Tis the season for seed starting! That’s right, now is the time to get your spring garden transplants started inside. To do so, we’re going to guide you through everything you need to know to set up your own little seed-starting station at home. If this looks daunting to you, you can always stick with seeds that get planted straight outside and/or purchase transplants from a garden center. Growing your own will take time, but save money (which is often the trade-off in gardening).
There are many seeds you can start indoors now to transplant out later and others that you can plant directly into your garden.
TIP 1: Follow an existing seed calendar. Check out our Monthly Seed Planting Guides to keep track of what’s what.
TIP 2: Keep a journal. We recommend keeping some sort of journal (even if it’s just on the back of a napkin) to keep track of when you planted your seeds and when you should put them out. You will thank yourself for this when you are wondering when harvest time will be.
Knowing what varieties to plant can be tricky…
TIP 3: Plant what you’ll eat. You’ll stay more motivated if you are growing something you really like to eat and use in your favorite recipes.
TIP 4: Plant what gives you the biggest bang for your buck. If you like buying organic and heirloom varieties (which we do!), growing them can be a big money-saver. See our “Resources” at the end of the post for our favorite sources.
TIP 5: Pre-sprout your seeds. This is an optional step that I find very helpful. Because I often use seeds that are several years old or pick up seeds of unknown age at seed swaps or from friends, I like a little insurance that these seeds are actually going to come up before going to the trouble of planting them. I am also a little impatient, so I like to hurry things along a bit. To do this, I often pre-sprout my seeds on damp napkins in old plastic containers. Anytime a restaurant puts a giant wad of extra napkins in our take-out bag, I store them away for seed-starting time. I also keep a stack of yogurt and cheese containers with lids around just for this purpose.
Just tear out a small square of napkin (or paper towel) and place inside the lid of your container. Sprinkle it with just a little water – enough to make it the consistency of a damp sponge. Take your seed of choice and sprinkle however many seeds as you want to have plants, plus about one-quarter more (i.e., if you want 4 plants in the end, start with 5 seeds). Put the top on the container, place it in a warm spot (light is not really necessary), and wait. Check it daily, as some seeds will sprout very quickly. Once you see that little tail poke out from the seed, it’s time to plant it in your soil. Be very careful, and don’t wait too long, as these newly sprouted seeds are very delicate.
While you are waiting for your seeds to sprout, you can get your soil ready.
TIP 6: Use sterile soil. For seeds that are just starting out, you want sterile soil that is not too nutrient-dense. The young seedlings don’t need a lot of soil nutrients when they are just starting out, and too much of certain nutrients can even “burn” the young plants. Sterile soil is important to avoid any soil-born pathogens. How does one get sterile soil?
Soil Option 1 (Easier): Purchase a sterile seed-starting mix from your local garden center.
Soil Option 2 (Cheaper): A good money-saving option is to dig up soil from your yard or garden or even use old potting soil from pots that are no longer being used. If you use soil that has been hanging out outside, it is a good idea to sterilize it. Make sure the soil is relatively free of clumps and debris. Put soil in trays in the oven at 200 degrees until the soil has been fully heated through. This is a trick I got from my grandma who has been a gardening powerhouse for ohhh about 70 years now, so I think it’s a good one!
Once your soil is sterile and sifted, moisten it in a bucket until it is like a damp sponge, and then use it to fill your containers. What containers are those? On to the next section!
Just about anything can be a seed-starting container! I have about 1000 of the little plastic plant cell-packs (pictured throughout), so I generally just use them these days, but if you don’t have them, don’t go out and buy them.
TIP 7: Use just about any container you have as a seed planter. You can use yogurt cups, reused paper cups, toilet paper rolls (see demo below!)… just about anything that can hold dirt! Just poke some holes in the bottom of whatever it is you are using so that water can drain. Then be sure to put them in another tray or pan to catch the water that is coming out.
TIP 8: Don’t forget to label! If you are like me, you’ll think you’ll remember what you planted, but you won’t. I like to hold onto those flat, wooden stirrers they often have at coffee shops to use for this purpose. They are like the adult equivalent of a popsicle stick.
Water (and Air)
TIP 9: Soil should be like a damp sponge. As you may have noticed, I am a big fan of the “damp sponge” comparison. Your soil should generally be moist, but not soaking wet. Allow it to dry out somewhat between waterings, but not too much, especially when the plants are very young. The older they get, the more they can handle slightly dryer soil between waterings. But one major drought for tiny seedlings will be all it takes to inflict permanent damage.
TIP 10: Make a mini-greenhouse. If you have a clear plastic dome of any kind (like what lettuce mixes come in or any other plastic clamshell containers), you can use it like a greenhouse. I find this helpful when plants are just coming up because overhead watering can be tough on young seedlings.
Once they are up and growing, I prefer to uncover them to allow for more air circulation and prevent mold and disease. If you are an over-achiever, you can even put a low fan on the young seedlings to promote air circulation and encourage stronger stems.
A very sunny south-facing window can sometimes be enough, but more often than not, it will result in somewhat spindly plants. Also, spaces next to windows can often be a cold micro-climate in your house; whereas you want to start your seeds in a warm place.
TIP 11: Thrift your grow lights. As you may have guessed, I am not the type to run out and buy an elaborate growlight set-up. My favorite technique is to pick up a couple old desk lamps from the thrift store, preferably the kinds with bendy necks. Put a CFL bulb in them, and they will function much like the florescent lights in actual grow lights. If you want to up the amount of light getting to the plants, you can surround the lights and plants with reflective metal or mirrors. I use old aluminum pie tins or roasting pans, and they work great!
Keep your lights about 2-4 inches above the plants at all times. Too close, and the plants could burn. Too far away, and they will get spindly reaching for that light. You’ll want to keep your lights on them at least 6-8 hours a day, but to be honest, I rarely turn them off because I am too scared I will forget to turn them back on again. A light timer would be great! But I haven’t taken that plunge yet. As far as I can tell, they don’t seem to mind the 24-7 “sun”shine…
If you have them next to a window, it may be best to close the blinds at night, lest your neighbors get ideas about what kind of grow operation you have going on over there.
Wait, Watch, and Enjoy!
Once the seeds are sprouted and hanging out in their soil with regular watering and lots of light, all there is left to do is wait, watch, and enjoy!
TIP 12: Time your outdoor transition well. Wait until your leaves have at least 2-3 sets of “true leaves” (this does not include their first leaf-pair which are not really leaves) and until your seed planting calendar says it’s safe to transplant them outside.
Watch to make sure they have enough (but not too much) water and light. Enjoy how amazing it is that all of this life is coming out of a tiny little seed… Enjoy nourishing it into a full-grown plant… Enjoy dreaming about the veggies that it will give you in a couple months!
And along with those dreams, I leave you with these chubby little cuties…
PS Bonus Tip – When it’s time to transplant your precious babies into the great outdoors, don’t just go straight from the warm bosom of the indoors to the great wild with no transition time. Be sure to “harden off” your seedlings by putting them outside for a few hours at a time in dappled sunlight until they toughen up. Then plant. If a late frost is expected, cover them with row cloth or a jar or bottle over night.
As promised, our favorite vendors:
- SeedSavers – Seed Savers is a non-profit organization whose whole mission is to collect and save seeds from heirloom plant varieties. They offer organic and non-organic options. Support their very important work by buying their seeds and find beautiful, unique, new, old varieties!
- Botanical Interests – We love the varieties available through Botanical Interests. They have many heirloom and organic varieties, and their seed packets are full of useful information and labeled with beautiful botanical illustrations.
- Southern Exposure Seed Exchange – Particularly if you are growing in the south, this seed company is an amazing resource! Seeds also include many heirloom varieties. Their seed catalog has a wealth of information about growing in our region in general as well as for each plant group and each seed variety. This is where to go if you want to know how well-suited a variety is to our climate.