How to Start Seeds Indoors

Indoor Gardening
Start Seeds Indoors

It's not unusual for gardeners who live in places with mild winters to start seeds indoors. This is a great way to get a jump on the season. It's a good tactic for gardeners but first timers may need some help with this method.

Before you start your garden from seeds it's important to make a checklist of all the things you'll need. Organization is the key here. First of all you will need all the right materials to start. It's important to know that not all seeds should be started early in the season, nor do they need to be started indoors. Those that can be started indoors and where this technique makes sense are those plants that need a lot of time to grow and become mature to start producing fruit. Good examples are tomatoes and peppers. A few weeks after them you can start pumpkins and cucumbers (though these two can be sowed directly into the soil).

Some other plants that can benefit from being started indoors in late winter or early spring are cool-weather crops: lettuce, Swiss chard and spinach. Starting them early indoors gives you a jump on the season so you are able to harvest these plants for a longer period of time.

Things You'll Need to Start Seeds Indoors

Here are some of the essential items you'll need to successfully start seeds indoors:


You can't plant without seeds! You can purchase them or have them saved from the previous years. The seeds you wish to plant can be heirlooms or hybrids. One word of warning: if they weren't collected from the previous year you should check them for good viability (or germination) to know they are usable. This is very easy to do: dampen a paper towel, sprinkle some seeds over it and fold the towel into quarters. Place them into a plastic bag and put them somewhere where is warm (windowsill is also a good place). Check the seeds in about a week or 10 days. They should be germinating. The seeds have a good viability if over half of the seeds have sprouted. If this isn't the case you will need more seed of a better viability.

Seed Starter Mix

This is the medium used for germinating seeds. It's generally a soilless mix. The most common mediums used for this purpose are peat moss, perlite, vermiculite or coir, depending on who makes it. They are all good medium for what you need. They are lightweight, clean and healthy, and they provide good drainage.


You can choose between many different seed-starting containers. It's important to pick the ones that work the best for you. Some kits have the 6 cell packs and they even come with a bottom tray to catch water. There also kits that come with a lid or dome made to keep the soil mix moist until the seeds sprout. You may also pick one of those little Jiffy pellets that will expand with water and peat pots in many sizes. Also, keep in mind that free items can make excellent containers. You may choose egg cartons, toilet paper rolls or newspaper pots. The only downside to these containers is that the lineup may not be as compact, but other than that, they work great just like the other types of containers.


It's very important to use labels. Never rely on your memory to remember which tomato variety you planted where. This is a great way to get them all mixed up. Label the seeds so you won't have to worry about it. Label all cells, not just the first of a row of seedlings. Why? Because when you transplant them to a larger pot you will need to move them around and once again remember where you planted this specific variety. Label everything so there will never be a mix-up.

Proper Conditions

Your newly planted seeds need certain conditions to grow:


After the seedlings show up you will need a light source for your plants. There are special "grow" lights that contain the full color spectrum. They are great, but also very expensive. Also, if you only want to start your plants indoors and later plant them in your garden you want your plants to be strong and hardened enough to survive outdoors. That's why the grow lights may not be the best option even if you can afford them. For this reason, an ordinary fluorescent shop light is enough for starting your seeds indoors. Buy fixtures and hang the lights over the seedlings, very close to the top of the plants. Perhaps it's best to hang them from chains so you can move them up little by little as the plants grow. If you don't want to use artificial light you may put your seedlings in a sunny window. However, this method often results in leggy plants that might not be strong enough for planting outdoors or producing enough fruit. For these reasons some artificial light is recommended for the seedlings.


Seedlings need to be kept in a warm place but a warm room and heat from the lighting above are usually enough. You may not even need any bottom heat (especially if you want to grow tomatoes). Peppers, on the other hand, love to be in a heated bedding. It depends on the plants you wish to grow: some plants require a source of bottom heat in the way of coils or a heat mat. Inform yourself about the exact conditions the plants you wish to grow require and provide them to your seedlings.


Seeds need a good humidity before they germinate. For this reason, it's important to keep the soil mix damp and maybe even covered with plastic lid (or a similar material). Once the seedlings start growing and appearing, remove he lid and water sparingly. Never let them dry out. However, overwatering is also dangerous, so keep the water in moderation.

These are basic guidelines but don't forget to experiment a little and see what works for you and your plants. These are just basic necessities you'll need for starting seeds indoors: when you become more experienced with this technique you will be able to easily tell which seeds are good to grow in what conditions, how often you have to water them, the best containers and mediums for specific seeds, and more.

A proper care requires not just optimal conditions (such as light, water and heat) but also making your plants strong and hardy enough to be able to survive and thrive once you move them outdoors. Strong, healthy plants (such as tomatoes, peppers, lettuce, and more) can easily be planted in your garden once you move them outdoors.

Another thing you should keep in mind when starting seeds indoors is organization. Organization is the key to success. You should never let various seeds and seedlings to be mixed up. It may result in providing wrong conditions to your plants. Never rely on your memory to remember which plants and varieties you planted where. Labels and markers are your friends to keep everything organized.

Additional Tools and Materials Needed for Starting Seeds Indoors

The most essential things you need for starting seeds indoors are seeds themselves, medium and containers. It's also important to provide your plants with optimal conditions such as water, light and heat.

Here are some of the additional tools and materials you need for successfully starting seeds indoors:

Spray Bottle

This is a very important tool and it can be used both for mist-watering and adding moisture. Get a decent one that will not leak and that can be used for a long time. Moisturizing your seedlings is very important. If the planting mix is dry on the surface the water tends to "run" more than it does when it's already moist. For this reason, moistening the surface is advisable. If you keep the surface moist once you water the plant the water will soak in quicker.

Water Containers

It's best to use lukewarm or room-temperature water for the seedlings. This is particularly important for the warm season ones, such as peppers and tomatoes. Tap water tends to be cold, especially in winter months. It's therefore the best to store it in water containers (such as jugs) so you don't have to wait for it to get warmer before you water your seedlings. Plastic 3-liter or gallon sized containers are ideal. If you want to feed your plants with an organic liquid fertilizer use one gallon jugs: they fit nicely to do the mixing.

Old Towels

Planting and transplanting is messy. To keep your house as clean as possible and to be able to clean quickly after the job is done, always put a cover down first. It's best to use old towels because they can collect any spilled water. Alternatively, you may use old sheets.

Plastic Bins

Use them to store and mix your medium for starting seeds. You can buy larger bins at sales, especially around the holiday season. You may also use trays and you can make them in many different ways. For example, you can use the bottom of a cat litter box or an old crisper tray from a refrigerator. They don't cost much and they can be great for mixing the medium for your seeds.

Box Trays

They are great for moving a bunch of transplants. Use cardboard box trays you can get at any store. You will often be able to get them for free. Use them to move a group of containers quickly and without much hassle.

Spreader Knife

Cheese spreader knife is best for what you need. It will come in handy when the time comes to transfer your seedlings to a larger container. Many plant growers start plants in small, six or nine cell pack containers. When the seedlings grow, it's important to move them to a larger container. However, it should be done without disturbing the roots of the seedlings. Sometimes, it's enough to push on the bottom of the cell pack chambers to push the seedlings up. If it doesn't work you should use a spreader knife. Put the spreader knife blade gently on one side of the chamber. It will help get the seedling out. Make sure you don't disturb the plant. Use the knife only if other removal methods fail.

More labels

To properly organize everything, it's best to keep detailed notes and labels. Some people use old metal blinds and other rely on craft sticks. A great advantage to craft sticks is that it can serve as a moisture meter. Put them in several spots in your containers or seed trays. To check for the moisture, pull the stick out. If the bottom of the stick is still moist the plant has enough water for now. If not, it's a sign it should be watered again. However, you don't need to use the sticks for labeling. Anything will do as long as you are able to read the information quickly and as long as it's properly organized. It's best to note everything: the plant (and variety), date of seeding and date of transplanting.

Markers and Pens

These are needed to write on your labels. One word of caution: rollerball or felt-tip pens have ink that may bleed when it gets wet. For this reason, it's best to use a permanent ink or ballpoint pen. This will prevent accidents so you will always be able to read the label.

Pens for Poking Holes

Sometimes, you will need to make smaller holes than your fingers can do. To make them, remove the refill part of an ink pen or a mechanical pencil to poke the holes with them. This is a good way to reuse pens that have run out of ink.

Photo credit: cristina.sanvito

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