A beginner’s guide to starting seeds indoors

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tomato seedling

Starting your own seeds can give you more vegetable options, save you money and make your garden more resilient and productive.

Did you know there are over 2,000 varieties of tomato cultivars? You might not if you purchase your seedlings from nurseries and garden centers where only a handful of popular and proven varieties are offered. And this holds true for pretty much any other vegetable. You’re limiting your options.

And limited options give you limited control. You can only do so much with store-bought seedlings because most of the decision-making has been done for you. By reserving the right to choose from everything that’s available, you can choose varieties better suited to your growing region. Vegetable plants that adapt more easily to their environment will be better equipped to deal with climate conditions, diseases and pests during growing season.

Starting your own seeds can also save you money. The cost of one seedling can outweigh the cost of an entire packet of seeds in some cases. It really is a no-brainer when you consider cost.

So instead of buying seedlings, broaden your horizons and grow something weird and wonderful.

Selecting seeds

While starting seeds offers many benefits to gardeners, not every seed should be started indoors. Some varieties grow best when they are directly sown outdoors. Before you start your seedlings, find out which seeds should be started indoors and transplanted later.

Seeds to start indoors

The following list of seeds will transplant well and are prime candidates to start indoors. Broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage seeds are actually better off being started indoors and transplanted to your garden as seedlings.

  • Broccoli
  • Cabbage
  • Cauliflower
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Eggplant
  • Kale
  • Lettuce
  • Onions
  • Okra
  • Peppers
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Tomatoes

Trickier seeds

These seeds can be trickier to transplant, but can also be started indoors.

  • Celery
  • Chard
  • Cucumber
  • Melon
  • Peas
  • Pumpkin
  • Spinach
  • Squash

Seeds to directly sow outdoors

These seeds shouldn’t be transplanted as the roots can be disturbed during this process and plant growth can be hindered.

  • Bean
  • Beet
  • Carrot
  • Corn

Purchasing seeds

For optimal germination and yield results, it’s best to choose seed varieties suited to your growing region. So you want to purchase seed that is grown, tested and produced in an area with similar growing conditions to your garden. You can find test garden and seed location information within the first few pages of a seed catalog.

You also want to make sure you’re buying viable seeds. Reputable seed companies will only ship seed packaged for the year you purchase it. However, if you buy seed at a traditional store it will be up to you to check the packet for a current date.

When to plant

If you start your seeds indoors between late February and April, they will be ready to move outdoors after the last frost. At this time, you can also directly sow the seeds that weren’t good candidates to start indoors. If you want to narrow the time frame for a specific vegetable, check out the Old Farmer’s Almanac’s Seed Starting and Planting Date Calculator.

How to start seeds indoors

  1. Prepare containers. Make sure your containers have been sterilized in a solution of one part bleach to nine parts water. Then label your containers with the names of the vegetables you plan on planting.
  2. Read seed packets. Make sure to take note of individual planting information for each type of seed and pay close attention to planting depth.
  3. Potting medium. Use a fresh seed-starting mix with a light and fluffy consistency to hold just enough moisture. Then fill your containers 3/4 full.
  4. Sowing seeds. Make sure to sow seeds at the correct depth and cover them loosely with soil.
  5. Add water. Once they have been planted, make sure the soil is damp and warm, about 80 F, for good germination. You’ll start seeing sprouts in 5-10 days.
  6. Adjustments after germination. At this stage, you want to keep soil moist, but not damp, and you want to reduce the temperature to 70 F. If you used peat pots, your soil may have a tendency to dry out. If you used plastic containers, your soil may have a tendency to retain water. If you notice mold, your soil is too wet and you need to water less and increase air circulation with a fan.
  7. Light. Seedlings need between 14 and 18 hours of light a day.
  8. Thinning. You may have to thin seedlings here and there to reduce competition.
  9. Feeding seedlings. You can use diluted fertilizer or compost to feed seedlings as requires.
  10. Hardening seedlings. After the last frost, you’ll have to gradually prepare your seedlings to move outdoors. You can start by moving them outside on warm sunny days and increase exposure from there. They should be ready to transplant after two weeks of hardening.

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Sara is Farm and Dairy’s online content producer. Raised in Portage County, she earned a magazine journalism degree from Kent State University. She enjoys spending time with her daughter, traveling, writing, reading and outdoor recreation.

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