Starting seeds indoors is a great way to save a ton of money and get a head start on your vegetable garden. As new homesteaders, we had a lot to learn about growing seedlings indoors and planning our vegetable garden in the winter. We're sharing it all here.
Deciding what seeds to plant
The first step to starting your seeds indoors is deciding what you want to grow! We're focusing on veggies this year as we aim to feed ourselves with more and more of our own homegrown food. That being said, we know by now not to plant things you won't eat, especially when you're first starting out.
Make a list of the veggies, fruit, and herbs that your family eats on a regular basis. Now, which of those can you realistically grow in your climate zone? Are there any veggies you like that grow well in your area, but you didn't include? Add those to the list.
Don't forget to think seasonally and plan for plants that grow well in cold weather, and hot weather. If you need ideas, use your state's agricultural extension site to find a list of crops and planting times for your area.
Looking at your list, pair it down to what you can realistically manage. This will vary depending on how new you are to gardening. Personally, our goal is to keep adding a little bit each year until we're growing 80% of our own food. We aren't there yet by any means, but we're working just at the outer edge of our comfort zone towards it.
Purchasing your seeds
Now that you have your list, we recommend purchasing your seeds as soon as possible. Gardening and homesteading are growing in popularity with food prices on the rise and all that's happened in the world in the past few years, so don't wait too long to get your seeds.
In the past we've purchased seeds (and full grown seedlings) from our local home and garden store, but this year we wanted to get heirloom seeds to try our hand at saving them!
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Knowing what seeds to start indoors
Once your seeds come in the mail, it's time to start planning your garden. Yay! If you're new to growing veggies and this step feels overwhelming to you, we have some good news - there's an app for that!
The Planter app helps you plan and track the plants in your garden from seed to harvest. You enter the plants that you're growing and the app outputs a schedule for you, so you can stay on top of when to plant what! Also, it holds all your information about each plant and even lets you plan the layout of your garden. We loved it so much we bought the paid version which is ten dollars for an entire year (well worth it in our opinion).
If you don't want to use the app, you can simply look at your seed packets and make a list of plants by planting times. Dedicate a page in a journal for each month of the season and then add two columns, one that says "plant indoors" and one that says "plant in the garden." Use your seed packets or a cheat sheet from your state's agricultural extension site to fill in what plants you'll be sowing each month both inside and outside.
For most gardeners in January and February you'll likely only be planting things inside. Read on for everything you need to get this done!
What you need to start seeds indoors
Starting seeds indoors is especially ideal if you want to grow enough food to feed your family. It means more plants at a fraction of the cost compared to buying seedlings from the garden store in spring. To get started, you'll need a few basic supplies.
- seed starter soil
- larger plastic trays (tin foil casserole trays work too as long as they don't have holes)
- compostable seed cells or empty egg cartons for planting in
- grow light or a window on a south facing wall
- warming pads (optional, consider using if your growing space is below 65 degrees)
- water-soluble plant fertilizer
We opted for a grow light over a window. The benefit of purchasing a grow light is that your seedlings are guaranteed to receive consistent light and to grow straight upwards as opposed to at an angle towards your window.
We don't have room for a rack to put multiple grow lights and seedling trays on, but we do have a laundry room table where we were able to place two trays and hang a light-- it has worked beautifully! All that to say, use what you have and start where you are. This can be as easy and cheap or as fancy as you want it to be 😉
Set up and planting seeds indoors
When it's time to plant gather all your supplies and some help, because everything is better with help ;). By the way, little hands LOVE filling little pots with dirt!
If using a grow light, set the light up so that it hangs 6-10 inches above your soil line. If you need to use warming mats, set these up as well.
Start by placing your plant cells in the trays and filling the cells at least ⅔ full with starter soil. Then follow package instructions to mix your water-soluble fertilizer and water the soil before planting your seeds. Finally, grab your seed packets and plant seeds in rows according to instructions and cover with soil. Make sure to mark off your plants so you know what's what!
Note: most seed packets call for 2-3 seeds per cell at ¼ - ½ inch deep, in case your packet doesn't give you this information.
Give your seeds another little water (we used a spray bottle for this) after you cover them with soil. Turn on your light, or place them in your window and you're set!
Care and maintenance for indoor seedlings
Water the seedlings each day, being careful not to flood the soil. You can also water with the water-soluble fertilizer once a week to help your plants thrive. If using a grow light, aim to keep your light on for 15 hours of the day. We turn ours on when we get up and off right before bed.
Most seeds take anywhere from 7-21 days to germinate. Likely after a week you'll begin to see some baby seedlings budding through the surface of the soil.
Once the seedlings produce true leaves (these are the set of leaves that come after the first two,) you may need to thin them out to give room for one seedling in the cell to thrive. A really simple way to thin your seedlings without damaging the roots of nearby plants is to use scissors or garden snips to cut the unwanted seedlings at the soil line.
Once you've done this, you may want to transfer your seedlings to a larger pot so they can keep growing and expanding. If you bought compostable planting cells, you can plant them cell and all. If not, just carefully remove the soil with the plant inside and place into a larger pot with more soil, water and place back under the grow light.
Planting seedlings outdoors
Using your seed packet and garden planner of choice determine when it's time to plant your seedlings outdoors in the garden. This might be as soon as 2-3 weeks after planting for some plants and as late as 6-8 weeks for others.
A week before the big move. Take your plants outdoors for 1-2 hours, the next day increase the time to 3-4 hours, and so on, increasing the time outside each day until planting them on the seventh day. This process is called hardening off, and it helps prepare your plants for outside conditions.
You made it! It's time to transplant your seedling to the garden using, you guessed it, your seed packet, to determine spacing of rows and plants!
Now it's only a few weeks until you enjoy the rewards for your labor! It's not a bad idea to start a few more seedlings indoors *just in case* the weather doesn't do what you thought it would, then you'll have backup plants on the ready.
To recap, here's how you'd do that:
How to start seeds indoors
- Decide what you want to grow and purchase seeds
For a veggie garden choose things you'll actually eat. Order seeds early if possible (Jan - February)
- Use seed information to decide what to plant indoors
You can use an app like planter to help with this or check out your state and zone's agriculture extension site for planting times.
- Purchase large trays, compostable planting cells, and seed starter
The planting cells will sit in the trays. You can also use egg cartons for these.
- Fill cells with starter soil and water well
You can use a seed starter solution in your water to help promote growth
- Plant seeds to depth on seed package, cover and water.
Most spring veggies call for 2-3 seeds sown at about ¼ in depth, but always check your packet
- Place in a window with good sunlight and warm temps or use a grow light
Grow lights help the plants grow upright, place them 6-10 inches from the soil.
- Water daily, thin when true leaves appear
To thin plants, use scissors or snips to cut the seedling at the base of soil once true leaves appear, so as to not damage the roots.
- Move to bigger pots as they grow
As the plants grow, plant cells in larger pots to help them continue growing as you await outdoor planting time (use seed package to determine this).
- Harden seedlings off for a week and finally, plant in your garden
Just before planting let your seedlings sit outside for a few hours each day, building up to all day, then plant them in your garden.
More posts to help you get your garden off the ground
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