Starting Vegetable or Flower Seeds Indoors

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Starting vegetable or flower seeds indoors is a rewarding activity that can help to brighten up the gloom of winter. You don’t need expensive equipment or materials—you can repurpose what you have on hand to create an effective seed growing system.

Containers: Use clean containers or disinfect used ones with bleach (9 parts water to 1-part bleach for 5 min). Containers should be 2-3 inches in depth with drain holes in the bottom.

Media: For seed starting should be devoid of fertilizer and be fine enough for good drainage. Use commercially prepared seed starting mix or make your own by combining equal parts of peat moss, fine-particle pine bark, and perlite. Do not use soil from your garden as it may contain insects or diseases and is too heavy for seedlings.

Planting: Seeds should be started 4-6 weeks before the last spring frost, for Eastern N.C. that’s usually the 1st part of April. Fill the clean container with pre-moistened media to within ½ inch of the top. For seeds such as tomatoes, you may use cut paper tubes in the container to make transplanting into larger pots easier as the seedlings develop. Sow 1-2 seeds per tube or scatter seeds over the media surface.

Tubes with Dated Bags

Tubes with Dated Bags. Photo: Stacey Luker

Lightly cover the seeds with media and mist with water. To keep the media moist place the containers into plastic bags or cover them with another clear container. Place the container out of direct sunlight until germination occurs. If noticeable condensation is absent lightly mist with water and replace the covering. Don’t forget to label your containers with the type of seed and planting date.

After Germination: Once the seeds have germinated remove the covering and place the container in a well-lighted location such as a south or west-facing windowsill. Temperatures should remain 65-70 degrees during the day and slightly lower at night. You may also encourage growth by using a seedling heat mat and/or providing light by a full-spectrum fluorescent light or grow bulb.

Watering: Do not allow the media to dry out—place the container in a shallow pan with up to ½ inch water until the surface of the media has turned dark with moisture. Remove the container from the tray and reposition it in the light.

Tomato Seedlings 5 days

Tomato Seedlings 5 days. Photo: Stacey Luker

Fertilization: When the seedlings have a second or third set of true leaves you can fertilize with a diluted solution of a water-soluble fertilizer. Place the container in the solution following the above directions for watering.

Seedlings 11 days

Seedlings 11 days. Photo: Stacey Luker

Transplanting: Seedlings such as tomatoes will usually need to be transplanted into a larger container before hardening off and going into the garden. Other plants such as flowers and some vegetables may be hardened off in the original container before planting. Hardening off refers to the practice of slowly introducing the seedling to outdoor conditions. Refer to the North Carolina Extension Gardener Handbook for more information about seed starting.

Written by Stacey Luker, North Carolina Extension Master Gardener℠ Volunteer