Getting Ready for Seed Starting

By National Gardening Association Editors

It may still be cold and wintry in much of the country, but the days are getting longer and the sun a little stronger each day. This reminds us that spring is, indeed, down the road and it's time to begin making preparations for starting the seeds of vegetables that need an indoor headstart before transplanting to the garden.

Starting plants indoors from seed is a great antidote to bleak winter weather. While it's too early to start seeds indoors in most parts of the country, it doesn't mean you can't get all the supplies and seeds ready now. What will you need to get started? Besides your seeds, you'll need containers and potting soil for planting, and warmth, light, and water for your seeds to germinate and grow into strong, healthy seedlings.


It all starts with the seeds! Our Vegetable Garden Seed Collection contains seed packets for 11 different veggies, including tomatoes, beans, broccoli, lettuce, carrots, radishes, cucumbers, green onions, sweet peppers, and zucchini.

Vegetables that need to be started indoors to grow and mature outdoors in summer include tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and leeks. You can start onions, broccoli, lettuce, watermelon, cucumber, and squash early indoors as well, or you can sow seed directly into the garden in spring. Do a little of both to get both early and late crops of your favorite vegetables. Start eggplant and pepper seeds about 8 weeks before your last spring frost date; tomato seeds 6-8 weeks before. But wait until a week or two after your last frost date to set these warmth lovers in the garden. Start leek seeds 10-12 weeks before the last frost date and set them out in the garden 2 weeks before. Broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower seeds can be started 4-6 weeks before they can go into the outdoor garden, which is two weeks before the last frost date for broccoli and cauliflower; up to four weeks before for hardy cabbage.


Making sure your seedlings have plenty of bright light is one of the most crucial steps in indoor seed starting success. Even in a sunny, south-facing window, winter sunlight is of low intensity and is one-directional, with the result that seedlings are more likely to leggy and weak. For the best seed-starting success, invest in an indoor light system like our Grow Labs. These come in a range of sizes and styles, from the compact Starter Grow Light that stands easily on a countertop or table to the GrowLab Maximum Three-Tier Light Garden, a free-standing unit with three extra-wide light fixtures holding four bulbs each.


If you're starting lots of seeds, consider using seed-starting flats. You can sow rows of seeds in these rectangular flats. As the seedlings grow, you can transplant them into individual pots. If you're planting just a few seeds of each type of crop, consider sowing them in individual pots. Some crops, such as cucumbers, squash, melons, and pumpkins, resent getting their roots disturbed at transplanting time. Start seeds of these crops in plantable, bio-degradable pots, such as peat pots, for the smoothest transition to the garden for these veggies.

An economical alternative to purchasing containers for seed starting is to make your own! Our Paper Potmaker and Giant Paper Potmaker lets you make environmentally friendly pots for seed starting out of recycled newspaper. The easy-to-use press creates sturdy, biodegradable 2-1/4″ pots, which can be transplanted right into the ground when seedlings are ready.


Seeds need the right type of soil to germinate well indoors. Actually, ″soil″ is really a misnomer. Common garden soil or regular houseplant potting soil is too heavy for good results (plus garden soil can contain disease-causing organisms). The best soil for seedlings is a soil-less seed-germination mix, which is typically a blend of fine-textured peat moss and vermiculite or perlite. The mix is light, so seedlings can easily break the surface, yet it holds enough water to keep the seedlings growing. Some seed-starting mixes may even contain timed-release fertilizer.

Warmth and Water

Seeds need heat and moisture to germinate well. Soil temperatures ranging between 75 degrees F to 85 degrees F are ideal for most seeds. It's easy to provide these conditions with our Germination Station. This innovative seed-starting unit fits in all our GrowLabs and includes a UL-listed waterproof heat mat, 11″ x 22″ watertight base tray with a clear humidity dome cover, 72-cell seedling insert, and instructions with growing tips. Our Soil Thermometer can help you determine the proper soil temperature for successful seed germination and can also help you know when soil in the outdoor garden is warm enough for sowing seeds outside.

Here are a few more tips to help make your seed starting a success.

Test Stored Seeds

Check the viability of seeds saved from previous seasons by conducting a germination test. Spread out ten seeds on a moistened paper towel and top with another damp towel. Roll the towels up together and slip inside a loosely closed plastic bag. Stick a label in the bag or write on the outside of the bag with a waterproof marker. Set it in a warm (75 degrees F) spot and, after a few days, begin checking daily for signs of germination; check the seed packet for average germination times. To figure out the germination percentage, simply multiply the number of seeds that sprout by ten. If fifty percent or fewer sprout, it's a good idea to get some fresh seeds. If the germination rate is in the 60-80 per cent range, use the seeds, but sow them more thickly than usual.

Schedule Seed Sowing Dates

Depending on your location, it is time -- or soon will be-- to start seeds of many vegetable crops. Start eggplant and pepper seeds about 8 weeks before your last frost date, tomato seeds 6-8 weeks before. Broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower seeds can be started 4-6 weeks before they can go into the outdoor garden, which is two weeks before the last frost date for broccoli and cauliflower; up to four weeks before for hardy cabbage.

Play with Your Seeds

When winter's cold gets you down, play with your seeds! Organize seed packets in an accordion file according to starting date relative to your last frost date -- 10-12 weeks before, 8-10 weeks, 6-8 weeks, and so on. Mark the tab on each pocket with the actual sowing dates for your area. Then it will be easy to pull out the appropriate packets when the proper time for seed sowing arrives.

Fan Your Plants

If you start seeds indoors, consider investing in a small fan to improve air circulation around young plants. This will help to reduce disease problems like damping off that thrive in too humid conditions. The gentle movement of the seedlings in the breeze will also cause them to develop sturdier stems.

Harden Off Seedlings

Be sure to harden off your homegrown seedlings before setting them out in the garden. Gradually expose them to the cooler temperatures and higher light intensity of the open garden by setting them out in a more and more exposed location for increasing periods of time over the course of a week or two before planting. When you purchase seedlings grown in a greenhouse, be sure to follow this same procedure.

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