Indoor Seed Starting (don’t worry, it’s easy)

If you are like me, every year you tell yourself that you will exercise control when the seed catalogs come out. THIS time you will not overspend on all the packets of seeds that you will likely not have room for. THIS year you will be conservative. THIS year you will only buy what your family eats. Ha. 

Inevitably, I will purchase ALL the seeds. Is it easier and sometimes more successful to buy plants from the nursery instead of starting seeds on my own? Yes. Does it take up less kitchen space and prevent growing medium from being all over my counters, refrigerator, and floors?

Also, yes. BUT! This little garden gnome can not contain her enthusiasm for planting season. If I start plants from seed, I can plant things as early as January. I am FAR too impulsive and excited to wait until April. So, I go nuts ordering seeds in November and December and start my early plants in January. It is how I stay sane in the winter. Now that we have that cleared up, why don’t I tell you how to get all of those lovely little future plants growing?

Getting Organized

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So, you’re buried up to your nose in seed packets. Creating order in the chaos is priority number one. You need to figure out what all needs to be directly sown (started outside in the garden) and what needs to be started indoors. You will find this information in the instructions on the back of the packet. However, if you have seeds that came without instructions, you know what to do. Just look it up online. 

After you have two boxes of different starting locations, you are going to further sort them by starting date. I like to keep these segments neatly separated by putting them into labeled envelopes. Some plants (like peppers, eggplants, and calendula) need to be started early because they either need a really long growing season or cold temperatures to germinate. Others need to be started when it is past the frost date because they can’t handle cold temperatures. Look for the planting dates according to your hardiness zone at the bottom of the seed packet.

Gathering Supplies

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As with every hobby, you are going to hear  from a LOT of different sources that you simply HAVE to have expensive equipment in order to make seed starting work. I call BS on that noise. You will find that I harp on this a lot. Because this kind of snobbish gatekeeping tends to run people off and I don’t approve. Plants are almost freakishly adaptable. No matter what, you are likely to have a bunch of stuff die and some stuff flourish to the point you think it is going to swallow the neighborhood. Don’t let your inability to afford the most high tech growing set up stop you from gardening.

The only things you HAVE to have to get started are

  • Seeds (I mean, Duh)
  • Some kind of growing medium
  • A container for growing medium
  • Water
  • Light source

Growing Medium

Growing medium is just dirt. Dirt for plants to grow in. You can buy seed starting mix from the store and it does work. You can buy little disks of peat moss and they work as well as being super easy. However, I have totally just scooped some dirt out of my yard (gasp! Not even garden dirt!), plunked it into an old green bean can and grew a serrano plant that was super healthy and happy. Do what you can afford. You will figure it out. You might have fewer plants to transplant than if you had the fancy stuff, but it can be done.


Containers for growing medium can be anything. You can buy the little trays that come with a super helpful clear plastic lid to trap humidity or you can use cardboard toilet paper tubes in an old ice cream bucket for the same effect. Used single serve coffee cups, newspaper folded into pockets, old baby shoes, ANYTHING NONTOXIC THAT CAN HOLD DIRT WILL WORK. And any larger container that is clear can be a tray for them. Old tupperware containers and the aforementioned ice cream buckets work great. 


The soil needs to be kept moist. For the most part, small seedlings don’t like to get knocked over by a flood of water. To keep this from being an issue, you can get a spray bottle and just frequently mist the soil. I am not going to lie. This way is much gentler on the plants, but a pain in the neck for humans. It takes quite a bit of spraying to adequately saturate the soil and has to be done a few times a day once the seedlings start sucking up the water. It is super necessary for hair-thin seedlings like herbs, but not really for sturdier plants like peppers and tomatoes.

Honestly, I just take a cup and try to carefully pour water into each cell as far from the plant as I can or pour water into the tray and let them suck it up from underneath. Also, they sell some kind of liquid fertilizer stuff to put in the water when you start the seeds. I haven’t really noticed a difference but if you want it, try it out. 

Light Source

Some seeds need light in order to germinate. Some of them need darkness, but they will need light once the seedlings have sprouted. Grow lamps are SUPER helpful in making sure the maximum amount of seedlings survive to the transplant stage. HOWEVER, a south facing window will work. You will lose more plants this way because they tend to get leggy reaching for the light BUT I have gone years without grow lamps and still have a good number of healthy (if a little funky shaped) plants in my garden.

The things that are helpful but not required

  • Heat mat
  • Labels
  • Timer

Plants like peppers need more time to grow, but also higher temperatures in order to germinate. That can be tricky because it means they need to be started in January when it is demonstrably not warm. They sell these really nifty heating mats for this purpose. They are incredibly helpful in increasing the number of locations you can start seeds. But, you can just as easily start them on top of your refrigerator if it is warm up there like mine is. I also had good luck putting them on the counter above my dishwasher. 

It really helps to have labels. Especially if you aren’t so hot at plant identification. You can buy some from the store OR you can use stuff around the house. Popsicle sticks, masking tape on the tray, just get creative with it. 

If you are using grow lamps, timers are AWESOME. I am easily distracted and terrible at sticking to a schedule. I really do need a timer. The kind that I am talking about is the kind that you plug into the wall and plug the lamp into the timer itself. You set it to be on for a certain amount of time and off for a specific number of hours. Plants need dark time just as much as people do, so these things are really helpful but not required. You could just go turn it off and on when you need to.

Get Em Growin

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Get your containers and trays together and fill all of the little pots with soil or put all of the little pucks in the trays. Add enough water to get them good and moist. Then, poke two or three seeds into the center of each pot. Be careful not to press them in too deeply, or they may not make it. Next, label them and cover them to retain moisture. If your tray came with a lid or dome, use it. If not, just cover the tray with plastic wrap.

Put them into the location they need for germination and check on them daily to make sure they are staying moist. Once the seedlings get taller, remove the covering and feed them. Thin them out by removing the weaker sprouts and keeping only the healthiest one in each pot. Once they get to the point where they have several leaves and are requiring a great deal more water, it is time to transplant. Harden them off by putting them outside for increasing amounts of time each day until they are ready to go into the ground. Done!

Sowing seeds indoors can be a pretty cheap way to get your garden started and enables us impatient gnomes to battle the winter blues. With a little bit of creativity, you can have plants ready for the garden with barely any cost and reusing stuff that would wind up in a landfill. I hope this guide helped to calm any budgetary concerns you might have and inspire you to try your hand at it.


Cutler, Karan Davis. Burpee- The Complete Vegetable & Herb Gardener: a guide to growing your garden organically, Macmillan/Burpee. 1997, New York.

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