Get ready, set... seed


If you’re a beginner gardener, and live in a moderate growing zone such as 5 or 6—as we do here—you’re about to learn what experienced gardeners have found throughout the years: our growing seasons are shorter, so plants need a head start.

The longer it takes a plant to produce, the earlier you need to plant seeds. In general, seeds with a long germination time need to be sowed indoors, six to eight weeks before the last frost.

This is the time of year to begin growing your seeds indoors. If you haven’t started, you could still have time.  

Read your seed packages carefully for different times of germination. Sowing indoors too soon can create “leggy” plants, which are not healthy. According to experienced gardeners in these zones, don’t plant your seedlings outside before Memorial Day.

For indoor planting, you’ll need seed soil (less dense than potting soil or gardening soil). This allows tender roots to grasp water and spread their roots.

What you’ll need

Containers. They can be anything in which you can poke holes in the bottom, from egg cartons to plastic containers. Be aware that you might need to transplant seedlings to larger containers as they grow, before transplanting outdoors, so starting with larger containers is always a good idea. Poke holes in the bottom of each container. Small containers like egg-carton cups get one hole; larger containers could have as many as four. Label the containers with a permanent marker. (See also, Rules of green thumb.)

Old newspapers can be rolled into seed-starting pots. Photo licensed under CC0.
Old newspapers can be rolled into seed-starting pots. Photo licensed under CC0.
It’s fun to shop for seeds when planning your garden.
It’s fun to shop for seeds when planning your garden.

A pan with a lip, in which to set your containers. A spray bottle to spritz the top of germinating seeds, so they aren’t drowned by overwatering.

Start seeding

Plant your seeds in the seed soil according to the instructions on the packet. Set containers in the pan, add about 1/4 inch of water to the pan. That’s called bottom watering; the seed will soak the water up through those holes in the bottom of the containers. Bottom water the seeds with approximately 1/4 inch of water per day.

You’ll also need to spritz the seeds daily so they’ll sprout. They should never get dry.

Place plastic wrap over containers to maintain moisture and heat.

Darkness, and a minimum of 12 hours per day of light, are necessary. Find your sunniest room and place the pan there.

Rotate your pan every day. If you are a beginner, you’ll notice your seedlings will bend towards the sun if the pan is not rotated. You want straight, proud plants to transplant outdoors, hence the rotation.

If you do not have enough sunlight, use an overhead light positioned eight to 12 inches above the seeds.

Start these seeds inside

What to plant indoors? According to “The Old Farmer’s Almanac,” “broccoli, Brussel sprouts, cabbage, tomatoes,... cauliflower, celery, eggplant, and peppers” are planted indoors because their roots develop slowly. Herbs such as basil, dill, flat-leaf parsley, oregano and lemon balm are easy to grow indoors. They need extra time to grow to fruition—the best time to use in your recipes.

Marigolds—blooming flowers—make great companions, along with your fruits and vegetables. It is often said that they keep some unwanted insects away. They are beautiful, and come in an array of colors and sizes.  

As your seeds grow, find the heartiest seedling in each container, and snip away the others with a small scissor.

And finally—

The last thing you’ll definitely need when indoor sowing is patience. Waiting for seeds to germinate can feel like an eternity. Use that time to work your garden soil. Take some dirt to the Cooperative Extension and have it analyzed. Find out what you need to add to your soil. Begin spacing rows, building mounds. Get your mulch.  

According to experienced gardeners in zones 5 and 6, don’t plant your seedlings before Memorial Day unless they are cool-tolerant. Lettuces and Swiss chard enjoy cooler weather. They can be planted in late spring to early summer. Tomatoes like warmth, plenty of sun and room to grow. There is nothing like a fresh tomato pulled out of your garden, sliced on top of mozzarella with basil and a little olive oil. To die for.

What to grow directly in the ground, better known as direct sowing? Root vegetables such as carrots, beets, potatoes and radishes do well with direct sowing. Hard-shell seeds such as sunflowers, beans and winter squash need water to soften them and each shell scored, as well as a change of temperatures. If left outdoors inside their packages or wrapped in paper towels and placed inside plastic recloseable bags, they will germinate without the hassle of soaking and scoring each individual seed.

If you want your children to eat vegetables, it’s best to have them help grow, water and pick them right off the vine or out of the ground. There is nothing sweeter than fresh corn, nothing more tender than homegrown string beans, or more juicy than a tomato pulled from a plant. Once you’ve grown your own, you will never want store-bought produce again.

Rules of green thumb: extra tips

The larger the seeds, the larger the container. For example, zucchini, squash, pumpkins and melons have large seeds. You’ll be glad you used a large container for these babies.

Plant 3 to 4 seeds per container.

There’s still some time!

If you want to start seeds indoors, you can experiment with a few plants. Here are some suggestions, courtesy of Cornell Cooperative Extension in Monroe County, NY. All dates are approximate—when in doubt, contact your local cooperative extension: Cornell Cooperative Extension in Sullivan County, NY 845/292-6180; Penn State Cooperative Extension in Pike County, PA 570/296-3400; and Penn State Cooperative Extension in Wayne County, PA 570/253-5970, ext. 4110.

Plant Start seeding Set out
Basil April 10 May 26
Broccoli March 24 May 4
Cabbage March 24 April 21
Cucumbers April 28 May 26
Eggplant March 24 June 2
Pumpkin May 5 June 2
Squash May 5 June 2
Swiss chard March 24 May 5
Tomatoes March 31 May 26
gardening, seeds, planting, indoors


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