How to Start Seeds

A comprehensive guide to growing vegetables and flowers from seed

GrowEase Seed Starter Kit There are many ways to start seeds, but a seed-starting system, such as the GrowEase Seed Starting Kit ensures good results.

Growing plants from seed is a great way to start gardening earlier in the season. With the right light and some simple equipment, it's easy to grow from seed to harvest.

Easy Plants To Start From Seed

Because each plant has unique seed-starting requirements, it helps to start small by growing just a few varieties. If you're new to gardening, choose some of the easy-to-start seeds below, and then move on to fussier seeds, like those that require stratification.

Veggies and Herbs Flowers and Foliage
  • Basil
  • Tomato
  • Peppers
  • Spinach
  • Cucumber
  • Lettuce
  • Cilantro
  • Dill
  • Broccoli
  • Zinnias
  • Cosmos
  • Celosia
  • Marigold
  • Calendula
  • Nasturtium
  • Sunflowers
  • Coleus
  • Morning Glories
  • Strawflower

What You Need to Start Seeds

Something to start seeds in

Gardener's Best XL Seed Starter  A self-watering tray, like that in the Gardener's Best XL Kit, makes watering easy.

You can start seeds in almost any type of container, as long as it's at least 2-3" deep and has some drainage holes. If you are the DIY type, you might want to grow seedlings in recycled yogurt cups, milk cartons or paper cups. However trays that are made especially for seed starting are easy to fill with grow medium, convenient to move, and have proper drainage already in place underneath.

Choose the right kit: Browse the Seed Starting Buying Guide.

A growing medium (soil)

Choose a seedstarting mix that's made for germinating seeds. Do not use soil from your garden or re-use potting soil from your houseplants. Start with a fresh, sterile mix that will ensure healthy, disease-free seedlings.

Before filling your containers, use a bucket or tub to moisten the planting mix. The goal is to get it moist but not sopping wet; crumbly, not gloppy. Fill the containers and pack the soil firmly to eliminate gaps.

Remember that most mixes contain few, if any, nutrients, so you'll need to feed the seedlings with liquid fertilizer a few weeks after they germinate, and continue until you transplant them into the garden.

We don't call it "dirt": How To Choose A Potting Soil.

Light, light, and more light

Seedlings need A LOT of light. If you're growing in a window, choose a south-facing exposure. Rotate the pots regularly to keep plants from leaning into the light. If seedlings don't get enough light, they will be leggy and weak. If you're growing under lights, adjust them so they're just a few inches above the tops of the seedlings. Set the lights on a timer timer for 15 hours a day. Keep in mind that seedlings need darkness, too, so they can rest. As the seedlings grow taller, raise the lights.

Shed light on your seedlings: Gardening Under Grow Lights.
LED grow lights are perfect for indoor seed starting, as well growing as light-loving houseplants.

5 Easy Steps For Seed Starting

1. Timing

The goal of starting seeds indoors is to have your seedlings ready to go outdoors when the weather is favorable. Start by looking at the seed packet, which should tell you when to start seeds inside. Usually, it will say something like, "Plant inside six to eight weeks before last frost."

Some types of vegetables, such as beans, are best started outdoors. There is little benefit to growing them indoors because they aree cold hardy and germinate quickly. Some flowers, such as poppies, are best planted outdoors, too. They are more prone to transplant shock and do not like to be handled excessively after they've germinated. These seeds are usually marked "direct sow".

Be on time: When to Start Your Seeds.

2. Planting

Check the seed packet to see how deep you should plant your seeds. Some seeds require light for germination and should be sprinkled on the soil surface. Other seeds may need to be buried under 1/8- 1 inch of soil. For insurance, you can plant two seeds per cell (or pot). If both seeds germinate, snip one and let the other grow (thin). It's helpful to make a couple divots in each pot to accommodate the seeds. After you've dropped a seed in each divot, you can go back and cover the seeds.

Greenhouse coverRemove the humidity dome once seeds have germinated.

Moisten the newly planted seeds with a mister or a small watering can. To speed germination, cover the pots with plastic wrap or a humidity dome that fits over the seed-starting tray. This helps keep the seeds moist before they germinate. Once seeds have germinated and you see leaves, remove the cover to allow air to circulate.

3. Watering

As the seedlings grow, use a mister or a small watering can to keep the soil moist but not soggy. Let the soil dry slightly between waterings. Containers with holes on the bottom can be set down in a tray and water can be added to the tray — "bottom watering" is an effective way to keep newly formed roots moist without getting upper leaves wet and risking rot.

4. Fertilizing

Seeds contain all the energy and nutrients they need to germinate and get going. But after seedlings get their second set of leaves ("true leaves") they begin to rely on their environment for nutrients. Feed the seedlings regularly with an organic, liquid fertilizer, mixed at the rate recommended on the package.

5. Prepping for the great outdoors

healthy seedling rootsA healthy transplant ready for the garden has plenty of firm white roots.

It's not a good idea to move your seedlings directly from the protected environment of your home into the garden. You've been coddling these seedlings for weeks, so they need a gradual transition to the great outdoors. The process is called "hardening off". About a week before you plan to set the seedlings into the garden, place them in a protected spot outdoors (partly shaded, out of the wind) for a few hours, bringing them in at night. If the sun heats up, be sure to check on their water levels — seed starting cells are shallow and will dry up quickly. Gradually, over the course of a week or 10 days, expose them to more and more sunshine and wind. A cold frame is a great place to harden off plants.

Frequently Asked Seed Starting Questions

Why did only a few of my seeds germinate?

There are a number of factors that affect seed germination. Check the seed packet to determine if all the requirements for temperature and light were met. If the soil was cold and excessively wet, the seeds may have rotted. Dig up one of the seeds and examine it. If it is swollen and soft, the seed has rotted and you will need to start over. If the soil was too dry, the seeds may not have germinated or may have dried up before their roots could take hold. If the seeds were old, they may no longer be viable. Try again and be sure to provide consistent moisture.

The leaves on my tomatoes are starting to look purple along the veins and on the underside of the leaves. What's happening?

Purple leaves are an indication that the plant is not receiving enough phosphorus. If you have been using half-strength fertilizer for the first three to four weeks of the seedling's life, it may be time to increase the fertilizer to full strength. The phosphorus content (the middle number on the fertilizer analysis) should be at least 3.

My seedlings were growing well until all of a sudden they toppled over at the base. What happened?

When the stems of young seedlings become withered and topple over, they have probably been killed by a soil-borne fungus called "damping off." This fungus is difficult to eradicate once it is present in the soil, but you can avoid it by using a sterile, soilless growing medium, and by providing good air circulation.

Mold is growing on the top of the soil surface. It doesn't appear to be hurting my plants, but should I be concerned?

Mold is an indication that the growing medium is too wet. It will not harm your plants as long as you take action. Withhold water for a few days and try to increase air circulation around the containers by using a small fan. You can also scrape off some of the mold or try transplanting the seedlings into fresh soil.

My seedlings are spindly. What can I do?

Plants grow tall and leggy when they do not receive enough light. Use grow lights to ensure that they receive 15 hours of bright light each day. Warm temperatures can also stimulate leggy growth. Try lowering the room temperature and reducing the amount of fertilizer you apply. For more on this topic, see the article How To Garden With Grow Lights.

Spindly seedlingsFrom our Garden Lab: The seedlings on the right were grown on a windowsill. You can see how the stems are long and spindly, with tiny leaves. On the left are seedlings grown under lights.

Last updated: 03/19/2024