If you have a deeply rooted love for gardening—yes, pun intended—you may find yourself ready to start growing spring vegetables before it's warm enough to root them outdoors. So, instead of waiting to purchase young plants when that exciting time finally comes, why not take things a step further by starting your vegetables from seedlings indoors?
Starting with seeds has many advantages. Depending on the length of your favorite vegetables' growing seasons, you might be able to enjoy those delicious varieties like carrots or peppers much sooner by germinating seeds indoors earlier in the year. Some plants can take several weeks to several months to start producing vegetables—so get ready to harvest sooner and start cooking home-grown meals once the weather warms up.
There are many perks to starting your own seeds but a few deterrents that new gardeners should be aware of. Growing seedlings can be a laborious process at first, requiring attention each day for the first few weeks as they begin to germinate. But, once your plants have reached a healthy size to transport to the garden, you may be glad for putting in the extra time as it allows you to enjoy unique varieties of vegetables unavailable at many local stores. Here's how to start growing your favorite garden staples from seedlings indoors.
- Working time: About 1 hour to begin, then 10 minutes per day
- Total time: Two to three weeks
- Skill level: Beginner
- Material cost: $1 to $5 per pack of seedlings; $5 per seed starting tray (grow light costs dependent upon brand and size)
When to Start Growing Seeds Indoors
Start growing seeds indoors in the late winter or early spring, between four and eight weeks before the last frost of the season. This allows your plants the necessary time (based on their species) to grow strong enough to take root in the garden when you plant them outside. The amount of time it takes to germinate seeds depends on the species of vegetables you want to grow—but if your goal is to enjoy them sooner in the year, start eight weeks before the final frost and plan to keep the seedlings indoors until spring. You may need to transport them into larger pots inside for a few weeks before planting them in the garden.
Tools and Supplies You Will Need
Before you begin, gather the following materials:
- Vegetable seeds of your choice
- Seed starting trays
- Artificial grow light (optional)
- Seed-starting soil
- Spray bottle
- Plastic cups (optional)
Step 1: Choose Which Seeds to Plant
Choose a few varieties of vegetables that you're excited to cook with once they're harvested. You may start gardening with seeds to grow varieties of vegetables or fruits that you can’t buy in the grocery store, making it all the more rewarding when you harvest your bounty. To find specific varieties, look for online seed companies (like Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, Hudson Valley Seed Co., or MIGardener) that carry heirloom seeds unique from the options in your local grocery store.
Step 2: Determine a Growing Location
Starting seeds may seem like a daunting journey, but you don't need a greenhouse or sunroom to grow healthy vegetables right at home. Seeds can take anywhere from seven to 10 days to germinate or sprout up from the soil. At this time, the seeds should remain somewhere warm, but not necessarily bright. After the seedling sprouts, light is essential for growth: Choose a location based on the sunlight requirements for your specific varieties. Most seedlings require plenty of bright, direct light, so it's best to start growing them in a south-facing window of your home with a grow light for added nutrients.
Step 3: Gather Your Materials
While it's still possible to grow seeds in small, open pots, the best results come with humidity. It's especially important to take into consideration when plants are young. Gardening materials like a reliable seed-starting tray will feature a domed lid to keep the seeds warm and moist throughout the germination stage. It's also helpful to use soil specifically designed for seed starting (which can easily be found online or at your local nursery or hardware store).
Step 4: Start Planting
Organize your seeds and determine how many cells of the tray to fill with each variety. After filling each cell with soil, moisten it before tucking two to three seeds in each cell about 1/4 inch below the soil's surface. Keep your seed starting on a scale that feels manageable and enjoyable for you: Start with a number that you're comfortable with, and save the remaining seeds in the pack. Be sure to determine how many mature plants can fit in your garden before choosing how many seeds to start growing.
It’s possible that every seed will germinate—but since some may not always grow, the goal is to get one healthy seedling per cell. Adding a few seedlings in each increases the chances of a full harvest.
Step 5: Monitor Light and Water
Caring for the seeds once they start sprouting is another important piece of the puzzle. Ensure your seed starting trays receive up to 12 hours of sunlight per day (use an artificial grow light for best results). Ensure your seedlings' soil does not dry out, but be sure not to overwater, either. These new plants are delicate, so it's best to mist each cell with a spray bottle each day until the seeds have sprouted to a few inches in height.
If your seedlings are leggy when they sprout (they have long, thin stems with small leaves reaching for the sun), they're not receiving enough sunlight. A grow light timed to stay on for 12 hours per day will provide the nutrients they need to reach maturity.
Step 6: Trim or Transport Additional Seedlings (Optional)
If multiple seedlings sprout in the same cell, there are a few different options to keep the plants growing healthily.
Trim Additional Sprouts
Depending on how large your garden is, you may not need these extra seedlings. If so, leave the strongest seedling intact and snip the others around it. Do not pull them out, as this may disturb the roots of the strong seedling.
Transport to Larger Containers
If you'd like to keep the additional seedlings, you can also transport them into larger containers. Cut a hole in the bottom of a plastic cup for drainage, then fill it with moistened seed-starting soil. Gently pop the contents of your cell out of the plastic container (soil and seedlings). Over another tray, lightly shake away the soil and begin separating the roots of each seedling until you have several individual plants. Place each seedling in its own prepared cup, carefully bury the roots, and ensure it is strongly standing upright.
Step 7: Plant Outdoors
Once your seedlings have grown three to four leaves each, they're ready to start slowly transporting outside. Be sure not to place your plants outdoors before the final frost of the winter season. Make the transition gentle by placing their pots in an area that receives partial or indirect sunlight for a few hours during the day, then gradually work up to bringing them inside only at night over the course of one week. Once they've adjusted to the wind, sun, and changing conditions, it's safe to plant them in your garden.
Step 8: Continue Care Based on Species
Depending on which types you choose, some plants may start producing vegetables within several weeks. Continue caring for your plants based on their specific care guides, and take any additional recommended steps to protect their vegetables from animals and pests before harvesting.