Beginners Guide To Starting Seeds Indoors

Apr 18, 2020 | Homesteading

It really feels like spring when I pull out the seeds and start planning my garden. Seeing the seedlings sprout up inside even though it is still cold outside excites me for the season ahead. I hope this helps to guide and inspire you to begin your own seeds this year.  

Things You Will Need:

  • Seeds
  • Light
  • Soil
  • Trays/pots
  • Clear plastic dome, bag or wrap
  • Water
  • Heat
  • Air circulation/fan

Why Start Seeds Indoors

If you live in a cool climate with a shorter growing season, starting seeds indoors is essential for producing mature crops of some fruits and vegetables.  You can buy seedlings from a greenhouse nursery, however starting your own seeds is a great way to save money and be more self-sufficient. 

Some seeds do not need to be started indoors and can be planted directly outside. Plants that need a head start on growing may need to be started at different times.

When To Start Seeds Indoors

When you should start seeds indoors depends on the last frost date in your region.  The last frost date is simply the estimated day when your area will get its final frost of the cold season, after which it is safe to plant your garden outside. 

A quick google search can tell you the estimated last frost date for your area, however it is an estimate so also keep an eye on the weather before moving plants outdoors. Here in New Brunswick our last frost date is May 11-20, however last year we were not able to plant our garden until the first of June. 

Different seeds will need to be started at different times before the last frost date. To know how soon to start your seeds look on the back of the seed pack and it will tell you. However, do not get too caught up on planting exactly when it recommends.  We started some of our seeds a little late and they have worked out fine, although for best results stick to the recommendations if you can.

What To Start

Here are the seeds that we are going to be growing this year and when we will be starting the seeds.

Onions (Sweet Utah)

Leeks (American Flag)

Cabbage (Late Danish Ballhead)

Brussels Sprouts (Long Island Improved)

Broccoli (Green Sprouting)

Watermelon (Crimson Sweet)

Peppers (Bell Boy)

Peppers (California Wonder)

Hot Pepper (Biquinho)

Tomato (Scotia)

Paste Tomato (San Marzano)

Paste Tomato (Amish Paste)

Cherry Tomato (Gardener’s Delight)

Marigolds (Crackerjack)

Cosmos (Multi-color mix)

Dill (Bouquet Dwarf)

Mint 

Basil

Chives

Parsley

Tyme

Cucumber (Straight Eight)

Cucumber (Wisconsin Pickling SMR)

Pumpkin (Early Sugar Pie)

Squash (Buttercup Burgess)

Squash (Sweet Mama)

Squash (Sweet Dumpling)

Squash (Zeppelin Delicata)

Peas (Sugar Ann Bush Pea)

Sunflower (Taiyo)

Carrots (Napoli)

Beets (Detroit Dark Red)

Sweet Corn (Peaches and Cream Early)

Peanuts (Annapolis Select)

Green Beans (Kentucky Wonder Pole)

Yellow Beans (Top Notch Golden Wax Bush)

Dry Beans (Wink’s Jacobs Cattle Bush)

Lettuce (Grand Rapids)

Spinach (Bloomsdale)

Cucumber (Straight Eight)

Cucumber (Wisconsin Pickling SMR)

Pumpkin (Early Sugar Pie)

Squash (Buttercup Burgess)

Squash (Sweet Mama)

Squash (Sweet Dumpling)

Squash (Zeppelin Delicata)

Peas (Sugar Ann Bush Pea)

Potatoes (Yukon Gold)

We have chosen to start some seeds indoors this year that we planted directly outside last year.  Things like squash, cucumbers and peas can be directly sown, however we had trouble with them last year so we decided to try starting some indoors this year and directly sowing some.

How To Start Seeds Indoors

Step 1: Gather Supplies

Seeds: When buying seeds it is important to get ones that will grow well in your area therefore buying seeds from local stores or farms can be helpful.  Local nurseries, garden centers and farm stores will usually only carry seeds that will grow in their area.

Another great place to look for seeds is a seed bank in your community.  My community has one at the public library where they share heritage seeds.

Online can be another place to buy seeds, but keep in mind your growing climate when shopping. I bought some heritage seeds online this year since I could not find them in store, however I found a heritage farm to purchase them from in the next province over from us.

 

Soil: If you want to keep things simple look for a soil that says it is for seed starting.  This year I bought soil labeled “Seed Starting Mix”. If you cannot find a seed starting soil mix you can use a general soil, just be sure that the soil is light and has good drainage. 

Keep in mind that as your plants grow you will need to transplant them to larger pots so you may initially want to buy more soil so you are prepared.

 

Trays & Pots: There are endless possibilities for what to plant your seeds in. We tried three different methods this year to test some out and all are working fine. The main things your need to consider when choosing a seed tray are drainage and depth. It is important for your pot to have holes in the bottom so any excess water can drain out and keep the roots from rotting. As well, it is important for there to be enough space for the roots to grow deep. 

Some options are plastic seed starting trays with multiple cells, one large tray filled with soil, individual cardboard type pots, or DIY options made from things around the house. 

Next year I want to get a soil blocker so that we can avoid using plastic cell trays. A soil blocker is a metal tool that you pack with moist soil and it forms blocks of soil to plant in. They are durable and reusable so could help me avoid waste in my garden process. 

Whatever you choose to plant your seeds in the pots or trays will need to sit in another tray without any holes. Since the containers holding the soil and seeds need holes in the bottom for drainage, they will need to set in another tray to catch the water.

Lighting: Grow lights are an important part of starting seeds. If you have a sunroom or greenhouse you may not need grow lights, but usually a bright window inside will not provide sufficient light for growing seedlings. 

There are two types of grow lights, LED and fluorescent, of which there are many options to choose from. We chose to invest in 3 LED grow lights this year, since we plan to move off grid and will need the lower energy draw. We purchased NOMA Full Spectrum LED Grow Lights for around $25 each from a local hardware store in the lighting department.

When choosing lighting for your plants look for lights labeled as grow lights or full spectrum lights. Regular light bulbs do not usually emit the color range of light needed by plants to grow. However, regular fluorescent shop lights emit the color of light for growing, therefore they can be used if you have them on hand or can find them at a lower price point.

Our 3 LED lights were not producing enough light for the amount of seeds we started, therefore we added a shop light we had in our barn and it is working great.

 

Step 2: Space Set Up

Before planting your seeds it is nice to have your space set up and ready for them. We set our seeds on a metal rack in front of a window. The sun from the window provides extra warmth and light to our plants and helps them grow. 

The metal rack is handy since we can hang the grow lights on the shelves, and it also saves space. However, seeds can be set up anywhere in your home as long as it is a warm space and your grow lights can be suspended over the seeds.

Step 3: Plant Seeds

To begin planting seeds I first moisten the soil in the bag. Usually when you buy soil it is very dry which is not what you want for planting, therefore I just dump some water straight in the bag and mix it around with my hands. 

Next fill your trays or pots with soil, do not pack the soil just lightly put it in. Poke a hole in the centre of the soil for the seed, the depth of the hole will depend on how deep the seed needs to be planted. Look on the back of your seed pack to see how deep to plant them. To increase your chances of having your seeds sprout place 2 or 3 seeds in the hole. If the seeds are larger I just put one and if they are smaller I usually put more since they are hard to see.  Next, sprinkle a little soil on top to lightly cover the hole. 

After planting a row of seeds be sure to label them. It is easy to think at the time that you will remember, but I never do so I recommend labeling. Popsicle sticks work well for this, or whatever you have on hand.

After planting, mist the seeds with water. You do not want to pour water on top because that can disturb the seeds.  Now, place a clear plastic dome or sheet over your seeds to create a tiny greenhouse. If you bought your seed trays they will often come with a dome, if not just use some plastic wrap. I just took a large zip lock bag, cut it down the sides to make one big sheet, and layed it over the seed tray. Having the plastic cover helps retain moisture and heat which is essential for germination.

Step 4: Germinate

Once the seeds are planted they need to germinate. In order to germinate, seeds need to be kept moist. Mist the seeds once or twice a day, or whenever they look to be drying out. 

While germinating the seeds do not need light, however it will not hinder them. We wait until we see the green plant starting to poke through the soil before turning on the grow lights. However, placing the seeds in a window can help with germination if the sun helps warm the area.

Seeds do need heat to germinate, so it is important for the space they are in to stay warm. We keep our room between 22 and 24°C.  Some people recommend using a heating mat for germinating seeds like tomatoes and peppers, however we did not use one and our seeds sprouted in the regular time. 

Different plants will take different lengths of time to germinate, but it will usually take around a week. We had brussels sprouts and broccoli sprouting within 2 days of planting but our peppers took 9 days to sprout.

 

Step 5: Seedling Care

Once your seedlings have sprouted remove the plastic if it is directly on top of the soil so it does not smother the seedlings. Also, it is time to turn on the grow lights. We turn our grow lights on for 12 hours a day, 8 am to 8 pm. 

After the seedlings sprout it is beneficial to change from watering by misting to watering from below. Watering from below is simply pouring water into the bottom tray and the soil above it will absorb it up. To do this pour approximately ¼ inch of water into the bottom tray, about an hour later check back to see if any water is left. If there is water left I use a turkey baster to take it out so the roots are not sitting in water, which the plants do not like. 

Watering from below is good for a couple reasons, one it encourages the roots to grow down towards the water and deep roots are good for the plant.  Also, watering by misting can sometimes cause molding so it is good to avoid that. If seedlings are watered from the surface it can result in damping off, which is a condition where the base of the seedling stem becomes very thin and the plant falls over and dies. Therefore I find it beneficial to water seedlings from below. 

After the seeds sprout I also start letting them dry out slightly between waterings, and do not keep them as moist as when they were germinating. 

Seedlings also benefit from having good air circulation. After the seedlings have had a week or two to grow, I begin to turn on a fan near them on a low setting and move it around so they all get some wind through the day. Wind helps keep mold down and it also helps the seedlings to develop strong stems. Having a strong stem will help the plants thrive when moved to the garden.  If you do not have a fan, running your hand gently over the seedlings can also help strengthen them.

Step 6: Thinning

After your seedlings have had a few weeks to grow it is important to thin out your plants. In each cell or pot there should only be one plant growing. If there is more than one plant in a pot choose the plant with the thickest stem and looks the healthiest and remove the rest.

To thin out the other stems use scissors and cut them off at the base. Do not pull them out by the roots because it can disturb the roots of the seedling that you are keeping.   

Step 7: Transplanting & Fertilizing

After the seedlings have had time to grow they will eventually need to be transplanted into a bigger pot. When this needs done will depend on the size of cell or pot you started with.  After the plant gets 3 sets of its true leaves they may need to be potted up. True leaves are the leaves that grow after the first leaves which are called cotyledons. Cotyledons are the set of smooth edged leaves that come out when the plant spouts.  

You can use many different pots or containers when potting up, as long as they have holes in the bottom for water to drain out.  

Also, after the plants have about 3 sets of true leaves you can begin to give them a small amount of fertilizer. If you want your vegetable to be organic choose an organic fertilizer, or you can just use whatever fertilizer you have.  Fertilizing the plants will help ensure that they do not run out of nutrients from the soil and stay healthy.

Step 8: Move Outside

Once the last frost has come in your area you can begin to move your plants outside. It is best to harden off your plants before planting them in the garden. Hardening off is just what it sounds like, it is getting the plant harder and more resilient to the outdoor elements.

To harden off first move the plants outdoors in a partially sheltered area for ¼ of a day, the next day move them out for ½  a day, then ¾ of a day, then a full day. After that your plants will be ready to plant in your garden!

 

Now you can enjoy your summer gardening season and the fruits of your labour. 

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Hey, I’m Maggie. I hope you will join me and my family in getting back to the land.  Here you will learn about making things yourself, cooking homegrown food, and beginning a homesteading journey.

 

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