Starting Garden Plants From Seed – Growing Your Own Plant Starts

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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.

Ready to get your garden growing? Here's a simple but detailed tutorial on how to grow your own plant starts from seed instead of having to buy them!

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
  • peppers
  • broccoli
  • cabbage
  • cauliflower
  • eggplant
  • cucumbers
  • 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!


Baker Creek Seeds

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.

Seed Trays

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.

Starting Garden Plants From Seed
Having a cute little helper is always a plus!

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.

Gardening Planting

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!

Seed Trays

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!


Seeds in Dirt

Seed Starting

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!)

planting garden starts

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.

Garden Starts

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.

Seedling Shelves
My seedling shelves.

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!

Tomato Starts
My tomato starts are looking really good! I finally took off their growing domes and took them off the heat mats. The stems are really nice and thick.

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.

Garden Plants

More Gardening Tips

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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Me and KadyMerissa 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.

gardening journalIf 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.

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  1. I used to grow tomatoes from seed every year until the one year they all died because of a late frost. Now I just buy the plants…

  2. Thank you for sharing your tips on getting the plants started. It’s always so fun to see their heads pop up through the dirt and exciting to watch the progress. That’s a great tip – using the coconut fiber pots!

  3. Thank you for this! I am going to start my pots this weekend. I want them to be ready for the raised bed my father-in-law is building me this year.

  4. I should really get started on this. I could have nice big plants before I know it. THanks for the tips. You should link up at Family Joy Blog Link Up Party.

  5. We planted our seeds a week or two ago and they’re all sprouting up nicely. We had such nice, warm, sunny weather and now it feels like winter again! I really hope it warms up soon enough for us to get them outside soon.

  6. These are some great tips, especially making sure to have everything labeled. I plan to start my vegetable garden back up this year, which I’m really excited about, so I appreciate the tips.

  7. Thank you for this, I”m planning on starting mine this weekend. I have a small greenhouse that I can put mine in. We just got a load of snow so it’s a good thing I didn’t start them last weekend.

  8. We live in one of those southern states that barely gets below freezing, but we’ve found that kale can handle the changing temperatures really well, even with a few cold days. Your tip for labeling is definitely something we learned by trial and error as well, thinking we’d remember which was which. Looking forward to a fresh garden this year!

  9. Thank you for this very informative article. Do you have any tips on hardening your plants before planting them? Last year was my first time gardening. I started my seeds inside, and they did great right up until I moved them outside to start getting them sun tolerant. It was this step that caused me to lose half my plants. I could really use some more information on this step.

    1. The easiest way could just be to set them outside during the day for a while before planting them outside. If it’s really warm where you live maybe start by doing just a few hours and work up to the full day?

  10. I have tomato and pepper plants going but will try the broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower. I have also found it beneficial to start my corn ahead, about a month or so as I love in the North with a shorter growing season.

  11. I love those coconut grass pots that disintegrate, too, and I use them when I catch a good sale, but I have my standard cheap plastic old seed tray as well.

    Great tips! Thanks, Merissa!

  12. My husband and I have gardened for years in Northern Maine. I found paint pail liners at a salvage store. We drilled holes in them and use them for our delicate little plants…their own little individual greenhouses. Protects from surprise frosts or cool nights!!!

  13. I find that many plants do not want to be started a full inch deep. Many herbs can be “broadcast” by sprinkling them across the top and just covering with 1/4” of soil. Actually I have found that most plants do best at a depth of 1/4”-1/2”, and Marigolds need to be set on TOP of the soil, as they need LIGHT, not darkness to grow. Peas need to be 1” deep, though. Also, it helps to deeply moisten your seed starting mix first. And covering them with a clear plastic tub, or even plastic wrap helps to keep the moisture in the soil. Also, they say to add water to the bottom of the tray, but empty out any excess the plants don’t drink after about a half hour. This is to prevent the seeds from getting TOO moist and then rotting.