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Not everyone needs to start seeds indoors if you live in the southern states that don’t have many (or any!) days below freezing and you have a LONG growing season, having your plants started by the time they need to go into the ground is not a concern for you. For the rest of us with a short growing season, we need to give those long-season plants a fighting chance! That’s why growing your own plant starts is so important.
Growing Your Own Plant Starts
Generally, your packet of seeds will tell you on it if the seeds need to be started indoors in advance to planting outside.
The most common types of plants to start indoors are:
- tomato plants
- herb plants
Note before we get started….I’m not a professional gardener, just a home gardener with a few years of experience planting food for a main grocery source. This guide is good for beginner’s that want all the variety of planting their own plants from seed without having to rely on the local greenhouse or garden center.
If you are very new to gardening, you might be interested in an excellent book ALL about gardening, such as The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible. It is the perfect go-to book on gardening when you have a question! (There is also The Vegetable Gardener’s Container Bible for those growing in small spaces.)
Let’s get started!
Know When to Start Your Starts
If you start too early, your plants might get too thin and tall, and if you start too late, your plants may be too small and weak to plant outside.
Most plants to be started indoors need to grow for about 6 to 8 weeks before you plan on planting outside. Since it can be hard to determine when the last frost will be in some areas, giving yourself a good time range is important.
I always plan on planting my plants outside in the ground sometime between the middle and the end of May. (For zone 4b) By planting most of the seeds indoors during the first weekend in April that gives me at least 6 weeks before the plants will go outside but not any longer than 8 weeks before they will for sure be headed into the ground outdoors. (In a similar zone, don’t plant anything past late April or it won’t have time to grow before going outside.)
Cool weather plants (broccoli, cabbage, kale, lettuce), should be started earlier so that it can go in the ground right away after the danger of frost has passed.
Warm weather plants should be planted closer to the last frost date so they can hang out inside for a long time until not only has the danger of frost passed, but the soil temps are high enough for them to survive.
Supplies for Starting Gardening Vegetables
I always used to use those little cheap plastic trays to plant my starts in. I’ve since moved away from those as I’ve found better alternatives that work well for us.
In the past, we’ve used Coconut Fiber Pots to start our plants in (3 to 4 inches, depending on which size I find that year). These work fine and eventually will disintegrate into your soil. However, they do dry out quickly.
The coconut fiber pots give my plants (tomatoes and peppers) plenty of space to grow a nice-sized stem before I plant them in the ground PLUS, you can plant the entire pot right in the ground, and it will disintegrate through the summer. Being able to plant the entire pot right in the ground helps the plant adapt better and gives it less chance of having shock; this is especially important if you plant your starts in potting soil and have less-than-fertile soil in your garden to transplant them into.
I currently use plastic containers in both 2.5-inch and 3.5-inch sizes to start plants in, with only a few of the 50-count plant starting trays. This is because I typically like my starts to get nice and big before I transplant them. I get my plastic trays and pots from Bootstrap Farmer.
For smaller plants (like cauliflower and broccoli), these smaller count trays work well. I like the 50-count trays from Bootstrap Farmer. They won’t be able to be planted in the ground but you can use them again next year!
Something else to remember here…if you do not have a great warm place (or if you typically keep your house on the cooler side) to put your starts in, you might want to consider a seed tray with a heated mat. If you have trouble with your starts being too thin, the heated mat tray might also be helpful for you.
For tomatoes and peppers, always start them on a heated mat; otherwise, they will be leggy and difficult to grow and transplant. I also have to start okra inside, and I use the heat mat for this as well.
Dirt for Plant Starts
The dirt that you choose is important. The cheapest you can choose is dirt straight from your garden, as long as your soil is healthy and not frozen. It will help prevent shock when you transplant the starts. (Keep in mind that you may have some weeds grow in the starts if you choose this option and the soil may not be very airy.)
The next best option is good Organic Potting Soil. I’ve seen some articles on making your own potting soil, which is also always an option, but personally, I think you may end up having more into the product by the time you finish it than just buying a bag of potting soil.
Unless you plan on starting many plants, one bag of potting soil should suffice.
Know What Plants You Are Starting
Of course, you also need to keep track of what you are planting in your little pots! I struggled with this for many years, thinking that I would “figure it out” until I realized it wasn’t worth it, and I picked up some little wooden plant labels. Oh, so easy…
One big benefit to labeling your starts is in case you need to buy a few starts to replace those that don’t come up; you will actually know what you need to buy and not have to wait until they all bear fruit to see which variety you are missing!
Another option would be to write the name of the plants on masking tape and tape them to the sides of your seed starting trays.
Let’s put this all together now!
Planting your starts is really as simple as you think it is! Place your potting soil into the pots and place the pots on a tray. Poke your finger into the middle of the dirt in each pot until you have a hole. The depth of the hole will depend on the instructions on your see packet. Some seeds need to be as low as 1 inch deep and some should be surface sown.
For larger plants like tomatoes and peppers, plant two little seeds in each pot and cover the seeds back up with a bit of soil. Plant as many pots as you will need, maybe a few extras just in case. (For advice on how many plants to plant based on how many members are in your family, check out this post!)
This is a great project to do with your children! If you would like more details on how to involve children in your gardening, read this blog post about Introducing Children to Gardening.
Give Your Plant Starts the Best Start
Give the pots a little water (they will soak it up from the bottom, so you can place water in the tray to avoid over-watering your plants), and place them in a sunny, warm area. We have used a large, heated sunroom in the front of our house that is perfect for my little plants.
We don’t have as much space in our current home, so we have all the starts on shelves with lights in the living room. If you don’t have much space at all, a folding table set up in front of a sunny window will work perfectly.
If you don’t have a good sunny window, look into getting a Grow Light to put over your plants. You want a grow light to be a “full-spectrum light” for the best results. The light that comes from it may look purple but you can also get a “sunlight” colored light.
Keep up with watering the starts when they begin to look a little dry. Do not overwater or under-water the plants may begin to turn yellow and then wilt. They can also turn yellow if they don’t get enough sunlight, so ensure you position them in a very sunny place.
Don’t forget to talk sweet to your plants; they need all the love they can get right now. 🙂 You need to treat them nicely…they will feed your family!
Ongoing Plant Start Care
There are a few things to do as you care for the plants before they go out to the garden.
To make sure that you have healthy plants, watch for any signs of disease, discoloration, or wilt as you are caring for them. This is unlikely but could happen with under-watering or over watering.
To make sure that you have vigorous plants, remove any doubles or triples out of the seed container so that only one plant is growing in each cell or container. You can just pull up the extras or you can transplant them into separate containers. I highly recommend transplanting them if you have the space and a little time.
Do not transplant your starts into the garden until after they have their first true leaves at the very least. (Preferably bigger than that but it might be difficult on plants that only have a few sets of leaves.)
If your plants are yellow, they are getting too much water. Try to only water every other day at the most.
If your plants are leaning over, they are not getting enough light. Plants need a lot of light to get started so you will need to move them to more light or invest in grow lights.
If they are having trouble germinating, try using a plastic dome over the top of the trays for the first few weeks. This will help retain the humidity and heat.
If the plants start to grow mold around the soil, ensure they are in an area with good air circulation. This could mean getting a desk fan to blow at them or just turning on the ceiling fan in the room they are in.
If the plants are getting leggy and thin, transplant them into bigger containers. Prevent this by starting them with a heat mat.
More Gardening Tips
- 10 Practical Tips for First Time Gardeners
- 14 Simple Gardening Tips
- Before You Start a Garden
- Buying Seeds
- Picking a New Garden Spot
- 5 Ways to Save Money Gardening
Find more tips on my Gardening Page as well!
Are you getting your seeds started? What are you starting indoors this year?
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Merissa has been blogging about and living the simple life since 2009 and has internationally published 2 books on the topic. You can read about Merissa’s journey from penniless to the 100-acre farm and ministry on the About Page. You can send her a message any time from the Contact Page.
If you are gardening or planning on doing any preserving this year, you NEED this wonderful sprial bound journal! Get your own copy here.
This blog post about Creating Plant Starts was originally posted on Little House Living in April 2016. It has been updated as of May 2023.