I love watching my little sprouts grow from seeds to full on plants through seed starting. It’s a more advanced gardening practice, but it’s one that can be highly beneficial to anyone looking to get more from their garden. I’ve shared a bunch of prepping hacks lately (including bread making sourdough starting, making your own hand sanitizer, etc.), and now I want to share a little bit about seed starting for those looking to be able to rely on their own garden for fresh produce this season!
I’ll talk a bit about why you’d want to seed start instead of buying transplants, what you’ll need, how to make a plan, step-by-step instructions, and some common questions and concerns. I also have a PDF you can download for a ton of information on supplies, planning, and how to get your seeds started!
Why seed start?
By starting your own seeds, you’re basically controlling their environment to produce the best plants that you can in the most optimal situation. You’ll extend your season and allow yourself to select the strongest seeds. People have genetic strengths, and plants are the same way. By starting your seeds inside, you can watch how they grow and pick the hardiest plants for your garden, which also improves your output.
When I lived in Texas, I could grow all year round! But in Idaho, I basically have to wait until Mother’s Day so that the last frost is done and my plants won’t die if they get too cold. It’s a bummer when you go through the work to tend to a plant that only gives you one tomato because it was too cold. Here in Idaho we have a really short season. It’s like a sandwich season. We have cold, warm, cold. By starting my seeds inside, I can keep them safe from weather conditions that can kill them early on. Starting a seed outside means it can be killed by a freak hail storm in spring (which is a real threat in Idaho!), but inside I can keep them nice and warm and improve my germination rates drastically.
In addition to that, birds and insects can obliterate your garden, especially your little seeds and sprouts. Seed starting keeps them safe from those conditions as well. You’ll also have more options for the types of plants you want to grow if you start them as seeds. For example, this year I’m going to do white tomatoes and blue green tomatoes. I wouldn’t be able to find those in the stores. Just like anything else, you’ll have to spend some money to begin seed starting, but not as much as you’d spend doing transplants every year.
What do you need?
I’ve linked to all the supplies you’ll need to get started with your seed starting! The links I provided are all things I really use!
- Soil – You’ll want to use seed starting mix, or seedling mix. I use Black Gold mix because it’s good and textured so the soil retains the moisture. THIS is what I use! You can also use little seed starter pellets like THIS if you’d like less mess. They are more expensive, but still good.
- Nutrition – I use a granular mycorrhizae in my soil. It’s organic and it adds healthy bacteria into your soil. It’s a bit like fertilizer and introduces beneficial microbes into the immune system of your plants. This way it’ll be more resilient to other non beneficial organisms. THIS is what I use!
- Seed tray – A seed tray will have a bunch of little cells where you plant your seeds, as well as a lid. They come with a base tray and holes in the bottom for drainage. THIS is what I use and they are really inexpensive!
- Fertilizer – THIS is the fertilizer I use, and it’s magic! I spray it on everything! It’s kind of stinky, but it’s all organic and works like a charm. It may seem expensive, but you only use one shot glass of it with a gallon of water. I have a giant garden and it’s lasted for me.
- Seeds – Seeds are the fun part! The world is your oyster when it comes to what you want to grow. I recommend using heirloom seeds and finding seeds at your local nursery because those are the seeds that they know work best in your area. You can also find some great seeds HERE. I actually use photo storage containers like THESE to store my seeds and it’s been a gamechanger to keep my seeds organized!
- Lights – I personally have a ton of natural light in my house, so I don’t actually have lights to help my seedlings grow. However, if you don’t have a lot of light, this is going to be something important for you. Lighting is actually the number one problem when it comes to seed starting because your seeds need about 12-15 hours of light per day. THESE are the types of lights you’ll need.
- Heat mats – Heating mats are important because they will help your soil stay at the right temperature consistently to encourage germination. To know what temperature your plants should be at, look at your seed packet! THIS is what I use.
- Water – You’ll want to keep your soil damp for your little seeds. The way I do that is to spray them using a little sprayer like THIS. If you use a hose you may just drown everything, so I’ve found the sprayer to be the best tool in keeping my seeds watered appropriately.
Making a Plan
The key to gardening is to pay attention to the climate in your own area. I’m in zone 6B. If you want to know what zone you’re in, you can just Google it. If you call your local nursery, they can help you with when to get started, which plants to grow, and how to grow them based on your zone. In Idaho, my absolute favorite nursery is North End Organic Nursery — they are just wonderful people and have the best free classes in the area. You can also read the back of your seed packet! That’s honestly where I got a lot of my seed starting knowledge from, and each plant requires something different.
Once your seeds are started, they will need somewhere to go to be planted. You can use raised beds or in ground beds. I did raise beds because they look a little nicer, but it was a lot of work. You might want to take into consideration your spacing and what size your beds should be so that your plants can fit. This is when your planning comes in. The first thing I have is a spreadsheet where I list all my seeds, the spacing they need, when they need to be planted, their germination rates, etc. This gives me an idea of what I want to plant. If you want my spreadsheet, click HERE! Fair warning, you’ll see what a gardening nerd I am when you open this haha!
Next is plotting out your garden. It’s sort of like tetris to design garden beds with the appropriate amount of spacing. I use Smart Gardener to plan my beds and use the square gardening method (so I don’t have to worry about rows when I plant). It’s not free, but it’s worth the cost! I think it was $10 for 90 days.
Remember when seed starting, you will want to plant more seeds than you’ll be able to fit in your garden so that you can select the strongest ones for your garden. If you have extras, you can thin them down and toss them, or try to replant them and give them to friends! Now, strongest doesn’t mean tallest. You don’t want your plants to look like supermodels. What I mean by that, is that you don’t want them to be long and skinny, you want them to be short and stocky. Long, skinny plants got that way by reaching for light that they weren’t getting enough of. If you have a lot of supermodel plants, consider upping your light.
Before you put your plants in the garden, you want to give them some trial runs of being outside so they can get used to the cold. That means putting them outside in the sun during the day, and bringing them inside at night. This ensures that the shock of being planted outside won’t kill them. Just remember to keep the lid on the seed tray so the birds and pests can’t get to them. And don’t forget them! One bad frost can kill them easily.
Step by step
Okay, now that you know why you want to seed start, you have your supplies, and you have a plan, it’s time to plant your seeds. Here’s what to do:
- Put your soil in a big pot, sprinkle in your mycorrhizae, and mix it up with your hands.
- Put your mix into your seed tray. I basically just dump a bunch on top and work it into the cells. It may make a mess. If you mix feels too dry, add some water.
- Plant your seeds in each cell! Read the back of each seed packet to know how deep to plant them, how many to plant, etc. My rule of thumb is usually to plant them twice as deep as the size of the seed. I usually plant about three seeds in each cell so I can pluck the ones that aren’t as strong.
- Mark what is what! You can use cute markers, or just write it on a popsicle stick, or tape, or just write it down in your gardening spreadsheet.
- Douse it with water!
- Put the lid on the seed tray and place it on your heating mat underneath light.
- Continue to care for them based on the packet instructions, supplying them with fertilizer, light, water, and heat. I usually start fertilizing them when I start to see true leaves.
- Watch them grow! Your packet should have information about how long it takes each plant to germinate before you see your little sprouts.
- Some plants may need to go to a bigger pot once they outgrow the cell but aren’t ready to be in the ground yet. When transferring them, make sure you coax them out of their cell by pushing the bottom up so you don’t break the stems.
- Once your weather is consistently nice out, you can start putting them outside during the day, and then eventually plant them in your garden!
I am definitely not an expert when it comes to gardening or seed starting. In fact, I’m still learning a lot about it. I’m always calling my local nursery to ask them questions. I’ve found that gardening has a lot of trial and error involved! Many of your questions may require knowledge about your particular climate or zone that I can’t answer, so those questions will be answered better by your nursery! However, here are some common problems and questions I’ve had:
Why didn’t my seeds germinate?
There are a lot of reasons why some seeds don’t germinate. They might be overwatered or underwatered. You might have old seeds. Even if the expiration date on your seed pack hasn’t passed, you might just have some seeds that are older. You might have your plants at the wrong temperature, or they might not have enough light. Some plants just have a low germination rate! I know that’s a lot, but there is almost an infinite number of reasons why some plants are germinating, and you might just have to use some trial and error!
Why are my leaves turning purple?
That’s a phosphorus deficiency and I’ve noticed that happening on my tomato plants a lot. You’ll want to get a fertilizer high in phosphorus.
How do I get rid of fungus?
As weird as it sounds, chamomile tea is great for getting rid of fungus on your plants. You can put like 5 tea bags in a bucket of water, let it steep overnight, and water your plants with that and it’ll help with the fungus.
Why do I have mold?
If you get mold on the surface of your plants, it means you’re not watering properly and not watering deep enough. If the bottom of your soil is dry, you’ll want water from the bottom of your tray to avoid the mold on top. You can also grab a pencil and disturb the soil by stabbing it in there a bit so it’s not so compact and the water doesn’t just sit on top.
Can I use an egg carton instead of a seed tray?
Yes! Or even the apple cartons from Costco work well, too. Just be sure to stab a hole in the bottom for drainage.
Do you need to seed start for flowers?
Some types, yes. I’m not as seasoned in flowers, but I want to try some this season! But seed starting with flowers will help give you a headstart on them as well.
Gardening is honestly one of my favorite hobbies that really helps to keep me grounded (literally) and improves my mental health. An added perk is that it helps to feed my family and allows me to have fresh produce all the time. It’s one of those prepper things that may not seem like a prepper skill, but can come in handy in times like these. Especially to stay away from the grocery stores as much as you can.
If you have any questions, or if you do any seed starting, reach out! I’d love to see photos of your little sprouts!
Let’s share. Give hope. Choose love. 💖
P.S. I also cover this topic on YouTube if you’d like a visual on how to start your seeds! Watch that HERE!