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Starting Vegetable Seeds Indoors
Starting your own vegetable seeds indoors in the spring will be more work than just buying starts, but the benefits outweigh the downsides by far. By the end of this post, I hope that you’ll be inspired to start your own seeds- as well as confident in what it takes to get started.
The biggest benefit of starting your own seeds is the cost savings. A single tomato start locally (in Redding, California) will cost about $2.78.
Comparatively, I bought a packet of about 25 tomato seeds (from Heirlooms Evermore Seed Co.) for $2.75.
This pack of 100 plastic seedling pots on amazon is $8.49.
2 cu ft of sta-green soil is $7.48 at Lowe’s.
You could buy these tomatoes ready to plant at $2.78 each, totaling $278…
Or you could put in a few weeks of watering and care; buy 4 packs of seeds, a pack of plastic pots, and 2 bags of soil for $34.45- enough to grow 100 tomato starts. $0.34 each. A savings of $2.44 each, or $244 total.
Maybe half of the seeds don’t germinate- now our cost per start is $0.68 each, still a savings of $2.10 a start. Maybe you don’t need 100 tomato plants? Sell your extra 80 for $3 each, making $240 in income. Now your tomatoes are free!
That was a long winded way of saying that if you have the time, use it, save your money and take control of your garden from the start.
What Else to Consider:
Beyond saving money, starting your vegetable seeds indoors, ahead of time, will also give you more flexibility as to what varieties you can grow. This probably depends on where in the US you’re located, but in our corner of California- there aren’t great options for vegetable starts.
I can find hybrid, run-of-the-mill vegetable varieties at a dozen places in town. But I can’t find any of the more rare, heirloom varieties that I would love to be experimenting with. That means that seed starting is my only real option for variety in our vegetable garden.
Another, underappreciated, benefit of starting your own vegetable seeds is fine-tuning your timing. By starting the seeds when you need them, you can control how big (or small) those seedlings are when you transplant them. You won’t be beholden to the schedule of your local nurseries (or box stores), and can have the seedlings you need- exactly when you need them.
Finally, starting seeds on your own will give you complete control over how they’re started. You can control what fertilizer, herbicides, etc. that your seedlings and soil will be exposed to- if any. You can use your own compost or your own seed-starting mix to fill your seedling trays and pots. You can decide whether or not to use coated seeds, etc.
As you can see, starting your own vegetable seeds comes with no shortage of benefits to you and your garden.
How does seed starting work?
The overarching goal of starting seeds is to simply create an environment that will trigger germination.
Germination in plants is defined as, “the process by which a dormant seed begins to sprout and grow into a seedling under the right growing conditions.”
Okay, so we have packets of dormant seeds. We want them to germinate. But what are these “right growing conditions”?
Temperature, light, moisture, and air are required for germination. We can control for the temperature, light and moisture that our seeds will experience. And once we have those pieces aligned, the seeds will take care of the rest.
A seedling warming tray or warm room will control the temperature of our seeds.
Seed starting mix, with watering, will control the moisture aspect of our seed starting.
And a grow light or a window will influence the light that our seeds experience.
Read on to find out:
The Non-Negotiable Supplies for Starting Vegetable Seeds
Other Seed-Starting Supplies that Can Help
How to Start Vegetable Seeds
When Should You Start Your Vegetable Seeds?
Non-negotiable Supplies for Starting Vegetable Seeds Indoors:
Soil- This is the foundation of your seed-starting project, literally. It’s the foundation of your garden, your pastures, your health; the earth as a whole. But here we need to just focus on soil for starting seeds. I suggest buying a purpose-made seed starting mix. It’s soft, light, and has everything your little baby plants will need to get off to a great start.
Finding a local source for seed starting mix is a great idea. Look for nurseries or greenhouses that sell starts- they’ll probably sell soil too. If you can’t find a local source, Lowe’s and Home Depot both have seed-starting mix. (Amazon does as well if you’re in a pinch)
Flats or Pots- I prefer to start my seeds in 12 x 6 cell flats. After they’ve germinated and grown a little sturdier, I then transplant the best looking starts into individual pots. These are the flats I use. These are the trays I use. And these plastic pots are what we transplant into after a few weeks.
Labeling system- This is only a necessity if you’re growing more than one vegetable variety at a time. So realistically, it’s a necessity. I just use a sharpie to write on a length of masking tape, and then stick the tape onto the edge of the flats. Fancier seedling labels abound, so you can splurge or go cheap on this- whatever suits your fancy.
Watering system- You may be expecting something specific or fancy, and I’m here to disappoint. My “watering system” is a small watering can and a Pyrex measuring cup. No kidding. If it works, it works. I’m sure there are fancier options, but I’ll be out looking at the seedlings 10 times a day anyway- so I may as well water by hand.
Seeds- This is, obviously, the most important part of starting vegetable seeds indoors, or otherwise. It will have the biggest impact on your future garden and future harvest. Don’t be afraid to really take the time to shop different companies and varieties carefully. And don’t be afraid to buy some random packets of varieties you’ve never heard of before. A little bit of experimentation may just find you your new favorite plant. (You can read all about where I source my seeds here.)
Tools that will help…
Grow lights- Grow lights can be a bit of an investment, so if you’re starting your garden on a budget, I would wait to take the leap. If you have the cash to spare, getting some lights can be a big boon to your seed starting. We have tried out a wide variety of different lights- from Walmart specials to very expensive ballasts. Start with what you can afford. These are the walmart grow lights we’ve purchased, and this is a different one that we’ve purchased from a local nursery.
Seedling heat pad- Heat pads or warming mats are useful tools, especially if you’re starting seeds in an unheated space. We have our seed-starting shelves set up in an exterior building, which is insulated and has electricity, but doesn’t have any heating. To get around the lack of heat, we usually brood chicks at the same time that we start seeds. If running a brooder isn’t an option for you, heat pads are a good alternative. You can find these on Amazon or at your local nursery.
Plastic grow domes- These fit over the top of your seedling trays and help to maintain both the temperature and humidity. We use these on more fragile seedlings (such as tomatoes) or if we won’t be home to water for a day.
From what I’ve seen, they come in two sizes. The first is short (about 2″) and won’t work for long after the seeds germinate- but can be useful for those first days after sowing. (Like these) This second kind are my favorite. They’re significantly taller, made out of much sturdier plastic, and will work with much older seedlings- but they’re a bit of an investment.
Either kind can be ordered to fit the size of seeding tray that you’ll be using. Sometimes you can find them at Lowe’s too.
As I’ve mentioned above, none of these supplies are true seed-starting necessities. If you’re just starting out with your garden, or are on a budget, don’t think that you need all the fancy equipment in order to get growing. Starting vegetable seeds indoors is meant to be a simple project and a source of joy, not one that’s going to bring you stress. Start with what you have, where you are, and stick with it.
Starting Vegetable Seeds Indoors- Step by Step
We’re finally on to the best part: getting our hands dirty and getting these seeds in the ground, er, trays.
Step 1: Fill the seed tray cells (or pots, egg cartons, etc.) with your seed starting mix. Fill the cells to the top, but don’t worry about compacting the soil too firmly. Watering after filling will help to settle the soil as well.
Step 2: Add your seeds. With smaller or fussier seeds, I tend to plant 3-ish seeds per cell (think herbs, flowers, tomatoes). With larger seeds that germinate well, like zucchini or pumpkin, I’ll usually plant just one seed per cell. Most everything else we plant is 2 seeds per cell. Water your seeds- don’t flood them, just get the soil moist.
Step 3. Label your seeds! (The exclamation point is at myself) Whether you buy fancy labels, or go by the masking tape method, labeling is a nonnegotiable step for me. I would suggest including both the variety and the day you planted on your labels. (This will make planning your future garden planning a lot easier)
Now that your seeds are planted, it’s just a waiting game. They should begin to grow within the next few days. Make sure to water often enough that the soil stays moist, not saturated, just moist. Once the seedlings begin to emerge, you’ll also want to make sure that the seedlings get some sunlight or exposure to grow lights daily.
When do I need to start my vegetable seeds?
One more important piece of starting vegetable seeds indoors, is deciding “when” to plant them. To determine when to plant your seeds, you’ll need two pieces of information:
What are the frost dates in your area & how long to plant your seeds before the frost date.
You can find your frost dates in the old farmer’s almanac. They sell a paper copy at most bookstores and TSC, but their website has an easy box that you just need to punch your zip code into (here). The USDA plant hardiness zones can also be determined based on your zip code (here). Also keep in mind that elevation can push this date back further, and that there will be some variation year to year.
Once you know the date of your last frost (roughly), you can consult your seed packets for that second bit of info.
For example, my Red Onion seeds need to be planted 8-10 weeks before the last frost date. According to the plant hardiness zones, our last frost date is expected to be around April 15th. (Living at 4,000ft elevation, I know that a mid to late May last frost is more accurate) 8-10 weeks before April 15th is February 4th – 18th- that’s when I should be planning to start those seeds.
You can count backwards from your frost date, using the information from the seed packet, to determine when to start your seeds as well.
Now that your seeds are started, your garden is well on its way. With some careful attention to their care, you’ll be ready to transplant your homegrown, hardy seedlings outside in a matter of weeks. And ultimately, these newly started seeds will become a bounty of produce for you and your family.
Keep an eye out for future posts all about hardening off and transplanting seedlings outdoors, caring for your raised garden beds, harvesting your veggies, and of course, preserving the harvest. For more information about planning out your garden beds, you should check out this post.
Thanks for reading, and happy homesteading!