How to Start Seeds Indoors

Jumpstart planting by starting your seedlings indoors, then transplanting into the garden.

| February/March 1993

Growing plants from seed may seem a bit outmoded. After all, started seedlings are readily available at every nursery, as well as many grocery and department stores. But growing vegetables from seed offers a number of advantages. For one thing, you'll know exactly what you're growing. Store-bought seedlings aren't always clearly identified. For another, your bedding plants will be healthier. Many Store-bought seedlings have weak, spindly stems and most of them have gone through extended periods without water. And then there's the matter of taste. Nearly all of the started plants you'll find in stores are hybrids, the result of deliberately crossing two or more plant varieties. Hybrids are developed to solve the problems of large-scale food production. They produce larger crops, they ripen all at once for mechanical harvesting, and they have tough skins that hold up well during long-distance shipping. Notice that flavor is nowhere near the top of the list.

We gardeners, on the other hand, like fresh vegetables for their tenderness and good flavor. We prefer extended harvests that give us fresh produce over a long period of time and that don't require marathon canning sessions. In short, we prefer standard (non-hybrid) varieties. Standards are rarely available as started plants, but instead must be grown from seed.

When you start from seed, you have another advantage over planting seedlings—you can sprout the seeds indoors to get a jump on the season for an earlier harvest. If your growing season is short, planting indoors buys time for slow-growing varieties that otherwise may not mature before fall's first frost—eggplant, peppers, and tomatoes among vegetables; impatiens, petunias, and snapdragons among flowers. And if your climate, like mine, goes too quickly from frigid to sizzling, cool-weather Cole crops (cabbage, broccoli, and cauliflower) started indoors can be handily harvested before the onset of summer heat.

Compared to seeds planted outdoors, those started indoors have a better germination rate because they're pampered more. You can enjoy greater variety by planting just a few pots of several different things, then selecting only the healthiest plants for transplanting. But the real reason we die-hard gardeners like to start seeds indoors is that it lets us get dirt under our fingernails long before the soil is warm enough or dry enough to garden outdoors.

Getting Started Sprouting Seeds

To start your own indoor nursery, here's what you'll need:

Seeds. Decide what you want to grow and purchase the seeds in plenty of time. Mail-order houses offer the widest variety of seeds, and will supply them when you want them.

Containers. Those of us who enjoy indoor planting invariably set up in-house recycle centers tilled with milk cartons, potato-chip tubes, juice cans, yogurt containers, and anything else that's at least 3" deep. The best planting containers are either tapered—like yogurt containers—so plants can easily be slipped out, or are made of paper-like milk cartons and juice cans—so they can be torn open for plant removal. Flats (shallow trays) may offer more planting space than individual pots, but you're more likely to disturb tender roots at transplant time.

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