Seed Starting 101

A beginner’s guide to growing stuff from scratch


Full disclosure: I’m not a gardener. My wife would like to be. Our land consists of a little dirt on a lot of rocks. None of that has stopped us from trying to grow food. One of the first things we did after moving here was plant a garden, from seeds, since we didn’t have money and seeds are cheap.

Almost everything came up. Late. Our first harvest consisted of some carrots and a sad lettuce. (It’s also possible some things disappeared in weeding. Live and learn.)

The next year, and all the garden years thereafter, we mostly started from plants. It’s a great solution to a short growing season, but as I said before, seeds are cheap. And, as Dirt Diva Adrianne Picciano points out, growing from seed “gives you a lot of control over what you’re growing, and allows you the most variety and flexibility.”

So, on to conquer the fear of seeds.

Starting to start seeds

First, you need your seeds. I know, obvious.

Timing next. Picciano says one big error is to start too early; we found this leaves you with sad wispy plants. Follow the instructions on the packet, or consult a schedule online.

Now a place to start them. Homes are ideal, offering protection from the elements, but in some locales you can use a cold frame. Heated greenhouses, of course, are the gold standard.

Let’s focus on houses. Our homes have limited light. Even if you think you have a sunny window, often it doesn’t get enough for seeds. The amount of light you need depends on what you’re growing—vegetables, for instance, need 14 to 18 hours per day according to several gardeners online.

So you need grow lights. These can be LEDs (expensive but long lasting) or fluorescents; some experts recommend a cool white tube and a red-spectrum tube. Piccione says that a full-spectrum fluorescent is fine. Or you can buy a setup and make life simple.

Where to put it? Anywhere. Since you aren’t relying on sunlight, your seeds can go anywhere that won’t bake or freeze the poor things. “You can attach the grow lights to anything,” Picciano said. “Bunk beds, modular shelving.” Put the lights a few inches—that’s two or three, not six—above the seeds.

How many bulbs? How much stuff are you growing? There are formulae online, based on square footage and what you’re growing. Or ask an expert.

Growing medium—not potting soil or Miracle-Gro, says Picciano. They’re too rich and can give your plants fungus problems. You can start the seeds in plain vermiculite, you can buy a special mix for seedlings, or you can make your own mix from any of the recipes found online. We made ours from the Old Farmer’s Almanac: one part peat moss, one part vermiculite. They recommend making your mix in a bucket, then moistening it with warm water. Fill the containers you’ll be using with damp mix.

For a container, you can use anything that will hold the mixture, as long as there are drainage holes, although food containers should be well washed. Don’t forget a waterproof tray underneath.

Planting instructions

Everything is different. Follow instructions on the seed packet, or consult your local farm and garden store, or a gardening expert. Cover the newly planted seeds with a plastic bag or other clear plastic cover until the seeds germinate. Now label your containers so you don’t forget what’s in there.


Picciano said most problems come from overwatering or under-watering seeds, usually overwatering. “Conditions inside are going to be very different from what’s outside,” she said. “You have to watch the humidity level.” Overwatered seedlings are more subject to disease.

The best way to water is to water from below, not above.

Going outside

Once the days are warmer you can ease the transition by putting the baby plants out for a few hours in diffused sunlight, then bring them in. Tradition here says to put them out for good after Memorial Day.


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