If you’re new to gardening, learning how to start seeds can help you grow the precise flower, herb, and vegetable varieties you want in your garden. Seeds are economical and provide a greater variety of plants than any one garden center can offer on their shelves. With the right equipment, light, and seeds, you’ll be all set to grow a great garden this year.
How to Start Seeds the Right Way
Everything you need to know to start vegetable and herb seeds indoors this year
Choosing Vegetable and Herb Seeds
Beginner gardeners often make the mistake of wanting to plant everything. This is not only overwhelming, but can also be disappointing if you plant things that you won’t use or things that are not right for the climate you are in. So start by making a list of what you like to eat. If you don’t like beets, don’t plant them. If you love tomatoes, make sure to plant tomatoes that thrive in your growing zone.
Once you’ve decided on the main plants that you want to grow, add one or two new plants that you’ve never had before to your list. Maybe you would like to try a unique type of basil just to see what it’s like.
By choosing only one or two new vegetables or herbs, you won’t use much garden space and you can try new things. Next year, you can decide if you want them to be part of your regular rotation.
Can You Reuse Old Seeds?
Once your list is complete, make sure to get your seeds from a reputable source. Your local garden center or favorite seed catalogs are excellent resources. Seeds that your neighbor would just love to share with you, or that you just found in the back of your cabinet, may or may not grow depending on how old they are and how they were stored.
So can you reuse old seeds? The answer to this question is, maybe. Seeds can be reused if they are stored properly and they aren’t too old to germinate. Seeds need to be stored in a cool, dry place. Older seeds may not have as high of a germination rate as new seeds. The older seeds get, the less likely they are to grow. Corn, beet and pepper seeds are usually good for about two years when properly stored, while spinach, radishes and cucumber can last 5 years.
The Equipment You Need to Start Seeds Indoors
Starting your own seeds indoors doesn’t require a lot of equipment. Besides seeds and space, you need a planting medium, planting containers, markers, and a way to water your seeds. You may also need supplemental light.
When you’re starting seeds, you should always use a medium for that specific purpose. A sterile seed starting mix or sterile potting soil will give your seeds a safe place to sprout without the worry of fungal problems, weeds or insect eggs.
Seed starting mixes are usually light and fluffy. They may have peat moss, vermiculite, perlite and other loose materials that allow water to drain easily. Potting soil is more coarse. It may have compost or field soil added. Seeds will sprout in either medium so consider trying both and seeing what you like better.
Containers for Seed Starting
You can use almost anything to plant your seeds from egg cartons to recycled yogurt cups. If you are using recycled items to start seeds, make sure they are cleaned well. You’ll also want to add holes to the bottom for drainage.
However, you will find that buying seed starting trays is inexpensive and they are easy to use. Some seed starting trays come with a bottom tray to catch excess water and a clear cover that acts as a mini greenhouse, keeping seedlings warm and moist.
You’ll need a way to label your seeds because you are not going to remember what you planted, and seedings tend to look similar to each other when they first come up. Use a permanent marker and write on plastic plant markers or wooden popsicle sticks.
When seeds are first planted, you’ll need to keep the soil moist but not soaking wet. The easiest way to accomplish this is with a mister. As the plants get bigger, you can graduate to a little watering can.
Light sources for seed starting may just be a bright sunny window, or you might want to use a grow light if you don’t have a bright enough spot for your seedlings. A few plants, such as calendula and delphinium, prefer darkness for germination so you don’t have to worry about supplemental lighting.
Planting Your Seeds
Now that you have your supplies together, it’s time to plant your seeds. Start by looking at the back of your seed packets. Just about any seeds can be started indoors but some seeds just do better when they are directly planted in the garden.
Root crops like carrots or radishes are good examples of this. The best way to choose vegetable and herb seeds is to look on the packet to see how they are best started. For example, a packet of Golden Marconi peppers says, “Start seeds indoors 8 to 10 weeks before last frost date”. But a packet of heirloom bush beans says, “direct sow” on the back of the packet, meaning this plant will do best if the seeds are planted directly in the garden after danger of frost has passed.
Long season crops usually need to be started indoors so they have enough time to grow and produce before the end of the growing season. This includes peppers and tomatoes, but herbs like basil and rosemary also do well when started indoors. When in doubt, consult the back of the seed packet.
Prepare the Soil
If you are using a seed starting mix, put it in a large tub and wet it before putting it into pots or trays. Squeeze out excess water and then put the moist medium into the growing containers or seed trays. Watering dry starting mix in the container will result in the water draining right through and the seeds won’t get the water that they need. Potting soil or seed starting soil may be easier to handle by watering after it’s in the growing containers. Again, the soil should be moist but not soaking wet.
A basic rule of thumb when planting seeds is, don’t plant them deeper than two or three times their width. Seeds that aren’t planted quite deep enough will still sprout, but seeds planted too deep with probably not break the surface of the soil. So carefully place one or two seeds per pot on the soil and sprinkle a little soil over the top or press it into the soil just a bit. Don’t be afraid to plant a bit more than you need, just in case some seeds don’t come up. You can always thin out the plants you don’t need or share them with a gardening friend.
Make sure to place markers appropriately so you know what is planted. Then put your seed trays in a warm location where you can easily monitor them and moisten the soil as needed. If you cover the trays with plastic or a cover, they will stay moist longer.
When seeds break the surface of the soil, make sure you put them in a sunny location or use a supplemental light source. Continue watering as needed and when your plants have two true leaves, you can thin them out as necessary.
Record keeping is a vital part of successful gardening. You may think you’ll remember what you planted and how well it did, but trust me, you won’t. Start your record keeping as soon as you start your seeds. Write down the plant variety, date planted, and how long it took to germinate. Make notes on where seeds were purchased and the success rate of the seeds.
Continue your record keeping when you transplant into the garden by noting when you planted the seedings, how many of each variety you planted and where in the garden it was placed. After harvest, make notes on how you liked it, what kind of yield you had and also weather trends during the growing season. All of this information will help you next year when you start seeds all over again.
How to Read a Seed Catalog – Video
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How to Start Seeds: More Resources
Starting Seeds Indoors: Heirloom Seeds
Seed Starting Indoors: Equipment and Supplies
Best Light for Starting Seeds Indoors
Seed Starting Mistakes and How to Fix Them
New to Vegetable Gardening? Start Here
Guest contributor: Kathleen Marshall
Updated December 31, 2021 with additional links and information.