Starting from Seed

There are so many different kinds of plants you can grow in the garden. {like really bazillions of different ones} I mean why be stuck with the same four kinds of tomatoes as everyone else? For the best variety you will want to start your plants from seed. You can have great success when starting seeds if you keep a few things in mind.


What do seeds need to germinate?

Germination in plants is the process by which a seed begins to sprout and grow into a seedling under the right growing conditions. All seeds need water, oxygen and the proper temperature to germinate. Some seeds germinate better in full light while others require complete darkness. As a rule all seeds need to be kept moist, but not swimming, for the whole germination process.


Choosing planting containers

There are many options when it comes to planting containers. The two most common are cell trays like you buy from a nursery and random reused containers from around the house. Many places suggest using things like paper egg cartons; I would urge you to stay away from the egg cartons. They are too shallow for most plants and will cause the seedlings to dry out very quickly. Ensure that whichever container type you choose that it has drainage holes in the bottom. We like to use the cell trays.


Choose quality seeds that are fresh

Most seeds can be stored for a year in a cool dry environment without a big decrease in the germination rates. If you store the seeds improperly or for too long the germination rates will start to decrease rapidly. For the best results purchase only the amount of seed you need for the year. This year we purchased our seeds from Baker Creek and Johnny’s.


Seed starting mix or soilless substrate

Seeds are little storehouses of energy and don’t require nutrients from the soil. What we need here is something that meets the basic requirements of germination: water and oxygen. Most seed starting mix contains just three ingredients: peat moss, pearlite and vermiculite. Peat moss and vermiculite are excellent at holding water and pearlite helps with drainage. While peat moss is great at holding water if it gets too dry it can actually repel water like a rain coat so keep that “soil” moist. You can purchase pre-made seed starting mix or save some money make your own. Here is my recipe for DIY Seed Starting Mix.



The temperature of the soil has a huge impact on how long it takes seeds to germinate and in extreme cases IF they will germinate. Take tomatoes for instance; if the soil temperature is 77 degrees they will germinate in about 6 days, but at 60 degrees it can take two weeks. Below 50 degrees the seeds will likely rot before they have a chance to germinate. A propagation mat or seedling heat mat will go a long way in insuring optimal soil temperature.



For the most part seeds don’t need light to germinate but they will need it when the first leaves brake the soil surface. For best plant growth choose a full spectrum light bulb and have it on for about 12 hours a day. Just like us, plants need a period of rest so make sure you turn the lights off at night. We run four foot shop lights and use a simple mechanical outlet timer that way we don’t forget to turn them on and off. If you are lucky enough to have a large, bright, south facing window you may find that you don’t need artificial light. Unless you have a huge bank of lights you will find that your little seedlings reaching for the brightest light {this is called phototropism}. Rotating your plants around on a regular basis will help keep them healthy.

Seed Starting Calendar


When to you start your seeds is very important. If you start them too early they might become root bound, weak and lanky. On the flip side, start them too late and they may not have enough time to grow. Most seed packets have planting directions on the back telling how many weeks before your last frost date that they need to be started indoors. Wait, you don’t know your frost dates? No problem, go HERE and I will tell you all about it.

Now that you have all the materials, how do you actually plant your seeds?

Start by wetting the seed starting mix well. If you are having a hard time getting the peat moss to soak up the water try using warm or even hot water. The soil should be moist but not dripping. Next fill up your container of choice. Be sure to press the soil down firmly as you go so the soil doesn’t shift around too much the first time you water.

Planting depth

Check the seed packet for planting depth or as a rule, seeds should not be buried any deeper than their diameter. If planted too deep they can use up all their energy before they make it to the surface. I marked out ¼ inch and ½ inch on a bamboo skewer for making planting holes.




Once your seeds are in the proper sized holes cover them up. Check back several times a day to make sure they don’t dry out and water when necessary. When it is time to water make sure to do so gently so you don’t disturb the shallow seeds. I like to use a one gallon pump sprayer to water, it puts out a nice fine mist that is very gentle. Keep in mind that overwatering can be just as detrimental as under watering. Seeds need to be moist to germinate but plant roots can suffocate if there is too much water. Until you get the hang of how much water your seedling need, be sure to check the trays under your containers 10-15 minutes after watering to make sure there is no standing water.



Now that your seedlings are up and out of the soil you need to exercise them. Yes really! When seeds are planted outside they are exposed to wind from the very moment they brake the soil surface. On the other hand your pampered indoor seedlings are living the couch potato lifestyle with very little movement. Using an oscillating fan can replicate the wind outside and give the seedlings the work out they need. This extra air movement might dry the soil out a little faster than normal so be sure to check often. We run the fan on the same timer as the lights.

Hardening off

Hardening off is the process of acclimating the seedlings to the outside environment before you plop them in your garden. This should be a fairly slow process taking a week or more. Since you used a fan while you’re seedling where growing inside they should be fairly strong in the stems and roots, but now we need to deal with the sun. Plants can get a sunburn, kind of like people do, if exposed to too much sun too fast. {in response to increased light intensity plants produce a waxy substance called cutin that helps minimize water loss and protect them from the sun} To start the hardening off process take your plants outside, on a mild day, and leave them in a sheltered spot for a few hours. You gradually want to increase the time they spend outdoors and the amount of weather they receive. Be sure to check the them often and move the pants back indoors if it starts to get too cold/wind/rainy etc.

One last thing before we are done here: keep a gardening journal. Trust me on this one, write down everything in a notebook. Make a list of what you are growing {variety, where you bought it etc} when and how you planted it. Keep notes on how well, or not, things are doing. If something were to fail you will be able to look back maybe find the cause, then you have the opportunity to  change it next time. Also draw out your garden plan and where things will be planted so you can properly rotate your crops to keep pests and diseases down from year to year.

Happy planting folks!

Starting a Garden from Seed


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