Starting Seeds | A Guide To Starting Seeds Indoors
Starting seeds for growing plants is an exciting venture for beginning gardeners. Nothing can take away the pleasure and exhilaration of watching seeds germinate and produce plants that can beautify your garden and/or provide for your family. True that plants bought as seedlings can lessen your waiting time waiting for your garden to develop and become established. However, if you look at it closely, starting seeds indoors can give you a lot more for your money.
I’ve started hundreds of plants and vegetable gardens from seed and it is a very rewarding undertaking. However, along the way I’ve learned a lot from my own mistakes and want to share them so as to hopefully save you all of the trial and tribulations I experienced.
Benefits of Starting Seeds
Economical – in today’s trying times, you need to figure out ways to satisfy your needs as well as your hobbies. Buying seeds for starting your garden is relatively cheaper compared to buying seedlings. Imagine: a packet of seeds for more or less $1.75 can give you dozens of plants compared to a meager set of seedlings that can cost you $3.00 or more.
Additionally, many gardeners trade and exchange seeds which is not just economical but also fun. If you don’t have any fellow gardeners to exchange seeds with in your local area, you can always search for a seed exchange source online. There are many reliable ones.
More choices – Ever wonder why garden stores only have a limited variety of plant seedlings compared to their supply of seeds? That’s because some varieties are more difficult and expensive to cultivate for selling in garden stores, especially if grown out of season. With seeds, you are given the chance to choose between easy cultivars to high-maintenance ones that will challenge your skills as a gardener.
Healthier plants starters – in order to minimize the cost of maintaining a gardening business, most gardeners skip on several methods in growing plants. This may include the process of thinning (removing weak seedlings to retain healthy ones), or the proper application of water and fertilizer for a healthy plant. The best way to make sure that you have a healthy cultivar is to start your garden from seeds so you can properly do the thinning process, and you are confident that your plants are well-provided for in terms of nutrients moisture.
When Do I Start My Seeds?
Hold your horses! Although starting seeds indoors will undoubtedly produce plants, that does not guarantee that your plants will live to its full potential. You need to consider the best season when your plants will blossom and provide the most, and where you will starting your seeds.
The best time for you to do seed starting is indicated at the back of your seed packet. The label shows information on what type of plant you are growing (warm or cool season plant), the best season to start planting, and how long it would take for the plants to germinate. Some labels may show all of this information, while others will show just part of it. You can calculate the time when to start seeding by comparing that available information with your zone’s average climate. Your main goal here is to have a plant that is mature enough to grow outdoors, but not too old that it would bolt or grow to seed at the change of temperature even through hardening.
To lessen the confusion, check with your local weather station, search the net, or ask your local gardening store for the date of the last frost date in your area. Last frost dates vary from zone to zone, so there is no exact date for when to start growing seeds. The last frost dates will be your basis as to when it will be safe for you to transplant your seedlings outdoors after germination.
Let’s say you want to plant cucumber during spring time, with April 20 as your last frost date in your zone. More often than not, the last frost date cannot be guaranteed, so add about 7-10 days from the last frost date, making April 30 as your basis. Cucumber seeds take about 2-3 weeks to reach transplant maturity, so count back 2-3 weeks. From there, you’ll know that you can start sowing your seeds by April 9, so you will have seedlings ready for hardening by April 30.
Of course, you have a different schedule to follow if you are to sow your seeds under heated conditions, or through the use of a propagator. Seeds germinate early and swiftly if seeds are exposed to optimum temperature conditions. Still using cucumber and April 30 as your adjusted last frost date, seeds should be sown on April 16 instead.
Do not be confused with all these details. Different seeds grow in different conditions, and welcome each variable by keeping a journal on your seed starting experience. Write down:
- The name of your chosen seeds
- The growing conditions you provided (potting size, soil, presence of heat, use of artificial light, etc)
- The first and last date of frost plus the adjusted days if used
- When you sowed your seeds
- When your seeds germinated
- Date you started hardening
- Date when you seedlings are put out for transplant
- Any difficulties you encountered during the course of growth (i.e. late harvest, bolting, etc) and what caused these conditions
The reason for this journal is so that you will know what you are doing right, and to avoid in the future what have done wrong. Use this as your reference whenever you wish to start seeds for the next season onwards.
Which Varieties Of Seeds Should I Start With?
It’s very easy to be seduced into thinking that you can start growing any type of seeds, but you must consider your skills and capabilities first as a beginning gardener. Yes, it is much more fulfilling if you are able to grow a challenging cultivar. However, most green thumbs are nipped at the bud because their owners preferred to start tackling on a plant far bigger than they are in terms of handling and care.
It would be a total waste of time, money, and effort if you start collecting your materials and supplies for gardening, only to stop because you were not able to successfully grow your seeds. Try building your skills first with easy cultivars, then gradually build your experience from there. Make sure you have a good understanding of which types of plants and vegetables grow well in your area and go with those. I’ve personally never tackled an avacado tree and I probably never will (being from Colorado and what not).
Actually, The Colorado State Extension service has a great guide for hardy and semi-hardy plants and vegetables for the various climates. You can get the guide HERE! Also, be sure to watch the video below on pre-treating seeds. Not all seeds need pre-treating, but if you’re going to be working with one that does the video will show you various methods of pre-treatment for different varieties of seeds.
What Else Do I Need For Seed Starting?
Now that you know when to start, you must have all the necessary materials to get started. You may be asking, “hey, I have seeds, that should be enough… right?” Wish I could tell you that that is just what you need, but you do have to make some preparations if you want to grow seeds successfully, and the first item that you should begin with would be your seeds.
Seed packs come in different sizes and varieties. They come in sets of 20’s, 50’s, or 100’s, depending on how many plants you want to grow and how big your garden area will be. Whether you are buying seeds in local garden stores or online, you must inspect your seed packets closely. Check if the packs are sealed tightly, without any wet marks or stain. Make sure that your seed packets are clean and free from any openings or tears to make sure that your seeds are not contaminated.
Seed packets should also indicate the manufactured date along with the expiry date. Get a pack that says you still have at least a year to keep it in storage just in case you want to plant again months later. Always remember: The best plants come from freshest seeds, so make sure you get a pack that still has months before spoiling.
Plastic Containers For Storage
The freshest seeds should be treated with respect, so store them properly in airtight containers away from heat, direct sun, moisture, and humidity. Heat and sun can destroy seeds, while moisture and humidity can cause molds to grow on your seeds. These conditions will result in failure of your seeds to germinate, or form plants that are weak and at high risk in contracting disease.
Labels and Markers
Seeds are barely identifiable when they are out their packets, what more if they are covered in soil? Unless you are gifted with great photographic memory, it will be difficult to know what seeds you have planted in what pot and when, especially if you are planting several types of seeds at the same time. To make your labels, stick blank stickers or glue on clear paper on popsicle sticks. Do write down the name of your plant and the date when you planted the seeds before sticking the labels in the pots.
Germinating seeds are just like babies and require a sterile environment for growing and developing. Using garden soil will expose your fragile seedlings early on to pathogens that can weaken them. Create a soilless medium by mixing equal parts of perlite, vermiculite, and sphagnum moss in a large container. Mix them all thoroughly to make sure that all parts are incorporated together, and you are ready to go.
Depending on your seeds, you may have to add in trace amount of compost into the mix, or you can use compost to cover them at the top. There are also potting mixes available for starting seeds indoors that you can use instantly if you if you are after convenience. Don’t worry if you have bought more than your seedling trays can carry. Reserve the rest for transplants and container gardening in the future.
Seed trays are necessary for thinning and transplant purposes if you are seed starting indoors. Seed trays are smaller compared to regular sized pots, and you can put them anywhere inside your home or green house if relocation is necessary. Seed trays are generally between 2-3 inches deep, with varying lengths and widths depending on how many seeds you wish to germinate. Some trays come in compartments or “cells,” which makes thinning convenient and easy as it prevents roots from getting entangled against each other.
If you cannot find the right size of tray that you want, or if you wish to start with very few seeds, you can recycle small containers like milk cartons, egg trays, plastic water bottles, almost just about anything that is three inches deep, and three inches wide to accommodate 3 seeds – which, of course, you will thin out later to just one seedling.
What’s important is that you put drainage holes at the bottom to prevent drowning your plants. If you plan to re-use used pots, make sure that you wash them thoroughly and treated against harmful microorganisms by soaking it in white vinegar or bleach solution for 5 minutes. Be sure to wash off the soaking solution thoroughly and dry the pots well under the sun before you put in the soil.
Plastic covers have uses for seed starting. It helps keep in both moisture and heat, providing a great environment for seed germination. You do not have to constantly apply water to your seed tray, a process that can disturb the germinating seeds. You can use any type of plastic, provided that it is clear, thin, and will allow light to pass through. Cling wraps work best, but you can also use clear plastic bags secured with tape to keep them in place.
Seed trays are so small and shallow that sprinklers and watering cans can disturb the soil surface. I prefer to use a sprayer with a mist setting so that I can gradually put in water in my seeding tray or pot without displacing the soil or germinating seeds. This is, of course, optional. If you can provide water to your seeds in any other way without splashing, say using a tablespoon, or a very small soup ladle that has a cornered lip, or even a tea pot with a long, very narrow spout, then skip the sprayer by all means.
Light is important when starting seeds as it provides heat and helps your seedlings process its food. Some mini gardens or propagators that you can use inside your home have their own light source, while there are special lights designed for seed germination available in garden stores. However, a standard fluorescent will be enough to help provide light and heat to your seeds. Just remember to turn the lights off when the sun goes down, especially once your seeds start to germinate.
Heat mat for seed starting is optional, depending on how cold your zone is. There are several types of heat mats, but there are some that are especially designed for starting seeds indoors. No, you cannot use your warmer or heating blanket as they are too large and too hot for your seeds. Heat mats produce enough heat to increase soil temperature to 10-20 degrees Fahrenheit to help promote seed germination. They are usually made out of rubber that you place under your seedling tray to spread heat evenly at the bottom, along with a thermostat (in some models) that will enable you to control the temperature. Do follow the instructions carefully and monitor soil moisture as heating mats can dry up the soil at a faster rate.
Steps For Seed Starting Indoors:
Since you now have all your materials in order, it is time to finally start sowing your seeds.
Step 1: Gather all your materials together and place them in one area within reach, then prepare your seed starting soil by applying a small amount of water until it is damp and moist.
Step 2: Put the soil inside your seed tray or container until they are about 2/3’s full. Tap the container in order to eliminate air packets that will cause water to pool in and rot the seeds, or you can also press the soil firmly. Just don’t press the soil down as this will prevent air and water to circulate.
Step 3: Gather three small seeds or one large seed per cell or container. It may be tedious to count seeds, especially for extremely small ones, but it must be done. Crowding seeds may produce a lot of seedlings, but they are also prone to root injury. Imagine having to separate seedlings one by one when their roots have become entangled each other. Place your seeds at the center, giving adequate space in between to allow room for growth. You’ll be thinning these seeds later, so don’t worry.
Step 4: Cover the seeds with a layer of soil or compost 1/8 to 1/4 inch thick then lightly pat the layer in place. Thickness is very important as some seeds, like those of lettuce, must be covered with a very thin layer of soil because they require light to germinate.
Step 5: Very lightly apply water using your mist spray or a very fine water sprinkler to thoroughly wet the soil. Pour water carefully to prevent disturbing the soil and seeds. Stop when you see water pouring out of the drainage holes at the bottom.
Step 6: Once done, cover your seed trays in plastic or put them in a plastic bag. If you’re using cling wrap, puncture small holes on the surface to allow air circulation but not so much that it would cause heat and water to escape. If you’re placing your tray inside a plastic bag, seal the opening temporarily (so you can apply water whenever it is needed) and puncture air holes at the bottom. These holes are important for seed starting because they will prevent molds from forming inside your seed trays.
Step 7: Place your seeds in a warm area or over your heating mat. Once there, make sure that the soil temperature is at 65-70 degrees Fahrenheit; lower temperatures will cause molds to form, while higher temperatures will “cook” your seed embryo. Don’t worry if you do not have a heating mat. Placing your seed tray under a regular lamp for 6-8 hours will be enough to supply heat.
Step 8: Maintain the moisture level of your growing medium. Apply water at regular intervals, but don’t apply too much that your seed trays are always drenched.
Remove the plastic cover once you see the seed embryo emerging from the soil. This is also the time for you to use your lamp for starting seeds. Turn on the lamp 16-18 hours a day at first until your seedlings have formed a set or two of true leaves. Why such long hours? Because fluorescent lights do not have the same UV rays as the sun does. If you are using special UV lights for seedlings, follow the instructions accordingly to prevent burning your seedlings.
How To Pre-Treat Seeds:
Although most seeds will readily germinate on their own, there are some seeds which require a little help from you the gardener to get the germination process started. Here’s a great video on seed starting pre-treatments that will guide you through the pre-treat process for those more stubborn seedlings.
If you’re going to be transplanting your seedlings to your outdoor garden, you will need to make sure that you’re hardening plants before putting them into the ground.
Hopefully I’ve answered all of your questions about starting seeds indoors and you’re armed and ready to get going and growing! There are some seeds that actually prefer direct seeding as opposed to being started indoors. You can learn more about starting seeds outdoors in this article on direct seeding.
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