It’s that magical time of the new year when we start our seeds indoors while it’s still too cold outside to plant anything for the warm season. When the weather warms up, usually in March, we’ll plant our young seedlings in their new garden home outside.
Indoor seed starting helps us to amp up our production in one season because plants get a head start and then can mature faster in the garden. That means they have time to produce more veggies before the heat of the summer hits and slows down their growth. Let’s say your favorite fruiting plant takes 90 days to mature. If your seedlings already have 30 or 45 of those days under their belts when they hit the garden in March, you’re getting food ASAP.
Tomatoes a month sooner? Yes, please!
(By the way, it’s also great to start seeds indoors when it’s blistering hot out for fall crops.)
Another reason gardeners start their own seeds is for quality control. Of course you can buy tomato plants from a nursery, but occasionally those seedlings have experienced a rough beginning, such as a chill when they were young or a too-small pot that turns them root bound, both of which can stunt their growth. Overall, plants started at home from seed tend to be hardier and grow to their full potential.
We all buy starter plants from the store from time to time. If you’re purchasing a tomato plant, you might be tempted to select a bigger plant that’s already bearing fruit. Those guys are actually stressed. You’re much better off buying a smaller seedling. It’s cheaper, and it’ll catch up in no time and produce far better in the long run.
One more reason to start seeds (Do you need more?) is the variety! It’s much easier to find fun, delicious, local winners, heirlooms, or your neighbor’s grandma’s favorite hybrid when you’re starting from seed. Be they store-bought or traded seeds, you’ll have far more options to choose from.
Last but not least, seeds are pennies on the dollar, folks. Once you have your setup, starting seeds is far cheaper than buying plants, which means you can up your quantity.
Who wants more plants? (*Raises hand*)
Grab your seed tray and let’s get started!
Step 1: Determine When to Sow Seeds
One important point in starting seeds indoors is knowing when to sow. Don’t worry—it’s easy to figure out once you’ve bought your seeds. When purchasing seed packets, choose varieties that are proven successful in our area (this is where internet searches can be helpful).
Look on the back of the seed packet for the recommended time to sow indoors. Many seed packets will tell you to sow indoors 4 weeks or 6-8 weeks before last frost date. For those of us in the Austin area and for most of central Texas, the average last frost-free date is mid-March.
Central Texas Monthly Planting Guide
Take all the guesswork out of your seasonal planting.
Step 2: Buy or Make Your Own Seed Starting Mix
Seed starting mixes tend to be lighter than regular soil mixes so that tender young roots can push their way into the mix and find the nutrients needed to grow bigger.
Shop my recommended organic seed starting mixes, HERE, or make your own following this easy recipe.
I have found that using FoxFarm’s Ocean Forest potting mix to work far superior than the homemade mix recipe below.
Homemade Seed Starting Mix Recipe:
1. coconut coir or peat moss
Add 20% worm castings to this mix
Soil Mix Directions:
1. Combine all parts in a large bucket and mix thoroughly.
2. Add water to the mixture (not too much).
3. Toss with your hands until mixture is moist but not soggy (like that awesome kinetic sand stuff).
4. Fill seed trays with the mix. Just dump entire scoops and spread across the whole tray.
(Up-Cycle Tip: Use empty toilet paper rolls on a tray as planting cells, then plant right into the garden, roll and all. This is a great project to do with kids!)
Step 3: Sow Your Seeds
Make tags for each row of seeds you sow. Seriously… don’t skip any. You will forget later what you planted where (trust me on this one).
1. Gather seeds, labels, and chopstick or a pencil.
2. Insert seed labels into the seed tray first.
3. Read the seed package and sow the seed according to the depth listed, using your chopstick or pencil tip to press a little hole into the mix. Cover with seed starting mix.
4. Keep the soil moist until the seeds sprout by covering them with a plastic dome, burlap, or plastic wrap. Uncover once they start sprouting.
General seed sowing tip: Sow seeds up to two times their width. For example if the seed is 1/4 inch wide, then plant the seed 1/2 inch deep. For tiny seeds, just place them on the soil surface and barely cover with a sprinkling of seed starting mix.
Step 4: Place Seed Tray in a Warm Spot
Recommended warm places include on top of the fridge or dryer or on a warm window sill. Heat mats underneath can also can be used but are not required. My simple heat mat is a heating pad with the fabric cover taken off. I keep the heat on low and find this works perfectly. Warm soil tells those little seeds to root up. Most don’t need light at this point.
Step 5: Place Seed Tray Under Lights
Once seeds have sprouted, they need to be under lights. Lights will need to be about one to two inches above the seedlings to be strong enough to grow those babies. Most folks use artificial grow lights that can either be raised and lowered or affixed to a shelf (like lights mounted under a book case).
If you happen to have a warm outdoor greenhouse, your seedlings could hang out in there instead of under artificial lights.
Step 6: Tending Your New Seedlings
Now that your new seedlings have sprouted you will want to thin out any extra seedlings growing in each cell. You can simply use scissors to clip out the smaller seedlings or gently pull out extras to put in their own separate seed cell.
Keep the seedlings moist but not waterlogged. It is best to bottom water if possible. Simply add water to the bottom of the tray they are sitting in. When the seedlings have their first set of true leaves then you can use diluted seaweed extract to give them some nutrition every 2-4 weeks. While seedlings are indoor, you can blow a gentle fan on them to simulate wind or simply run your hand back and forth through them. This helps them attain strong stems and gets them ready to be outside.
Step 7: Plant Out Your Seedlings
There are various stages of planting seedlings out into the garden. Before your seedlings are ready for the garden beds, it’s a good idea to adapt them to outdoor conditions. “Hardening off” is a phrase that means leaving trays outdoors for a few hours each day to adapt them to outside temperatures, sunlight, and wind to reduce shock. You can do this over 7 days by putting your seedlings out in partial shade for first couple of days and then gradually moving to full sun. Day 1, start at 1hr and by day 7 you can be at a full 7 hours. It is best if the temperature outside is above 60 degrees.
Setting up your seed starting space seems daunting, I know, and sadly, it has kept many a would-be gardener from trying to start their own seeds. But you can do it! Really.
Once you get a light or two and some trays, you can start on your counter. You’ll soon be wondering why you ever waited so long. It’s incredibly satisfying to see your own little army of sprouts coming up and knowing you have a jump on the growing season that makes a world of difference.
So there you have it! That’s the skinny on starting seeds indoors to get those veggies in the ground as soon as it warms up outside.
Stop by our Amazon Store to find items you can use for your seed starting adventures. All Amazon links in this post are affiliate links and help support our small business.
For garden coaching or for additional help setting your garden space up for the season, schedule a consultation, and one of our team members would love to help you get started.