Indoor Seed Starting

It's seed time! You either love it or you dread it. Most of us love it! For several veggies it's the best way to up your production in a season. You start seed inside when it's too cold out (Jan-Feb), then plant out young plants when it warms up, usually in March. It helps them mature faster in the garden to produce more veggies before the heat of summer hits and slows them down. If something takes 90 days to mature, and those seedlings already have 30 or 45 of those days under their belts when they hit the garden, you're getting food asap. Tomatoes a month sooner? Yes, please! (Oh, it's also great to start seeds indoors when it's blistering hot out for fall crops.)

Another reason gardeners start their own seed is for quality control. Of course you can get tomato plants from a nursery, but occasionally those seedling have a rough history. If they had a chill while young they could be stunted. If they are root bound, same story. Starting your own gives them the best start you can.

Bonus Tip: When you do buy plants (we all do) don't buy big tomato plants! Those guys with baby tomatoes on them already are stressed, not happy. A smaller seedling is cheaper, it will catch up in no time, and produce far better in the long run. But, back to seeds. Where was I...? So starting your own seeds can be nice peace of mind.

One more reason to start seeds (do you need more?) is the variety! This stuff we love. It is much easier to get fun, delicious, local winners, heirlooms, or your neighbor's grandma's favorite from seed. Be it store bought or traded seeds, you have far more to choose from.

Last but not least, seeds are pennies on the dollar folks. Once you have your setup, starting seeds is far cheaper than plants, so you can up your quantity. Who wants more plants? (hand raise). Great! Let's get started!

Step 1: Know when to sow seeds: One important point in starting seeds indoors when to sow. To find this, see on the seed packet when they should be planted outside (two weeks before last frost? Not until after all frost is past?) For us, in the Austin, TX, area the average frost free date is mid-March. From there, count backward 6-8 weeks, and start your seeds. The goals is for your plants to not outgrow their first home before planting out. Some folks start even earlier and transplant to secondary indoor pots...I've yet to be that gardener. January/February are high seed sowing months here.

Step 2: Buy or Make your own seed starting mix.

Homemade Seed Starting Mix Recipe:

Equal parts of

  1. peat moss

  2. vermiculite

  3. perlite

Optional: 1 T garden lime per gallon of mixture.

Soil Mix Directions:

  1. Combine all parts in a large bucket and mix thoroughly.

  2. Add water to the mixture, not too much.

  3. Toss with your hands until mixture is moist but not soggy (like that awesome kinetic sand stuff).

  4. Fill seed trays with the mix, just dump on scoops and spread across the whole tray.

(Up-cycle Tip: Use empty toilet paper rolls on a tray as planting cells, then plant right into the garden, roll and all. This is so great with kids!)

Step 3: Sow Your Seeds

Choose varieties that are proven successful for our area, check online for best local varieties. Make tags for each row. Seriously...don't skip any, you WILL forget later what you have. Ahem.

  1. Gather seeds, labels and chopstick or a pencil.

  2. Insert seed labels into the seed tray first. (See all those cute varieties? Eeeee!)

  3. Read the seed package and sow the seed according to the depth listed. Cover with seed starting mix.

  4. General seed sowing tip: Sow seeds up to 2 times their width. For example if the seed is 1/4 inch wide then plant the seed 1/2 inch deep. For tiny seeds, just place them on the soil surface and barely cover with a sprinkling of seed starting mix.

  5. Keep the soil moist until the seeds sprout by covering them with a plastic dome, burlap or plastic wrap. Uncover once they start sprouting.

Step 4: Place seed tray in a warm spot.

Such as on top of the fridge, dryer or warm window sill. Heat mats underneath can also can be used, but not required. My simple heat mat is a heating pad with the fabric cover taken off. I keep the heat on low and find this works perfectly. Warm soil tells those little seeds to root up. Most don't need light at this point.

Step 5: Place seed tray(s) under lights.

Once seeds have sprouted they need to be under lights! Lights will need to be about 1"-2" above the seedling to be strong enough to grow those babies. Most folks prep it so either the light can be raised up as they grow, or a shelf that can move down as they grow (like lights mounted into a book case). This keeps that 1"-2" space from the seedlings.

Step 6: Plant Out your Seedlings

There are various stages of planting seedlings out into the garden. Before your seedlings are ready for the garden beds, it's a good idea to adapt them to outdoor conditions. "Hardening off" is a phrase that means leaving trays outdoors for a few hours each day to adapt them to outside temperatures, sun and breezes to reduce shock. Timing-wise, some gardeners plant seedlings out early, and are hyper-prepared to cover them should the need arise. Most just wait until the proper weather arrives, then plant them out after they adapt for a few days. Either way, you seeds will have a great start from their indoor beginnings.

You guys, setting up your seed starting space seems daunting, and it keeps people from trying to start their own seeds. You can do it! Really, once you get a light or two and some newspaper, you can start on your counter. Once you do you'll wonder why you ever waited so long. It's adorable and satisfying to see your own little army of sprouts growing wherever you can put them, and then you have a jump on the grow season that makes a world of difference.