11 tips and tricks for starting seeds indoors

Don’t judge each day by the harvest that you reap, but by the seeds that you sow.

Robert Louis Stevenson

This is my third year growing plants from seeds.  I get a kick out of it because I get to choose what will be planted and it is really interesting to watch the plants grow from seeds into plants that produce delicious foods.  I am also really happy because I am starting to get much better at it.  The first year I did it was a soggy mess with an infestation of tiny black flies.  The second year was better, but I did not track my plants and got quite a few of them mixed up which caused more than a few problems when I transplanted them outdoors.  This year I am on track to successfully growing more than 500 plants indoors seed.  Here are the tricks I have learned:

1.  Use a seed starting mix. 


Really.  I know how tempting it is to buy that $2 bag of topsoil instead of the $8 bag of seed starting mix.  However,  the soil is too heavy for starting seeds.  The seedlings need the light, fluffy growing medium in order to develop a strong and happy root system.

2.  Make sure there is enough light. 


It is often said that seedlings can be grown in a sunny south-facing window.  However, most people do not actually get enough light for this to work.  Without enough light, the seedlings will be “leggy,” i.e. long and spindly.  Without a strong, sturdy stem the seedlings will have a hard time growing into strong, healthy plants.  Consider investing in some inexpensive flourescent lamps to supplement the natural light.  They are relatively energy-efficient and last a very long time.  To increase the amount of light provided, cover a few pieces of old cardboard in tinfoil (I use the walls of cereal boxes) and the light will be reflected back onto the plants.  The lights should be no more than three inches away from the light.  Between 12 and 14 hours of a light a day is good.

3.  Use what you have. 


I am, at the moment, very tight on funds.  I was lucky enough to find a few seed starting trays for very little money, but I am trying to start a plant selling business, so I needed…more.  This means that I had to get creative with what I could use as containers for seed starting.  I am using plastic containers from fruit, yogurt containers and egg cartons (only good for very small plants).  As an added bonus, the plastic is being recycled.  Also, instead of buying expensive mini-greenhouses, I bought inexpensive tin grill pans that I covered in a plastic bag and Saran wrap.  It works just as good, if not better as the other fancy containers that cost $5+.  Of course, if you happen to have the cash buy whatever is easiest for you!

4.  Label, label, label!!!!  WP_20150324_17_46_08_Pro

Really, it makes everything easier.  You know what you are growing.  It is easy to get two types of tomatoes mixed up (a truth I have learned the hard-way) and there is a BIG difference between my 3 feet tall determinate Manitobas and my indeterminate giant Yellow Pears.  Use anything you have – popsicle sticks, painted rocks, tape, sticks, etc.  Just remember to label.  Try taking pictures and/or recording of your trays as well – just to be sure.

5.  Keep a journal. 

WP_20150324_17_50_12_ProAre your Oxheart tomato seeds super slow to germinate?  Have your broccoli seedlings taken over your tray?  When did you plant the jalapenos?  This information is important.  Write it down and use it for future reference.  It does not have to be anything fancy, but it really does help.

6.  Don’t let the soil dry-out and do not over water it. 

If it dries out, your delicate seedlings will droop and maybe even die.  If they are over watered, their roots can rot and it provides the perfect location for pests to lay eggs or mold to form.  Try using a measuring cup, so that you know how much water you are using.  Also, avoid getting water on the leaves to avoid scorching them.

7.  Consider purchasing a heating mat. 

For hard to germinate crops like leeks and peppers, this can be an invaluable tool.  Remember to lay a towel underneath the heating mat, so that the heat is absorbed by the soil and not by your shelf, counter, etc.

8.  Use good seeds and inform yourself as to how they should be cared for.

Certain plant varieties need a little bit more attention and love.  Other plants like beans and dill hate to be transplanted.  Don’t waste your time starting these in pots – wait until it is warm enough to sow these varieties directly in the ground.

9.  Monitor your seedings carefully. 


Sometimes they sprout faster than expected.  The description for the Chia plants stated that they take about 14 days to germinate.  They germinated in 36 hours for me. If I had not been paying attention, the seedlings would have suffocated under the plastic wrap.  After the sprouts become seedlings check to see if they are getting enough or too much water (see #6), falling over or starting to tangle.  Intervene or re-pot as necessary.

10.  Be patient. 


The plants are creating life from a teeny tiny seed, some dirt, a bit of heat, water and light which is not an easy task.  Sometimes it takes a little longer for some seeds than for others, but in the end they usually all sprout. It is also better to observe rather than participate and intervene only when necessary.

11.  Toughen your seedlings up. 

Once the seedlings grow their first set of “real” leaves, blow on the plants gently or run the palm over the top of the plants very softly.  This helps them to prepare for the harsh, but loving reality in the garden.


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