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Grow Like a Pro: Seed Starting for Beginners
There is something so incredibly rewarding about watching a little seed sprout into a seedling and grow into a big, fruitful plant. Not unlike to watching your own children grow – it’s seriously the best.
I’ve learned a lot about seed starting over the years, mostly from trial and error, and by killing my fair share of seedlings. Death by underwatering, overwatering, freezing, forgetfulness, carelessness, or curious experimentation has been the fate of many of my seeds.
It can be super disheartening to see hours of your hard work go down the drain simply because you didn’t provide enough water in those early weeks of germination or harden off your seedlings properly.
To be honest, trial and error — though valuable in experience — isn’t the most fun way to learn when it comes to seed starting. So, I’ve assembled the ultimate roundup below of my best tips, tricks, and hacks to help you succeed this growing season.
Good planning is key to a successful garden.
Click HERE to check out my garden planning post – all the ins and outs of getting started!
Why Start From Seed?
There are a few reasons to start your garden from seed! Number one it’s MUCH cheaper than buying plants. For around $3 you can purchase a seed packet of 50 seeds, aka 50 plants if they grow successfully. You would pay the same price (or sometimes a bit more) for ONE plant if you decide not to grow from seed. As you can see, the savings is crazy!
I would also start from seed if you plan on growing A LOT. If you’re only thinking you need a few tomato plants, a couple pepper plants, a few other here and there, it might be easier to just buy the veggie starts when they come to market in May. But if you’re going all in and have a big garden planned, the savings would be huge if you could start from seed!
Lastly, as I said above, it’s just super rewarding to watch your little plant babies grow big and fruitful. And if you have older kids, it’s a great opportunity to teach them about where food comes from!
- High-quality seed (click here for a list of my favorite seed suppliers)
- Seed Starting Journal or Guide (free printable below)
- Seed Starting Tracker (free printable below)
- Potting soil
- Small, biodegradable pots (or egg cartons!)
- Or plastic cell packs, trays and domes
- Clear humidity domes
- Dibbler or pencil
- Seed dispenser (optional for tiny seeds)
- Plant tags and a sharpie
- Lighting (see the very last section of this post for an easy lighting DIY!)
- Heat mats (optional)
Scroll down for my step by step how-to for seed starting! If you’re ready to move on from seed starting, check out these posts next! How to Map, Plan & Plant Your Veggie Garden and 7 Early Spring Garden Tasks
Seed Starting Basics
1. Choose The Right Seeds. Before you get started it’s important to choose the right seeds for YOU. First, think about which veggies your family eats the most or which flowers you enjoy the most. You’ll want to be growing foods you will actually eat/flowers you will actually enjoy!
2. Know Your Hardiness Zone & last frost date. This is super important to know before you plan your garden because it determines your seeding and planting schedule. You obviously wouldn’t want to plant out too early and risk your seedlings freezing and dying! For my zone, our last frost date (the date after which the threat of frost is zero 0%) is right around Mother’s Day. Check this site RIGHT HERE to check what zone you’re in and your specific seeding recommendations. CLICK HERE for more information about frost dates (Farmer’s Almanac). I’ve also included a handy frost free dates chart below, you just have to know your zone!
CLICK HERE to find your USDA Hardiness Zone.
3. Figure Out the Sow and Transplant Dates of Each Seed. Read the backs of your seed packets!! The back of the seed package provides instructions on when to sow your seeds indoors and when to transplant the seedlings into the vegetable garden. You can also reference my free download – Seed Starting Guide for Veggies, Herbs, and Flowers (just below).
4. Set Up a Chart. I use a super simple spreadsheet but it keeps me organized! I’ve created a free downloadable copy of it, enter your email in the box just below this next section to scoop it up!
I wanted to make this as easy as possible for you so I created a free downloadable seed starting guide that goes over when and where to plant your seeds! Vegetables, herbs, and flowers are included PLUS a free seed starting tracker chart!
Approximate Frost Free Dates by Zone
|Zone||Last Frost Date||First Frost Date|
|1||July 16-31||August 1-15|
|2||June 8-21||September 8-21|
|3||May 8-21||September 21-October 7|
|4||May 22-June 7||October 1-15|
|5||May 1-15||October 8-21|
|6||April 16-30||October 16-31|
|7||April 1-15||October 21-November 7|
|8||March 16-30||November 1-15|
|9||February 16-28||December 1-15|
|10-13||No freeze||No freeze|
Easiest Seeds for Beginners
You can, of course, try any seeds you’d like – which I totally encourage – but because I am frequently asked, I’ve listed my favorite and easiest seeds for beginners to try. Again, I reccomend following the info and instructions closely on each individual packet but I go over my general method below. One important thing to note about seed starting is the importance of soil temperature – read more about that HERE.
Vegetables: Brassica Family
Includes veggies like broccoli, cauliflower, brussel sprouts, kale, and cabbage. This family of plants loves the cold weather and germinates in cooler soil. You can start seeds inside in late Winter or direct sow into the ground in early Spring. We direct sow in the Spring!
Vegetables: Root Veggies
For root crops like carrots, beets, kohlrabi, radishes, and parsnips, it’s best to direct sow outside (in the early Spring) so their delicate taproot doesn’t have to be transplanted and so it has ample room to grow deep. Because they grow under the soil it is optimal to have smooth, loose soil (not rocky or compacted), otherwise, they will have great difficulty forming correctly. You can also grow these veggies successfully in containers, just make sure to get ones that are deep enough (12-14″ deep is best)!
Greens like Swiss Chard, lettuces, spinach, and arugula are super easy to start from seed and also prefer cooler temps and cooler soil. Similar to the Brassica family, these seeds can be started indoors in late winter and transplanted out during early Spring, or direct-sown outside during early Spring. I especially love the “cut and come again” lettuces and rainbow chard.
Vegetables: Nightshade Family
Tomatoes, eggplant, peppers. Start indoors, these seeds/plants prefer warm soil and cannot be planted outside until the ground has warmed (two weeks AFTER your last frost date). For my zone (6) we plant these out on Memorial Day weekend.
Beans, cucumber, squash/zucchini/pumpkin, watermelon, cantaloupe and the like all love the warm weather and warm soil. They do well either seeded indoors one month before the last frost date, or when direct seeded into the ground after the threat of frost is over (for me that’s mid-late May). They take a couple weeks to get going, but with the right care, these plants take off like crazy and can be hard to tame. Make sure you have proper trellising and ample space for them to spread!
Many herbs are actually propagated from cuttings (sage, rosemary, thyme) so you’re better off buying the plants instead of propagating them yourself. The easier herbs to start from seed are basil, parsley, cilantro, lemon balm, and oregano. Basil and lemon balm like it warm so their seeding schedule is similar to the nightshade family schedule. The others can tolerate cooler temps and can be seeded indoors in late winter and planted outside by mid-May.
My favorite cut flowers are listed below, these flowers have been relatively easy to start from seed in my experience.
- Sweet Peas
- Dahlia (tuber)
- Gladiolus (bulb)
Seed Starting: Variables to Consider
Before I dive into my methods I wanted to list some questions to consider. These are some of the variables that differ between seed varieties, so you’ll have to see what specifics your seeds require and adjust my steps accordingly.
Luckily, most of the answers to these questions will be found on the individual seed packet!
- How long to germination?
- How deep to plant?
- What container is best to start them in?
- Can they be sowed directly into the ground or will they do better if started indoors?
- Special soil requirements they will do best in?
- When can seedlings be planted outside? (Reference THIS CHART, this will determine how far in advance you plant your seeds indoors, most take right around 6 weeks to get going)
Seed Starting: My Method
1. Gather all the proper supplies from the supplies list above (soil, seed trays, vermiculite, dome lids, plant tags, SEEDS, etc.).
2. Before you fill your trays with soil, moisten it until it is thoroughly damp but not soaking wet. This makes it easier to work with and you won’t have to water as much once the seeds are in their new home.
3. Fill your cell packs to the top with soil, tap them so they settle and so no air pockets are left but DO NOT pack down. You want the soil to be workable.
4. Label – I like to label BEFORE I plant just in case I forget what I’m planting. Haha. But really, I do feel like it’s helpful! I write the plant name, variety, and date on wooden tags like these.
5. IMPORTANT: Make holes in each cell using your finger, a pencil or a dibbler. The general rule of thumb is to plant the seed twice as deep as it is wide (diameter). I find this is a common mistake with seed starting, there is no need to plant the seeds super deep; some only just need a dusting of soil cover!
6. Drop 2-3 seeds in each hole until the entire tray is full. If you have super tiny seeds (like Snapdragon) a seed dispenser might be helpful! Multiple seeds gives you a higher success rate since some seeds own’t germinate, you will thin them later!
7. Cover the tray with a light dusting of vermiculite making sure all cells are covered.
Don’t forget to track your seedings with this free, printable seed tracker chart!
8. Place the seeded trays in a tub or container filled with about an inch of water. Allowing the seeds to soak up the water from below (versus overhead watering with a hose). This is a much more delicate way for them to drink, this way nothing gets shifted out of place, or washed away, by a forceful hose.
9. Remove trays from water once the soil surface is evenly moist. Seed trays should not be watered from overhead until the plants have their first set of true leaves (which is their second set of actual leaves). Again, one strong blast from the hose will wash tiny seeds or seedlings right away. Alternatively, you can use a spray bottle to mist from overhead.
10. Cover trays with a clear plastic dome or plastic wrap and set in a warm corner of the house (consistent temps of above 65 degrees) or onto a heat mat set to 70 degrees. Some seeds also require light to germinate but most are fine without light until you see the sprouts pop up.
Checking on and Maintaining Your Seedlings’ Health
In no time your little plant babies will be ready to live outside! Follow these steps to make sure they are healthy and strong enough and ready to be planted out in the garden. When you are ready to do that (or a bit before!) check out my blog post — all about mapping, planning and planting out your garden!
1. Light. Check trays daily, and once seeds have sprouted, remove plastic dome lids or plastic wrap, remove the heat mat if you used one, and move to a bright space such as a greenhouse or under fluorescent lights (I found an awesome DIY lighting tutorial HERE). If using lights, make sure that they are suspended a few inches above seedlings and put them on a timer, making sure to give plants 14-16 hours of light per day. As the plants get taller, be sure to keep raising the lights so that they are 2-3 inches above the tallest plant.
2. Water & Feed. Check seedlings daily and water (either from underneath or via misting) when the soil appears dry. As young plants grow, they need to be fed. Following the label instructions, add the correct amount of liquid seaweed and fish emulsion to your watering can and drench plants weekly.
3. Thinning. Thin extra seedlings about 3-4 weeks after sowing and when the plants are established (two sets of leaves). This is survival of the fittest, using your mini snips (or other pruners with a super fine point), cut away the slower-growing/not as strong seedlings so the bigger ones can thrive. Do not pull out these unwanted seedlings as disturbing the root systems can affect nearby plants, just cut them down to the soil surface.
Almost ready for their big debut!
4. Repot. When seedlings outgrow their trays, either repot them into larger containers or if the weather is warm enough, start transitioning them outside or “hardening off.”
5. Hardening Off. The second to last step is hardening off your seedlings. We start this about 2 weeks before their transplant date. Hardening off is the process of adapting plants to the outside so they can adjust to sunlight, fluctuating temps, and less frequent watering. Set trays in a sheltered spot outside, increasing the amount of time they are out by an hour or so each day. Start with 2-3 hours/day and increase from there.
6. Transplant Outside. Once all danger of frost has passed your seedlings can finally be planted into the garden! Check out this post for my 5 Biggest Tips for Planting Your Garden!
It might feel like there is a lot to know about seed starting, you could literally read entire books on it, but the main thing to remember is to JUST DO IT! You learn as you go when you garden!
I hope my advice was helpful and can at least help get you started, I’d love to know what you’re planning this year for your garden!
Further Reading on Seed Starting & Planting
National Garden Association – Great all-around and interactive resource for gardeners
USDA Plant Database – tons of info on specific plants
NYBG – Great resource but also an amazing place to visit if you are in the tri-state area!
Missouri Botanical Garden – Incredible database of plant info
Cornell Cooperative Extension – Great resource for anyone in NY, but still helpful if you are elsewhere
Farmer’s Almanac – Because this has been referenced by farmers and gardeners for hundreds of years and it’s still the best
Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers – Tons of info and cutting edge research from this group
Botanical Interests – High quality, heirloom seeds & supplies
Renee’s Garden – My favorite for veggie & herb seeds
Johnny’s Seeds – High quality seeds, large quantities
Eden Brothers – Great resource for ALL seeds, tubers and bulbs – where I get my dahlia tubers
Floret Flower Farm – Gorgeous and unique selection of flower seeds and she has a fantastic blog filled with growing info!
Longfield Gardens – Great selection of dahlia tubers
Five Forks Farm – Small farm out of MA, really unique dahlia varieties, tuber order time is January and they sell quickly!
The Flower Hat – Small farm out of MT, really unique dahlia varieties!
Looking for more gardening posts? Check these out!
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