Starting Vegetable Seeds Indoors

by Stephanie Suesan Smith on October 18, 2010

Tomato PlantsMost vegetable seeds are planted directly in the ground.  A number of them, however, are transplanted from seeds grown indoors so that they have time to grow and bear fruit before it gets too hot or cold.  Tomatoes and peppers are the most common vegetables transplanted in this way.  While it is easy to obtain transplants of vegetable plants, it can be difficult to find anything other than the most common cultivars.  If you want to grow heirloom tomatoes, for example, you will most likely have to grown them from seed indoors, then transplant them outside when they are big enough.

Starting seeds begins with a container.  Big Box stores sell kits of a long tray and a bunch of peat pellets to use in starting seeds.  These are nice, but any container that holds about 3 inches of dirt and has a drainage hole for excess water to drain out of will work.  Disposable turkey pans you get at the grocery store will work if you poke a hole in the bottom, for example.

Next, you have to decide what type of growing medium you will be using.  Peat pellets, often sold with a tray, are compressed peat that expands when wet.  The peat has been sterilized so it will not pass along diseases or weed seeds.  Potting soil in various mixes is also available.  One thing you do not want to do is go dig some dirt out of the garden.  Baby plants are fragile and should be grown in a medium that has been sterilized before you use it.  Commercial mixes have been sterilized to kill diseases and also to kill any weed seeds that might have crept in.

If you are using peat pellets, water them and let them expand fully.  Once that is done, plant one seed per pellet.  For soil, wet it down good, but do not leave it squishy.  Make a furrow to the depth required for your seeds.  That depth will be on your seed packet.  Plant your seed at the recommended spacing.  Cover the furrow up.  Make sure the soil is damp all around the seed or it will not germinate.

Now cover the tray or container with clear plastic film, a clear pane of glass, or the lid that came with the tray.  Place it in a warm, but not hot, location.  The seeds do not need light to germinate, but the seedlings will need light to live once they come up.  Staring at the soil will not make the seeds germinate any faster.  The seed packet will, however, tell you how long it will take for the seeds to come up, since it varies by the type of vegetable.

Once the seedlings start to come up, there is no time to lose.  Remove the plastic film or other cover from the tray.  Place the tray in strong light so they will grow up strong.  The light should be close to, but not touching, the seedlings.  Putting the light on a chain that can be raised as the plants grow works  well.

Keep the plants warm.  Plants grow best when the day temperature is around 75 and the night temperatures are around 65.  Much warmer than this and the plants become leggy and weak.  Much colder and they do not grow.

It is important to keep your plants moist but not soggy.  Plants use a lot of water, especially when they are growing.  Watering is also an ideal time to fertilize your plants.  Soiless growing mediums are great for starting plants in but contain little or no nutrients.  That means you must fertilize the plants often enough to meet all their nutritional needs.  Liquid fertilizers formulated just for starting seeds are available.  Be sure to follow the directions on the container.

Once the plants have developed at least one set of true leaves, they should be moved from the communal tray to individiual peat pots or other containers that allow them to grow without being crowded.  Peat pots are nice because when it is time to plant the babies in the garden, you just dig a hole and put the plant in, pot and all.

Time to put the new plants in the garden!  First, you need to harden them off.  These pampered house plants have to learn to make it in the big, wide world in stages.  First put them outside in their pots in the shade on a nice day with no wind for a few hours.  Then bring them in.  Repeat this, gradually lengthening the time they spend outside until they are out all day but in at night.  This process should take about two weeks.

Once the plants are hardened off, you can plant them in the garden.  If you are planting them in peat pots, simply dig the holes and put the pots in the ground at appropriate intervals.  If you have to remove the plant from a pot, do so very carefully so that you do not damage the roots.  After transplanting in the ground, always water the plants in.  Otherwise, the moisture around the plant will draw the water out of the plant and dry it out.

Gardenbookfrontcoverthumbnail For more help gardening, buy my book, Preparing A Vegetable Garden From The Ground Up
Available in print or ebook from or other retailers, this book walks you from choosing the site of your garden all the way through what to do after the harvest. Buy a copy for yourself or a friend today! 

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Growing Plants October 22, 2010 at 1:10 pm

That’s a very good tip. I’ve done a lot of gardening and I always tell people the same things you just said, although I’ve never used a plastic film before, like you mentioned. I’ll have to try that.


Heirloom Vegetable Seeds February 11, 2011 at 12:45 pm

It’s almost like potty training for your house plants, but these are great tips. Obviously indoor gardening can be done at any time of year. Though, when you are looking to transplant them outside, what do you think are the best months to move them?


Stephanie Suesan Smith February 11, 2011 at 1:04 pm

You move them outside at the earliest time they will survive. The roots need to spread as much through the soil as possible as early as possible, so living in a pot longer than necessary stunts them.


Bill Brikiatis February 23, 2011 at 6:20 am

Hi Stephanie — I like to use homemade paper pots for starting seeds because they are free and the paper breaks down more easily when they are in the ground. Some people remove the peat sides and bottoms from peat pots because they inhibit root growth. What’s y0ur opinion of paper pots?
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Stephanie Suesan Smith February 23, 2011 at 7:04 am

I like the concept of newspaper pots. Peat is stripped from bogs and is not a renewable resource, at least on a human time scale. Paper pots recycle newspaper that would go in the trash otherwise. The down side of paper pots is the mess when making them. I do not have one of those pot making machines. That means a big messy production. How do you make your pots?


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