Winter in our area isn’t over yet. The last frost day is still more than two months away. But spring is coming and with it the next growing season! Starting seeds indoors is the start for a new garden season.
Why start seeds indoors?
Why we do things depends on what we want to achieve. What is the outcome not just the activities? If we start seeds to have seedlings, to have an early start, or to grow a garden, those are all activities, not the outcome. Personally, we start seed to have homegrown organic food for a healthy diet and life.
In order to achieve that healthy life, we have to have seedlings for the new growing season.
Growing plants from seed is a lot of fun. I am always amazed at the miracle of life, how out of a dry little something (seed) a new plant grows and produces delicious fruits that contain the same seed to produce new plants.
To start plants from seed also saves money. It isn’t a lot of work, but you can start a lot of seedlings yourself for the price of buying one plant.
What do you need to start seeds indoors
Seed starting pots or propagation trays come in all sizes and shapes. If you want to avoid plastic you can also build your own pots out of newspapers or avoid pots altogether by using a soil block maker. There are also peat moss pots available, but from our experience, they don’t work so well. Maybe because our climate is too dry.
We use small planters (often recycled from plants we have bought here and there) for plants that are not staying inside long: like cabbage or lettuce. For peppers and tomatoes, we mostly use the (free) yogurt containers. It seems like they have the optimal size for those plants and save me some replanting work.
Recycled toilet paper tubes make great planters for cucumbers. They can be planted with the seedling into the ground, so you don’t disturb the roots. For squash and bigger plants, we use a bigger container so that the roots have more room to grow and are not disturbed by transplanting. Propagation seed starter trays are great if you just want a start on plants like lettuce, chard, beats etc.
As in most cases with gardening, we encourage you to keep things simple and doable. Plants will grow in whatever pots you start them in. If you want to be specific, you can, but there is no real need for that.
The one thing that we would recommend is sturdy planter trays. They do make life easier to handle many seedlings at once. We also grow microgreens in them all winter long, so it sure is worth it to have them.
The seed starter potting soil is important. You want good light soil. Special seed starting mix or soil that is very fine and sterilized, might be important for some seeds that are very small and hard to start. For most vegetables, we simply use a potting soil mix.
For sowing seeds in seed trays to prick them out later, you can also use vermiculite instead of soil. We have a whole blog post about it, to learn more go here.
When choosing a potting soil or a growing medium make sure to read the label. Some are really just growing mediums with no compost or fertilizer. It still is a good choice for seed starting, but as seedlings grow they do need some nutrients to grow. You can use some compost with the mix you have.
Make your own potting soil, Mel’s Mix from the Square Foot Garden book. Mix together:
1/3 peat moss
We don’t recommend using enriched potting soil. The chemical fertilizers only give the plant a very fast start, but then the plant tends to ask for more.
Labeling is important so you know what varieties you are actually growing. It does not matter what kind of labels you use. Garden labels are great, but a plastic spoon works just as well. Also, a garden notebook is a helpful gardening tool.
For germination, a seed needs moisture and nice warm temperatures, but not so much light. As soon as the seeds are up, young plants need a lot of light. A south-facing window might be all you need. An east or west facing window would be better with supplemental light. A north window is not a good choice for seedlings. With a grow light you can start seedlings anywhere in the house, and it also helps to supplement the light you have so that the seedlings don’t become spindly.
As we already mentioned seeds need warm temperatures to germinate, so find a warm spot in your house. The top of a fridge would be a better place than a cold but bright window. Placing the tray on top of a heating vent in the winter is great too. You want about 85F degrees for fast germination. A Germination Station with Heat Mat can be helpful.
After germinating not all seedlings like it warm. Winter crops like the cabbage family like it rather cool. We find they do better in a sunny basement window or out in the garage greenhouse. Check out winter sowing for cold weather crops as well.
Fill a container with soil and compact it down slightly. You want your container to be filled without air pockets, but also not too compacted. If the soil is dry, now is a good time to water. Make sure the soil is moist before planting the seeds.
Plant seeds no more than 3 times their size deep. Since we are indoors, they can be planted even more shallow. Only peas and beans do better well covered. But we usually don’t start them indoors anyway.
Plant 1-3 seeds for plants that grow best alone, like lettuce, tomatoes, and cabbage. Onions, beats and reddish love growing together as a cluster, start 4-6 seeds in one pot.
After the seeds are covered spray them with water. In our dry climate, we also like to cover the pots with a plastic wrap to keep moisture in.
Seed starting and planting out times
Plants grow best when planted out small. It does not disturb the roots so much and it is much easier to plant. Some plants like lettuce only need about 3 weeks from seed to planting out. Peppers and eggplants need the longest, but we still like to plant them out before they put out buds. For a spring indoor seed-starting schedule and a free printable go here.
Do you like to start your plants from seeds or would you rather buy seedlings?