Starting Seeds Indoors: A Guide for Beginners

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Today, Heather from Second Chance Farm is going to teach us all about starting seeds. If you’re anything like me, you don’t have the best green thumb, but you want to learn how to grow your own food and plants.

A good rule of thumb for you and I would be to listen to an experienced homesteader. Thankfully, Heather is kind enough to show beginner home gardeners, like ourselves, how to get started.

From this section further, Heather will share all about starting seeds.

Knowing your Growing Season 

Before planning to grow anything, you need to know your hardiness zone and associated growing season recommendations. These USDA zones are based off winter temperatures and will help to indicate which plants will survive and thrive in the zone you live in.  

You won’t want to plant anything not suited for your zone, or you will experience frustration and loss. This only applies to perennials, as annuals should be planted seasonally while keeping in mind important dates like last frost date.

The zones don’t account for other local information, such as last frost date. You can find that information through weather outlets, apps and the best method, ask the locals.  

Another source is the Sunset Climate Zones which takes into account 6 different factors to determine gardening zones. This resource is a great way to get additional information about which plants will thrive year round.

When to Start Seeds Indoors

Before starting any seeds, you need to know when the last frost date is for your area. You will want to use that date to backwards plan when you will start your seeds, whether you are starting them indoors or outdoors.

Take a look at each of your seed packets and follow guidelines for planning, such as “sow 6 weeks before last frost”. The seed packet will also tell you how long until the seed germinates.  

Other important information about starting seeds is located on the seed packet. For example, the packaging usually clarifies sowing depth, spacing, hours of light or sun requirements, and possibly additional recommendations.

The two most common ways to start seeds indoors is in a south facing window location or with grow lights. We start our seeds indoors using south facing windows, and have been very successful.  

Our home is always between 68-74 degrees indoors. That is a perfect temperature for the seeds. If the location you are going to be starting your seeds at isn’t around 70 degrees, you’ll want to consider some heating mats (see recommendations in supply list below).

If you plan to start seeds in a room with not enough light, you will need to use grow lights. In this case, you’ll want to acquire materials for storing the seed trays while under the lamps. You’ll also need to consider shelving or space where you will hang the fluorescent lights fixture from. 

There are many examples you can find by searching online. Don’t worry if you have a small space. You, too, can start growing your own seeds!

Materials for Starting Seeds  

The two most common methods for starting seeds are seed trays or soil blocking. There are other methods, and it’s ok to try more than one until you find the method you are most successful with!

Seedling trays and soil blocking supplies can be purchased on Amazon, local garden centers, or other online stores. We use seed trays and have yet to try soil blocking, but there are many flower and vegetable gardeners that prefer that method or even use both.

When starting seeds in trays, we use a seed starting soil mix so that it is light and fluffy and allows the seed to germinate easily. Once the seedlings are established they are potted up into a potting soil that has more nutrients and retains moisture better.

If you are starting seeds with soil blocking, you’ll want to use a potting soil. This is because your seedlings can grow enough in the seed blocks to be transferred from the trays into the garden (beds, containers or pots).

There are so many gardening tools out there that are for sale and by all means, buy what you want and can afford! However, I’m going to recommend the basics that we use because it is all you need.

You can see all of our Amazon garden supply recommendations in our Amazon Shop.

STARTING SEEDS SUPPLIES:

  • Seed trays (with plastic domes)
  • Seed starting mix
  • Organic Seeds (we buy our vegetable seeds from Bakers Creed Heirloom Seeds)
  • Spray bottle (for watering seedlings)
  • Popsicle sticks (cheap way to label seedlings)
  • Permanent marker
  • South facing window or ??? light set up
  • Heat mats to reach the optimal temperature

If you are not starting seeds in front of a window (natural light) and using lamps

POTTING UP SEEDS SUPPLIES:

TRANSFERRING TO THE GARDEN SUPPLIES (or other location like pot):

What Beginners Should Know Before Getting Started 

Not all seeds will germinate, and not all new seedlings will make it! And it’s ok. Each time there is failure, it’s an opportunity to learn and perhaps try something different.

For a good start, I recommend keeping a gardening notebook. This way, you can take notes each year, and document what you have learned and what types of seeds you planted. It’s a great reminder to make adjustments each new garden season.

Something important to remember is that starting seeds is a labor of love. Many times they have to be potted up and transplanted a couple of times before they’re in their final growing space. It’s a commitment with great reward!

Pay attention to the seed packet recommendations! It’s that simple, but easily forgotten or disregarded.  

Planting the Seeds

My rule of thumb for planting seeds is if they are small to medium size, I’ll put more than one in each seed tray cell. If they are large seeds, like a bean seed, I only plant one.

Some seeds can be really small. Tweezers are an easy way to handle the small seeds, but be gentle and don’t squeeze too hard.

Before placing any seeds in soil, make sure the soil is damp first. You don’t want to water the soil after you plant seeds or you can displace them. And once your own seedlings are planted, they only need a spray bottle to keep the soil moist for a while.

I like to label seed trays by rows before putting in the seeds.

They sell tools to make an indention in your soil before sowing your seeds, but it’s not necessary. I often use the tip of a pencil or just a stick I pick up outside. Refer to your seed packet to determine how deep your indentions should be to promote good germination.

Once your seed tray is full, use a spray bottle to gently moisten the top of the soil. Place seeds in a south facing window location or under grow lamps.

Don’t let your soil get dry while you are waiting on seeds to germinate. Keep the soil moist with a spray bottle. A watering can is likely to displace seeds and disrupt germination.

Controlling the Environment and Temperature

In general, the optimum temperature for growing most vegetable seeds is 65-70 degrees. Some seeds like it even warmer than that so make sure to check your seed packets.

If you are using a south facing window, you’ll need to monitor the heat so that your plants closest to the window don’t get scorched from direct sunlight. Otherwise, the best way to control your home’s environment is the temperature where your seeds are located.

Also, I rotate ours so that all plants get a chance to be in the warmest spot. We are able to start over 400 plants with just 1 regular sized window light source.

If you will be locating your seeds under grow lights, your grow lights will come with instructions on how to monitor and control the temperature of your seeds.  

Additionally, heat mats can help if your home or seed location isn’t quite warm enough. Some people like to use these regardless but we haven’t found a need for them yet.

Indoors you don’t have to worry about wind, rain, dramatic temperature changes, etc. Mainly you will need to focus on temperature, adequate light, and watering.

Feeding and Watering Seedlings

I don’t follow a schedule for this at all! To me, it’s a good idea to water them if the soil looks lighter colored or dry.

You want to be sure to keep seeds moist when they are in the germination cycle. This is necessary for seeds to germinate. Some seed packets will even recommend that you soak seeds overnight before planting them.  

Once your seeds have germinated, it is good to keep them moist in their seed trays because the seed starting soil does not hold moisture well.

When your seedlings get potted up into 4” containers then you will water less frequently because the potting soil will maintain moisture content much better. Still, keep seedlings moist but do not over water.  

 

Potting Up Seedlings

Potting up is one step of the seed starting process that I dread because it takes a long time. But it’s very important!

When plants are potted up, they need to be thinned out if there is more than one per cell in the seed starting tray. This will give them the space they need to develop deeper roots.

Potting up gives the plants access to potting soil. Potting soil is better for growing seedlings, because it has more nutrients and retains moisture much better than a seed-starting mix.

To save money, we use large aluminum food trays to store our plants once we transfer them from the seed starting trays to 4” pots. They are cheaper and larger than most plastic trays. The aluminum trays are sturdy and reusable year after year.

Once your seedlings are potted up, return them to their grow lights or south facing window location until they are ready to be transferred one last time into the garden (containers or pots). If you were using heating mats, they should no longer be needed at this point unless your home is unusually cold.

Hardening Off Before Planting Outside

You will give your young plants a healthier start by making sure they are hardened off first. Hardening off plants reduces the shock from leaving the indoor, wind free, weather change free, environment of your home.

Hardening off plants is a gradual process of increasing sun exposure, wind exposure and overnight exposure with time, preferably over a two week period. Placing young seedlings in the sun, wind, or cold temperatures before they are ready is likely to damage them or kill them.

Start by placing seedlings outdoors for a few hours a day in a shaded location.

Increase to some sunlight after a few days and begin increasing sun exposure over the course of a few days.

Make sure that temperatures are above 45 degrees during the hardening off process, including the evenings. Also, do not place seedlings outdoors when it is windy before they are ready, or they can become wind burned (damaged from the wind) or end up with broken stems.

After your seedlings have been outdoors for a week or so with increasing sunlight, you can begin to leave them overnight. This is my favorite part because it means I don’t have to haul the plants in and out of the house anymore!

After about 14 days your seedlings will be ready to be transplanted into your garden soil , raised beds, containers or pots.

Transferring Plants Outdoors

If you are transferring plants to an in-ground garden like us, preparing your soil should begin in the fall so microbes and other beneficial processes (like worms and their castings) can be established before you transfer plants. In another post we’ll share how we manage a no-til garden.  

There are many ways to set up an in ground garden, but there is no way to be successful without a healthy soil! Healthy soils grow plants and if you don’t have a healthy soil, there’s not much you can do to help your plants thrive and grow high yields.

Before we transfer our plants into the garden, we moisten the soil and lay out how many we have.

Once we’ve dug each hole deep enough, we place in our plants and cover them up. To help with some of the shock of the transfer process, we also give them a little water when we’re done.  

There are tricks for certain plants, like tomatoes. You want to plant them deeper than the soil surface in your transfer pots so that they develop deeper roots. There are tricks for other plants that you will learn along the way (most likely through failures!) or you can research online to find what others have found works for them.

If you are transferring your plants to a raised bed, container or pots you still must make sure you have a healthy soil for your plants. Raised beds also can be managed a variety of ways so study what method you would like to use for your soil and prepare it in the fall as well.  

Containers and pots can be prepared closer to planting time with high quality soil and compost. Be sure to moisten the soil before planting, just like when you originally sowed your seeds.

Final Word

Just get to planting! The best gardeners have killed the most plants so expect mistakes and be grateful for those opportunities to learn. Over time you will continue to develop knowledge and tricks that work well for you, but that won’t happen until you get started. Happy planting friends!

Please reach out with any questions that you have.

  • Heather @ Second Chance Farm

@second_chance_farm_

secondchancefarmeasttn@gmail.com

Before you go, here are a few posts you’ll enjoy:

Introduction to Homesteading

The Best Non-Toxic Laundry Detergent

Backyard Landscaping Ideas on a Budget

21 Best Gardening Books for Beginners

Raising Guinea Fowl: All You Need to Know

The Best Homesteading Supplies

Starting Seeds