Garden Time: Starting Seeds Indoors (Part One)

2008-2-29 - Seed sowing (3) croppedBy Jill Henderson

It’s the deepest, coldest part of winter and by now you’ve probably spent weeks pouring over stacks of seed catalogs and thumbing through that old box of seeds that you saved from last year’s garden, all the while taking notes and imagining the luscious herbs and veggies that will grace your garden rows this summer. And now that you’ve made the perfect selections, it’s time to turn your attention to starting some of those wonderful seeds indoors!

If you’ve never started your own seedlings before, now is as good a time as any to give it a try. And if you have kids at home, why not get them in on a little seed starting of their own? Besides being educational and a great family-time project, it will provide hours of entertainment and stoke their young imaginations. In this two-part series I cover the fundamentals of starting your own seeds, so you and your family can get a leg up on spring.

Getting Started
Before we jump in, there are a few things to consider when starting seeds indoors. The first is to make sure that you have, or will have, a suitable place to plant your young seedlings outdoors when the time comes. Young, actively growing plants demand a lot of attention and they won’t last long in their starting trays or pots once the season is upon you. And in the case of early spring crops, be prepared to protect them from sudden frosts or freezes once they are set out in the garden.

Also, know which seeds can be started indoors as some do better than others. For example, carrots don’t transplant well because their very long taproots are easily injured during transplanting. Carrots are best sown directly into the garden. Look on the back of each seed packet – if there aren’t any instructions for starting the seeds indoors, it probably isn’t a good idea. Along those lines, most seed packets include information and instructions as to when to start seedlings indoors and when to move the seedlings outdoors. These are usually good recommendations, but keep in mind plants may grow more slowly in less than ideal environmental conditions common in most home set-ups. The majority of seeds usually take 7 to 14 days to germinate and 8 to 10 weeks before they are ready to set out in the garden. With that in mind, have a plan to keep seeds and seedlings warm, watered, and safe for an extended period of time.

Starting Trays
As more and more gardeners are starting vegetables and herbs indoors, the demand for seed starting products has prompted the gardening world to respond with larger and larger selections of propagation tools and products. To the seasoned gardener, this large selection can be a source of hours of entertainment, but to the novice it can be quite overwhelming. The vast array of products and information coupled with advice from professionals, aficionados, and friends is enough to drive anyone mad.

The truth is that just about anything that can hold soil can be used to start seeds in. Some of the more interesting starting containers include eggshells, plastic food trays, paper pots, ice cube trays, and disposable aluminum roasting pans. The creative gardener working on the cheap can almost always “make it work.” However, making something work and knowing something works are two completely different things when starting seeds for the first time.

For first time gardeners I strongly recommend using a pre-made seed-starting kit designed to offer some measure of control over the micro-environment that seeds need to germinate. These kits should include a plastic sheet of individual plant cells with drainage holes, a flat without drainage holes, and a clear dome to cover the whole works. The quality and reusability of these trays varies by retailer, but even the cheapest ones (usually around six dollars) can be reused at least once if handled with care.

Don’t forget to have some way to mark each cell or pot with the name of the seeds planted in them. It’s much too easy to lose track of the different varieties once they begin to grow. I like to use small sections of old plastic window blinds or strips cut from empty milk jugs on which I write – in permanent ink – the name of each plant variety and the date the seed was sown. Trust me, you don’t want to skip this step!

Starting Medium
Once you have your seeds, markers and seed trays lined up, you’ll need a medium in which to plant. There are many types of potting soils and soilless potting mixes out there and each brand promises fantastic results. However, any soilless mix that does not contain fertilizer will do. Remember that seedlings come prepackaged with their own fertilizer in the form of the endosperm. Added fertilizer makes seedlings grow too fast and the stems become long and leggy until they are unable to hold themselves upright. These plants usually don’t survive transplanting and if they do, there’s a good chance they won’t grow normally.

Once you have your medium, fill your seed flats or trays to within ¼ in. (6 mm) of the top. This allows room for water to collect when the seedlings emerge, facilitating more effective watering. Also, before planting the seeds, slightly press the mix down into the container, adding more as necessary. Once you begin to water the dry mix, it will shrink down. A little gentle compacting helps keep soil at the right level and seeds in place during the first watering.

This part seems pretty straightforward – and it is – but it also deserves a few lines for those who have never planted a seed before. No matter what you hear, you can’t plant a seed the wrong way up or down.  Seeds know which is which and will almost always be able to orient themselves no matter how they are placed in the soil.

When sowing seeds, always refer to the directions on the back of each seed packet for the correct depth at which each variety should be planted. Very small seeds such as cabbage should be planted around ¼” deep, medium sized seeds such as tomatoes at around ½” and large seeds such as squash as deep as ¾-1”. A pencil works exceptionally well to make uniform-sized holes in the soil.

When sowing seeds, there are two approaches: one is reckless abandon and the other is precision. I prefer precision for all but the tiniest of seeds.  I also like to allow for poor germination rates and sow at least two or three seeds in each individual cell or pot for every one plant desired.  It is helpful to decide beforehand how many plants of each variety that you really want or need before planting.  Find your ideal number and add a couple extra to act as insurance for future losses.

That should get you and your new seed-starting efforts off to a pretty good start.  In Part Two I will cover the four most important things your newly sprouting seedlings need to thrive indoors!

See you next week!

Jill Mugshot 2 Jill Henderson is an artist, author, and the editor of Show Me Oz.
She is a life-time organic gardener, seed saver and naturalist.  Her books, including The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs and the Garden Seed Saving Guide, can be found in our bookstore.

Copyright Jill Henderson 2011 – All Rights Reserved

…and don’t forget to tell your friends you got it from


One response to “Garden Time: Starting Seeds Indoors (Part One)

  1. Reblogged this on Show Me Oz and commented:

    An oldie, but a goodie from the Show Me Oz archives…

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