How To Start Seeds Indoors

No matter how many times I’ve seen it before, when tiny green seedlings emerge overnight, I’m struck with wonder. They poke their heads through the soil, sometimes still wearing a cap of seed shell, and start uncurling towards the sun, and I want to jump up and down like a little kid and call everyone I know. Do people who farm for their whole lives still feel this way?

Among the reasons to start seeds indoors, the most compelling one is fun. Watching my little plants grow makes me feel that spring has arrived, even while the weather outside is erratic and chilly. You can get them going several weeks before it’s warm enough to plant outside, and it’s more economical than buying potted plants. Also, growing or buying seedlings locally helps prevent the spread of pests and diseases.

Don’t be afraid to fail. The stakes are low: you’re not risking a pet’s life or a large financial investment, so try different things and see what works. A three-dollar packet of tomato seeds yields about twenty plants. One tomato plant from a nursery costs about four dollars. Even if you have a 90% failure rate, you’ll still save money. Your errors will teach you to be a good gardener, and death is part of growth.

A few years ago blight wiped out crops throughout the Northeast. Gardeners unknowingly purchased infected plants from big-box retailers, and the spores blew to farms and gardens throughout the region. The same way food from a centralized supply can spread disease, mass-produced plants can endanger ecosystems. So it’s an ethical imperative to buy plants as locally as possible, or start your own.

If you have a few hours free this weekend, you could have lettuce sprouting by Wednesday! Fancy grocery stores sell pretty packages of organic seeds and top quality soil, but even a 99-cent store I stopped by in the projects carries seeds and dirt. The best choice is a nursery or garden center–they can provide you with good advice along with your supplies.

What you’ll need:

  • seed starter trays, store-bought or homemade
  • spray bottle
  • starter mix or soil
  • seeds

Choose your seeds. I grow things I want to eat a lot of (like tomatoes), or that are ornamental as well as edible (like nasturtiums and purple basil). Some plants prefer not to have their roots disturbed and are better started outdoors. Others need more light than an apartment window can offer. Find out what grows well in your climate. But try whatever appeals to you. It might work, or you might learn something if it fails. The plants I’ve had most success with starting in my windowsill are tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, beans and lettuce.

Make space. I push a typewriter table up to my living room window, and bridge the radiator with a board balanced across stacks of milk crates. Then I cover every inch of this setup with pots, and every windowsill too. It looks silly, but it’s only for a few weeks.

Assemble some containers. Seed starting trays are awfully convenient, but I use a hodge-podge of recycled containers instead. If you have storage space to save your seed trays you can use them year after year; otherwise, you are throwing money and plastic straight into the landfill. Egg cartons, yogurt containers, plastic party cups, shoeboxes, and soup cans are a few of the containers I’ve repurposed along with plastic pots from the previous year. If your containers aren’t porous, poke some holes in the bottom using a hammer and nail or a box cutter. Line them up on some sort of tray to catch runoff—this time I used aluminum catering pans leftover from baking granola.

Fill them with dirt. Seed starter mix yields the most success: it’s sterile and lightweight. Potting soil is less expensive, and works pretty well. I use starter mix for finicky heirloom tomatoes, and potting soil for everything else––if every seed germinates I’ll have no space to plant them all anyway! Moisten the soil before you plant, so you don’t disturb the seeds.

Plant the seeds according to the directions on the package, or google “[plant type] seed depth”. Use your finger to poke a hole in the soil for each seed you will plant (I like to squeeze as many as I can into each container, spacing them about 2 inches apart). Drop a seed or two into each hole. Then smooth soil over the top. Touching dirt this way is good for you.

Now water and wait. Use a spray bottle for watering. Mist the trays a few times a day, or as often as you remember. Keep the soil moist, but not soggy. Your seed packet (or the internet) can tell you how long each kind of plant takes to germinate, and when it will be safe to move them outside.

Happy gardening!