Gardening is incredible for many reasons. But one of the main reasons I love gardening is its flexibility. I can plant exactly what I want — even if my kids refuse to eat a number of my chosen vegetables — and I can plant precisely where I want. To take the “what I want” one step further, I can also choose between growing veggies from seeds or buying young plants; I can even mix the two choices to create what works best for me.
Some plants in my garden are always grown from seed — typically sweet corn, squash, pumpkins, cucumbers, beets, carrots, beans, and peas. These seeds are perfectly content to get stuck in the ground when our spring climate finally cooperates come May. But some plants such as tomatoes and peppers don’t have enough time to mature if I direct sow seeds into the soil. I either have to buy young plants in May or start seeds indoors well before planting.
Starting garden seeds indoors may sound a little daunting to some, especially those new to gardening. I get it. So, to help those getting started, let’s go through the basics.
Benefits of Starting Seeds Indoors
I’ll admit, I’ve had many seasons where I’ve started seeds indoors, and I’ve had many seasons where life was too busy, and I ended up buying young plants to start my garden. When it comes down to it, though, I’d prefer to start seeds indoors. It allows me to get a jump start on my spring gardening — and after the doldrums of winter, I’m itching to play in the soil — and it provides a sense of accomplishment I don’t achieve when buying plants.
Some other benefits to growing your plants from seeds include:
- Seeds are cheaper than buying young plants from a nursery or garden center.
- Seeds give you more options in the plant varieties you can grow.
- You manage all the plant care, knowing what chemical or fertilizer applications occurred from germination to harvest.
- It’s a great learning experience, especially if you have young children in the home.
Exactly when you start your seeds inside, depends upon the plant you’re growing and how many “days to maturity” are listed on the seed package. For instance, peppers can take up to 120 days to mature. If you want plants ready to harvest in July, you need to start seeds indoors four months before that.
Ideally, you want to get seedlings outdoors and into the ground soon after the last frost date for your area, giving your plants as much time outside as possible. This date is an average calculation of springtime temperatures and when spring frosts hit. For instance, where I live, there’s a 50% chance on May 27th that temps will drop below 32° F.
Sometimes your seed package will even tell you when to start seeds indoors. In general, you can follow this timeline for common garden veggies:
- Peppers: 8 weeks before the last frost date.
- Tomatoes: 6 to 8 weeks before the last frost date.
- Beets, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, and spinach: 4 to 6 weeks before the last frost date.
- Cucumbers, squash, melons, and pumpkins: 3 to 4 weeks before the last frost date.
It doesn’t take a bunch of money to start a tray of seeds — a container or two, come potting soil (or other growing media), and the seeds themselves. The amount of money invested depends entirely upon your budget and if you think this will be a long-term endeavor or not.
A quick search online will bring up thousands of results for seed starting kits. Some will be very basic, with small trays capable of holding 12 plants, equipped with clear plastic domes. Other kits will include everything you need: much larger trays, clear lids, peat pellets, plant tags, and maybe even a seed starting heat mat and grow light.
My tip? Start small. Go cheap. Try it out once, or even twice, to see if this is something you like doing. If it is, you can upgrade down the road and put more money into the project. I’ve been starting seeds on and off for 15 years, and I started with very basic supplies, upgrading in the last couple of years.
Just like when we talked about growing microgreens, what you start your seeds in is your decision. Plastic will be the best choice, but beyond that, the only requirement is the container holds the growing media and seeds. Wider, shallow trays are more useful than tall narrow containers.
Some people purchase seed trays specifically for germinating from online retailers or local nurseries, and others use whatever they have lying around at home. Wide, shallow clamshell containers from the market that hold salads, fruit, or cupcakes are perfect. You can also use yogurt cups or egg cartons.
If you opt to buy trays, look for sturdy ones made from food-grade, BPA-free plastic. They will last through more growing seasons, keeping you from purchasing new trays often.
Now that you have your containers, you need a growing substrate for the seeds. While it may seem like a good idea, resist the urge to go outside and dig up some backyard soil to fill your containers. Growing mediums used in container gardening are lightweight, free of weed seeds, and keep moisture in the root zone while letting excess water drain out.
The most popular choice for growing media is potting soil; it’s cheap and you can find it in many places. If you want an environmentally friendly alternative, coconut coir is a great choice.
Buying seeds is undoubtedly the most expensive part of this adventure and likely the most thought-consuming. You can buy seeds in various places:
- Reputable online retailers
- Local gardening centers
- Your favorite big box store
- The family-owned hardware around the corner
Spend as much as you can on seeds. The higher quality of the seed, the better the germination rate. I buy most of my seeds from my favorite nursery. They are more expensive than other places, but the seeds are developed for the local climate, so mature plants are better suited to grow and thrive.
After you sow seeds in the potting soil, you will need to label your containers if you’re growing multiple types of plants. Even the best memory can forget what got planted in what spot — especially when seeds may take ten to fourteen days to germinate.
You can use either plastic or wooden plant tags, depending upon your preference. I find plastic to be a little more durable, and the marker doesn’t fade as quickly, but wooden tags are biodegradable and can be tossed into your compost pile.
Now that you’ve gathered your supplies, it’s time to get your hands dirty!
- Moisten your growing media using room-temperature water. Ideally, it should feel like a damp sponge. If you squeeze a handful, it should hold together slightly but not drip water.
- Fill your containers almost full with the pre-moistened growing media.
- Gently poke seeds into the soil, spacing them a few inches apart.
- Lightly sprinkle potting mix over the seeds, covering them with about 1/4″ of growing media.
- Using a permanent marker, label a plant tag and stick it in the soil to mark what you planted.
- Mist gently with water from the spray bottle.
- Cover with the lid.
- Set the container in a spot where it stays warm.
Caring For Your Plants
Getting your seeds to germinate and growing your plants indoors takes a little care and attention. All plants need proper sunlight and water to grow, especially vegetables. Healthy young plants fare better once moved outside to the garden.
Sunlight — Edible plants grow best when placed in “full-sun” spots where they receive at minimum, 6 to 8 hours of sunlight daily. Indoors, they prefer 10-12 hours of bright sun. East-facing windows provide the most sun exposure, followed by south and west. If your plants don’t get enough sunlight, they begin to look “leggy” as they’re reaching for more sun.
Remember, you can always supplement with LED lights if needed. My house doesn’t get great light, so I started my garden seeds/plants with an X1 Mini grow light. 😉
Watering — A key part of starting seeds is proper watering. Aim to keep the growing media moist without waterlogging the potting soil, causing mold and fungus to grow. Use a spray bottle to water, especially before germination, to prevent disrupting seeds. Bottled spring water, well water, and rainwater are the best sources. Tap water is okay as long as you don’t own a water softener. Once seeds germinate, you can let the potting soil dry out slightly before watering it again.
Temperature — Seed germination is best when temperatures are between 72 °F and 85 °F. If you start your seeds indoors before it gets warm outside, keep the containers away from cold drafts. The top of your fridge is an excellent place to start seeds if it receives enough sunlight.
Since you’ll be growing some of these plants indoors for upwards of two months, they may need to be repotted into bigger containers before they are moved outside. You can purchase cheap plastic pots or disintegrating peat pots or reuse plastic containers from your kitchen. You can use sour cream and cottage cheese containers or even the revered red drink cups.
Transplanting to the Garden
Once the chance of frost has passed for your area and soil temperatures begin to climb, it’s time to transplant your plants outside to your garden. A good tip is to wait 2-3 weeks after the frost date to move plants outside. If you want to warm the soil quicker, you can cover it with black plastic to trap heat.
When transplanting, follow the recommended plant spacing on the seed package to prevent competition. Break up the potting soil around the roots a bit before putting plants into a hole. Then, make sure the soil comes up a little higher than the potting soil did but doesn’t cover the plant’s bottom leaves.