During my years as a novice gardener, my end-of-season harvests were hit and miss. While some plants made it through to the end just fine, many didn’t even reach the production phase before the autumn frost came.
I was spending months caring for these plants and taking all the right precautions to keep them healthy. But in the end, I wasn’t getting anything out of it!
After one particularly disappointing season, I realized that the issue was my shorter growing season. Thanks to the cool climate I live in, many of my plants didn’t have a chance of reaching their full potential.
I knew that if I wanted to see my garden truly flourish, I had to get a head-start on the season. That’s when I learned how to start seeds indoors.
Not only did it solve my production problem, but I discovered a slew of additional benefits as well.
Why Should You Start Seeds Indoors?
You don’t have to live in a cold environment to start seeds early. This gardening technique offers several benefits that could make or break your growing season.
It’s Useful for Short Growing Seasons
In my case, starting seeds indoors was a case of necessity. This is true for anyone who lives in a colder climate. The farther you get from the equator, the less time you have to make your garden flourish. Some locations have seasons that are less than 120 days long!
No matter where you live, every day counts. Indoor germination lets you save several weeks of time. So, you can get started outdoors the moment the weather gets warmer.
It’s Less Expensive
Gardening can get expensive pretty quickly. Not only do you have to pay for the plants, but there’s also potting mix, containers, and tools to think about. During the start of the season, the biggest expense for most gardeners is the seedlings.
There’s a lot that goes into determining the price of a seedling, so it’s almost impossible to budget ahead of time.
Regardless of the prices you encounter, seedlings are always going to be more expensive than basic seeds. By starting indoors and germinating seeds on your own, you can cut back on your garden’s startup costs significantly.
Creates a More Productive Season
Even if you have a long growing season, you can still start seeds early and maximize your harvest. Generally, starting earlier leads to a more productive season. Depending on how things go, you may even have a double harvest.
The reason for this all comes down to preparation. Germinating seeds inside your home results in established seedlings with a higher chance of success.
You Have Better Control Over Quality
Seedlings and established plants from nurseries are great if speed and simplicity are your top priority. However, they offer very little when it comes to quality control.
Starting seeds in your home lets you grow your plants how you want. You’ll be there every step of the process and can adapt growing practices that work with your lifestyle.
It Provides a Wide Array of Choices
Another huge advantage of growing from seeds is that you have more plant options to choose from. Nurseries can only provide so much variety. You don’t have to settle for what’s available locally.
While you may find a couple of plant variations at your local nursery, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of species to explore. There are over 15,000 varieties of tomatoes alone.
The Process is Fun
Finally, the process of watching seeds grow is just fun. Most people get into gardening because they enjoy watching plants change over time.
Starting from seeds is an extension of all the things you love about gardening.
How to Plan for Starting Seeds Indoors
The key to success at the start of your growing season is preparation. Before you even start the process of germination, take some time to formulate a plan.
Many seasoned gardeners start gathering supplies and sketching out their future garden during the winter months. Here are some things to do in preparation.
Finding the Right Seeds
First things first, what do you want to grow? While it might seem like an easy enough question, you’d be surprised by how little gardeners think about this.
Think about whether you want ornamental plants or harvestable ones. If you want to grow an edible garden, consider your favorite foods and work from there. Make a list of what you want to grow.
Again, don’t limit yourself to what’s available locally. There are several great seed catalogs out there filled to the brim with unique plants and variations. Use those for inspiration.
Once you have a general idea of what plants you want, take a look at your gardening space and create a rough map of where things will go. The last thing you want to deal with is a ton of excess seedlings to deal with.
Gather Your Containers
The great thing about starting seeds is that you don’t need fancy pots. Many box stores and nurseries sell trays that are purpose-built for seedlings. They’re relatively affordable and can help you keep things organized.
Alternatively, you can use recycled materials. Anything from yogurt cups to large egg cartons will do.
Pay Attention to Light
As you know, plants need sun and water to thrive. Seedlings are particularly sensitive to light. They need between 16 and 18 hours of sun every day.
Chances are, you’ll be starting the seeds in the last few weeks of winter, so available sunlight will be limited.
If that’s the case, consider getting a grow light. Artificial lighting can stimulate photosynthesis, resulting in growth. Best of all, they give you better control over the growing environment.
When Should You Start Seeds Indoors?
By now, you may be itching to get started. Before you jump the gun, it’s important to time the process strategically. Starting too early will only result in a higher rate of seed mortality.
Generally, it’s a good idea to wait until 6 weeks before the last frost. You’ll have to use weather forecasts and historical data to find out when that is for your area. Of course, there’s no way to know for sure when the last frost will be, so use this as a general guideline.
Also, read the seed packet. Some seeds don’t follow that 6-week rule. For example, broccoli and eggplant need to be started 8 to 9 weeks before the last frost.
Which Seeds Should You Start Indoors?
There’s no shortage of seeds that you can plant to get a head-start on your growing season. These plants are known to be quite hardy and easy to transplant, making them great contenders.
As always, your climate may affect success. If you’re unsure about whether or not a plant will work for indoor germination, check with the packet. Most will have clear information presented for easy reference. Here’s a small collection of easy plants to try out.
Some plants, such as spinach, celery, chard, and melon, can be started indoors as well. However, they tend to be more sensitive during the transplant process, so proceed with caution.
Plants That Aren’t Suitable
Some seeds will not fare well if started indoors. On the packet, they’re often labeled as “direct sow.” This means that they should be planted outside in your garden and started from seed there. These plans include:
- Sweet Potatoes
How to Start Seeds Indoors
Now that you understand a bit more about what works and what doesn’t, it’s time to get started. The first thing you need to do is buy your seeds.
When you shop, stick with reputable sources. Well-known brands offer quality seeds that have a higher chance of successful germination. If your budget calls for it, go with heirloom seeds.
Next up, you need to prepare your containers. Seeds are susceptible to moisture and soil issues. Proper drainage is crucial if you want your seeds to germinate.
Whether you’re using recycled containers or premade seedling pots, you can create drainage by simply drilling a few holes at the bottom. This will allow water to escape efficiently.
Once that is done, you can start filling them with a seed-starting mix. Do not use traditional soil. It doesn’t drain well and can lead to disease.
Seed-starting mix is made up of things like vermiculite, peat, and perlite. They hold water well and create the perfect environment for germination.
Pre-moisten the mix and fill each container.
Planting the Seeds
One rookie mistake that new gardeners make is not planting seeds at the right depth. Check with your seed packet for exact information. In most cases, you will need to plant the seed at a depth that’s equal to twice its width.
Say, for example, that your seed is half an inch in diameter. You would need to plant it a full inch below the soil. Typically, your seeds are going to be much smaller than that.
The best way to go about planting tiny seeds is to create a small indent in the planting mixture with your finger. Gently place the seed into the indent and push it down with a soft stick. Or, you can apply a thin layer of mix over it.
It’s good to plant several seeds. You can drop more than one seed in each container and prepare more seeds than you have spots for in your garden. Not every seed will germinate, so it’s always good to have some backups.
After all of your seeds are planted, place your containers in a warm location. Seeds are more likely to germinate when they are at around 65 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit. To heat the seeds evenly, place the containers on top of something warm. This could be a dedicated heating pad or the top of your refrigerator.
Now, just leave your seeds to germinate. Keep the planting mix moist, but don’t overdo it. You don’t want to drown the seeds. Use a mister to avoid overwatering.
Caring for Seedlings
With a few days, you should start to see some green little sprouts popping out of the plant mixture. Don’t congratulate yourself just yet! You still need to care for the seedlings.
The moment you notice the seedling emerging, move them to a sunny location. If you are using natural sunlight, stick them next to a south-facing window.
Alternatively, you can use a grow light as we mentioned earlier. Make sure to rotate the plants every once in a while so that they grow straight.
You don’t need to worry about providing warmth for the plants once the seeds have sprouted. Seedlings do best at room temperature, so just keep your home comfortable for the time being.
When your seedlings have developed their first true leaves, you can start feeding them fertilizer. Use a liquid fertilizer that’s high in phosphorus.
Because the seedlings are so small, you may want to dilute the mixture so that it is about half of its normal strength. Apply fertilizer once a week as the plant continues to grow.
Thinning the Herd
Hopefully, you planted more seeds than you need and are experiencing great success. Those seedlings are fighting for nutrients and resources, so you’ll need to prune them down to one to maximize growth.
This is typically done once the plant has two true leaves. Find the strongest seedlings and cut the remaining ones. Cut at the base of the seedling. Don’t pull them up. This may result in you pulling out all the seedlings in one swift move.
How to Transplant Seeds Outside
Several weeks after you first started your seeds, they will be ready for transplanting outside. Transplanting involves moving the seedlings to their final growing spot for the spring growing season.
As always, timing is critical. You need to make sure that there is no chance of frost remaining. Putting your seedlings outside too early will cause them to die off pretty quickly.
Before you start transplanting, you also need to prepare the plants. Transitioning from the controlled environment indoors to the great open-air can lead to a lot of plant shock. To ensure that your seedlings don’t experience any issues, they must be hardened off.
The hardening off process should start about a week before you perform the transplant. Stop fertilizing the plants and stick to basic water. On the first day, place the seedlings outside in a shaded area that’s protected from the wind.
Don’t keep them out there too long. The goal is to gradually get the plants used to the new environment. Start out by putting them outside for only a few hours.
Every day during the week, increase the amount of time your seedlings spend outside. By the end of the week, your plants should be good to live the rest of their lives with sun and wind exposure.
As your plants are hardening off, make sure to keep the soil moist. The cool air can cause water to evaporate quicker, so you may need to water them more frequently.
Performing the Transplant
It’s best to do the transplant early in the morning. Better yet, wait for an overcast day. Avoid transplanting the seedlings midday, as this sudden sun exposure may be too much for them to handle.
Start by loosening the soil in your garden. Compacted soil is not good for drainage. The seedlings are still a bit sensitive, so they need aerated soil for the roots to spread.
Then, create holes for the seedling. They should be about the same size as your seedling container. To remove the seedling, cut it in your hand while you turn the container over. Do this gently to avoid root damage.
Speaking of roots, take this opportunity to check on their condition. If they seem compacted, use your finger to slightly loosen them up. This can help the plant get established quicker.
Place the seedling into the hole and fill the hole with soil. Using your hands, gently firm up the soil a bit. You don’t want to compact it completely. Instead, you should be creating a slightly firm basin for water to collect.
Now, water the area around the seedling. You can also apply a starter fertilizer. Starter fertilizers are great for establishing the root system and kick-starting additional growth. These fertilizers are high in phosphorus and nitrogen.
Keeping the transplanted seedling hydrated is paramount. Water them regularly and consider applying mulch around the base. Mulch helps to retain water while also blocking out weeds that could deprive your new plants of nutrients.
Starting seeds indoors can change your gardening game. It gives you the chance to make the most out of the growing season and maximize your harvest.
Getting started is a cinch. Your first step is to plan your garden and gather seeds. This can be done during your winter season, so you’ll have plenty of time to get your ducks in a row.
With some preparation, you’ll be ready to hit the ground running once the weather starts to warm up.