It’s time to start thinking about Spring, about garden planning and about seed starting. Here in Minnesota, Spring is a ways off, but that doesn’t stop me from getting really excited about the prospect of green and growing things. Some of you lucky gardeners that live in milder climates may have already began starting seeds indoors.
I’m not going to say seed starting indoors is easy, because it’s not. So if you see “10 Easy Steps” referring to seed starting don’t believe it. Well okay, the actual process of putting some seeds in dirt is easy, but once the little babies start sprouting, they need lots of attention on a daily basis. My advice to those of you who have never done seed starting is to start with one or two trays your first time. In trying to keep it as simple as I can, here are some basic step-by-step instructions for seed starting indoors.
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- My handy Seed Starting Chart available in my Free Gardening Printables Resource Library.
- Seeds – did you collect seeds last fall? If not, most nurseries and big box stores have their seeds out. For mail order, I like Park Seeds and Swallowtail Seeds. I’ve found that these seed companies have more of a variety than the big box stores. If the seed packet says to direct sow, it’s not a good idea to try and start those types of seeds indoors.
- Seed Starting Potting Mix – if you’re trying to do this on the cheap, don’t skip a good seed starting potting mix. I like this one or something similar.
- Pots – like these or these. (Side note here, I do not like peat pots, for me they dry out way to fast. I’ve used both plastic and peat pots and I have much better success with plastic.) I use pots that are big enough to allow the roots a little room, so I don’t have to transplant the seedlings into bigger pots before moving them outside. If you’re just starting out, you can use yogurt containers, plastic or Styrofoam cups. Just make sure to poke holes in the bottom of your container for drainage.
- Trays to hold the pots – I like the ones with the domes. The dome acts like a little greenhouse and it helps to retain heat and moisture to give your seeds a good start. Really get the domes, you’ll be glad you did and you can reuse them for several years. I’ve ordered several of these that come with the pot, tray and dome all included. They come in both small and larger sizes. These trays will work perfect if you want to start smaller trays of different types of seeds. They are very sturdy and will last for several years.
- Proper Lights – sorry a sunny windowsill just won’t cut it. You’ll end up with leggy seedlings that will flop over. My set up consists of cheap shop lights with hanging chains. These are available on Amazon and I could provide a link, but I think they are cheaper at big box hardware stores.
- Shelving – this is the one I use. Because the width on this one is 48”, it works perfect for the 48” shop lights. It’s very easy to hang shop lights on it and be able to adjust them. There are lots of DIY seed starting set-ups on Pinterest, but I really love this style because of the ability to hang the shop lights and I don’t have to worry about water on the shelves when I’m watering. It’s definitely an investment up front, but I’ve been using mine for several years. Amazon has a great price on this shelving unit, $20 cheaper than the one I bought several years ago at a big box store.
- Power Strip with a timer, or a separate timer.
- S-hooks to hang the shop lights.
- Chains to hang the lights (if yours don’t already come with them).
- Fluorescent bulbs. I just use the cheap ones, really nothing special and I’ve started many, many seeds indoors and had great success with just the regular fluorescent bulbs.
- Fan (I use a cheap oscillating one).
- Fertilizer (I use Fish Emulsion for my veggies, and just watered down MiracleGro for my flowers).
- Plant Tags and permanent marker.
- Watering can and spray bottle.
If you’re a beginner, start small and choose 5 or 6 flowers or veggies to start with. Some really easy seeds to start indoors are tomatoes, cucumbers, marigolds, zinnias and nastursiums. Don’t start them to early though.
Timing – so this step requires a little math. First of all you’ll want to know the last frost date for your zone. Dave’s Garden website has a cool page where you can enter your zip code and it will tell you when your last frost date is. Check it out here. Don’t know your gardening zone, you can look that up here. Next look at your seed packet and it should tell you when to start your seeds. For example: I live in Zone 4b so my last frost date is somewhere around May 1st. The seeds that I’m starting say to sow indoors 8 weeks before danger of frost has past. So counting back 8 weeks from May 1st, I come up with March 6th. So, I will start these seeds sometime in the first week of March to have a few days to harden them off before planting them. I go through my seed packets and divide them up according to how many weeks before the last frost date that I need to start them. My handy Free Printable Seed Starting Chart, works great for keeping track of your seed start dates, as well as your results.
Set up your light station – You’ll want to have chains attached to your lights, so that you can adjust the entire light. Your seedlings will need at least 16 hours of light per day. I never remember to turn the lights off and on, so very early on in my seed starting venture, I knew I would need a timer.
Mix the soil – Follow the instructions on your bag of seed starting mix to prepare the soil. Most mixes need to be mixed with water. Don’t get your mix to soggy, or your seeds will rot before they have a chance to germinate.
Add soil to you pots – Fill your pots with soil, leaving a little room at the top for the seeds and soil to bury them. Pack the soil down to eliminate air gaps.
Planting the seeds – Follow directions on the seed packets as to what depth to plant the seed. A good rule-of-thumb is the smaller the seed, the more shallow it needs to be planted. Some teeny tiny seeds don’t even require a covering of soil. I usually plant 3 – 4 seeds per pot. I use the eraser end of a pencil to make a couple of indentations in the soil, as deep as the seed should be planted. After the seeds have been dropped, go back and cover them with soil. Once I have a tray planted, I use a spray bottle and just lightly mist the soil. Use a plant tag to label your seedlings.
Covering your newly planted seeds – Cover your trays with plastic domes, or plastic wrap to create a greenhouse effect. Some instructions say to remove the cover when you see the first signs of green, but I usually wait until the seedlings almost reach the top of the plastic cover. Once the lid is removed, make sure to check the seedlings every day. I start watering with a spray bottle and just mist the soil. Once the seedlings are bigger and their roots are established, I water them with a small watering can.
Fan – As soon as all the domes come off, I get my oscillating fan on low and get it blowing on the seedlings. This helps to mimic wind, makes them strong and helps to avoid any diseases.
Adjusting your lights – I keep my lights just a couple of inches from the tops of the seedlings. You want them close enough so the seedlings don’t stretch for the light and get leggy. As your seedlings grow, your lights will have to be adjusted frequently. If you have several trays of seedlings, they will need to be repositioned so that each plant grows straight and gets ample light.
Fertilizing – When your seedlings get their second set of leaves, it’s time to start giving them a little fertilizer. I start out with a very weak mix of fertilizer and water. The next time I fertilize, I will add a bit more fertilizer to the water. I only fertilize my seedlings once a week.
Thinning your seedlings – I hate thinning my seedlings. To kill those sweet little seedlings that I’ve nurtured and brought to life just pains me. So I have to keep telling myself that it’s better to have one strong plant than to have a bunch of scrappy weaklings. I’ve learned over the years to not sow as many seeds in the first place, but with some of the tiny ones, its difficult not to over sow. To thin, I simply snip the weakest seedlings with a pair of tiny scissors and leave two or three to thrive.
Heat mats – If you have your seed starting set-up in the garage or any place where the temperature is not consistent, you might want to consider using a heat mat. The seeds will germinate quicker and the heat mat will serve to keep them a consistent temperature. I have never used a heat mat for starting seeds, but since many gardeners do, I do want to mention them.
Hardening off – Once your plants are ready to go outside, it’s a good idea to harden them off. After being in a controlled environment, they need to adjust to being outdoors. To harden off, simply sit your plants outdoors for a couple of hours at a time each day, extending the time a little each day to toughen them up. Start out putting them in a shade location and increase their sun exposure a little each day. However, don’t leave the plants in full sun or they will definitely fry.
It’s so gratifying to grow flowers or vegetables from seed. After the initial purchase of your lighting, shelving, trays and pots, the cost is minimal. You can start small and add on every year. I encourage you to give seed starting indoors a try. If you want a much simpler method of starting seeds outdoors, check out my post on Winter Sowing. Also, check out my post on Winter Gardening – Let’s Get A Jump on Spring, if you haven’t already done so.
Thanks a bunch for stopping by today to learn about seed starting. Do you start seeds indoors? Are you going to give it a try? Leave a comment and let me know. Or, if you have questions, leave a comment and ask. While you’re here, please feel free to have a look around. If you like what you see, subscribe to receive updated posts and access to my Free Gardening Printables Resource Library.
Happy Winter Gardening,
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