Unless you live in an area of the country where your growing season is really long, there are several common garden plants that need to either be started from seed indoors a couple months before planting or that need to be bought as well grown seedlings from a garden store at planting time. Considering the difference in cost between a package of seeds (which may have fifty or a hundred seeds in it) versus the cost of purchasing a seedling, I think sprouting your own is the more cost effective, and just simply more fun, way to go.
The most common plants that benefit from a head start indoors are: tomatoes, peppers of all sorts (sweet or hot), eggplants, and sometimes broccoli (and other Brassica family plants). There are also some flowers that can be started indoors much more cheaply. If you are unsure if it would be a good idea to start something indoors or if it is better to just put the seed in the ground in the Spring, look at the back of the seed package. Usually, the instructions on the back will tell you when to start the seeds indoors or if starting indoors is not recommended. Some plants don’t transplant well, so it can be detrimental to start them indoors and then replant them outside (things like root crops). Other plants sprout from seed and grow so fast and reach maturity easily before the end of the season, and so they don’t really need the extra start. You can just put their seeds straight in the ground. (Things like beans and squash.)
Want to make starting your own seedlings even more beneficent? Try starting a seedling exchange!
So, here is a little tutorial on how to start your own seedlings indoors.
You will need:
- A sunny window
- Some seed starting medium (This comes in a bag and basically looks like dirt, but isn’t. There are several brands out there. Go to your local garden center and try something.)
- Some kind of container with drainage holes to hold the seed starting medium in which the seed will grow.
If you browse your local garden store, you will find lots of seed starting paraphernalia. There are several brands of seed starting medium/soil stuff, both organic and not. There are little peat pellets which can act as both the pot and the growing medium. There are trays with lids, both compartmentalized and not. There are grow lights and special pots and water-absorbing polymers for preventing overwatering and drying out. There is just simply a lot to choose from. And, all that stuff is great if you want to use it. However, if you are just starting out, go simple.
So, here is me making it simple for you: A seed needs moisture and darkness to germinate (begin to sprout from the seed) and then it needs moisture and sunlight to continue growing above the soil. If you can give it those things, it will probably grow.
Here is what you do:
- Buy your seeds.
- If your planting cups don’t have drainage holes in the bottom, poke a few. Fill your little cups with your seed starting medium. You can use paper cups, plastic cups, special cups you bought just for this purpose, old containers from seedlings you bought in the past, peat pellets, or you can make your own cups out of recycled newspaper (If you Google “making newspaper seed pots” you’ll get tons of results for web sites telling you how to do this. There are even special tools you can buy to make them, but they aren’t necessary.)
- Plant 2 seeds per pot to the depth indicated on the seed package. (This insures that if one seed doesn’t sprout, you still get a plant.)
- Give them a little water to make the medium moist but not soggy. (I use a squirt bottle in the beginning to make sure I don’t over water). And, continue to water them a little once a day or whenever the medium feels dry. Keeping it moist like a rung out sponge is ideal. If you want, you can cover the containers with some plastic wrap or some sort of lid to help maintain the moisture and prevent drying out.
- When the seedlings sprout above the surface, remove any cover if you had one and move them to a sunny window. The more sunlight they can get the better. If you want to invest in a grow light, that can help, but isn’t necessary if you have a window that gets a lot.
- If you get two seedlings growing in one pot (which you usually will if you put two seeds in), when they are an inch or so high, snip off the smaller seedling (pulling it out might upset the roots of the plant you want to keep). This will ensure the water and nutrients go to the hardier plant.
- Then, just keep them moist and watch them grow!
A few troubleshooting notes:
*If the plants are getting leggy (meaning a lot of stem and not a lot of leaves), it is because it isn’t getting enough sunlight and it is growing its stem longer in an effort to reach more light.
*If you over water you run the risk of various problems like damping off (the seedlings rot at soil level and then fall over and die) or mold. So, keep it moist but not soggy. If you experience trouble with these things there are several home remedies you can try in the future. Such as: using a weak chamomile tea to water the seedlings once a week. This prevents damping off. I’ve had great success with this myself and it has gotten rid of my damping off problems. Some have also had a lot of benefit from using a 10:1 ratio of water and hydrogen peroxide to water the seedlings – this prevents most things that could harm your plants. I am trying this myself for the first time this year and so far, so good.
* If your seedlings get too big for the cup you started them in, it can affect their growth considerably. So, if you see roots coming out the bottom of the container or on the surface, they need to be transplanted to a bigger container to continue growing if it isn’t yet time to plant them outdoors.