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How to Start Seeds Indoors

Use our tips to start seeds indoors now and kick off your superproductive, unique and money-saving garden.

| January/February 2015

  • By starting your own seeds, you can grow more unusual plants, know they were grown well and save a lot of money.
    Photo by GAP Photos
  • Prepare your seedlings for transplant by letting them adjust to outdoor temperatures.
    Photo by iStock
  • Don't give seedlings too much room too quickly when you're potting up.
    Photo by iStock

Growing some of our own food is an obvious way to save money on groceries, but seedlings sold at garden centers can actually get pretty pricey. Starting plants from seed instead is the best way to get as much bang for your gardening buck as possible. An added benefit is that you get to choose the specific varieties of vegetables you want to grow—many of which are not available in garden centers at all. Despite these benefits, starting seed can seem intimidating—something reserved for gardening masters. Actually, starting seeds is fun and empowering. Use these seven simple steps to achieve seed-starting success.

Step 1: Order Seeds

Peruse seed catalogs or the websites of seed companies to find the plants you plan to grow this spring and summer (find a list of our favorite organic and heirloom seed companies in Green Your Thumb with Heirloom Seed Companies). Order seeds now, and sort them according to when they need to be planted. If they will be direct-sown (planted directly in your garden), set those aside. For those that need to be started indoors before being transplanted into the garden as seedlings, sort them according to how many weeks before the last frost they need to be started. Seed packets usually say something like “Start four to six weeks before last frost date.” Hold on to your seed packets. They contain important growing information that you will use later.

Step 2: Figure Out Your Transplant Dates

Next you need to figure out when your last chance of a spring frost will have passed. This is known as the “last frost date.” Your list of planting times will all be back-timed from this date. The best source for this information is The National Climatic Data Center (visit NOAA for frost/freeze date charts), which takes into account yearly changes from factors such as climate change.

You will start most spring seedlings four to six weeks before the recommended transplanting date, including tomatoes, sweet peppers, eggplants, broccoli, cabbage, kale and collards. Onions, hot peppers and celery need more time to get established, eight to 10 weeks. Don’t start your seeds indoors too soon: If the seedlings get very large, they’ll suffer more damage when you move them outside.

Step 3: Plant Seeds

You can grow healthy, sturdy seedlings in a sunny window, but rotate your plants every few days so they don’t lean toward the window and become leggy. Fluorescent lights can help seedlings get enough light, but turn the lights off at night to give the growing plants a rest. You can also start seeds outdoors in the protection of a cold frame or greenhouse if you have one.

Start your seeds in a good, organic seed-starting mix from a local store or make your own soil mix. Purchased mixes are sterile, light and hold moisture well. Use a large container to mix water into your soil mixture until it’s moist, but not soggy. Fill nursery flats, small pots or other containers nearly to the top with your seed-starting mix. The best container sizes are 2 to 3 inches deep and at least 3 inches wide. Make sure your containers have drainage holes.

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