NGA's Top Seed Starting Tips

By National Gardening Association Editors

Although many parts of the country are still in the grip of winter's cold, the days are getting longer and gardening season beckons. It's time to start planning what to grow and when to plant it! Many of the veggies we grow benefit from an early start indoors.

Now is a great time to begin gathering supplies and equipment so you have everything you need when the proper seed starting time arrives. In fact, now through March 31, 2014 SAVE 10% on all seed starting supplies, including light gardens at our shop—just use coupon code NGAGROW at checkout. Visit and start saving today! 100% of shop proceeds support our free resources.

In addition to gathering supplies, March is also a good time to figure out what to start when so that you have strong, thriving transplants ready for the outdoors at the appropriate time.

Start by finding out the average spring frost-free date for your area. Experienced local gardeners, your local Extension Service, or online resources can help you determine the average date of the last spring frost (LFD) in your area. Next make a schedule of seed starting so that plants will be at an optimum size for transplanting to the garden (see the chart below). Some, like onions, need a long period indoors before they are ready for the outside world. Others, such as melons and squash, do best with no more than about 4 weeks of indoor growing. Cool season crops like cabbage are started early, but can go out into the garden early as well, before the last frost date has arrived.

For the longest harvest season, sow seeds of quick-maturing crops like lettuce in succession. Start some seeds as early as possible; then make repeat sowings every few weeks.

Most seeds germinate best in warm soil. Placing pots on a heat mat is an easy way to provide bottom heat, but the top of the refrigerator or another warm spot works, too. As soon as you see tiny plants poking through the soil, remove any coverings and move the container to a brightly lit spot.

Some plants don't tolerate transplanting very easily. Plant seeds of melons, cucumbers, and squash in individual biodegradable coir or peat pots so that you can plant the seedlings, pot and all, without disturbing their roots. Homemade paper pots also work great for these plants.

Give indoor seedlings supplemental light from full-spectrum fluorescent grow lights to keep them growing strong. Keep lights on for 16-18 hours a day, not around the clock. Plants need a nighttime break for proper growth. A timer makes it easy to switch lights on and off on schedule. Keep the bulbs just a few inches above the tops of the young plants, raising them as your plants grow.

Brush your hands gently across the tops of your seedlings every day once they are a couple of inches tall. This little bit of regular movement will help seedlings develop sturdy stems. Or you can set a fan to blow gently across your young plants. The increased air movement will also lessen the likelihood of disease problems.

Be sure to harden off your seedlings before you set them outside. This means gradually accustoming the plants to outdoor light and temperatures over the period of about 10 days. Set plants out for just a couple of hours in a protected spot for starters; then keep them out for increasingly longer periods of time in more and more exposed locations. Your young plants will then be ready to take off growing when they're planted out in the garden.

Some kinds of plants do best when their seeds are sown directly in the garden. Peas, beans, and root crops such as beets, turnips, radishes, and carrots do best when their seeds are planted where they are to grow directly in the outdoor garden.

Start seeds 8-10 weeks before LFD

Start seeds 6-8 weeks before LFD

Start seeds 4-6 weeks before LFD

Start seeds 1-2 weeks before LFD

Direct sow in garden

Onions: Plant outside 4 weeks before LFD

Peppers: Plant outside 2 weeks after LFD

Basil: Plant outside 1 week after LFD

Cucumber: Plant outside 1-2 weeks after LFD

Beets, Carrots, Radishes, Turnips: 4 weeks before LFD or as soon as soil can be worked

Kale: Plant outside 2-4 weeks before LFD

Tomatoes: Plant outside 1-2 weeks after LFD

Melon: Plant outside 2 weeks after LFD

Beans: LFD or later

Broccoli: Plant outside 2 weeks before LFD

Zucchini: Plant outside 1-2 weeks after LFD

Cilantro: LFD

Lettuce: Plant outside 2-3 weeks before LFD

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