Seed Starting

Published March 14, 2022 by Joyce
Seedlings in plastic pots
Starting your own seeds is a great way to save money.

On your Mark! Get Set! Grow!

Starting seeds indoors 101

Starting your own seeds is a great way to save money, get a jump on the gardening season and a great way to get the kids involved.

You can spend a LOT of money starting seeds, but I am going to suggest that you start simply and inexpensively and let experience be your guide for adding equipment.

How to avoid the dreaded Damping Off 


Step 1: Choose your seeds

You can get seeds from:

  • your local gardening center
  • a wide variety of catalogs
  • your local hardware store
  • your own collection of seeds you stored away from a previous harvest or have left over from last year ( You may want to do a germination test between paper towels to make sure they are viable.)

When choosing seeds consider:

Will you be saving seeds from the plants you grow for next year's planting?  If so, purchase "heirloom" or "open pollinated" varieties so you can be sure of getting the same result as the plant/fruit you started with. Hybrid seeds are a mix of varieties and the seeds you grow may not grow out to resemble the original.

Step 2: Choose your soil

Most Hardware stores and gardening centers carry various kinds of potting soil. I prefer to use a high quality organic potting soil. A gardening center/nursery can be a great source of reasonably priced organic soil. My favorite is "Moo Grow" which is made right here in Vermont. I like that it has a varied texture which resists compacting, allowing space for roots to develop.

While I have great results with high quality potting soil, let's talk about another oft suggested soilless starter mises. They generally contain vermiculite which makes a fluffy mix for good root growth. They also contain peat moss. The idea here is that it is antimicrobial and some feel it helps prevent disease such as damping off. I don't use peat moss for several reasons, not the least of which is the environmental cost of mining peat bogs. It takes a peat bog thousands of years to regenerate after this assault. Additionally, these mixes seem to me an unnecessary expense.

Alternatively, you may wish to pasteurize your soil to prevent damping off.

If your potting soil is very dry, you may need to moisten it.  Put an amount appropriate to your use in a bucket that will leave you room for stirring with hands or a paint stick.

Add a cup or so of water and stir. Keep adding water thus until you soil is moistened, not wet.

When you think you've just about got it, reach down in the bottom of the bucket and grab a handful of soil and squeeze. If water comes out between your fingers, it is too wet.

Don't worry! Soil often needs a little time to absorb the moisture. Let it sit for half an hour and stir again. If it is still too wet, add more dry soil.

What you want to end up with is soil that is dark in color and holds together when you squeeze it but falls apart at the touch of your fingers.

Step 3: Prepare Your containers

If you are purchasing containers, I recommend small, durable pots with lots of drainage holes. You can get them in various sizes and shapes.

If you are reusing pots, wash them well with hot soapy water. Soak them for a few minutes in a 10% bleach solution (1 1/4c bleach to 1 gallon water). This helps to prevent damping off.

You can use small, well washed single-use plastic cups of various sorts – yogurt tubs, for example. Make sure you provide plenty of drainage. A simple way to do this is with a soldering gun (HOT! Be careful and for adults only. Melted plastic can make serious burns). You need about six 1/4” - 3/8” holes per pot.

I avoid pots made of compostable materials. It initially seems like a good idea. But if you set them in the garden at transplanting time, the roots can fail to break through the pot and the plant becomes root bound and fails. Also any of the pot that remains above ground after transplanting must be trimmed away so that it doesn't wick water away from the roots. So you must trim the top and peel away the bottom or slice it to make way for the roots. They are a single-use expense, make extra work and can't be reused.

If you are placing your pots under a light, it can be helpful to use pots of a consistent height as you will want to be able to keep the lights close to your plants as they grow.

You will need a drainage tray of some sort so your surfaces below won't get wet when watering. You can re-use meat trays or purchase plant trays at a gardening center. Some lighting setups come with trays.

Step 4: Choose a Location

To Provide enough light, you will need either a very sunny south-facing window or a plant light of some kind.

Plants without enough light grow leggy (tall and thin) and weak

Step 5: Let's Get Planting!

- Fill your pots loosely with soil, near the top but not heaped. Make sure your soil has had a chance to warm to room temperature.  If your pots are too full, watering may be difficult later on.

With an index finger, make small indentations in the soil, about 1/4” deep. When I am using 3” pots, I usually put two plants per pot in case one doesn't come up. (If both come up strong and sturdy, I transplant them both into bigger pots once they have a second set of leaves.)

-Plant 1 seed in each in indentation and use a finger to put a bit of soil over the top and press lightly down with all fingers across the width of the pot. Don't overly compress the soil.

- I generally add a teaspoon of water, spooning it out of a cup of water into each pot. Using a watering can here is likely to cause over watering. Over watering is a big contributor to damping off / seed rot.

-Place the pots in a drainage tray. Cover the entire tray with a kitchen trash bag and fold the end under the tray. This keeps the soil evenly moist. Tiny sprouting seeds are very vulnerable to too much or too little water.

-Check your plants every day. You should begin to see sprouts in 5 – 15 days. Cruciferous (Broccoli, cabbage, brussel sprouts, etc) plants are quick to sprout. Peppers take quite a lot longer.

Into the Light

When you first see leaves, remove the plastic bag and move your plants into the light.

Check soil moisture daily. Get accustomed to noticing what the soil feels like when it is moist and when it is dry. Make sure pots don't sit in water for long periods of time. Let soil dry slightly between waterings. Watch very carefully for wilting. Set a reminder to check your plants.

I water my plants about every other day but it depends a lot on temperature, how much water you added last time, the size of the plant and the amount of soil. Don't worry. You'll get a feel for it.

Transplant your plants into bigger pots if they become root bound before the it's time to put them outdoors.

Transplant into the garden our outdoor pots once the danger of frost is past and the soil has warmed.

TIPS: If your plants sprout up and die soon after, you may be dealing with damping off.

If they never sprout, you may be dealing with damping off.

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