The Beginners Guide to Starting Seeds Indoors - Sage & Shepherd Blog (2024)

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Starting seeds indoors may seem like something you’d never want to do because it’s too finicky, time-consuming, expensive, etc. But with a few pointers and yes, some consistent dedication, you can have great success! The first year I started seeds indoors, I started with only 2 trays and I was super consistent with watering and care, and it was great!! I not only saved money, but I also got more lbs of produce and learned a valuable skill.

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Why Bother Starting Seeds Indoors

  • Better VarietiesWhen you start seeds indoors, it allows you to flip through all those amazing seed catalogues and purchase the seeds that stand out to you and would be better suited for your climate. You are no longer limited to the common garden centre varieties.
  • Extended Growing Season –Starting seeds indoors is like giving your plants a jump start. If I were to plant my tomato seeds outside when it was finally warm enough (sometime in May) they would never mature in time before the first frost. So by starting the seed indoors, I can have a fully mature seedling ready to plant in May.

Starting Seeds vs. Direct Seeding

Some seeds need a head start, as mentioned above, while others prefer to be planted directly into the soil. For example, starting tomato seeds indoors is always the best way to go, (controlled environment and extended growing season), whereas lettuce prefers to be direct seeded outdoors (quicker growing time and hardier plant).

When Do I Start Seeds Indoors?

Depending on the particular vegetable, seeds indoors should be started anywhere between 12-4 weeks before the last frost. See below for my free Seed Starting Schedule printable to know when you start your seeds indoors.

Which Plants Do I Start Indoors?

Most plants benefit from being starting indoors, such as leeks, onions, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, cauliflower, cucumber, squash. I created the perfect printable for this exact reason. Its a Seed Starting Schedule accompanied with a cheat sheet of when to start your veggies seeds indoors (and which ones to direct sow) no matter what growing zone you’re in. Download below!!

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Wondering when to start your seeds?

Download my free ‘Seed Starting Schedule’ and simply fill in your last frost date and make your schedule!

What You Need for Starting Seeds Indoors

  • Grow Light –Yes, you really need a grow light. It helps create strong seedlings, sunny window sills are great but not for starting a whole tray of seeds. I like the lights that are 2’ long because they fit over a 10 x 20 seed tray and hang on a shelf perfectly. Below is my seed starting set up! I love using a shelf, it keeps everything in one place and is easy to use multiple lights with.
  • Growing Tray with Insert and Dome –I like the 48 or 72 cell trays because you can fit so many seeds!! This will just depend on how many you are starting. The dome is also really handy because it retains the moisture perfectly until the seeds germinate.
  • Seed Staring SoilI haven’t experimented with making my own, so I usually just purchase an organic seed starting mixture from the store. Make sure it’s for seed staring and not potting soil or whatever else. This means it’s a perfect mix of everything the seed needs as it grows.
  • Heat Mat –This was a game-changer for me! Certain seeds like tomatoes, peppers, eggplant do every well with a heat mat underneath to keep the soil warm enough for the perfect germination.
  • Seeds & Water –Duh, lol. Here’s where I like to get my seeds from. I like to water my seeds from the bottom! I simply pour 2 bottles of water every 2 days, that way the roots can soak up the water whenever they need it. It also really helps prevent damping off (we’ll talk about that later).
  • LabelsDo this, and don’t forget! You’ll need to remember what you planted. I also recommend writing the date on it so you can jot down how long the seed took to germinate.

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How To Start Seeds: Step by Step

  1. Gather all your materials.After filling out your Seed Starting Schedule, you’ll know exactly what you are planting so you will be ready to go.
  2. Set up your lights and fill your trays will soil.Be sure to sanitize your seed trays if you have used them before.
  3. Plant your seeds and label.Follow the info on the back of the seed pack for the planting depth. For the 72 cell trays, I like to plant 2 seeds in 1 hole, in one grouping just to be sure at least 1 seed will germinate. For the 48 cell trays, I’ll plant 2 groupings of 2 seeds, that way I can potentially get 2 seedlings out of one hole. Grab a pencil and poke a hole deep enough for your seed, plant it and then sprinkle a thin layer of soil over top to cover the seed.
  4. Water and place your tray under the grow lights (and on top of your heat mat).I like to keep the grow lights on for about 16-18 hours a day. Make sure you keep the grow light 2-3 inches above the done. This prevents leggy seedlings. The first water I do like to use a spray bottle to keep the seeds down.
  5. Place the dome over your plants.The general rule of thumb is to keep the dome on until you see the green! Once the seed germinates you can remove the dome.

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Side Note: Pre-germination

If you have seeds lying around from a couple of years ago and want to know if they are still viable, you can do something called pre-germination. Simply, it’s wetting the seed in a paper towel and allowing them to sprout. If they sprout, they are viable, if not, then throw them out. You can read a detailed tutorial here.

Things To Keep In Mind When Starting Seeds Indoors

Mimic The Elements

This is something new I learned this year, but it makes total sense!! Since your seedlings are going to be eventually put outside in the elements of wind, rain, sun, etc. why not mimic them while they are still inside to make your seedlings tougher!? This means brushing your seedlings with your hand every few days or setting up a fan to mimic wind and increase ventilation.

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Damping Off

This fungal disease caused by mould and gnats kills plants very quickly. Some remedies include:

  • Fan –By keeping the air flowing mould is less like to grow.
  • Cinnamon –If you see mould, sprinkling cinnamon on the top of the soil helps kill it.
  • Sanitize –Always sanitize trays and garden tools before using them!
  • Don’t overwater– Water from the bottom so the roots can soak up the water when they need it.

Root Bound

One thing to avoid is letting your seedlings become root bound. This means that the roots have outgrown the container and will make it very hard to plant successfully. To prevent this check your trays periodically 2-3 weeks after germination and see what the roots are looking like. If they are everywhere and have created a wall, then you must re-pot into a bigger container as soon as possible. Ideally, you want to re-pot before they get like that.

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Leggy Seedlings

You want short, strong, and stocky seedlings, not long, thin and weak. This common problem can be easily avoided by keeping your grow light very close to your seedlings. Keeping your grow light 2-3 inches above is the max distance you want to go. As your seeds grow, move up the grow light accordingly, but still keeping it close.

If they are still leggy be sure to add that fan to strengthen them up. you can also mound soil around the base, that way the seed stock will be able to grow roots out of the side and become stronger.

Hardening Off

This is the last step in your seed starting journey. About 7-10 days before you are going to plant your seeds outdoors (be sure it’s after your last frost) you must start the hardening off process, which simply means exposing them to the elements little by little. If you don’t do this, your seeds will pretty much die as soon as your plant them outside and all your hard work will have gone to waste.

To do this, start 10 days before planting your seedlings outside, the first couple of days bring your seedlings outside, but not in direct sunlight, for about 30 mins – 1.5 hours a day. After that, gradually increase the time outside and place them in direct sunlight. Don’t forget to water them during this process. Always bring them in at night until the last day or so right before you plan on planting them.

There you have it, I highly suggest starting your own seeds! It’s super rewarding. I’d like to know how you make out or if you have any questions! Let me know in the comments below. Thanks for reading.

Talk soon,


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Insights, advice, suggestions, feedback and comments from experts

Starting seeds indoors is a popular practice among gardeners as it allows for better control over the growing conditions and can result in healthier and more productive plants. It also provides the opportunity to grow a wider variety of plants that may not be readily available at garden centers. In this article, the author shares their experience and provides tips on starting seeds indoors successfully.

Benefits of Starting Seeds Indoors

Starting seeds indoors offers several advantages:

1. Better Varieties: When starting seeds indoors, you have access to a wider selection of seeds from seed catalogs, allowing you to choose varieties that are better suited for your climate and preferences.

2. Extended Growing Season: By starting seeds indoors, you can give your plants a head start and have fully mature seedlings ready to be planted when the weather is suitable. This can extend your growing season and increase your harvest.

3. Controlled Environment: Starting seeds indoors provides a controlled environment where you can regulate temperature, light, and moisture levels to optimize seed germination and early growth.

Starting Seeds Indoors vs. Direct Seeding

While some seeds can be directly sown into the soil, others benefit from being started indoors. For example, tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and cauliflower are commonly started indoors because they require a longer growing season and a controlled environment. On the other hand, plants like lettuce prefer to be directly seeded outdoors due to their quick growth and hardiness.

When to Start Seeds Indoors

The timing for starting seeds indoors depends on the specific vegetable and the last frost date in your area. Generally, seeds should be started indoors anywhere between 12-4 weeks before the last frost. It is recommended to consult a seed starting schedule or use a tool that calculates the optimal planting dates based on your location.

Plants to Start Indoors

Many plants benefit from being started indoors. Some examples include leeks, onions, tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, cauliflower, cucumber, and squash. It is important to choose plants that are suitable for your growing zone and climate.

Materials Needed for Starting Seeds Indoors

To start seeds indoors, you will need the following materials:

1. Grow Light: A grow light is essential for providing adequate light to seedlings. While sunny windowsills can work for a few plants, a dedicated grow light is recommended for starting a larger number of seeds. Lights that are 2 feet long and fit over a 10 x 20 seed tray are commonly used.

2. Growing Tray with Insert and Dome: Use a growing tray with cells or compartments to hold the seeds. A dome is also useful for retaining moisture until the seeds germinate.

3. Seed Starting Soil: Use a seed starting mixture specifically designed for starting seeds. This type of soil provides the necessary nutrients and drainage for healthy seedling growth.

4. Heat Mat: Some seeds, such as tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants, benefit from a heat mat placed underneath the growing tray. The heat mat helps maintain the soil temperature at an optimal level for germination.

5. Seeds and Water: Use high-quality seeds from reputable sources. Water the seeds from the bottom to ensure the roots can absorb water as needed.

6. Labels: Labeling the trays is important for keeping track of the planted seeds. Include the plant name and the date of planting.

How to Start Seeds Indoors: Step by Step

Here is a step-by-step guide to starting seeds indoors:

  1. Gather all the necessary materials.
  2. Set up the grow lights and fill the trays with seed starting soil.
  3. Sanitize the trays if they have been used before.
  4. Plant the seeds according to the instructions on the seed packet, ensuring the proper planting depth.
  5. Water the seeds from the bottom and place the tray under the grow lights.
  6. Use a dome to cover the tray until the seeds germinate.
  7. Keep the grow lights on for 16-18 hours a day, adjusting the height to prevent leggy seedlings.
  8. Remove the dome once the seeds have germinated.
  9. Mimic the elements by brushing the seedlings or using a fan to simulate wind and increase ventilation.
  10. Take precautions against damping off, a fungal disease that can kill seedlings, by keeping the air flowing, using cinnamon to combat mold, and sanitizing trays and tools.
  11. Avoid overwatering and prevent root bound seedlings by watering from the bottom and repotting when necessary.
  12. Harden off the seedlings by gradually exposing them to outdoor conditions before planting them in the garden.

Starting seeds indoors can be a rewarding experience that allows for greater control over the growing process and access to a wider variety of plants. By following the proper techniques and providing the necessary care, you can increase your chances of success and enjoy a bountiful harvest.

The Beginners Guide to Starting Seeds Indoors - Sage & Shepherd Blog (2024)
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