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How To Start Plants Indoors from Seed


How to Start Plants Indoors from Seed
by Dawn Lesley Stewart

I have been gardening for over 35 years. Every year I begin much of my garden by planting seeds indoors. Then I transplant the plants outdoors when the weather is warm enough to nurture them. I’m sharing the system I use in hopes that it also brings you planting success!

Materials Needed to Start

* Vegetable or Flower Seeds
* Soil / Perlite
* Containers (I use yogurt cups; plant pots; jiffy pots work too)
* Trays (for the cups or pots to sit in)
* Plant Labels (popsicle sticks work fine) / permanent marker
* A Water Mister Bottle
* Table for the plant trays
* Lights

Selecting the Seed

First, know your growing zone so that you buy seed that will grow well in your area. Most online garden websites or catalogs will have a zone chart that you can refer to.

You won’t lack for places to purchase seed. However, not all seed sources are created equal. A local nursery will probably offer brands you have heard of, such as Burpee. Pharmacy or department stores might have “off brands”. Read the seed packets to check the sell-by or plant-by dates. Not all old seed will grow well.

I purchase my seed from seed catalogs or the internet. Every year, starting around December, I begin to receive lots of catalogs. Once I have read the plant descriptions, I compare seed quantity and prices between catalogs and then go to the seed catalog websites. Often the same type of seed can be purchased from multiple sources, so it’s good to comparison shop for value … and don’t forget to calculate the shipping cost.

Some of my favorite seed sources are (alphabetically): Burpee, Cook’s Garden, Johnny’s Selected Seed, Jung Seed, Park Seed, RH Shumway, Totally Tomatoes.

Lately, I have found Burpee seed from the catalog and their website to cost much more than seed purchased elsewhere. However, I was recently at my local nursery, and the Burpee seed on their self was reasonably priced.

Types of vegetable seed that work well for indoor planting include: cucumbers, eggplant, peppers, pumpkins, squash, and tomatoes. Lettuce can be planted in hanging baskets, started indoors and then moved outdoors onto shepherd hooks. Bean and radish seeds are best planted directly into garden soil when the temperature is warm enough.

Now We Need Plant Pots

There are a variety of ways to plant seed. First, read the instructions on the seed packet. Most likely, the instructions will state when to plant the seed and how deep to plant it. I usually start my tomatoes and peppers earlier than other seeds, the end of March or beginning of April. The rest of the vegetables I start a few weeks later. Flowers can be started the end of April or beginning of May. Again, check the seed packet. For instance, Wave Petunia seeds need to be started ten weeks before the last frost date; whereas, zinnia or marigold seed can be planted three weeks prior to the frost date.

In the past, I have used everything from leftover plant pots, to jiffy peat pots, and empty yogurt cups to plant my seeds.  All of these work well.

My first planting option is to use empty yogurt or cream cheese tubs. I am not ashamed to beg my co-workers for their empty yogurt cups! It is a good reuse of materials. Once the cups are rinsed clean, I use an awl or #0 Phillips Head screwdriver to puncture three holes in the bottom of the container. This allows for water drainage. When using the awl or screwdriver, twist the tool as it is applied to the plastic. This creates a cleaner hole.

Place the cups into a plant tray. My favorite trays are the Perma-Nest Plant Trays. They are very durable. Twenty yogurt cups fit into one of these trays.

Mixing the Soil for Planting

I am an organic grower. No chemicals go into my garden. If using Miracle-Gro Organic Choice Soil, I make sure to mix it with Perlite. Adding perlite to the soil improves drainage and aeration. (Perlite is a byproduct from volcanoes.) Seeds need a lighter soil for better germination. I don’t have a scientific formula I use for mixing the soil and perlite. I scoop soil into a bucket, scoop in a generous amount of perlite and mix the two together. The darker soil should look as if it has Styrofoam beads liberally sprinkled throughout it.

Fill the pots, cups, or Jiffy pots with the soil. I fill the containers just shy of the brim. Once all the containers in the tray are filled with soil, I add water to the tray (not the containers). Pour the water into the bottom of the tray and let the containers absorb the liquid.

Planting the Seeds

When the soil is damp, you are ready to plant the seeds. Most seeds to not require deep planting. Double-check the seed packets for recommended planting depths. I usually tuck the seeds into the pot so that they are just under the soil. For pepper plants, I insert two seeds into the yogurt cup, each seed toward opposite sides of the cup. Through experimentation, I have found that the two pepper plants will intertwine a bit and hold each other up so that later on no stake is needed to hold them upright. The other seeds, I plant one per container.

Until the seeds germinate, I keep them upstairs in the house where the temperature is warm. I use Clear Plastic Lids to fit the Perma-Nest Trays. The lids act as mini bio-domes to encourage germination. If moisture begins to collect inside the lids, I tip the lids on the trays so that they don’t completely seal closed, allowing air inside. Every day I make sure the trays are filled with water. I also use a Delta EnviroKind Plant Mister to keep the top of the soil moist. 

Don’t forget to label your plants! I use wooden craft or popsicle sticks.  A Sharpie marker works well for writing what type of seeds are in the containers. Each stick is labeled and placed in a container. If I know an entire tray contains the same type of seed, I label two or three sticks and insert them in a pots in the tray. You are probably wondering why I use two or three labels for one tray of the same plants. Insurance. I have a helpful gardener kitty who thinks he is doing me a favor by gently pulling the sticks out of their containers.

Germination and Growing Under Lights

I have a garden area set up in my basement. A large table has several fluorescent light fixtures hanging over it. I can comfortably fit eight of the Perma-Nest Trays under the lights.

My fluorescent fixtures contain regular fluorescent light bulbs. I do not use special grow lights. The plants do very well growing under the artificial light. When the plants are small, I lower the lights (they are on chains, which are attached to cup hooks on the ceiling) … until the lights are a few inches over the plants. As the plants grow, I raise the lights, always keeping them a short distance above the plants.

Note:  Once the plants begin to germinate, I remove the clear lids from the trays. Only the trays go under the lights. Not the lids.

The lights are on timers. I set the timers for a long growing day. The timers flick the lights on at 6:00 a.m. and turn off around 9:00 p.m.

I keep the trays filled with water and also mist the plants each morning.

Transitioning Indoor Plants to an Outside Garden

My plants grow very well in the basement under lights. By the time the outdoor soil is warm enough to receive them (usually the end of May or the first week in June), they are ready to spread their roots into the wide open spaces of the garden.

First, though, the plants need to be hardened off. There needs to be a transition period between being an indoor plant and an outdoor plant. At least three days to a week before outdoor planting, I set the trays outdoors on the lawn in the shade for the day. Make sure the plants have plenty of water. Bring the plants back indoors at night, and then put them outside again the next day, repeating the process.

If you have a greenhouse or cold frame, that will work well too. I have a small cold frame, but it is not large enough for all the plants. I can keep a few of the plant trays in the cold frame, opening the lid during the day, and closing the lid at night. This also allows the plants to acclimate to their new surroundings.


I dig holes in the garden for each plant. Add a scoop of fertilizer to the hole and mix it into the dirt (I use organic fertilizer). Tip the yogurt cup upside-down, holding the fingers of the opposite hand over the cup opening so that the plant doesn’t slide out. Tap the bottom of the cup to loosen the plant. Insert the plant into the hole and fill the hole with dirt. Water the plant well.

For tomato plants, I place a Tomato Cage over each plant. I also use tomato fertilizer. Note: If the stalk of a tomato plant breaks or bends, don’t panic. Tomatoes have a unique property. Insert the broken or bent stem into the ground, making sure the dirt covers the damaged area. Keep the plant well watered. In most instances, the tomato will grow new roots from the stalk which is beneath the ground.

Happy Gardening !

Dawn Lesley Stewart has enjoyed organic gardening for over forty years, learning at a young age from her father. First love is vegetable gardening followed by her interest in butterfly and bee habitats. She considers her yard a sanctuary for birds and wildlife. Her writing has appeared online and in print and has won writing awards. Dawn is the author of Harriet’s Horrible Hair Day (picture book), Mist-Seer (paranormal novel), and her newest book 300-Plus Quilting Tips, Tricks & Techniques features over 35 years of quilting knowledge.

Copyright 2010 Dawn Lesley Stewart

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Copyright 2000 Dawn Lesley Stewart