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A Guide to Starting Seeds Indoors

The Indoor Seed Starting Journey

Hi, I’m Becky – a mom of five, wife to Cameron, and a self-proclaimed crazy passionate gardener. Food grown organically has been a game-changer for my family’s health, and my goal is to eventually grow 90-95% of our entire food supply. The journey from garden to kitchen is where the real fun lies!

Now, I know indoor seed starting can seem a bit intimidating, but trust me, it’s simpler than it appears. I’ve been doing this for years, and I’m excited to share my foolproof method with you. Whether you’re a seasoned green thumb or a complete newbie, this guide will walk you through every step, from setting up your seed starting station to transplanting your thriving seedlings into the garden.

The Benefits of Indoor Seed Starting

Starting your own seeds indoors can save you a ton of money in the long run, not to mention giving you access to a wider variety of plants. Plus, you’ll end up with healthier, more robust plants compared to store-bought seedlings. It’s a win-win!

However, I have to be honest – at one point, I completely moved away from indoor seed starting. After 14 years of gardening, I finally invested in an unheated outdoor tunnel, and it’s been a total game-changer. The plants thrive, and I no longer have to deal with the hassle of managing trays and lights indoors.

But I know indoor seed starting is still the preferred method for many gardeners, so I’m more than happy to share my best tips and tricks. Just be mindful of the time and effort it can require, especially if you’re starting a large number of seedlings. It’s all about finding the approach that works best for your unique setup and growing needs.

Determining When to Start Seeds Indoors

One of the most crucial factors in successful indoor seed starting is timing. Your frost dates will be the key to determining when to sow your seeds. Today’s Gardens has a handy guide that can help you figure out your spring and fall planting schedules.

As a general rule, I lean towards the shorter end of the seed packet’s recommended indoor sowing time frame. For example, if the packet says to start the seeds 6-10 weeks before your last frost, I’d go with the 6-week mark. Starting too early can lead to leggy, root-bound, or even flowering transplants, which can stunt their growth and delay your harvest.

Gathering the Essential Supplies

Alright, let’s dive into the nitty-gritty of what you’ll need to get your indoor seed starting operation up and running:

Shelving Unit

The type of shelving you choose will determine the size of your lights and a lot of the other equipment you’ll need. I recommend a free-standing, 6-tier wire shelving unit that can accommodate two standard nursery trays per shelf. This will give you maximum growing space while keeping your setup compact.


There’s a lot of debate around the best type of lights for indoor seed starting, but I’ve found that simple fluorescent shop lights work just fine. Just make sure to position them just 2 inches above your seedlings to prevent them from getting leggy. If you want to invest in LED grow lights, go for a model that mimics natural sunlight.

Seed Starting Mix

When it comes to seed starting mix, sustainability and avoiding herbicide contamination are my top priorities. I love Tilth Soils Sprout, which is approved for organic agriculture and made with coconut coir – a more eco-friendly alternative to peat moss.

Additional Supplies

In addition to the big-ticket items, you’ll also need things like cell packs or soil blocks, a watering can, plant markers, a fan, and a heat mat for temperature-sensitive seeds. Gather all your supplies beforehand to make the seed starting process as smooth as possible.

Setting Up Your Seed Starting Station

Now that you’ve got all your gear, it’s time to get your seed starting station organized and ready to go. Start by assembling the shelving unit and positioning it in a spot with as much ambient light as possible. If your room is on the darker side, you can line the walls with aluminum foil or Mylar to help reflect the light.

Hang your lights using the screw hooks or s-hooks, making sure to position them just 2 inches above the seedling trays. Set up your heat mats and thermometer, and plug everything into a power strip with timed outlets. This will make it easy to control the lighting and temperature.

Finally, gather all your seed starting supplies in one convenient spot, so you have everything you need within reach. This includes your seed packets, cell packs or soil blocks, watering can, and plant markers. You’re now ready to start sowing those seeds!

Sowing Seeds in Cell Packs or Soil Blocks

When it comes to the actual seed sowing process, you’ve got a couple of options: cell packs or soil blocks. Both methods have their pros and cons, so I’ll walk you through the steps for each.

Cell Packs

To start seeds in cell packs, first, fill the tray with your pre-moistened seed starting mix, packing it in firmly but leaving a bit of room at the top. Plant your seeds, following the depth guidelines on the packet, and cover them lightly with more mix. Water the cells gently from the top, then cover the tray with a plastic dome or wrap to retain moisture.

Soil Blocks

Making soil blocks is a bit more hands-on, but the results are worth it. Start by mixing your seed starting mix with water until it has a brownie batter-like consistency. Use a special soil blocker tool to create the blocks, pressing the mix firmly into the wells. Plant your seeds in the center of each block, then lightly cover with more mix. Water the blocks gently and cover with plastic or a dome.

Regardless of which method you choose, be sure to keep a close eye on your seed trays. Remove any covers as soon as you see those first sprouts to prevent issues like damping off disease. And don’t forget to keep the soil consistently moist but not waterlogged.

Caring for Your Seedlings

Once your seeds have germinated, it’s time to shift your focus to nurturing those delicate seedlings. First and foremost, make sure they’re getting the right amount of light. If you’re using fluorescent bulbs, position them just 2 inches above the trays. With LEDs, you may need to experiment a bit to find the sweet spot.

Maintaining the proper temperature is also crucial. Most seedlings thrive in the 68-86°F range, so use your heat mats and thermometer to keep things dialed in. And don’t forget to give your seedlings a gentle breeze by running a small fan on low – this helps strengthen their stems and ward off fungal diseases.

As your seedlings grow, you’ll need to watch for signs that it’s time to transplant them into larger containers. Keep an eye out for roots poking through the bottom of the cells or trays, and don’t be afraid to move them up to a larger pot before they become root-bound. This is a critical step to ensure your plants continue to thrive.

Hardening Off and Transplanting

When the time comes to move your seedlings outside, you’ll need to go through a process called “hardening off.” This gradual acclimation to the great outdoors helps prevent transplant shock and ensures your plants get off to a strong start in the garden.

Start by placing your seedlings in a sheltered, shaded spot for a few hours each day, slowly increasing their exposure to sunlight and wind over the course of a week or two. Pay close attention to the weather forecast and be ready to provide protection if a cold snap is on the way.

Once your seedlings are hardened off, it’s time for the big move. Gently remove them from their containers, trying not to disturb the roots, and plant them at the same depth they were growing in the cell pack or soil block. Water them in with a diluted fish fertilizer solution, and keep a close eye on them for the first few days to make sure they’re adjusting well.

With a little patience and attention to detail, your homegrown seedlings will thrive in the garden, giving you a bountiful harvest and the satisfaction of growing your own food from scratch. Happy gardening!

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