How To Grow Seeds Indoors
Growing seedlings indoors is a delicate process that reaps many rewards. Had we known it would be this cool we would have done this years ago. It is an anticipation junky’s dream come true.
After the seeds are planted I anticipate their sprouting. After they sprout, I anticipate them getting their second leaves, after they get their second leaves I anticipate the last frost, and then the hardening off, and then the planting outside, and then…there is always a new stage to look forward to. We don’t start all seedlings early as that would not be practical. Certain plants like squash are so hearty and grow so quickly in Reno that I don’t find that I need to start them early. Even if there is a late frost they usually still produce well in the Fall. Others, like green peppers, rosemary and thyme could benefit from 4-6 weeks of coddling before they brave the inconsistent Spring weather where temperatures rise and fall at the drop of a hat. By starting seeds indoors I am attempting to lengthen the growing season for the ultimate purpose of having a higher yield. Below are some tips on how to give your seeds the best chance of surviving germination and then thriving once they are transplanted outside.
1. Temperature is huge-In order for the seeds to germinate the soil needs to be between 65-77 F degrees. This is not a friendly suggestion that can be overlooked. Our house hovers around 63 degrees, so our solution was to put the seedling shelf (complete with grow lights) in our room and tried to keep the door closed at all times. That way we could use a standing heater that is equipped with a thermostat to make sure that the temperature stays above 65F degrees. It also helps to keep the plastic dome on the trays until the plants are a few centimeters tall.
2. Watering-The seeds are doomed if you water them too much or too little. This is also why it is convenient that the seed shelf is in our room, where we are able to check it at least 1-2x per day. The easiest method of watering has been the water from the bottom method. This can be done using the seedling starter trays. I do not recommend the peet moss ones as they seem to dry out quicker between waterings and they fall apart quite easily. The starter trays come with a tray that sits under the seedlings. When you pour water into the tray, the water is drawn upward through the roots. This is a much less traumatic experience for the fragile seedlings than being doused with water everyday. While this process makes it harder to over water, it is still possible to do so. Keep your eye out.
3. Seeds- You can use any non-GMO seed varieties. I also try to stay away from the hybrids, but that is just a matter of preference. You should be able to find out this info on the seed packets. I also like to buy online from places like Humble Seed and Annie’s Heirloom Seeds. The Great Basin Food Coop, The River School Farm and the UNR Agriculture Extension Program should be broadcasting the dates of any local seed swaps going on as well. Visit their websites for more info.
4. Light-We chose to use artificial light because natural light is hard to come by in our house. Even if there was a ton of it, say on a South facing window ledge, it still might not be enough for these delicate little guys. They need LOTS of light. We have grown seeds indoors with and without artificial light and the difference is significant. We use a typical shop light with full spectrum fluorescent bulbs that is connected to a simple outlet timer. The lights work great because they don’t get hot enough to dry out the soil. They should be kept on for at least 14 hours a day and need to hang about a 3-4 inches above the seed containers. You can adjust them higher as the seedlings grow taller. If the distance between the two is any greater than 12 inches, the lights become ineffective. It’s sort of hilarious that the lights automatically go off at 10 pm, which is occasionally later than we go to bed. We have sat up reading, essentially waiting for our seedlings to get their recommended 14 hours of light.
5. Planting Depth-Each seed packet has specific instructions on how deep to plant each seed. This is important because some plants need light to germinate. Others need less light and thus can be planted deeper into the soil. Make sure to read the instructions on the back of each seed packet.
6. Soil-Using a sterile soil is important. Store bought seed starter mixes work perfectly. If you use your own soil you have to go through a process of sterilizing it to prevent Fungi from growing. I think it’s more work than it’s worth, so I like to stick with a bag of seedling starter that says “sterilized” on the bag.
7. Timing-Make sure you don’t start your seeds too early. We thought we were getting a good jump on the season by starting our seeds in February. Wrong! That just means that our seedlings will be stuck in a pot that is way too small for far too long. Especially the fast growing ones like the cantelope, beans, and squash. We are now scrambling to find bigger containers to transplant the fast-growing ones into. It is becoming a pain in the neck. If the last frost in your planting zone is in the middle of May, then you will likely be planting in the middle of May. You wouldn’t want to start your seeds until the tail end of March.
8. Hardening Off -Seedlings need to be “hardened off” and acclimated to the outdoors before being planted outside to reduce transplant shock. One to two weeks before planting the seedlings, place them outdoors during the daytime and bring them indoors before it begins to get chilly. Ideally, I would not start this process until the daytime temps hover around 50 F degrees.
9. Transplanting- After you have “hardened off” your seedlings you are now ready to plant them. Since the seedling mix is mostly composed of vermiculite or perlite and peat moss, you will need to throw a bit of compost into the hole that you dig for the seedling. The depth of the hole you dig should be the same depth that you planted your original seed (refer to your seed packets for instructions if need be). You can add mulch around the top of the soil to give the plant a little more protection. You might also put an old sheet over the plants at night, to protect the fragile plants from the late Spring frosts.If all goes well, you will be harvesting some beautiful, yummy, organic veggies that taste better than you could imagine, come Fall.
I hope this encouraged you to grow your own seedlings indoors. The information in this post is not new. It is stuff we learned from others and can also be found all over the web. However, experience is the best teacher. Be prepared to kill a bunch of seeds, this is part of the process. Being a newb is fun! Join us! It has taken a bit of work to get our system going– we have already killed an army of seeds– but it has already proved to be worth it. Our seedlings are looking awesome. Better than we ever expected now that we made the leap to using artificial light.
Have fun with this! It is hugely gratifying. And please report your successes and failures. We would love to hear what works and what doesn’t. As an aside, we found all of the supplies we needed on Amazon.com. If you live in Northern Nevada, Amazon has a distribution center in Fernley, so items will generally appear on your doorstep within one to two days. That beats going to three different stores around town, plus the prices are usually hard to beat, especially with Free Shipping included for Amazon Prime members. If you prefer to shop local, you can get most of your supplies at Carter Bros. Ace Hardware. They are locals who have amazing customer service.