How to Start Seeds Indoors
You can really get ahead when you start seeds indoors. You will realize several benefits when you start seeds indoors rather than buy seedlings or sew directly into your garden. One of those benefits is healthier, stronger, more vibrant plants. You will also have a garden that yields produce much earlier. I find it very rewarding to start seeds indoors and watch them develop into transplants and finally mature plants yielding produce. Here’s how you can successfully start seeds indoors.
What You Will Need:
Seeds – Soil – Fertilizer – Moisture – Heat mat – Sunlight
First off, you will need to get your hands on good quality seeds. There are three major decisions you need to make. What do you want to plant, do you want heirloom or hybrid seeds, and do you care if you get organic seed stock.
I recommend you choose plants that will yield vegetables that you and your family like to each. Don’t plant broccoli if you don’t like it. Simple enough right. Make a list of the vegetables that you like and then plan your garden around growing those plants. For a quick reference to how much room you will need for each plant, see my article How to Plan Your Spring Garden.
Heirloom or Hybrid is another decision you will need to make when you start seeds indoors. Heirloom seeds come from heirloom plants. What this means, in a nutshell, is that you can save the seeds from the produce for when you start seeds indoors next year. The seeds of an heirloom tomato, for example, will develop into a similar tomato plant that will bear similar fruit. This is important if you plan on saving seeds for future gardens.
Hybrid seeds, on the other hand, come from plants that are combined to provide specific characteristics. Perhaps they are more resistant to disease or drought, perhaps it is the color of the fruit they yield. Hybrid plants are developed to provide characteristics that consumers find beneficial. The problem with hybrids is that their seeds will not reproduce the plant they came from. That’s not to say that a hybrid tomato plant seeds will produce watermelon, rather it may not produce fruit at all. If it does produce fruit, it most likely will not be the same as the fruit it came from. It is more likely to take on the characteristics of one of its contributors.
There are so many options out there for starting seeds. In fact, it is a large business selling seed trays and special soil mixes, coconut fiber, rock wool, peat pellets, and on and on. The fact of the matter is, it is very easy to make your own seed starting box and all you need to fill it with is sand and sawdust. If you can’t find sawdust, rice hulls or even Perlite work. I recommend you keep it simple. I wrote an article about that expensive “organic” potting soil people buy. You really should read that. You’ll never buy it again. Read that article here.
Mix your sand and sawdust one part sand to two parts sawdust. It’s helpful to keep in mind the five functions of the growing medium. Soil has five functions when it comes to plants: anchorage and protection for the roots, it holds air and water for plant use, holds minerals the plant needs to thrive, regulates temperature, and provides drainage of excess moisture. A mixture of sand and sawdust is more than adequate to meet these five functions.
Seeds have all the nutrition within them to get them started. The fertilizer that you will add to the sand and sawdust is not meant to help get the seeds started. This is the nutrition the seedlings will need to get them to the next stage of growth and ready for transplanting into your garden. There are two formulas that the Mittleider Gardening Method recommends. The first one is referred to as Pre-Plant. As the name suggests, it is added to the soil prior to planting or transplanting. The second formula is called Weekly Feed and it is applied weekly during the productive cycle of the plant.
These formulas have been tested and tried around the world for the past 50 years and are proven to give you better results than any other combination of nutrients. There are 16 essential plant nutrients and these two formulas provide the right combinations of each to ensure healthy vibrant plant growth and an abundance of produce. You can download the formulas for these two fertilizer mixes here.
Seeds need to be kept moist during the germination period. However, there is no need to soak seeds prior to planting. Make sure your sand and sawdust mixture is moist by mixing water with it until it is damp to the touch. Once you have planted your seeds, cover the soil with a damp burlap cloth. The cloth serves two purposes. First, it helps retain moisture in the soil. Secondly, it allows you to apply more water without disturbing the seeds.
With seedlings, it is also important to keep them warm. that is why I recommend a Hydrofarm MT10006 9-by-19-1/2-Inch Seedling Heat Mat. If you live in a warm climate, this may not be necessary. However, for most places a heat mat will help keep the soil at a constant temperature and encourage germination. I use the heat mat. I purchased from Amazon. You can get these locally as well. Make sure you also get the Jump Start MTPRTC, Digital ETL-Certified Heat Mat Thermostat for Seed Germination. This allows you to set the temperature you want and it will maintain it.
If you have a South facing window place your seed tray where it will benefit from the natural sunlight. If you don’t have space for that, you will want to get some grow lights. Get a light fixture that will provide enough light for your grow box(s). These can be rather expensive to buy off the shelf, but they are easy to make and much less expensive if you have the skills to make your own. You can get a basic two-bulb hanging fixture locally for about $40. Make sure you use “daylight” bulbs. They should have full spectrum light and around 6500 lums. Here’s a YouTube video showing you how to make a very effective stand for less than $20.
If you’d like to get really good at this, I highly recommend you read some more about Mittleider Gardening. Here’s another post I wrote about the method and my experience with it.