10 SEED STARTING TIPS

EVERY year.  Every, single, year I am stunned that this works.  Take a seed, stick it in some dirty, old, soil then watch it sprout into a plant within days.

That seed may have been sitting around your house for 3 years minding it’s own business, not doing anything, just being a seed.  But the moment you add some dirt and water to it, it instantly stops being a seed and starts to grow into a plant.  Seriously.  That’s some weird shit.

If you don’t think so, it’s just because you’re used to the idea.  If I told you that you could stick an egg roll into some dirt and within 3 days it would turn into Chinese restaurant you would definitely think that was some weird shit.  You would also think that you were very lucky.

And you are very lucky.  Like I said, it’s just because you’re so used to it that you don’t reflect on how remarkable it is that if you stick a little black thing the size of your pinkie nail into some dirt you can come back in a few months and find a massive, sweet watermelon has taken its place. It really is that easy.  Most of the time.

But over the many years I’ve grown seedlings I’ve also found what happens so naturally in nature can occasionally go sideways on you at home. Seeds don’t germinate, they germinate but keel over and die, your plants are spindly and scrawny or they look just great until you plant them outside, at which point they … keel over and die.

So I have for you a list of my most useful tips for starting seedlings.

seedling-tips

10.  SEEDS DON’T NEED LIGHT TO GERMINATE. THEY NEED HEAT. REMEMBER THAT.

If your seed starting room isn’t very warm put your seed starting pots or tray on a heating blanket.  The seeds will sprout in less time that way but the soil will dry out faster so keep an eye on it.

9.  SEEDS ALSO NEED MOISTURE TO GERMINATE. 

So cover your seed trays or pots with plastic until they germinate. AS soon as they do take the plastic off and get them in a South facing windowsill or under your grow lights.

8.  WATER FROM UNDERNEATH

Watering from above will a) disturb the seeds you just planted and b) seedlings that are in soil that’s too wet on top are more prone to damping off, a condition where your newly formed seedling falls over dead for no apparent reason and without any warning.

7.  KEEP A FAN GOING

Keeping the air moving around the plants helps to prevent the top of the soil  from staying too wet. So a fan also helps with preventing damping off.

6.  USE WHITE TO REFLECT LIGHT

Whether you’re growing your plants in a windowsill or under grow lights, surround the area with white foam core or bristol boards.  It’ll reflect as much light as possible back on the plants.  And more light is always better for well developed plants.

5.  USE A TIMER

Seedlings need 15 hours of light a day.  That’s a lot of light. Since most people have their grow lights in the basement or an out of the way room, turning the lights on and off will first be a pain and second be forgotten.  Just get a timer and set it to come on at 7 a.m. and go off at 10:00 p.m. Done.

4.  PET YOUR PLANTS

Touch em’, move em’, shake ’em.  Just running your hand over the top of your plants gets them ready for the terrifying world of wind and rain they’re soon going to be up against.

3. DON’T START TOO EARLY

You’re ready.  You’re itching to get started and grow some plants.  I know.  I get that.  But don’t jump the fun.  In fact, I’m starting most of my plants MUCH later this year for two reasons. 1. Keeping seedlings alive in the house is way harder than keeping them alive outside. So the less time I need to keep them alive indoors the better.  2.  By starting and planting things a bit later than normal you can sometimes avoid the life cycle of certain pests that go after them.

2. IF YOU CAN SEED OUTSIDE, THEN DO THAT.

There really aren’t that many plants you absolutely need to start indoors if you’re in around zone 6.  Things that are hot weather crops like tomatoes, zucchini and peppers do benefit from a bit of a head start because they take quite a long time to grow and mature.  You need as much time as possible to create a healthy plant that’s full of fruit. But other things like beets, lettuce, peas, beans and even squash seeds can be planted right in the ground and have plenty of time to grow.  Doing this gives you more room under your lights for the plants that really need the lights.

 1. IF YOU’RE USING GROW LIGHTS UPGRADE TO T5’s.

T5s are the newer style of grow lights.  They’re smaller, produce less heat and more resemble sunlight than regular fluorescent lights. They cost more than regular fluorescent lights but you’ll get better, stronger, stockier plants.  I switched to these kind of lights last year.

BONUS TIP – HARDENING OFF

You can’t just take your tray of new, baby seedlings and plant them outside.  They need to get used to being outdoors.  You have to “harden them off“.

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If you’re feeling like you still need more information you can read my post on Starting Seedlings.

If you have NO idea when to start seeds you can use my Seed Starting Calculator. 

If after alllll of this you still feel like you need more information to successfully start seeds, maybe just buy some plants.  Or better yet.  Forget growing your own vegetables.  Just get some Chinese takeout from that place you planted your egg roll.

42 Comments

  1. Monique says:

    It’s so cold these days.. I think I should have waited a week:(
    Fingers crossed ..
    I don’t do lights anymore..I used to.now I use the windows w/ available light..but this cold and snow on the way..not helping.
    Trying a new tomato method.. hope it works..
    I realy do love my Hunters..yours are my daughter’s.

  2. Sara in Port Perry, ON says:

    Hi Karen!
    I am new to veggie gardening and I am a bit confused by being able to start seeds out doors prior to my last frost date. If I plant something like beets or peas outside prior to last frost do I need to cover them with a row cover or can I just plant them and that’s it? I really enjoy your website, & thanks for being such an inspiration!

    • Karen says:

      Hi Sara. Cold hardy crops like beets, peas won’t be killed by light frost. Also, they will germinate in soil temperatures that are lower than something that’s a warm weather crop like tomatoes or peppers will. Also, even though grow lights are great they’re not nearly as good as the real sun, so a lot of times if you start plants indoors, then plant them outside, they don’t grow any faster than if you’d just planted a seed outside on the same day you set out your seedling believe it or not. Here’s a post proving that little fact … 🙂 https://www.theartofdoingstuff.com/vegetable-garden-tips-tricks/ ~ karen!

  3. Alita says:

    It is wonderful the way seeds grow isn’t it. I look at some of the trees that I have grown from seeds and marvel at the way they grow.

    Last year I had some tomato seed germinate like mustard and cress. The amazing thing was that the seed was about ten years old.

    An alternative to reflecting light is that mylar sheet that they sell for rescue blankets, works a treat. By the way I think some seeds do need light to germinate, poppy seeds for example. A lot of weed seeds react to light too.

  4. danni says:

    Started the early cold weather seeds last week outdoors, kale , kohlrabi, etc… it was a beautiful weekend…
    Sunday AND Monday this week freezing temps and SNOW. B’byeee first round!

    AND I have various seedlings started indoors now, but yesterday I finally got the sliding door replaced out to the deck, so GAPING hole in side of house for hours with freezing conditions…. lets see what survived that.
    But at least I have a door now that lets me look out on my sorry garden.
    \_(ツ)_/¯

  5. Kathy Hartzell says:

    Oh!! What a delight. Read you even before the NYT. That is real devotion. To you.

    Transplanted up to pint pots several toms and zinnias yesterday. The greens go into the beds this weekend.

    Problem with having my growing beds at the second home is I can’t keep up with the slugs and birds so I have to transplant stuff that has the resilience to survive. Seed in the beds directly the peas and beans, tho. They seem to make it, mostly, we will see tomorrow when we head out!!

  6. Teresa Jennings Richardson says:

    I love planting seeds just to see what will grow and what won’t. I planted 300 little green English peas in pots in early February with my two youngest grandchildren. First thing we do each time they come over is to go check on our seeds and plants. We have some okra plants, sunflowers, basil, oregano, thyme, lettuce, kale, and marigolds that are looking good. We also have some turnip greens that have bolted and gone to seed, but aren’t ready to pull up quite yet. But our peas? I went out this morning and some are blooming! Cant wait to show them that. The 3 year old wanted me to buy some Bacon bits for him at the Dollar Tree the other day. He thinks they are bacon seeds. Of course he also thinks if he sprinkles enough baking powder on the imaginary food he is cooking that it will turn it into bacon as well. Wish he was right.

    • Erin says:

      Mmmmm. Bacon powder.

    • Grammy says:

      I wish he was right, too. Some savvy person is going to steal the three-year-old’s idea and manufacture something that can be sprinkled on something else to make it JUST LIKE bacon. Count on it. It will probably be toxic, but when it comes to bacon, people won’t care.

      I, too, have more fun gardening since I have a grandson to play in the dirt with. Getting to see all those things we came to take for granted through a new set of eyes (and ideas) is the best.

  7. Liz says:

    The video does really highlight how amazing seeds are. Magic beans. Weird shit.

  8. Mary says:

    Bacon seeds, Teresa! Brilliant idea! Almost as good as planting an egg roll and a Chinese restaurant would pop out of the ground. Now THAT’s some gardening prowess!! 🙂

  9. Erin says:

    Great info. Thanks for writing it in such a concise manner.

    My most recent addition to seed starting is #7, using a fan. Like you said, it helps the top of the soil to dry. It also strengthens the stems – like resistance training for seedlings. Which is important ’cause it is really wind here.

    Now, can we please get rid of the snow?!

  10. Lesley says:

    About 20 years ago, I asked my hubby for one of those indoor plant starting set ups, complete with shelves and fluorescent gro-lights. Being the way he is, he bought me a hydroponic garden kit, which I know cost a bomb, and required lots of maintenance and electricity. Hubby has never heard of KISS; no not the band, and not smooching, but “Keep It Simple Stupid”! I grew jalapeños, small tomatoes, and various flowers with great success, but it just got to be too much trouble having to pollinate everything myself with Q-tips. After 1 year, I drained the thing, and just used it to start seeds for my flower beds. It only had 1 light, so I could only do about 4 trays, but it saved me lots of money at the nursery in the spring. The lightbulb that came with that hydroponic kit was amazing (it was a metal halide), but after it burnt out rather explosively 2 years later, I decided I didn’t want to spend $75 on a new one. Now, I’m back to being lazy and buying my plants at the nurseries, but I have to say, I truly enjoyed the “miracle” of seed-starting, and I was so much more proud of my gardens then than I am now.

    • Lesley says:

      Btw, interesting clientele at the hydroponic supply store 20 years ago; now I’m sure they’re all medical professionals, lol.

      • Grammy says:

        Same here, Lesley. Back in the day, our hydroponic supply store was regularly surveiled by law enforcement people looking to follow customers home. At least that was the rumor. Today there are new stores of all kinds popping up again, from growing supplies to actual product to accessories. With all the medicine required now, the economy is booming.

  11. This is a tip from a no-nothing novice, so take it for what it’s worth. I like growing sweet potatoes so tried two methods: one was the sweet potato in the jar of water-resting-on-toothpick method. I followed all the planting direction for that. The second method was cutting the end off a sweet potato as far as the first eyes and sticking it in the earth. The second method got me yards of vine and about 8 good potatoes from one plant.
    The first method yielded only one or two potatoes for each slip planted per instructions.
    Maybe it’s because I live in zone 4b? Don’t know. But this year I’ll be planting several potatoes just as they come as an experiment to see if it works again.
    Madeleine

    • Karen says:

      Sure, do it again! I get a lot of sweet potatoes from my slips grown from rooting but I’ve never tried the other planting method. Who knows. Maybe I will this year! Also if you’re managing to grow sweet potatoes in Zone 4b you’re doing something very, very right, lol. ~ karen!

    • Karen says:

      Oh! And it makes sense that you’d get more sweet potatoes from planting an entire cut end because technically that cut end probably has 4 or 5 slips growing out of it, right? ~ karen!

  12. Cred says:

    Planting an egg roll; best (and most hilarious) analogy, ever!
    It is magical shit, and I’m still in awe every time- although, perhaps that is because I’m not always that successful- so when it works, I’m in awe.
    I am also incredibly irritated by people who not only can do this easily with zero effort, but don’t even care. My FIL has a green thumb up his butt- he sticks seeds, from the dollar store, in a little cups in his windowsills and they burst forth healthy and strong. And if he feels like it, he’ll maybe stick them in the garden and by midsummer he’s overrun with 6 or so different kinds of tomatoes, that he doesn’t even like, and various other veggies that he won’t pick. Arrrgh! Why not me?
    I have tried many times but I find, like you say, that a tiny little seedling that I’ve nurtured and coddled will be quickly outgrown by a direct-sown seedling right next to it.
    I like the tip about bottom watering. I don’t have grow lights, though. Maybe next year- I now just buy tomato and pepper seedlings from my farmers market.

    Mmmm, egg rolls!

  13. I guess. But keep in mind you’re addressing the original garden dumkopf here. I know less than nothing about plants, although I’m very enthusiastic, and can kill a plant just by looking at it.
    Mad.

  14. Linda in Illinois says:

    This is my first year starting seed indoors, I bought all the right equipment from Burpee and Park Seed, including a heat blanket, grow lights, dirt disks and trays, etc. and I have ceiling fan running, timers set, but 98% of it hasn’t worked out for me. Only a couple of seedlings have started (original start date was March 19) and I’m not sure they will make it to planting. I’m in Zone 5 and built 5 raised beds last fall for this planting season.
    Maybe I’m doing something wrong..thoughts?

    • Karen says:

      Something has definitely gone wrong Linda, but it’s hard to say without knowing exactly what you did. I’d say there are two possibilities if you didn’t get germination … either your soil didn’t have enough water in it when you planted your seeds or you didn’t cover them up to maintain that moisture. Either of these things seem possible? ~ karen!

      • Linda in Illinois says:

        hummm. The one tray has a water absorbing blanket that stays wet (if there is water in the tray) and it is, the other trays I water myself when it gets empty (directions say to not leave standing water, ergo – why do we need the water absorbing blanket??). I check every day twice a day. They all have moisture lids on them and they are all under lights, plus overhead lights with fan and windows. I thought maybe the growing disks were too wet but re-reading directions says to not let them dry out, and I haven’t, then I thought maybe it was bad seed and I replanted them already once, still no growth. It must be bad ju-ju.. maybe I should try music to brighten their days.

  15. Elaine says:

    Thank you, Karen, for all the valuable information. I love rooting things (usually house plants) just to see them sprout but then once they grow a good size, I get bored and give them away. My parents hosted a family party upon my engagement (eons ago!) and potato salad was on the menu. This was long before recycling times in Toronto. We had quite a large collection of garbage around that time due to wedding presents, etc. so my Dad decided to dig a hole in the backyard for all the potato peelings and kitchen scraps. Much to our surprise and not long after (you guessed it!) up cropped potato plants!

    • Grammy says:

      I love this story. I don’t peel potatoes (even for potato salad) but if I did, I’d run right out and bury the peels just to see if this would happen for me. Cool.

  16. Sharon says:

    These are all good tips…but I am giving up the seed starting. Last year, I fished out my old, portable greenhouse, from a shed where it had been quietly living and bothering no one at all for a few years. A shower, and straighten up one bent shelf, replace one worn tie on the plastic sides, and we were good to go! At the hardware store, or lumberyard, or Walmart, I don’t remember, I invested in 4 “Seed Starting Trays”. I think each one had 60 little pods to plant in. I also bought a zillion packages of seeds, “On Sale Today Only!! 10/$1.00” !! Came home, and after hours of thought, I spent most of a sleepless night very carefully planting a wonderful assortment of veggies, flowers, etc. in the 240 pods, in the greenhouse on the straightened out shelf, on my enclosed south porch. Next warm day we had, I moved the little greenhouse outside – creating a snug, bright, warm home for these seeds to get themselves started. That afternoon, the wind came up out of nowhere – blew the greenhouse over, and needless to say, all the seed trays went with it, scattered all over the patio and back yard. I’m anxious this spring to see what will pop up – and where!! and planning on just Buying a tomato plant or two. Sheesh!

  17. Paula says:

    Started too early, as usual but I simply up-pot. I also grow too many, as usual because 1. I want to try everything and 2. I plant everything that sprouts even in the flower beds or wherever because I can’t kill a sprouted seed. I mean it worked so hard to make it, I can’t kill it. Stupid, I know.

    • Paula says:

      Btw. I saved a screenshot of your seed calculator last year and I am glad that I did because I can’t get it to work this year.

  18. Paula says:

    Never mind, apparently I don’t know the difference between a dd and an mm

  19. HeatherMTL says:

    Hi – would love to partake in the course, but I keep getting an error each time I click on it. Am I doing something wrong?

    • Karen says:

      ACK! I can’t believe you’re the first person to tell me it wasn’t working! I just looked and all kinds of people clicked on the link but didn’t let me know it wasn’t working. I *think* I’ve fixed it now. So try again and please let me know if it doesn’t work! thx! ~ karen

  20. Kathy says:

    I plan to get the seed project going in the next few days and you have helped me before I go and mess up, so thanks.

  21. HeatherMTL says:

    Yay, I got it working – thank you! Now, does the course arrive via email?
    Clearly, I’m having a blonde day. That’s OK, the week’s almost over.

  22. Karen Beal says:

    Wish I’d read this before I killed off all my many varieties of heirloom tomato seedlings. Seems I lovingly drenched them to death. At least now I know why my seedlings always fail as soon as they start to get going. I saved back a few heirloom seeds, I guess I’ll start over and hopefully not murder them this time.

  23. Good to know Karen! I declared my 2016 New Year Resolution a couple of weeks ago….I resolved to plant everything I buy. The next day I went out and bought bulbs (cuz it’s not like they’re gonna die anytime soon…I found a loop hole in my NYR), and I bought two packets of flower seeds…sunflowers and some kind of hardy multicolor something or another whose name escapes me at the moment. Hopefully, I can get them started and out the door using your tips. Thanks!

  24. Stephanie says:

    Vancouver has enough stuff, The Butchart Gardens are ours! All the best from Victoria.

    • Karen says:

      LOL fair enough (my sister had gone to Vancouver to visit her son who lives there and they went to the gardens on that trip) ~ karen!

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