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Seed Starting 101: How to Start Seeds Successfully

Seed starting setup

Seed starting is upon us in the gardening world! There is no better way to connect with the food we eat than by growing it ourselves. Starting edible plants from seed can be intimidating, but we’re here to break it down and answer all your burning questions. 

This blog is inspired by Episode 114 of Bloom and Grow Radio–where host Maria Failla interviewed Joe Lamp’l–the Joe behind The joe gardener Show.

Before we dive into the how of seed starting, let’s understand the why

Why Start Your Garden from Seed? 

In our world of instant gratification, what’s better than starting your gardening season way sooner than most gardeners?! When you start seeds indoors, you get your hands in the dirt and get a jump on the growing season. And what a rewarding feeling it is to start your plants from seed, and enjoy the journey of bringing them from seed to plate. 

If you love your edibles, decide what you want to eat and which varieties you want. Don’t leave it up to what’s available at the garden center. Think about how much you can choose when you start from seed: flavor, varieties, and the stories behind different heirlooms. You can really expand your food choices when you get to pick exactly what you grow. 

Another great reason to start your own seeds is to make sure you’re growing the right kind of plant for your needs. Do you absolutely love tomatoes, but only have a small balcony to grow them? Look for microdwarf tomato varieties that only grow about 1-2 feet tall! If you have a short growing season, you’d also want to make sure you choose “early” or “short season” plant varieties. 

Starting from seed offers us the ability to be in control of the varieties we grow, plan in advance, and save lots of money in the long run. Speaking of starting seeds on a budget…

How to Get Your Seed Starting Setup for Under $100

Your seed starting setup can be super budget-friendly if you take the time to look at the components. For under a hundred dollars, you can put together everything you need! Let’s break down the materials, costs, alternatives, and conditions you need for seed starting. 

Seed Starting Mix

To start, you need a good seed starting mix. It’s called a “mix,” because there’s really no soil in it. It’s made of natural ingredients like peat moss, vermiculite, and perlite. A bag of seed starting mix is going to cost between $5-$10.

Espoma Organics takes the guesswork out of your selection by providing their high quality seed starting mix

Seed Starting Trays

With one bag of seed starting mix, you can fill about two seed starting trays, which is your next material needed. Seed starting trays can give you anywhere between 18 to 72 cells to sow your seeds. You can get two trays for about $10. 

Look for seed starting trays with cells about 3.5 inches or smaller. In a traditional seed starting tray, cells are deep so seedling roots have more room to grow down. About 4 weeks from germination you’ll have to transplant your seedlings into a larger individual pot, AKA “potting up”.

Best Grow Lights for Seed Starting

Next is a grow light. Grow lights are where you could spend a lot of money in your seed starting setup, but if you’re on a budget, there is nothing wrong with buying a LED or fluorescent shop light for $20. You can get your seeds sprouted and ready for planting outside in good condition with a very inexpensive shop light. Will it be as good as a seedling that’s under a more expensive light? Maybe not, but all you’re really trying to do is rear those seedlings to the point that they are ready to go outside. Once they get outside, mother nature knows what to do and so does that seedling.

What are Heat Mats for Seed Starting important?

Heat mats are seed starting game changers. Heat mats raise the soil temperature, which helps your seeds sprout faster. Seeds have an ideal range of soil temperature in which they sprout the best, and can be anywhere from 65 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit. Seed mats will cost you between $15 and $35, depending on whether you get a thermostat attached.

Once most of your seeds have germinated, remove them from the heat mats. If you leave your seedlings on heat too long, they can start to become leggy. 

Humidity Dome for Germination

You’ll also want a humidity dome. It’s a clear plastic top that you put over the seed tray to hold the moisture in the soil until the seed germinates. If you don’t have a cover on your tray, the moisture won’t stay in the soil and the seed is not as likely to germinate. For two humidity domes, you’ll probably pay about $6. You can also use plastic wrap and lay it over the top to hold in moisture for your seedlings. 

A key point to remember with humidity domes: once your seeds germinate, remove the humidity dome so seedlings get enough oxygen. Air flow brings us to the next material needed. 

Small Fan for Seed Starting

Last but not least, a fan. You can get a cheap clip-on fan for $15. Fans are important because once the seed germinates, you need air movement across that soil surface. Air movement reduces the chance of a fungal disease called damping off, which can kill your seedlings. Fans also simulate wind, making the stems sturdier and ready for outdoor conditions.

Total Seed Starting Materials Cost

Here’s the cost breakdown to get your seed starting setup for less than $100:

Bag of seed starting mix: $10

2 seed starting trays: $10

Shop light: $20

Heat mat: $15 – $35

Humidity dome: $6

Clip-on fan: $15

TOTAL: $81 – $96

All about Seeds: Where to Buy Them, Expiration Dates, & Non-GMOs

It’s important to find a good seed company. Here are some tips when you’re searching: 

  • Look for companies that have been around for a while with a good reputation. 
    • Do they have good customer service? 
    • Are their staff knowledgeable about their seeds? 
  • Find local or regional seed companies that grow their seeds close to home. Some seed companies can outsource their seeds from overseas from a huge commercial supplier. It’s important to know where your seeds are grown. 
  • When you grow seeds adapted to your area, plants have a much better success rate. The more you grow those seeds and save them, the more adapted they’ll become to your specific microclimate too! 

Seed Expiration Dates 

Seed packets will show the day that the seed was packed. Assuming you have leftover seeds and you keep them in a cool, dark, dry place, they will last anywhere from as little as one year to many years, depending on the seed. 

How do you know when a seed is still good or if it’s gone bad? Do a germination test! Before you plant your seeds, put about 10 seeds in a damp paper towel in a plastic bag. Check the moisture daily and after about 10-14 days, your seeds will either have sprouted or not. If 7 out of 10 sprouted, your viability is about 70%. Depending on your viability you can either plant extra or compost unusable seeds.

What are Non-GMO Seeds?

GMO stands for Genetically Modified Organism. Many seed companies have jumped on the bandwagon saying all of their seeds are “certified non-GMO.” There actually aren’t any GMO gardening seeds available for home gardeners. None of the seeds you purchase will ever be GMO seeds. GMO seeds are present in the commercial agriculture industry, but it’s expensive to produce a GMO seed and it’s not anything that we’re going to even be able to buy. So if a company is touting non-GMO seeds, that’s true, they are. But so are everyone else’s.

The Best Time to Start Your Seeds

The most important date you need to know is the last day that you are potentially going to have frost. This is called your frost-free date in Spring. You can find yours by Googling “last frost date” in your area. Once you have that date, then you work backwards to about 6-8 weeks. That’s when you’ll be sowing most of your seeds.

You want to time your seed starting so you give your seeds about 6-8 weeks of growing time indoors. By the end of the 6-8 weeks, seedlings will have grown to a sturdy size and are then ready to grow outdoors. If you choose a good seed company, there should be lots of information about this on the back of the seed packet.

If you start your seeds too early, you risk your plants getting too big and outgrowing their space. They’re going to be looking for resources that you probably can’t provide indoors, like more light, nutrition in the soil, and space to grow. The longer your seedlings are confined indoors without the right environment, the more stressed they become. Timing when you plant your seeds is crucial to the seed starting process. 

Let’s Get Planting! 

Now that you’ve got your seed starting setup and timing down, how do you get your seeds in the soil? 

First, look at the information on your seed packet. It will typically have all that important seed starting information you need, including how many weeks to start indoors, days to maturity, and growth patterns. 

Make sure your seed starting mix is pre-moistened, like a damp sponge. Most seeds don’t need light to germinate, but they don’t need to be planted very deeply either. Once you have your seeds in, sprinkle a little bit of extra seed starting mix on top. Spray the tops of the soil gently with water so you don’t move the seeds around too much.

When your seeds are planted, place your humidity dome on top, put your tray on your heat mat, and turn your lights on. Your seedlings are going to sprout in a matter of days to a week, maybe two weeks at most. Once your seeds germinate, remove your humidity dome and turn on your fan. From there, you’re just ensuring that the soil stays moist.

The first leaves that come up are called seed leaves, or cotyledons. In a few weeks, your plants will grow new “true” leaves. Once those new true leaves emerge, you can start to add small amounts of supplemental fertilizer.

Your job over the next 4-5 weeks will be monitoring plant growth and making sure everything looks good. Keeping the lights at the proper distance above the tops of the seedlings is also key–not too close, not too far away.

The Final Step: How to Harden Off Your Plants

Hardening off is about 7 to 10 days of transitioning your seedlings slowly to outdoor conditions. You slowly increase the tender, new leaves’ exposure to sun and wind over about two weeks. Make sure outdoor temperatures are above 45 degrees Fahrenheit with no inclement weather during this period, and bring plants indoors every evening.

Here is a rough schedule to follow: 

  • Days 1-2: 1-3 hours outdoors in shade
  • Days 3-4: 3-5 hours outdoors in shade
  • Days 5-6: 3-5 hours outdoors in morning sun
  • Days 7-8: 7-12 hours outdoors in sun
  • Days 9-10: Leave plants outdoors overnight 

Once you’ve gotten your plants used to the outdoor elements, they’re all ready to be planted in their new homes outdoors! 

Video: Planting 26 Different Types of Tomatoes!

Join Laura from @GardenAnswer as she takes her spring tomato planting to a whole new level with the help of Espoma.

 

 

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Video: How to Begin Winter Seed Starting with Garden Answer!

The cold weather is no match for Laura at Garden Answer’s greenhouse! Follow along to see how Laura gets a head start on seed starting to plant amaryllis bulbs and indoor plants before the spring with the help of Espm Organic Seed Starter and Potting Mix!

 

 

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Seed Starter Tips for a Successful Spring Harvest

With the arrival of spring just around the corner, it’s time to learn how you can properly prepare your seeds for the best outcome possible! Seed starting is most commonly used by flower and vegetable farmers to get the best variety of plants while saving time and money. By allowing the seeds to germinate inside before transferring them to your outside garden, there is a greater chance of a successful outcome. Read more to learn how to get started!

Photo via @rebeccamaterasso on Instagram

1. Read the Packet

Seed starting allows you to get a head start on your warm weather gardening. When you purchase your desired seeds, the packet will instruct you when you can start your plants indoors and when you must move them outside. If you’re still unsure about specifics, you can double check with Epic Gardening’s guide to seed starting methods. Make sure to only start a project that is achievable within your space!

Photo via @jazzybutterflygarden on Instagram

2. Gather Your Supplies

You can develop a seed starter in any type of container that has drainage (some people even use egg shells!), but there are also kits that can be purchased to help you start. Once you have your seed starter tray, you’re going to need soil. We recommend our Organic Seed Starter Potting Mix.

Photo via @jeradtb on Instagram

3. Plant Your Seeds

Once the starter soil is in the container, the seeds will be pressed down into the soil or placed on top to be able to germinate (the seed packet should indicate how far under the soil the seed needs to be placed). You want to make sure that your seeds aren’t too compact in the tray, so be sure to add Vermiculite to help with loosening heavy soil for better root growth. If you’re a visual learner, check out this step-by-step video!

Photo via @sowinginsuburbia on Instagram

4. Label Your Seeds

You want to make sure that all of the seeds get labeled during the starter process so that you can identify them when it’s time to move them outside. Once the plants develop, it can be difficult to tell them apart while you transfer them. When you’re ready to move them, be sure to add our Bio-tone Starter Plus to the soil to help your new plants stay strong during the transfer process.

Photo via @living.life.zerowaste on Instagram

5. Double Check Everything

Ensure you know which types of seeds can be started indoors and when the correct time will be to relocate them outdoors. It’s important to always read the instructions as different seeds may require different care. For example, vegetable seeds have different care than flower seeds! Consulting The Old Farmer’s Almanac can help you figure out what’s best for your seeds if you’re still unsure.

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Video: Epic Gardening’s NEW Favorite Seed Starting Method

Epic Gardening updates his seed starting methods annually for better results, consistency, and health of his seedlings. Check out his method for 2021, featuring the help of some Espoma Organic Seed Starter.

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Video: Starting Onion Seeds Indoors with Garden Answer

When planting onions from seed, Espoma Organic Seed Starter is a key component in promoting root growth and improving moisture retention. Check out how Garden Answer uses it!

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3 Common Seed Starting Problems and How to Fix Them

Keywords: starting plants indoors, can you grow tomatoes indoors, growing vegetables indoors

Starting seeds indoors is great way to make your garden successful from the start. Nurturing and watching seedlings grow from nothing into a fully grown plant can be incredibly rewarding.

Gardeners have asked how to be more successful with starting their own seeds and the problems usually boil down to simple, common mistakes. Here are the three most common mistakes and how to fix them.

In a few short weeks your seedlings will be ready to transplanted into the garden!

1. Problem: Not Enough Light

A common mistake beginner seed starters make is not giving their seeds enough light. New seeds need a lot of light to get growing. You can start with a south facing window, but if it doesn’t get 6+ hours a day, it probably won’t do.

Solution: Artificial lights.

Using grow lights, found at your local garden center, can provide the ample amount of light your seedlings need. Hang lights from chains, so you can lower and raise them as they grow. Keep lights about 2-3 inches above the seedlings.

2. Problem: Too Much or Not Enough Water

This is the most challenging part about starting seeds. Seedlings are incredibly delicate and need to be watered just right. Keep potting mix moist, but not wet.

Solution: Check seedlings regularly.

First, cover your seed starting container with plastic until the seeds germinate. This will trap any moisture in and will help keep the soil moist. Use a misting spray bottle until seedlings appear to avoid overwatering. Once your seedlings are established, water from the bottom. Your container should have drainage holes, so let your plants soak up the water from the holes to minimalize the risk of overwatering. Lastly, check your plants every day.

3. Problem: Starting Too Soon

Many beginners try to start seeds as soon as they buy them, instead of when the package advises. We all get a little excited to have green plants growing again, but if started too soon, they can die off from the cold.

Solution: Find out when your expected last frost is.

Seeds should usually be started four to six weeks before your last frost date. This will ensure that by the time your seedlings are ready to be transplanted, your soil will have started to warm up.  You may need to place your seedlings outside during the day and bring them in at night for a few days to get them acclimated to the outside temperatures. Before you plant your seedlings in the ground, use Espoma’s Bio-Tone Starter Fertilizer to give your soil and new seedlings the head start they deserve.

In a few short weeks you’ll be ready to transplant!

 

7 Tricks for Starting Tomato and Peppers Seeds Indoors

Dreaming of juicy, flavorful tomatoes and ripe, spicy peppers? Grow them yourself in only a few months.

If you’re as excited about tomato season as we are, why not get started now?

The best way to get a head start on growing tomatoes is to start seeds indoors 4-6 weeks before the last spring frost date in your region. Whether you’re growing cherry tomatoes or hot peppers, visit your local garden center to pick up supplies and seeds.

Here’s how to start tomato and pepper seeds indoors:

  1. Test Seeds

If you saved tomato seeds from last year and stored the seeds properly, they should last for about four years. Pepper seeds will last about two to three years.

Check seeds for vitality before planting for a successful crop. Need seeds? Find them at your local garden center.

Test your seeds a few weeks before you’re ready to start. Place several seeds on a wet paper towel cover it with plastic and place it in a warm spot. If the seeds are viable, they should sprout within a week.

  1. Soak Seeds

Give your seeds a head-start. Simply soak seeds in warm water for 2-4 hours to soften. Read the instructions on the seed packet to ensure the optimal conditions for your seeds.

  1. Start Seeds

Gather supplies and fill seed trays to within ¼” of the top with Espoma’s Organic Seed Starting Mix. Follow instructions on the seed packets to see how deep and far apart to plant. Cover with soil, press down and lightly water.  Find out more about starting seeds here.

  1. Add Heat

Once the seeds are planted, it’s time to warm them up. Heat loving crops like tomatoes and peppers love the warm weather. While your seedlings are sprouting, store them on top of the fridge or in a warm place. An even better option is use a special heating mat. The warm temperatures help to speed up the growing process. Make sure to check seeds daily for moisture since the soil may dry out more quickly.

  1. Feed

Once the true leaves have developed, seeds will benefit from a nutrient boost. Add Espoma’s Organic Tomato! plant food to feed instantly.

  1. Thin Plants

Thinning is the process of removing weaker seedlings to allow more room for the stronger ones. It creates healthier plants that produce more. As seedlings grow and you see crowding beginning to happen, gradually thin plants to 4” apart by gently pulling out the smallest ones with your hands.

  1. Prepare for Transplant

Start hardening off plants once the last frost date has past. Place seedlings outdoors for seven to 10 days for a few hours each day. Once plants are ready for transplanting, gently remove plants from containers without damaging the roots. Plant in a prepared bed and mix in Espoma’s Bio-tone Starter Plus, to keep roots strong.  Once plants are established in the garden or container feed with Tomato! liquid or  Tomato-tone.

 

 

Grow Your Own Microgreens

Microgreens add fresh flavor and nutrients to salads, sandwiches, smoothies and stir-fries. These plants are harvested when they’re young, usually about two weeks after planting.

 

Plus, microgreens contain about five times more vitamins than if grown to mature vegetables, according to USDA researchers. Adding microgreens to smoothies will boost the nutritional content without adding strong flavors.

 

While you’re waiting to start seeds for the spring, try growing microgreens for a fun winter project. They’ll also be the perfect complement to your indoor herb garden.

6 Steps to Grow Winter Microgreens:

  1. Soak seeds in room temperature water for no more than eight hours before you plant them.
  2. Select a container that will hold an inch of soil. This can be a seed-starting tray, plastic take-out dish, disposable pie plate or even a clear salad box.
  3. Punch a few drainage holes in the bottom. Set container on a cookie sheet, plastic tray or container to prevent spillage.
  4. Add 1” of Espoma’s Seed Starter and sprinkle with seeds. Lightly cover seeds with soil and water lightly.
  5. Cover container with a damp paper towel or newspaper to keep the seeds from drying out. Lift the cover daily and spray lightly with water until sprouting begins.
  6. Remove the cover when sprouts appear and move microgreens to a sunny windowsill.
  7. Harvest microgreens by cutting the tops with scissors when they are 2” or taller. Rinse sprout tops in a strainer. Microgreens can be stored in a plastic bag in the refrigerator for up to 5 days.
  8. Continue harvesting microgreens for up to three weeks.

Dreaming of the outdoors? Learn how to plant veggies in containers for next year!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UVVyRRJDfSk&t=67s

Seed to Succeed! Seed Starting Secrets

Step aside houseplants. Not now indoor herbs. There’s a new indoor winter gardening project in town… indoor seed starting!

Find the Prime Time: When to Start Seeds Indoors

One of the biggest mistakes when starting seeds indoors is starting too soon.

Before starting seeds inside, look up the last spring frost date in your area,  then count back 4-6 weeks. That’s the best time to start seeds indoors.

This handy seed starting chart from Organic Life makes it easy to calculate when to start and transplant your seeds.potting soil, starting seeds indoors, organic seed starting mix, growing tomatoes

To Sow or No? Best Veggie Seeds to Start Indoors in Winter

Not all seeds succeed indoors! Save root crops and cold-hardy seeds for when it’s warm enough to plant directly outside. Or, you can grow two crops of broccoli and lettuce. Start seeds indoors now then sow more outside later.

potting soil, starting seeds indoors, organic seed starting mix, growing tomatoes

Here are the best vegetable and herb seeds to start indoors in winter.

  • Tomatoes
  • Peppers
  • Cucumbers
  • Celery
  • Collard greens
  • Lettuce
  • Kale
  • Broccoli
  • Beans
  • Squash
  • Eggplant
  • Cabbage
  • Basil
  • Thyme
  • Cilantro
  • Oregano
  • Sage
  • Parsley 

Seed to Succeed!

There are three secrets to starting seeds indoors: warmth, light and an organic seed starting mix that promotes root growth.

Start with Espoma’s Organic Seed Starter – a gardener’s favorite! But don’t take it from us. One of our customers, Shelia, shared that she used a lot of seed starter in her day, but “this one is just OUTSTANDING!” Her plants came up just perfect, and she “will never use anything else, ever again.”

Fill seed trays to within ¼” of the top and lightly water. Follow the instructions on the seed packets to see how deep and far apart to plant. Cover with soil, press down and label.

Place tray in a larger pan of shallow water for a minute so thewater seeps up from the bottom.

Place seeds in a warm spot between 65-75°. Try the top of the fridge!potting soil, starting seeds indoors, organic seed starting mix, growing tomatoes

Loosely cover tray with plastic wrap or the cover from your seed-starting kit. Check seeds daily for moisture. Find even more detailed instructions here.

Give seeds 12-16 hours of light daily. Supplement sunlight with grow lights if needed.

Once you see sprouts, remove the cover and move seeds to a sunny, south-facing window that is 65-75°F. Then, turn the container a little each day to prevent leaning seeds.

When leaves grow, add a bit of fertilizer such as Espoma’s Plant-tone or liquid Grow!. Both are organic fertilizers, so they are safe to use on edibles, around children and pets and they help plants grow bigger than ever before.

Once you see that first sprout peeking through the potting soil, homegrown veggies are only weeks away!