Starting Seeds for the Home Garden

Our small homestead is located in upstate NY, in a zone 5 growing zone.   We’re able to grow most annual vegetables, thanks in part to getting an early jump of the growing season by starting seeds indoors.  

Life on the homestead is often marked by the passing of the seasons.  The stark contrast of the harsh winter weather, the fleeting spring warm up, long summer days that you never want to end, followed by the welcomed crisp fall.  It seems to happen almost overnight; the days get longer, the weather quickly turns from the biting cold of winter to the mild and wet weather of spring. 

The beckon of spring brings the promise of lazy days spent in the garden, toes leaving imprints in the cool and rich soil.  Bountiful harvests, evenings spent with family, full bellies, and heartfelt laughter.  For us, part of the marked transition from winter to spring is seed starting time!

I want to let you know that it’s not too late, or too difficult to start seeds – it’s a wonderful way to spend the late winter and early spring days.  An escape from cold and snow, dull grey days, and what can feel like a near constant drizzle of rain.  Starting your own seeds can translate to savings and extra money in your pocket; no need to buy pricey starts from the nursery. Not to mention, when you grow from seed you open the door to nearly endless variety of plants.  The best part, you only need to visit your nearest seed rack, or pop open a seed catalog.  By starting seeds you’re able to grow the exact varieties that you want to grow.  Starting seeds indoors require the same basic elements as growing your plants outdoors – light, soil, water, and nutrients. 

Seeds to Start Indoors:

Most seeds can be started indoors and transplanted into your garden.  It allows you to get a head start on your spring and summer garden and can help when planning and planting your fall garden.  Starting seeds indoors in the summer can spare your seedlings from the oppressive heat of the summer sun and dry soil, a time of year when most plants struggle to get established. 

Broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbages, cauliflower, celery, cucumbers, eggplants, flowers, herbs, lettuce, okra, greens, hot peppers, sweet peppers, summer squash, winter squash, melons, tomatillos, and tomatoes can easily be started indoors and transplanted out.  Even non-traditional transplants such as corn, peas, beans, and beets can be started and transplanted out as seedlings.  Check the back of your seed packet for specific directions on when to start and when to transplant out. 

The earliest seeds that we start indoors are onions, we aim to start them the end of January or beginning of February in order to have good sized transplants for the spring.  Onions should be started indoor approximately 4 months before your last frost date.

Broccoli, cabbages, cauliflower, and hardy cool weather veggies aren’t far behind our onion starts.  We aim to start these plants approximately 10 – 12 weeks before our last frost date.  These hardy plants are transplanted out into the garden 4 – 5 weeks before our last average frost date.

Eggplant, peppers, tomatoes, lettuce, swiss chard, and tomatillos are best started 6 – 8 weeks before your last average frost date.  This will ensure that your plants are a decent size, but not so big that they will suffer when transplanted out. 

Summer squash, winter squash, cucumbers, and melons should only be started a few weeks before your last average frost date.  They grow quickly and don’t like having their roots disturbed when being transplanted.  An early start and large plants don’t transplant into an early crop. 

How to Start Your Seeds:

Choose the containers that you’d like to use to start your seeds in – seed flats, individual pots, egg cartons, or even recycled containers that have been emptied and cleaned.  Almost any container can be used, just make sure it’s at least a few inches deep, and has some holes for drainage.  Fill your containers with a seed starting mix that has been thoroughly moistened.  A quality seed starting mix is formulated to encourage your plants to grow, will discourage common soil pathogens, and will retain water.  By using a sterile mix formulated for starting seeds, it will ensure that your seedlings are off to a good start, and that they are healthy, and disease-free. You can buy pre-mixed bagged seed starting mix or make your own.

Follow the directions on the back of your seed package for planting depth.  Typically, the larger the seed, the deeper the planting depth.  Some small seeds only need to be sprinkled on the soil surface and firmed down.  If you want to ensure even germination, plant two seeds per cell or container.  If both germinate, keep the stronger of the two seedlings and snip the other one. 

After planting, gently moisten the soil.  To speed germination and ensure the soil remains moist cover the containers with a plastic dome or plastic wrap.  When you see the first signs of growth, remove the cover.    

Watering and Fertilizing:

As your seedlings grow, you’ll need to water and feed your plants.  Using a small watering can or misting squirt bottle keep the soil moist, but not soggy.  Let the soil dry slightly between watering, if your seedlings look droopy and wilted, they need water. 

Regularly feed your seedlings with a liquid fertilizer, following the directions on the back of the package.  Often times the usage rate for seedlings will be at half strength.  Using a full strength or too much fertilizer can burn and damage your tender seedlings.

To encourage strong plants, good air movement, and prevent disease, we recommend setting up a fan to gently blow on your seedlings. 


The hardest part of starting seeds and often the biggest hurdle for the beginner is ensuring that your seedlings have enough light.  New gardeners, often get frustrated when the seedlings that are diligently tending to become tall and leggy, start flopping over, and just look…sad. 

While it is possible to starts seeds on a windowsill, or in a bright room that is filled with sun and receives at least 8 full hours of sun a day, it’s hard to come by.  Especially in the winter and early spring months.  Most gardeners turn to supplementing their seedlings with artificial light.  Lights should be left on for approximately 16 – 18 hours a day, ensuring that they are not left on 24/7.  Just like you, your seedlings need a period of darkness and rest. 

When it comes to providing your seedlings with a light source, you have several options.  Each option comes with it a different price tag and has different benefits.  We use T8 fluorescent lights – they are relatively inexpensive and budget friendly, easy to buy at your local DIY store, and work well.

Types of Grow Lights:

  • Incandescent bulbs: These are the least expensive option and cost just a few dollars.  They might work for a few plants that are situated in a bright and sunny room, they really aren’t the best option.  Incandescent bulbs put out a lot of heat and must be placed at least two feet (or more) away from your plants.  Placed too close to your plants they will cause them to burn and damage them.
  • Fluorescent lights:  Our recommendation and one of the most popular choice for the home and hobby grower.  You can easily find a wide range of bulb types – including ones that provide a wider light spectrum.  Your traditional fluorescent bulb has a narrower light spectrum, but they are perfect for germinating seeds and putting of vegetative growth.  Fluorescent lights don’t put off a lot of heat, they are safer to than incandescent bulbs, versatile, and effective.  To grow strong and sturdy seedlings, place the lights so they are 1 – 2 inches above your plants.
  • High Intensity Discharge: lights such as High Pressure Sodium (HPS) which are best for promoting flowering and Metal Halid (MH) which are best for promoting vegetative growth.  While they are good options, very effective, and throw a lot of light, they are expensive.  They also require special light fixtures, give off a lot of heat, and use electricity inefficiently/ 
  • LED: While also a good option for starting your seedlings, they are considerably more expensive than fluorescent bulbs.  On average LEDs use less electricity (about half) and last five times longer than fluorescent bulbs, they effectively pay for themselves in the long run.  They produce very little heat and are available in full-spectrum form.  LEDs are a good option when you are growing large quantities of plants and want to achieve a high light intensity per square foot. 

While your seedlings are indoors, they will require more hours of light than those that are grown outdoors.  16 – 18 hours of light per day is recommended for most seedlings.  While it’s tempting to leave the lights on 24/7 in the hopes of having larger and sturdier plants, don’t do it.  Your seedlings need at least 6 hours of darkness for optimal growth and plant health. 

As your seedlings continue to grow and get taller, raise your light fixture accordingly to maintain optimal distance.  For fluorescents lights, keep your light a few inches above your seedlings.

After coddling your seedlings for weeks, you finally have a warm and sunny day, and you natural inclination is to move your seedling to the great outdoors.  However, your seedlings need to be gradually transitioned to the outdoors – this process is called hardening off.  I’ve lost more seedlings than I can count due to carelessness, trying to harden them off too quickly, or forgetting to bring them in at night. 

Hardening Off and Transplanting:

About one to two weeks before you intend to transplant your seedlings into the garden, place them in partly shaded area that is protected from the wind and animals.  Leave your seedlings outdoors for a few hours and then bring them back inside.  Gradually over the course of the next week or two, expose your seedlings to increasing amounts of sunshine and wind. 

After your plants have hardened off, they are ready to be transplanted into the garden. 

What plants and varieties are you planning on growing this year in your garden?

Until next time…