Seed Starting Basics

Well, here we are again. It’s time to start thinking about the spring garden. And… if we’re going to have anything to put in the ground, we’ve got to get the seeds started now. Which ones? Well of course, it depends on where you live. If you are in the southern part of the U.S. you need to be starting tomatoes, peppers, watermelon, squash… basically all the warm weather crops. But you say, It’s COLD outside! Yea, I know, but it takes the plants 6-8 weeks to get to the point where you can plant them outside, so if you do the math. Let’s see… February… minus April… carry the one… Yes… it’s time NOW!

OK you say, but you’ve never started anything from seed. Is it hard? Nope. But, there are a few things that you have to remember to make sure you are truly “starting seeds”… and not just giving them a decent burial. Anyone can stick a seed in some potting soil, but not anyone can get it to sprout and grow. I have been starting seed for a few years. The first time, I failed miserably. I just figured since I built a greenhouse, all I had to do was plant some seeds, place the cups in the greenhouse, walk off, and voila… supper. Yea… well, they died. At least most of them did. I didn’t realize that the seed I was planting needed warmth, not just light and dirt. Oh, speaking of dirt, don’t figure on using your garden soil to start your seeds. Unless you have marvelous, died and gone to Heaven soil, you will have very poor results. Always start with “potting soil”.  I’m not recommending any special brand, but you can find lots of choices at the local Big Box stores.

Decide whether you are going to plant in 2″ pots, 4″ pots, flats or in a “bulk planting” method that I will discuss later. Let’s assume that you are starting your seed in 2″ pots. Fill the pots almost full with potting soil. Pack it down, so all the gaps are filled in. Place your seed (or seeds) in the pot and cover with about 1/4″ of soil. You can even use Pearlite or Vermiculite to cover the seed. I have found that the perlite and vermiculite work even better than the potting soil as a covering, because it is less restrictive on the little seedling trying to push it’s way out of a dirt nap. Now, as I said in the beginning, I found that heat (or more accurately “warmth”) is essential in the germination process. And, each type of seed has it’s own desired temperature that it needs to wake up. Most are between 75 and 80 degrees. I have found that a seedling heating mat dramatically increased my success in starting seed.

Now… as I said before, there is another way to plant that, while a little more labor intensive later, is one of the easiest ways to get a LOT of seedlings going in a small space. This is what I call the “Bulk Method”. It probably has a more correct term, but I’ve never been accused of being “correct”. Anyway, using this method, you will put your potting soil in a container of some sort (I like to use a tray, about 2-3″ deep. Scatter the seed very thickly (think poppy seeds on a roll) on top of the potting soil, then cover with more soil or pearlite, etc. The seedlings will come up in a mass. When about 75% of them are germinated, it’s time to get them under the grow lights, or in a greenhouse. Then later, when they are 4-5″ tall and have their first true leaves, you will separate them into individual pots or cups to grow without any competition. Recently I made a video on this that explains it much better than I can right here. It can be seen at:

Some folks plant their seeds way too deep. But, whether you are starting seeds indoors, or are planting seeds directly in the garden (direct sow) the seeds should only be planted about 1/4“ deep. Any deeper than that and they really have a tough time trying to push out from under the extra soil. I have just planted some Celebrity seeds, indoors using the bulk planting method. The difference between covering your seeds with potting soil, and covering with pearlite or vermiculite is dramatic. The vermiculite and pearlite are much lighter than regular potting soil, and the seeds push up through it in just a few days. My Celebrities came up in about 3 days (using the heating mat). Here is a picture of them on the 5th day:

Celebrity Seedlings at 5 days

Celebrity Seedlings at 5 days – Ready for the grow lights !

Once they are germinated, you will need a way to give them plenty of light. A window is not enough. Your seedlings will begin to get “leggy”. That’s a fancy, gardeners term for they will grow very long, very fast. But the stem of the seedling is very thin and not developed enough to support the plant. I guess they are stretching out, trying too hard to find some light. Most of these will not survive in the garden. The ones that do won’t make a very good plant. At least that’s my experience. No, placing them by a window is not good enough, Your seedlings will need LOTS of light. You will either have to put them under some sort of “grow light” setup, or in a greenhouse. If, when you reach this point, you still aren’t getting a lot of natural sunlight in your part of the world, I would suggest building a simple grow light setup. A video of mine called (interestingly enough) “My Grow Light Setup” can be seen here:

You could bring them out each morning (assuming the temperature allows) and let them stay in the sun all day, bringing them in at dusk. This is a little labor intensive, and you have to remember to bring them in each night so they won’t freeze to death, etc. So for me, the grow light setup is just too easy, and doesn’t require much thinking. I leave the lights on for about 16 hours a day. It’s on a cheap W’Mart timer, taking all the guesswork out of it. They only thing you need to do is make sure they are watered, and raise the grow lights as the plant grows up and reach it.

At this point they are ready to be planted in the garden. You may need to “harden them off” first. That means taking them outside to play for a few hours each day, to get accustomed to the temperature change. After the danger of frost in your area (check local listings) stick ’em in the ground. You should water them right after planting to seal the soil around the roots. That will eliminate any air gaps that could dry out the roots.

So (unless you live in the arctic… like… I don’t know… Minnesota…) you need to get going because it’s time to get your seedlings cookin’.

“Gentlemen… Start Your Seeds”  (Ladies, too)


Watch all my videos at:


  • John Lowe
    Posted March 22, 2013 at 10:42 am | Permalink

    lots of info! Good stuff! thank you!

    • admin
      Posted March 22, 2013 at 10:00 pm | Permalink

      Big John !
      Hope all is well with ya…

  • Al Olmstead
    Posted March 12, 2013 at 5:58 pm | Permalink

    Re: Growing scallions from sets.

    If you harvest onion greens without disturbing the sets, will new greens grow back (like leaf veggies will)?

    • admin
      Posted March 12, 2013 at 7:32 pm | Permalink

      They did for me. I don’t know how long they will produce, but it will be for quite a while, I think…

  • Posted March 7, 2013 at 6:45 am | Permalink

    Thank you very much ! Great information.

  • Posted March 6, 2013 at 5:12 am | Permalink

    Your post was very informative thank you for that

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