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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Indoor Seed Starting Supplies:
- My handy Seed Starting Chart available in my Free Gardening Printables Resource Library. With this you can keep track of your successes and failures, so that you can refer back to it next year.
- 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. Please note: 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.
- Seed Starting Pots or Containers – 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. Even though you will see them all over Pinterest, I would not use egg cartons to start seeds. Just like peat pots, they dry out too quickly. Also egg cartons are too small and the seedlings will have to be transplanted early on.
- 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.
- My Favorite Seed Starter Cell & Tray Sets – These are hands down the Best Containers and Trays for Seed Starting that I’ve ever used. They come in packs of 10 and include a watertight base tray, clear plastic dome lids, a seedling poker thingy for planting the seed, a gadget to assist with transplanting and plant labels. They are available in both small and larger sizes and work perfectly for starting smaller batches of seeds. These are strong and sturdy and will last for several years. The first year I used them, they quickly became my favorites.
- 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 shelving unit 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 to 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. 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.
- 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).
- Plant Tags and permanent marker.
- Watering can and spray bottle.
How to Start Seeds Indoors – Steps:
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 nasturtiums. Don’t start them to early though.
When to Start Seeds Indoors – Timing
So this step requires a little math, but don’t worry, its easy.
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 12 – 16 hours of light per day.
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 the pots – Fill your pots with soil, leaving a little room at the top for the seeds and soil to cover them. Gently pack the soil down to eliminate large 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 (or the little gadget that comes with my favorite trays) 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 set 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. Your seedlings will need 12-16 hours of light per day.
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, it’s 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. Don’t pull the seedlings out because the roots of the seedlings you want to keep will be damaged.
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 at a consistent temperature.
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. I’m lucky to have a pop up greenhouse (similar to this one) where I can harden off my baby seedlings.
Transplanting Outdoors – Now that your seedlings have been hardened off, it’s best to place them in their new home in your garden on an overcast or cloudy day. Be sure to give them a good drink of water, once they are planted. It’s normal for hardened off plants to wilt a bit when they are first transplanted, but they will soon acclimate to their new homes and will be off and growing.
Seed Starting – Problems
How to Control Fungus Gnats – Sometimes fungus gnats can be a problem with seed starting indoors. I’ve never had them damage my seedlings, but I understand if there’s a large enough infestation, they can. I haven’t tried it, but I’ve read that sprinkling a little cinnamon on the surface of the soil will keep them away. I’ve also read reviews on this product and I’ve decided to order some this year to give them a try.
How to Prevent Damping Off – If your seedlings suddenly wilt and look mushy or discolored, chances are they have damping off. There’s nothing you can do to remedy the situation, but there are ways to avoid it. Damping off can be prevented by using clean containers, new potting mix, a heating mat under the seed trays, good drainage and adequate light. If you would like to read more about damping off, here’s an article by the University of Minnesota Extension. I have also been reading that using a small pebble gravel (like the stuff used in fish tanks) will prevent damping off.
It’s incredibly 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.
Don’t forget to pick up your Free Gardening Printables, especially the Seed Starting Chart and the Seed Inventory Chart. Simply complete the form below to subscribe and receive the password to the Gardening Resources Library.
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. I would love to hear from you and be able to help with your gardening questions.
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