Friday, February 15, 2013

Indoor Seed Starting 101, Part One

There may still be snow on the ground, but it is the perfect time here in Zone 5 to get our 2013 garden started. We had variable success starting seeds last year, but after Hubby Dear's research and an investment in infrastructure, we feel confident that this year will be more fruitful. Here's how we started our broccoli, cabbage, and kale transplants.

First, gather whatever pots you want to start your seeds in.

Toilet paper roll pots aren't just cheap - they really work great! 

We are using a mix of containers. Here is the link to my tutorial on making little pots out of toilet paper rolls.

Recycled containers drying after being dipped in a bleach solution

We are also recycling a variety of plastic containers. We washed them, drilled several holes in the bottom of each pot, and sanitized them prior to planting in a 10% bleach solution. Seeds and baby plants can be very delicate and mold or bacteria growth from an improperly cleaned container could kill them.

Tip #1: Sanitize recycled or previously used seed starting containers. 

In addition to containers, you will need a seed-starting mix. Seed-starting mix is different from regular potting soil in that it is sterile. Sterile conditions will greatly improve your chance to avoid the dreaded damping off disease and other issues that can plague seedlings started in potting soil.

You can make your own seed-starting mix. Here are a couple of "recipes" you can try: this one or that one.  We decided to go ahead and buy a large bag of it from Johnny's Selected Seeds and I noticed that even our local Wal-Mart is carrying organic seed-starting mix.

Tip #2: Buy or make a proper seed-starting mix.

The night before we planted our seeds, we poured out the amount of seed starting mix that we estimated we would need. Then we added enough water to moisten but not flood the soil. By noon the next day, the moisture level was perfect - similar to a wrung-out sponge.

Mini Me demonstrating the proper consistency of the seed starting mix

Since the soil would be consistently moist throughout, the seeds would get a serious head-start to germination.

Tip #3: Pre-moisten your soil prior to planting. 

Now that you have sanitized containers, moistened seed-starting mix, and, of course, some seeds, it's time for the fun part. Scoop the soil mix into the pots and then tap the container several times against whatever work surface you are using.

Tapping the pot

You will be surprised just how much the soil will settle when you tap the pot and eliminate air pockets. This is a simple trick that can make a huge difference in your results. Top off with more seed-starting mix if necessary and then lightly press the soil down with your finger

Tip #4: Tap, tap, tap that container! 

Then add your seeds. We put two seeds in each container.

Covering the seeds. These are "Farao" cabbage seeds. 

Then we lightly covered the seeds with soil so that the seeds would be at the depth recommended on the seed packet - about 1/4" deep for the type of seeds we planted (all are brassica or cole crops).


The next step was to lightly water the containers. We chose to use a spray bottle so we could gently mist everything.

Next, we placed a dome over our seed starting tray. We happened to buy a dome kit, but you don't need to get fancy. You can slide the whole apparatus into a plastic bag and it will work just as well. The point is to keep moisture in until germination occurs.

Tip #5: Keep things covered until the seeds germinate. 

Sprout little seeds! Note: we have our lighting rig on, but it is not necessary for germination. 

About 48 hours after we planted the seeds, the first cabbage sprouts poked their sleepy heads above the soil. Success!

As soon as the first seedling pokes out of the soil, take OFF your dome or plastic bag. Turn on your lights or put the seedlings in a sunny window. Here's the post about the DIY seed starting lighting rig we put together. The seedlings need a lot of light to grow into strong, sturdy plants. We have our lights on a timer so that the plants get about 16 hours of light a day.

Our cabbage sprouts on day three

Broccoli, cabbage, etc. will sprout just fine in our cool basement. The lights are 1-2" above the plants; this is to give the seedlings the optimum amount of light but it also warms them ever so slightly. We will have to provide supplemental heat for our tomato, pepper, and eggplants, however, since they are heat lovers.

Tip #6: Check heat requirements for the optimum germination. 

Cabbage on day five. 

I can already tell that this year's plants are going to be more sturdy than those we started in 2012. It is amazing how much of a difference the correct amount of light makes.

Tip #7: Let there be light! Lots and lots of light. 

Since the lights are on a timer, it takes very little of my time to care for the seedlings. They need to stay moist, but too much water can cause the seedlings to rot. We are watering from the bottom in an attempt to minimize that problem. We pour water into the bottom tray, let the plants soak up the water for 30 minutes, and then pour off any remaining water.

Tip #8: Water from the bottom. 

Don't forget to read Part Two of this post. I cover thinning, fertilization, transplanting to large containers, and hardening off in the next installments. 

Some Helpful References:

Best Tips for Starting Seeds Indoors, by Barbara Pleasant, "Mother Earth News", Dec 2012/Jan 2013
Mini Farming: Self-Sufficiency on 1/4 Acre by Brett Markham


  1. you could use a sprouter before transferring to soil?

    1. I wouldn't. That's an extra step you don't need and would probably not work very well for some types of seeds. I do sprout my wheat before I plant it for wheat grass.

  2. My sprouts got tall and thin and fell over....

    1. Sorry to hear that. It sounds like they needed more light.