Are you interested in learning how to start seeds? You’re not alone! Seed starting is an important part of growing your own food.
But seed starting can also be very confusing and frustrating. Caring for tiny seedlings is like caring for babies — they need lots of care and attention and you never know if what you are doing is right!
These seed starting tips and hacks will help you start your seedlings with confidence and help you have your best garden ever!
Seed Starting Planner
One of the most important things about starting seeds is figuring out when exactly to do it. This depends heavily on where you live and your climate. Seed packets can give you a rough idea but can’t give you specifics.
This is why I always use a seed-starting planner. A seed starting planner or spreadsheet can calculate everything for you and tell you exactly when you need to get those seeds planted.
What I’ve learned over the years is that keeping good garden notes is the best way to improve your garden from year to year. This doesn’t come naturally to me though. I tend to want to just jump in and not waste time keeping records (I also think I’ll remember things — which I don’t).
But every time I’ve taken the time to record what I’ve planted, harvested, or noticed, I get a lot of insight into what works in my area.
Even when you’re using a seed starting planner like the one above, each of us has a slightly different microclimate in our yards. So what works for Sally down the road won’t necessarily work for you.
Keeping notes helps you to notice trends and patterns that you might otherwise overlook. For example, most experts say that basil needs full sun, but mine always prefers partial shade.
A garden journal is a written record of things that you could otherwise forget, like frost dates, pests, diseases, what variety of each plant you planted and when/where they were planted.
All you need is a notebook, but if you want to get fancy you can use a guided gardening journal like this.
Here are some ideas for what to record:
- Sow dates
- Actual frost dates
- Transplant dates (when seedlings are ready)
- Germination date and success rate
- Pests or diseases
- Sketches or garden layout
- Future ideas, plans, etc.
This helps you dial into your locations’ specific and exact needs.
Did you know that you can keep seeds for years? Some will last as long as 5+ years! But if you want your seeds to continue to be viable and have a decent germination rate, you’ll need to store them properly. I’ve had seeds last a long time by storing them properly.
Seeds should be stored in a cool, dry, and dark place. Store seeds in an airtight container if possible. An easy way to store seeds is in a plastic container like this one, stored under the bed. You can organize seed packets easily in this kind of system. Other ideas include:
- 3-ring binder with baseball card pockets
- File folders with labels for each category
- Photo album
There are many ways you can store seeds. As long as you keep them in a cool, dry, and dark (preferably airtight) place, you should be good!
Homemade Seed Starting Mix
When starting seeds, it’s important to use seed starting mix (not potting soil, garden soil, or dirt you found outside).
The reason is that seed starting mix is sterile — it doesn’t already have its own ecosystem. This allows your seedlings to grow without competition from other seeds or the potential damage from disease. Believe me — I’ve tried reusing old soil without sterilizing it and it becomes a weedy mess!
Seed starting mix also has the perfect texture and composition for seedlings to emerge and thrive in the first few weeks.
If you don’t want to buy seed starting mix, you can try your hand at making your own. The most important part of making your own seed starting mix is to sterilize the mix for the reasons I mentioned above.
Easy Seed Starting Mix
- 1 part compost
- 1 part coconut coir
- 1 part sand
To sterilize: Mix ingredients together and with enough water to make it damp (not dripping). Place soil in an oven-safe dish and cook at 200 degrees for 30-40 minutes or until the soil is 180 degrees (use a meat thermometer to test).
Peat or Coconut Coir Pellets
If the idea of starting seeds in seed starting cells and seed starting mix seems like a hassle, try peat or coconut coir pellets. I prefer coconut coir since it’s more sustainable than peat, but either will work.
- Place the pellets in a container
- Pour water over the pellets
- Watch pellets expand into little pots
- Plant seeds
- When it’s time, plant the entire pellet/pot into the ground
It’s that easy!
Another option for starting seeds without plastic cells are soil blocks. Soil blocks are blocks of soil you make from damp seed starting mix.
Using a tool like a soil blocker, you can make firm blocks for planting into that avoid using plastic or other containers. This is great for the environment but is also easy on the seedlings during transplanting.
I haven’t tried this yet but I’m intrigued. From what I’ve read, winter sowing is a simple way to avoid the hassle and expense of starting seeds inside. Here’s how it works:
- Collect some clear plastic containers with enough space for 3-4 inches of soil and the emerging seedling. A gallon milk/water jug works well.
- Drill drainage holes into the bottom. Cut the jug almost all the way around the middle, leaving a 2-inch hinge.
- Add soil and seeds and close the top with some tape. Leave the cap off to allow some rain or snow in for moisture.
- Put your “mini-greenhouses” containers outside in a sunny spot.
For hardy vegetables in your area, you can do this anytime during the winter. For more tender plants you may want to wait until spring is near or start those seeds inside instead.
The concept is that the freezing and thawing of the outdoor weather helps prepare the seed for germination.
The containers act as mini-greenhouses so the plants get the benefits of both a warmer environment and the outdoor changing weather.
This gardening technique eliminates the need for grow lights and hardening off. You can learn more about winter sowing here.
DIY Grow Lights and Nursery
Even if you winter sow some of your seeds, you may still need indoor lights for warm weather crops (like tomatoes and peppers). Setting up an indoor growing system can be expensive and overwhelming though. Luckily there are many ways to set up a low-cost plant nursery at home. Here are some ideas:
- Use shop lights instead of expensive grow lights
- Reuse an old bookshelf or rack for a seedling nursery
- Find a sunny window and avoid the cost of lights
If you’re interested in putting together your own growing system, check out how Tyrant Farms did it. It’s a great tutorial!
Heat From Below
For some heat-loving seeds, germination happens much easier when your seed-starting setup is heated from below. Plants that tend to like more heat to germinate are:
- Summer Squash
You can buy a seed starting heat mat to place under your seedlings if you want, but you could also just place your starts on top of the refrigerator or other appliance that gives off some heat. Once they emerge you can move them back to your light source.
Harden Off Easily (with Fan Power)
Hardening off helps seedlings transition from the pampered nursery inside to the more unpredictable outdoor environment. Typically you can do this by putting seedlings outside for a few hours to start, increasing the time each day. Doing this helps them get used to the temperature, direct sunlight, and breeze of the outdoors.
To make this transition easier, consider using a fan inside where your seedlings are growing. The fan offers a bit of a breeze to help the seedlings grow strong from the beginning. It also helps keep air circulating around your seedlings to reduce dampness and disease.
Seed Starting Basics
If you want some basic instructions for seed starting, check out this short version of an interview with my friend Kristi Stone at StoneFamilyFarmstead.com.
To see the full version of the video interview, join OIR Academy where you’ll get this interview plus other monthly content to help you grow food right where you are.
Seed Starting Tips and Hacks: Final Thoughts
Seed starting is a delicate game! Getting the best results from your seed starting efforts can take some time as well as trial and error. I hope these tips help you get off to a good start though. If you’d like more food growing instruction, check out my FREE 5 Secrets to Growing Food email mini-course.
What is your best seed starting tip or hack?