Start Your Garden Indoors: Seed-Starting Timing, Varieties and Equipment

Reader Contribution by Sheryl Campbell and The Lazy Farmer
1 / 3
2 / 3
3 / 3

Tomato & pepper seedlings.

Why bother to start your own seeds? It seems like a lot of work, and there will be all those lovely vegetable seedlings at the big box stores and farm stores in a couple of months. It is isn’t it? They will won’t they? Let’s explore these assumptions and talk about the benefits of starting your own seeds indoors.

Benefits of Starting Your Own Seeds

You control the timing. Imagine having your garden all planned out, the timing of each crop figured out so that you can succession crop each planting bed. But the stores thinks all cool season seedlings go in at the same time. If you wait to buy past their preferred timing, all they’ll have left are straggly, ill-cared for leftovers. If you want to buy ahead of their timing, there won’t be anything to purchase. Starting your own seeds allows you to time their growth enabling transplant just as a spot opens up in your garden.

You decide the variety. Do you want a variety that performs well in your micro-climate? Is taste your determining factor? Would you consider hybrids, or only heirloom vegetables? Whatever is important to you can only be ensured through careful varietal selection. When you start your own seeds you are growing the perfect plant for your needs and desires.

The seedlings handle transplanting with greater ease. Purchased seedlings have rarely been hardened off, which is the process that makes them ready to be transplanted. They are usually too far grown to allow you the time to harden them off yourself before planting. Seedlings that you start yourself have the hardening time factored into their growing period before transplant. One to two weeks before planting out, you take them outside to a lightly shaded and protected area for a few hours. The time is increased daily. By the time you put them in the ground they are already acclimated to your growing environment. This also gives you more flexibility in when you plant so that you can factor in the weather conditions.

But it’s a Lot of Work, Isn’t It?          

Yes, no, maybe. It is more work than driving to the store to load up on purchased seedlings. You’ll start your gardening work a couple of months earlier than if you wait to buy seedlings.

But you won’t drive around town looking for the varieties you want. And you won’t have to rework your garden plan because the varieties available have different maturation times then what you’d hoped for.

You won’t have to drive around town a second time looking for replacement seedlings that are still in good shape. Your successful transplantation rate will be higher since your home-grown seedlings will have first been hardened off correctly. You will spend time potting up seedlings once they’ve sprouted but, if you are like most gardeners, you’re aching to get your hands in soil again anyways.

What’s Actually Involved?

Determine whether money, convenience, or time are more important to you. There are multiple ways to approach each area of indoor seed starting. Here are the things you’ll need to buy or make to get started:


Seed starting trays & planting medium.

Planting Trays

I like the ones that have individual cells in groupings, covered by clear plastic domes. This way I keep the moisture levels high when the seeds are germinating and can see exactly when they come up. The trays come in three parts: the under tray which is where you apply water, the cell tray which is where you put the planting medium and the seeds, and the clear dome cover. A frugal version of this is an array of small plastic cups with holes punched in the bottom and set in an aluminum baking tray. Only fill half way with planting medium (to give room for seedling growth) and cover with plastic wrap. You can also start seeds in seed blocks you make yourself.

Planting Medium

You can make your own seed starting mix or buy it ready to use. The important things to remember is that it should be soil-less (to keep it light and airy) and sterile (to avoid introducing disease). Being an older gardener, and a lazy one at that, I buy bags of seed starting mix locally. Since I start my first indoor seeds in January (onions, chives, shallots), I make sure to end the summer with a few bags of the mix on hand for mid-winter. The starter mix can be hard to find locally when no one but me is gardening yet.

Herb and flower seedlings in peat moss.

Pots for the Germinated Seedlings

I use peat pots because they can either be planted along with the seedling or gently peeled off the plant before putting it in the garden. They are biodegradable. Roots that grow through these pots are air pruned which makes the plant stronger. This does add to the annual expenses, but it is a convenience for me. Many people use old sour cream tubs with drainage holes in the bottom. A disadvantage to this method is that roots tend to encircle the seedling if left in the pot too long – this is what happens to those seedlings you buy in the stores.


Some people use sunny windows but this tends to produce leggy, straggly plants. A controlled environment where you can provide lighting for set hours each day works more consistently. My gracious husband built me a super sturdy light table a few years ago which gives me plenty of space to provide natural light (through broad spectrum florescent lights) for my seedlings. You can purchase light stands and tables at varying price levels from multiple sources. Also, check your seed packets since many seeds need dark to germinate and only want light once the seedlings make their appearance.


Most articles on seed starting will advise you to purchase heating mats to put under your seed trays. In my experience, keeping the trays in a room that stays around 65-70 degrees will allow most seeds to germinate just fine without the cost or hassle of heating mats.

You can start very small seedlings within 2-3 weeks of planting time and transplant them out directly into the garden. They’d need to spend their final week hardening off. This is what you’d do if you’re a market gardener. For this method seed blocks are the best way to go. For home gardeners success comes more assuredly by putting these tiny seedlings in the larger pots and growing them on indoors for another 2-3 weeks so that they are large and robust at transplanting time. This helps them deal with garden pests better as well.

Ready, Set, Go!

January is here, there’s ice and snow on the ground, and it’s almost time to garden! So get your supplies and equipment ready. Tune in later this month to find out which seeds we start indoors and the timing we use for the process. I just completed my seeding schedule for the year so you’ll be looking at what I’m actually going to do throughout the year.

Sheryl Campbell is an heirloom gardener, shepherd, and edible flower educator who owns Bouquet Banquet in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Read Sheryl’s previous blogging with Mother Earth GardenerandGrit and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWSposts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts.