Seed Starting Step-by-Step

The widest varieties of vegetables, herbs and flowers are only available as seeds. Follow these pointers to grow a variety of plants from seed.

Photo By: Image courtesy of Dubuque Arboretum; photo by Ronald Tigges, Digital Dubuque

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Photo By: Courtesy of Seed Savers Exchange

Photo By: Photo by Heidi Geldhauser/Design by Lindsay Coletta

Photo By: photo by Sam Henderson

Photo By: Photo by Debbie Wolfe

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Starting plants from seed is an inexpensive way to garden, offering endless selection and flexible timing. Follow these steps to seed starting success.

Step 1: Choose Your Seeds

Take your time and choose the best varieties from reputable sources. Some companies sell seed that may be several years old as long as it passes germination tests; others sell only fresh seed. The cheapest seed is not necessarily the best choice.

Step 2: Review Planting Instructions

Seed packaging can answer a lot of questions such as when the plant grows best in particular parts of the country, proper spacing when sown directly in the garden and whether or not to sow indoors. Your needs may require adjustments to the recommendations but you have a starting point. Be aware that not following the seed company's directions will probably void any warranty they may offer.

Step 3: Soak the Seeds Overnight

Whether you are sowing indoors or directly into the garden, pre-soaking the seeds can shorten the germination period by several days. This process works for all but the tiniest seeds. Simply place the seeds in a small bowl and cover them with warm water. Allow them to soak for 12-24 hours. Drain the water and blot the seeds on a towel just prior to sowing.

Sowing Seeds Indoors

Sowing seeds indoors offers the most precision. There is little wasted seed because almost no thinning is required. Normally, the controlled indoor conditions allow the seeds to sprout faster than they would outdoors. Indoor seed starting also allows crops to have a head start on the growing season. The down side is that finding enough indoor space for seed starting may be a challenge.

Step 5: Prepare the Soil

Seed starting soil must be fine textured, moisture retentive and well drained. For indoor seed starting, pre-made mixes work well. Outdoor container mixes generally work well. Garden beds should be well amended with compost, and tilled and raked smooth with no rocks.

Indoor Sowing Options

If you choose to sow seeds indoors, you have several mediums to choose from. Cell packs are the most widely used: simply fill the cells with starting mix and you're ready to sow seeds. Another option are compressed peat moss pellets. These pellets expand to about four times their dry size when soaked in water, then they are ready to sow. Soil blocks are gaining popularity because they allow the seedlings to develop greater root mass before planting compared to round shaped vessels, thus reducing transplant shock.

Outdoor Sowing

Whether in a container or in the ground, you should follow the spacing recommended on the seed pack. One adjustment that can be made for containers is to convert the recommended spacing to figure how many square inches each plant requires. For instance If the seed pack states that the seeds must be spaced one inch apart in rows that are twelve inches apart, then you would multiply 1 X 12. So you would sow 1 seed per twelve square inches of surface area.

Step 6: Sow The Seeds

Use two seeds per cell when you start plants indoors. Most of the time both will germinate, but there are times when only one of the seeds sprouts, then no time or space is lost. 

Potting Up May Be Necessary

Some plants that are kept indoors for a long period, such as tomatoes or peppers, may require larger containers than cell packs or peat pellets provide. This can be accomplished by starting them in larger pots from the start, or by starting them in the smaller sizes and moving them into larger pots when they require it.

Watering

Watering new seedlings is a delicate matter. Keep seeds covered with plastic until they germinate, during which time watering may be unnecessary. When the seedling first emerges, misting is a good practice initially because it provides water where the tiny roots can get to it. As the seedling develops, bottom watering (placing the seedling tray into a deeper container with water, and allowing the water to "wick" up through the soil) becomes the most effective way to ensure that deep watering is accomplished. 

Step 7: Hardening Off the Seedlings

Prior to planting seedlings outdoors, they must be acclimated to outdoor conditions. This process, called "hardening off," is a slow introduction that takes up to a week or more. Begin by leaving the seedlings outdoors on a mild day, in a shady area, for an hour or so. In the following days, gradually increase sun exposure and duration. The amount of time it takes is determined by the degree of difference between indoor and outdoor conditions.

Baby Your New Seedlings

Once the plants are hardened off, they are ready to plant. Take care, however, to protect them from sudden cold and hot or windy conditions until they are well established. 

Enjoy Your Harvest

Because of the many opportunities to personalize and customize that seed starting affords, growing your garden from seed makes the harvest that much more enjoyable.