Start Seeds Indoors - How to start seeds in your house

This is the first article of a series about how to start a garden: from starting seeds indoors to growing plants in raised beds.  The following articles will be in this series:

  • Start Seeds Indoors
  • How to Transplant Seedlings
  • How to Build Raised Beds
  • How to Build Simple Trellises
  • How to Build Fencing for Pests
  • All about Soil
  • How to Compost
  • Alternative Gardening

Start Seeds Indoors

As I discussed in my 2014 Gardening Lessons Learned Part 1 post, I wanted to start seeds indoors earlier in 2015 that I did in 2014.  My goal was to have viable plants for friends and family in May, so that meant that I had to start seeds indoors in late February or early March so that healthy plants would be available.

This post will describe my process to start seeds indoors in 2015, and I will compare my methods in 2014 with methods in 2015.  At this point in mid-May, I can honestly say that I have settled on a preferred method for the future.  I will break this article into two distinct steps: planning and gathering seeds and planting seeds.

First Step: Planning and Gathering Seeds

Collecting lettuce, pepper, tomatoes and pea seeds

Collecting seeds of vegetables and herbs you want to eat is key!

If you are new to gardening, you probably are overwhelmed by it all.  Do you plant kale, arugula or spinach?  Should you plant Early Girl, Better Bush or Cherry tomatoes?  What is a kohlrabi?  It can be overwhelming looking at the endless pictures of beautifully colored produce in the seed catalogs, online or at the store.  Don’t become overwhelmed, however!

PRO TIP: You don’t have to plant it all! Plant what you and your family like to eat.

Plant what you and/or your family will eat.  Anything else might look and sound cool, but it will be given away or composted (best) or thrown out (worst).

The first step to start seeds indoors is to do some planning and gathering your seeds.  I have collected a great series on Garden Planning and included them in a Garden Trellis post.  Assuming you know your space and have a plan, you should be gathering your seeds.  There are many options to buy seeds from big box stores like  Menards, Home Depot and Walmart to online companies like Seed Savers Exchange, Baker Seeds and Johnny Seeds.  I recommend Seed Savers Exchange because I have used them in the past, and they have a great selection and provide great service (not a paid endorsement; just my experience).

Experienced gardeners get their seeds at stores, mail order, or save them from their plants.  I have saved my own seeds, and I have had some great results.  For some plants, it is easy to take the seeds and dry them out.  For others, like tomatoes, there is a process that we will talk about in the future. For some other plants, buying seeds or seedlings is easier because it takes a couple years to generate decent seed.

Second Step: Planting Seeds

add soil to cups or your seed trays

Time to add soil to cups or your seed trays

Time to get a little dirty!

Because I live in Minnesota and am a renter, I have to start seeds indoors.  I do not have a greenhouse yet, and I do not yet have any cold frames to try planting seedlings outside.  Yet!  Note to self: these elements are all part of my future plans.

Our last frost day is typically May 10 in the Twin Cities.  That is a key date since we really should tempt the fates and plant outside until that date.  In fact, I have seen snow in late May, and last year the ice did not come off the lakes until almost June!  Welcome to the frozen tundra.

In our 1940’s era rental house, we only have two windows facing the south, and neither window will work for starting seeds indoors.  That means I have to use grow lights in my basement to start seeds indoors.  I use a very basic and inexpensive system, and I talked about my set-up for indoor gardening here.  I also created a simple stand for the grow lights out of ¾” PVC piping, but that is a topic of another article.

To start seeds indoors, I have used two methods: disposable cups and seed trays.  In either case, I use the basic principles of the Rain Gutter Grow Systems: allow water to wick into the soil naturally.  I will describe both methods below.

Disposable Cup Method

Starting seeds in disposable cups

Starting seeds in disposable cups does work!

Here are the basic steps I used:

  1. Buy red solo cups or Styrofoam cups. Sams Club or the Dollar Store sell packages of inexpensive cups (Sams has large packs of cups).
  2. Drill holes in the bottom of the cups for drainage and to allow water to wick up into the soil
  3. Fill the cells with potting mix (include links to potting mix articles on Old World Garden Farms, Modern Steader, other sites). I actually purchased a basic potting soil from Menards.  I noticed that it contained a lot of peat in the mix, so I added some compost I had in an unopened bag.  I will talk about soil mix and compost in future posts.
  4. Make a hole in the soil using a dibble (i.e., a 1/2″ dowel that is 6″ long and has a pointed end), dowel, pencil or your finger. Go ahead, get dirty!
  5. Add seeds to the mix and cover the seeds up.
  6. I moisten the soil using a spray bottle.
  7. I put the cups into a larger container and add a little water to the bottom of the container. You don’t need much!  You want the soil in the cups to be moist, not soaking wet.
  8. Put the grow lights close to the top of the cups (about 1” to 2” away from the tops).

For tomatoes, dill, lettuce, spinach, kale, and chard, this method worked great.  Germination occurred fairly quickly.

For peppers and cilantro, I had germination problems.  Part of the issue is that my basement was cold in March (cold basement = cold soil in the cups), but I think the soil was also too wet for those type of seeds.

Starting seeds indoors - tomatoes

Starting tomatoes in cups – it works!

Seed Tray Method

SeedTrays-8Days

Seed trays, hoods and heating pads have excellent results! This is 8 days after planting.

I used simple seed trays from Menards. They are 11”x21” seed trays that are a couple dollars in the Outdoor section of the store.  While last year I planted rows of seeds in the trays, this year I used 72 cell refills and have had some excellent results.  I will probably use 36 cell refills in the future since it gives the seedlings more room to grow.

Seed trays, seeds and refill cells (72 total)

Seed trays, seeds and refill cells (72 total)

I also use Hydrofarm Heating Mats under the seed trays and plastic hoods for each tray.  This creates a greenhouse effect inside the hoods with the heated soil and contained environment.

Hydrofarm Heating Mats

Hydrofarm Heating Mats make this system work

Here are the basic steps I used:

  1. Use seed trays, refillable cells, heating pads and plastic hoods that fit the seed trays.
  2. Fill the cells with potting mix (include links to potting mix articles on Old World Garden Farms, Modern Steader, other sites). I actually purchased a basic potting soil from Menards.  I noticed that it contained a lot of peat in the mix, so I added some compost I had in an unopened bag.  I will talk about soil mix and compost in future posts.
  3. Make a hole in the soil using a dibble (i.e., a 1/2″ dowel that is 6″ long and has a pointed end), dowel, pencil or your finger. Go ahead, get dirty!
  4. Add seeds to the mix and cover the seeds up.
  5. I moisten the soil using a spray bottle.
  6. Add a little water to the bottom of the seed tray. You want the soil in the cups to be moist but not soaking wet
  7. Put the seed trays onto the heating pads. Plug the heating pads into a surge protector.
  8. Put the plastic hood over the seed tray.
  9. Put the grow lights close to the top of the hood (about 1” to 2” away from the tops).

I grew a tremendous amount of tomatoes, broccoli, and peppers with this method last year.

This year, I started a second batch of tomatoes, peppers, kohlrabi, broccoli, cucumbers, peas and beans with this method.  I have to say, this method works wonders.  In 3 days, the beans had germinated, and by day 5 they were 6 inches tall.  Germination rates were fantastic, even with the fussy peppers.  I am really satisfied with the germination and growth using this method, and I will use this method in the future.

One word of caution using seed trays with heating pads: check the moisture of the soil.  The pads will heat the soil, and moisture will evaporate over time.  You will need to check the soil once per day to make sure it is optimal for growth (moist, not soaking wet).  I actually had to restart some peas since I had essentially “cooked” them (dry, warm soil).  I moved the cells and replanted them tonight.  I anticipate germination in a couple days!

Start seeds indoors - cucumbers and beans are up 3 days after planting!

Seed trays work! The cucumbers and beans are up 3 days after planting!

Your Turn

How did you start seeds indoors this year and in years past?  What lessons have you learned?

 

 

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