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The Ultimate Guide to Seed Starting

The Ultimate Guide to Seed Starting

Have you started your seeds this year?

Do you start them indoors, or do you plant them directly in the garden?

Perhaps you buy your starter plants from a local nursery or big box store?

There are many benefits to starting your own seeds, like being able to grow varieties that are unavailable in stores, growing organic seeds, and even planting crops that are not sold as seedling starter plants.

11 Steps to Seed Starting Indoors

Celeriac in front, cabbage in the back

Starting your own seeds gives you control over what goes in your garden. If something produces well, you may choose to save seeds from it and replant it the following year. This process of saving seeds from the best plants, then replanting those seeds year after year, will breed plants that have adapted to your microclimate. These plants become stronger at resisting local plant viruses and pests. If your area is prone to a wet or cool summer, any seeds saved from those plants and replanted year after year, will breed plants that are resistant to a cool and wet summer. You won’t get the same resistance from store bought transplants.

Just don’t start your seeds too early. Seedlings require 12-16 hours of light to grow successfully. The short days of winter won’t provide your little plants with enough daylight to grow into healthy plants.  Wait to begin your plants after the days grow longer.

Seed starting is actually quite simple and fun! It does require a few tools, however.

If you haven’t tried indoor seed starting, here’s what you need:

*Note: If you don’t have grow lights, don’t despair. Place your trays in your sunniest south-facing window. Then as the seedlings grow and stretch towards the light, turn your trays around, for the seedlings to face away from the window. Your seedlings will quickly grow back towards the light and straighten out.

11 Steps to Seed Starting Indoors: Here’s How You Do It

11 Steps to Seed Starting Indoors

Tomato Seedlings


  1. Pre-moisten the soil, either in its bag or in some sort of plastic bucket or dishpan. Stir the soil, until damp, but not soaking and break up any clumps that may form. Squeeze the soil, it should be wet enough to form a mold, but not dripping wet.
  2. Fill your seed trays, 3/4 full with seed starting mix. Squeeze the soil, it should be wet enough to form a mold, but not dripping wet.
  3. Following the seed packet instructions, add 1 to 3 seeds to the top of each cell in the tray. I always plant 2 to 3 seeds, depending on their size. The seed package will specify if the seeds require light for germination, or not. If light is required, gently push the seeds onto the soil surface for seed/soil contact. If light is not required, add a thin layer of soil and gently tap the soil down all around the top to eliminate air pockets. For larger seeds, like corn, peas, squash, cucumber, push 1 seed into the soil, at the depth suggested on the seed packet.
  4. Water the seeds with a gentle stream of water or use a spray bottle.
  5. Cover the tray with a clear plastic dome. These are usually sold with the seed tray. If a dome is not available, lightly cover seed tray with plastic wrap. I use popsicle sticks or toothpicks to keep the plastic from touching the soil.
    11 Steps to Seed Starting Indoors

    Onion seedlings

    Some plants, like peppers, require bottom heat for germination. In this case, you may use a heat mat under the tray. A heat mat is not necessary if you don’t have one, but it will take longer for seed germination.
  6. After the seeds have germinated, remove the clear dome or plastic wrap and place the tray under a grow light.
  7. Adjust the lights to hang 2 inches above the tray and keep the lights on for at least 12-16 hours per day. I recommend using an automatic timer. This frees you up from having to wake up early to turn the lights on and be there in the evening to turn them off.
  8. As your seedlings grow, adjust the lights to hang directly above the seedlings and no more than 2 inches above.
  9. Repot the seedlings into larger pots, such as 4 inch pots, after the seedlings have produced their first set of true leaves. Then place them back under the lights.
  10. Harden off your seedlings for 2 weeks prior to planting them outside.
  11. Transplant your seedlings into the garden after the last spring frost or based on the seed packet’s recommendations. See Outdoor Planting Calculator for specific planting dates for your hardiness zone.

To help you plan out your seed sowing calendar and keep track of your seedlings, I’ve created a Seed Starting Schedule to help you stay organized.

How to Use Your “Seed Starting Schedule“:

  1. For each seed variety that you plan on starting, simply fill out a line in the chart, including the seed type and variety and the (recommended) number of weeks to start your seeds indoors, prior to transplanting out (this is written on the back of the seed packet).
  2. Then, add your final frost date. If you’re not sure of the correct date, there are a number of websites you may refer to, but I really like www.plantmaps.com. Then, figure out your planting date by counting back the number of recommended weeks, to start your seeds indoors.
  3. After sowing your seeds, fill in the date they were planted and the number of cells/pots planted. The number you plant is based on your own family’s needs and/or garden plan for that year.
  4. When most seeds of one variety have germinated, fill in germination date, including the final number of seedlings you are left with.
  5. Using the Outdoor Planting Calculator, find the correct transplanting out date and add it to the schedule.
  6. When your seedlings are transplanted out into the garden, add that date to the schedule, including the final number of plants transplanted out.

This chart should help you stay organized. By keeping track of our seedlings, it will help us stay organized and plan ahead for next year’s garden.

I hope these 11 steps, along with the Seed Starting Schedule will help you with your seed starting plans and show you how simple and satisfying it truly is.

I would love to hear about your experience. What seeds are you planning to start first? Are you growing something new this year?

Please share your experience and questions in the comments section below.

Happy Gardening!

Here are some of the supplies I used for this method.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are snarky, offensive, or off-topic.