may be able to direct seed a greater number of your crops in the garden.


Start enough plants to fill your needs.

Start enough plants to fill your needs.

How Much to Plant?

Figure out how much space you have for your favorites and how much you are likely to use before you plant an entire packet of eggplant. If you only like a little, don’t plant a whole flat. I still have trouble with this part, so don’t feel bad if you end up with more than you need! You can give some to neighbors.

 

The back of the seed packet usually has information about when to plant.

The back of the seed packet usually has information about when to plant.

When Should I Plant My Indoor Seeds?

This will depend a great deal on the type of seed and where you live. Start by checking the USDA Zones to find out the average date of the last spring frost in your zone. Mark the date on your garden calendar. (Be aware that this is the average date of your last frost, it will vary from year to year.) Now look at the seed packets for information. The packet shares a range of how many weeks before the last spring frost you should start the seeds. Count back on the calendar and make a note to start the seeds on the appropriate date. I like to mark the earliest and latest date with a line between them to denote the range of time I have for starting that crop. Be sure to jot down the crop you need to start during that time frame.

 

Starting onion seeds in 'nursery' containers.

Starting onion seeds in ‘nursery’ containers.

The Real Dirt on Growing Medium

Many people like to bring in some garden soil to start their little plants. If you do this, make sure you sterilize the soil to kill any pathogens that cause disease. Sift the soil through a screen and dampen (you don’t want it soaking wet). Spread the soil in baking pans, put a meat thermometer in the pan,  and cover with foil. Place in your oven at 250 F and bring the soil temp up to 180 F for 30 minutes. This will stink up the house! Allow to cool.

I prefer to use a growing medium that contains no soil because it tends to drain better. You can purchase a ready made mix, or make your own with 1 part finely milled peat moss, 1 part sterile compost, and 1 part vermiculite.



Seed starting trays

I Can Hardly Contain Myself!

There are many kinds of containers for starting your little seedlings. It’s important to make sure they are clean (sanitize with mild bleach solution) and have drainage holes. You can use peat pots or pellets that can be planted along with the seedling. Mini greenhouse kits are also available. They look like the flats seedlings come in and include a transparent lid for retaining moisture. You can also use recycled containers (plastic yogurt containers, bottom half of milk cartons, plastic or paper cups, even newspaper pots) as long as they are clean and excess water can drain from the bottom.


Pepper plants under shop lights. One cool and one warm bulb provides a broad spectrum of light.

Pepper plants under shop lights. One cool and one warm bulb provides a broad spectrum of light.

Lights, Camera, Action!

Well, the camera isn’t necessary, unless you’re a plant freak like me. And the action will be extremely slow. But the lights are important! You can start your seedlings in a sunny windowsill, but I would start them a bit closer to your last frost date and be prepared to turn them every day to keep them from bending toward the light too much. They won’t be as strong as seedlings started under lights, so if you are planning to start seeds indoors every year I recommend setting up a seed starting station with grow lights.

I have a  spot in my basement dedicated to starting seeds. A plastic shelving unit gives me room to start up to 10 flats of plants. Each shelf has a 4 foot long shop light hung from the shelf above by wires, allowing me to adjust the lights up and down. The shop lights each have 1 warm white and 1 cool white bulb to provide a broad spectrum of light for the baby plants. This is much less expensive than the grow lights made specifically for this purpose, but they work well. I’ve had good results with my seed starting set up for many years and it didn’t cost a lot to set up. It is advisable to replace fluorescent bulbs every year or 2 for best results. For a non-toxic alternative to fluorescent bulbs that last longer and use less energy, consider purchasing these LED bulbs in the natural sunlight option.

Set up your shop lights on a timer so that the lights will come on for 12 hours a day. You don’t want to have the lights on 24/7. For some plants that would be ok, but for plants that are sensitive to day length, the sudden change when you move them outside will trigger flowering before they are ready.


Warm Soil Makes for Fast Growth

I’ve read all kinds of home do-it-yourself set ups for providing bottom heat for the germinating seeds. All I can say is, please be careful! Make sure you aren’t creating an electrical hazard with a rigged up contraption. I purchased 2 seed starting mats years ago and they are still in great shape. I’ve saved many times the purchase price by starting my own seeds with these mats, so I have no complaints. You also want to make sure that the soil isn’t too hot for proper germination. Most seeds germinate best in the 65-85 F range. Check out this chart for optimal temps for different seed types.

 

Baby seedlings are a sight for sore eyes.

Baby seedlings are a sight for sore eyes.

Ready, Set, Plant!

Now that you have all of your seed starting supplies and your area is set up, you’re ready to go! You’ll want to start by moistening the growing medium so it is damp, not soaking wet. Scoop it into your containers so they are about 3/4 full or so. Check the seed packets to see how deep to plant the seeds. Very fine seed (petunia, lettuce) germinates best if scattered on the surface, then press seed into the soil or cover with a fine dusting of soil. Larger seeds should be covered at about the same depth as the size of the seed. If you have small pots that are the right size for one seedling, I suggest putting 2 seeds in. If they both germinate, pinch off the runt. You can also start your seeds in a nursery container (plastic trays with drainage holes), then re-plant them (called ‘pricking out’) into individual pots after germination.

Water the seeds in lightly and cover with clear plastic to retain moisture. Be sure to label your containers with the crop and planting date. Check each day for germination and moisture levels. Don’t let the top of the soil dry out. As soon as the seed begins to germinate, remove the plastic. You’ll need to check more often for moisture to make sure the delicate little sprouts don’t dry out and die. Some seeds take longer to germinate than others. Check the seed packet for length of germination so you’ll have an idea of what to expect. See the note at the end of this article for instructions on testing seed viability.

 

Bottom heat helps with germination. Don't let soild stay wet.

Bottom heat helps with germination. Don’t let soild stay wet.

Growing Tips

If possible, set up a small fan to oscillate over your little seedlings. You’ll need to water a bit more often, but the air circulation will stimulate stronger stem growth and will also help prevent damping off. Damping off is a fungal infection that causes the little plant to topple over and die. Closer inspection will reveal a pinched looking stem just above the soil line. This disease is more common when the growing medium is kept too damp, too cool, or a non-sterile soil mix is used. If it happens, toss them out and start over with new growing medium and freshly sterilized pots. Be sure to allow the soil surface to dry between waterings. Using a mister bottle will help prevent over watering and mimic dew settling on the little plants. As they grow, lightly brush your hand over the tops of the seedlings 2 or 3 times a day to help them grow stronger in anticipation of their move to the great outdoors.

 

Organic fertilizer is less likely to burn tender roots.

Organic fertilizer is less likely to burn tender roots.

Baby Food

If you used a growing medium that contains a timed release fertilizer for seedlings, you won’t need to provide any nutrients until they are transplanted to the garden. Otherwise, use a very weak solution of kelp or fish emulsion to water them once a week or so. Don’t overdo it! It is very possible to ‘love’ your seedlings too much and burn their tender roots with too much nitrogen. Most fertilizer containers will give instructions for use on seedlings.

 

Cabbage seedling just transplanted to the garden.

Cabbage seedling just transplanted to the garden.

It’s a Hard Life

Hardening Off and Transplanting to the Garden

As the date of your average last frost approaches, you’ll want to harden off the seedlings to get them ready for life in the great outdoors. To harden off your babies properly, you’ll want to start taking them outside on warm, mild days for a few minutes to a half hour. Don’t forget them overnight or they will die and you’ll be off to the nursery to buy your starts! Don’t put them out in full sun or windy spots. They are used to the comfort of the indoors and will be very tender at first.

These onion seedlings were hardened off over 2 weeks before transplanting in the garden.

These onion seedlings were hardened off over 2 weeks before transplanting in the garden.

Slowly increase the amount of time they stay outside over a week or two until they’ve grown sturdy enough to withstand the rigors of being out all day. Continue to move them indoors or to a protected spot in your garage or a cold frame for the nights until you are sure that the danger of frost has passed. Cover them for their first night. They still aren’t used to the cooler temperature of a spring night and you don’t want to damage them.

Rows of cabbages in my Dad's garden.

Rows of cabbages in my Dad’s garden.

Transplanting Tips

When the seedlings are ready to transplant to the garden, and the chance of frost has passed, make sure their new home is ready for them. Till the soil and prepare the bed. Water them well about an hour before transplanting so they’ll have time to soak up all they need.



Plant the seedlings in the evening or on an overcast day to prevent scorching. Even if they are used to full sun, transplanting them will be stressful and you want to give them the best chance of survival. If your little plants have become root bound in their containers, gently loosen the root ball so the roots will grow out instead of in a tight ball. This will increase the amount of water and nutrients they will absorb as the roots grow. Plant at the same depth as they were in their pots. Tomatoes are one exception…they can be planted up to the newest set of leaves. Pinch off lower leaves and roots will form along the stems to get them off to a strong start.

 


 

If possible, cover each seedling with row cover or shade cloth to protect them while they adjust. Don’t cover them with anything that will heat up in the sunlight. Glass and black fabric may cook them, even on an overcast day. If you transplant in the evening, cover to protect them from the cool night air. Paper bags work well if they are staked into place. Be sure to water the plants well as their roots have been disturbed and won’t be able to absorb as much for a few days.

 

Don’t be Surprised if You Are Hooked!

Starting your own flower and vegetable seedlings is a rewarding and fun process! Once you’ve got the hang of it, you’ll wonder why you ever bought starts from the nursery. Congratulations…you are officially addicted to gardening!

After a couple of weeks, the plant have really started to take off!

After a couple of weeks, the plant have really started to take off!

A Note On Seed Viability

If your seeds are old, you may want to test their viability, or ability to germinate. Place 10 seeds on a damp paper towel and fold it over. Place the paper towel in a plastic bag and label it with the date and seed variety. Leave in a warm place and check every day. Some seeds germinate quickly, like lettuce and cabbage. Some seeds, such as peppers, take longer to germinate. If the seeds have not germinated consistently after 2 weeks, you may want to purchase fresh seed to replace them. Some seeds, such as parsnips, do not germinate well after just a year. Others will keep for long periods with no problem.


Pickled peppers

Pickled peppers

Hints for Growing Perfect Peppers

Pepper plants like heat. You will want to wait a couple of weeks or so after your average last frost date to transplant them into the garden. Warm the soil up with black plastic or the black landscape fabric for a few days before planting peppers. Cover them if night time temps are expected to drop down below 60 F.

My Dad swears by watering his pepper plants with a teaspoon or two of epsom salts per gallon of water when they begin to blossom. I haven’t tried this, but I do find that a good, organic tomato fertilizer does wonders for pepper production. The espsom salts help provide calcium, necessary to prevent blossom end rot. Another hint for preventing this problem is to keep the soil evenly moist.


Do you have any tips, hints, or tricks for starting your seedlings indoors? I love to hear your thoughts!

 


This site is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for me to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites. You will not pay any extra for these products and I’ll earn a small commission to help support this blog.

 

37 comments on “How to Start Seedlings Indoors

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  10. Melanie @AdventuresInlandNW

    Your explanations are the best I’ve seen for starting seeds indoors. After moving to a totally new USDA zone in North Idaho from California I found it difficult to grow anything last year. I was used to throwing the seed in the ground and watching it grow. Now I am learning how to plant a garden all over again. What an adventure this has been. So, thank you for your insight!

    Reply
    1. Lisa Lynn Post author

      Hi Melanie,
      Thank you! I’m honored to hear that! I can understand…there are so many differences in how to handle gardening across our country. When you stop to think about the sheer size of the US and all of the different climates we have, it’s pretty amazing!

      I’ve always gardened in the north. I grew up in western NY and moved to northern Illinois 25 years ago…it’s similar here, but much hotter in the summer, colder in the winter, and windier all around. 🙂

      Thanks so much for stopping by! Best wishes with your garden this year!

      Reply
  11. Elie @ Organizer By Day

    I’m starting my first garden this year and I really appreciate all the knowledge you share in this post. So helpful! Is it true you should start strawberries right outside? I bought a package of ten in a bag the other day and I’m not sure what to do with them. We still have snow on the ground in Indiana so I don’t know if I should go outside with them. And I have two blueberries bushes still in the containers. How long should I keep them inside until? Thank you for all your advice. I’ll be pinning this post and referring back often 🙂

    Reply
    1. Lisa Lynn Post author

      Hi Elie,
      Congrats on starting your first garden! Thanks for reading my post! Your strawberry plants may not do well if they are left in the package until the ground thaws. Most likely, they will rot. I would pot them up and keep them in a sunny window, water when the soil dries just below the surface. If you don’t have time to pot them, put the package in your refrigerator to keep them dormant. (if there is green growth, you should probably get them planted).

      Are your blueberry bushes ones that you just purchased? I would keep them in a sunny window until the weather warms up. If they are actively growing (leaves are out), I would keep them inside until outside temps are in the 50 – 60 F range. Then you can plant them outside. You could move them out on warm days and bring them back in when it looks like frost until then.

      Best wishes!

      Reply
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  13. Micha Dee

    I am located in Northwest Indiana. I’m worried this polar vortex will destroy my strawberries & asparagus! I also can not figure out when to start my seedlings. I usually begin March 1-15. I grow under my 8 skylights in my great room which give me the perfect temperature controlled greenhouse environment without the added expense! However we have adequate sunlight only about 1 day/week. Even my house plants seem semi dormant. My peace lily typically has 7-8 blooms during the winter only has 2 right now. Any suggestions? I can’t afford grow lights right now 🙁

    Reply
    1. Lisa Lynn Post author

      Hi Micha Dee,
      I hope your strawberries and asparagus are ok! If you planted hardy varieties, they should be fine. In the fall, you might want to put some leaves or straw over them to help protect them from the freezing and thawing…that is the hardest part for them.

      You don’t need to go out and buy special grow lights to start your seedlings. If you have 1 shop light with a cool white bulb and a warm white bulb, that will provide a good spectrum of light without busting the budget. When I bought new bulbs last year, I think they were around $5 or $6 each. You can probably get along pretty well with bulbs from last year if the cost is too much right now.

      I have my seed starting set up on a plastic shelving unit. I used wire to hang the light from the bottom of one shelf with the seedlings under the light. You can usually start 2 to 4 trays on one shelf.
      Best wishes!

      Reply
  14. Name gena

    I noticed that you said people cannot copy your posts. Does that include printing them for my own personal use? I have been trying to print up posts that I might need to re-reference and putting them in folders by topic, so that I can find them easier if I need to look them up, rather than trying to remember when I saw them and then try to find them again. I was going to try to print up this post until I saw your warning.
    By the way, reading the article I now know why all my little seedlings keeled over and died last year, thank you, will not make that mistake again, I hope. I do have one more question, which I did not see addressed: Do you keep the grow lights on 24 hours a day? I did that last year until I had gone through more bulbs than I could afford and said to Hell with that. I know I probably sound like the village idiot, but I have never seen anyone talk about how long you keep the lights on the plants at a time or if it is to be on until you put them outside.

    Reply
    1. Lisa Lynn Post author

      Hi Gena,
      I don’t mind if you copy my articles for your own use…I just don’t want people to copy them on their blogs, word for word, as if it’s their own work!

      Good question about the lights! I forget sometimes to be as detailed, since I do this every year! I suggest having the lights on for 12 hours each day. Some plants are daylight sensitive and having a sudden change when you put them outside could trigger early flowering, before they are ready.

      Thanks for asking!

      Reply
  15. Julie

    Lisa Lynn,
    Question for you. When you said cover the containers with clear plastic until the seeds germinate, what kind of plastic? Does it have to be store bought seed starting cover like the kits I’ve seen in the home improvement stores or can I use kitchen plastic wrap? First time seed starter, here. 🙂
    Julie

    Reply
    1. Lisa Lynn Post author

      Hi Julie,
      Good question! Any type of plastic that is clean will be just fine. I have used the clear covers that come with the seed starting kit, and I have used plastic food wrap. The only problem with the plastic food wrap is that it can be a little difficult to spread out neatly over and over again. But it will do just as well as the purchased ‘dome’ covers.

      Best wishes and feel free to ask any questions!

      Reply
  16. latebloomershow

    Thanks, Lisa, very comprehensive! I learned that I am doing a few things right, and a few things not so right, basically due to no set-up (no lights), and I’m in So. Cal. so I did take them out in the warm sun a few days. It’s only 55° today so they will stay put in my kitchen but not much light. At least it’s 65-70 in the house. If I start indoors next year, I will get a set-up as this has been rather a pain, haha. I hope you will check out “Late Bloomer,” my 40 episodes of my journey to learn to grow food. Thanks! http://www.latebloomershow.com/

    Reply
  17. Guillermo merchancanol

    Espectacular esa es una forma de mejorar nuestro planeta y vivir mas sanos, sus consejos son geniales

    Reply
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  19. Day by Day Homesteading

    Thanks for this. This is a very helpful and informative post! I’m in the process of trying to learn more about seed starting, and this should be really useful as I look to engaging in my own seed starting adventures!

    Reply
    1. Lisa Lynn Post author

      Hi Day by Day,
      I’m glad that you found it helpful! Thanks for stopping by to let me know. 🙂 Best wishes and let me know if you have any questions about seed starting as you go!

      Reply
  20. Josephine Washington

    Thanks for such a readable article. I have been growing veg for twenty years but you can always learn something new!

    Reply
  21. Bethany

    Thanks for all the info!! I do have a question, maybe you have mentioned it in another post ? But do u plant in long rows or blocks or raised beds? We have been doing long rows ( our garden is approx 50×100 feet) and the weeding / hoeing between the rows is crazy! I’d love to try a Different way .. Have any tips?? Thanks so much !
    Bethany

    Reply
    1. Lisa Lynn Post author

      Hi Bethany,
      Glad to share! I have permanent beds about 3 feet wide and up to about 25 ft long or so. I think I’m up to 12 beds like that now. I pick up cardboard from the grocery store to put down in the walking paths between the beds to help cut down on weeding and cultivating. The beds are planted pretty intensively and, in theory, I keep them weeded in between plants until the fill in. Last year was the ‘year of the weeds’ however and my theory fell apart somewhere in June.

      I’d like to have raised beds and as the chicken manure composts down, I add it to the beds. So maybe someday they’ll all be raised up a bit.

      You could look into the square foot garden…I think that his ideas make a lot of sense, although I’m not organized enough to follow the guidelines! Best wishes!

      Reply
  22. mary

    Thank you for all of the information that you have posted on your website. I just started gardening two years ago. I can’t wait to get started!- again!

    Reply
  23. Pingback: How to Start Seedlings Indoors | Around The Cabin

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