Indoor Gardening

Starting Seeds Indoors – Part I: The Basics

Tomato Seedlings Container

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:

  • Seeds

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.

    Tomato Seedlings Container
  • Container

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.

  • Labels

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:

  • Light

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.

  • Heat

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.

  • Water

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.

Photo credit: jane boles via photopin cc