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Seed Starting Guide

Whether you want to plant your own garden or grow a small pot of herbs for your kitchen, you can save a tremendous amount of money by starting your plants from seed. Seed can be purchased at local garden centers and can be harvested from the fruits and vegetables that you buy from the grocery or local farmers market. While you are starting plants from seed, you might want to consider starting some plants from cuttings. This method, also referred to as cloning, allows you to create more plants from your existing plants.

Materials required: seeds, planting media, container


1. Decide what types of plants you want to grow. Reference some gardening books and research which plants will work best in your area. You’ll want to consider how much space you have, indoors and outdoors, to grow certain plants and choose your seeds accordingly. is also an excellent resource.

2. Get your seeds. Prepackaged seed remains a viable for quite some time, so it won’t hurt the seed to be stored over the fall and winter months. You can also harvest seed from the fruits and vegetables that you purchase at the grocery. Seed from bell peppers, tomatoes, melons and cucumbers, which are normally discarded, can be set aside, dried on paper towel, and stored in plastic bags for later planting

3. Gather some small clay pots or peat pots and a good quality potting mix, or seed starting formula. If you prefer, you can also use propagation trays with plastic cell inserts. There are also propagation traysseed starter cubes designed for use specifically with these trays. Once rooted or started, seedlings are easily transplanted into soil, soilless mixes, and virtually any other medium.

4. Fill pots to the top with potting soil, then add enough water to moisten the soil but not so much that it becomes soggy. 1/4 cup of water per small pot is sufficient, and you can add more water if it is still too dry. Use a fork to stir the soil and distribute the water.

5. Use a pencil to make three or four evenly spaced holes, at least 1/2 inch deep, in the soil. For each plant that you hope to grow, plant three to four seeds per pot. Once the seeds have germinated and start to sprout and grow for a few weeks, you will then be able to remove the excess plants and leave the two strongest growers. For melons, zucchini and tomatoes, plant only two seeds per pot, as these plants will need a lot of room to grow once they are transplanted in the garden.

6. Drop a seed in each preformed hole, and then cover lightly with surrounding soil. Add another 1/4 cup of water to each pot but do not stir

7. Make some space, if you’ll be planting lots of seed, where you can set the trays of planted seed while they are growing. A room with good sunlight, or on a spare table with a warming lamp are good locations. Generally speaking, the light of a windowsill is not sufficient, nor does it come from overhead (to insure stocky plants instead of stringy ones that stretch and lean).  For the best results, invest in a set of inexpensive grow lights.   If you use the typical hardware store bulbs, get ones marked daylight, or one cool white and one warm white tube per hood to balance the light color.  Run the lights between 12 and 16 hours a day, with the lights suspended close to the tops of the seedlings (4”-6” away). Again, you are trying to produce a stocky, balanced plant, not one that stretches for want of light. Using a timer also helps.

8. Introduce the young seedlings to outdoor conditions slowly. This is called “hardening off”. If it is not done slowly your plants may be shocked and their growth may temporarily cease. The longer the plants remain indoors, the harder it will be to acclimate them to the outdoors. Avoid full sun and wind when you first move them outside. Temporary structures can be built from plastic sheeting. Buildings and fences can be used to provide sun and wind protection while the plants adapt to outside conditions.

Seed Starting FAQ

How should I plant seeds?

Plant your seeds about 1/8” (3 mm) deep. Make sure he seed is in direct contact with the moist mix. The seed needs to absorb moisture during the germination process.  Some seeds need to be planted upright because the taproot emerges from the bottom of the seed; others need to be planted sideways because the radicle (emerging tap root) tends to do a twist and a turn before it begins to grow in a downward habit. When planting larger, flat seeds like pumpkin and squash, it’s best to plant them on their thin side rather than flat side down. This helps to avoid water or wet growing media collecting on the seed surface. When in doubt, plant your seeds on their narrow side at a 45⁰ angle.

What is the ideal temperature for starting seeds?

Every seed species has an optimal temperature range for germination. Most seeds, like most kinds of plants, grow best in a temperature between 65°F and 85°F. Temperatures below 50°F (10°C) or above 90°F (32°C) impair germination.  The seeds of plants that live in cold climates may germinate at lower temperatures, and those of tropical regions may sprout at higher temperatures. Once germination occurs, the optimum growing temperature for the seedling is about 10°F (2-5°C) cooler than the optimum germination temperature. You can use a seedling heat mat to warm the root area by approximately 10 – 20 degrees F over ambient temperature to improve the germination process.

How long do seeds take to germinate?

Most seeds usually germinate within 5 to 10 days when kept in the optimum temperature range of 70 to 80F (21 to 27C).

What is presoaking?

Many large seeds, such as pumpkin and squash, have such a hard outer shell that they may benefit from presoaking in either plain, filtered water or a mild solution containing humates, B-1 vitamin, or kelp (which is rich in naturally-occurring growth hormones). Seed starting formulations or additives containing these three basic ingredients are easy to find and can be used to make a presoak solution. Soaking times vary depending on the thickness of the outer shell, and may last from a few minutes to a few days.

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