Indoor Seed Starting Tips for Beginners

Posted on Feb 24 2012 - 1:04am by Mike Lieberman

Today I am going to share basic indoor seed starting tips

…along with common mistakes and how to avoid them.

It will be a good starting point if it’s your first time, and reminder for those of you who have done this before.

The main reason that you are going to want to start your seeds indoors is so that you can get a jumpstart on the season and to the harvest quicker.

I’ll say that again —

Start your seeds indoors, so you can get to the harvest quicker. — Tweet This

4 Basic Tips for Starting Your Seeds Indoors

Start Your Seeds on Schedule
Seed packets come with a lot of information on them. Most of which gets ignored. If you look closely, the seed packet will tell how approximately how many days until the seed will sprout and be ready to be planted. It will also let you know when is the recommended time to plant outdoors. Do a little bit of math and figure out when you should get those seeds started.

Know What You Planted
This sounds ridiculously obvious, but often gets overlooked. We think we’ll remember and don’t label them and sure enough as soon as we walk away, we forgot. Happens every time. Don’t take the lazy way out and just label them from the start.

Give the Seeds Even Sunlight
The tendency is often to keep the seeds in one position and just water them. When you do that, you’ll notice your seeds start to develop a lean to them. That’s because they are stretching towards the sun. To prevent that rotate the seed tray every few hours. That should help to straighten them out.

Know Your Seed Source
You are going to want to make sure that you are buying from a seed company that cares as much about your health and environment as you do.

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4 Common Seed Starting Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

I asked Michelle Moore, owner of the year round gardening supply company The Greenhouse Catalog (one of my sponsors), about common indoor seed starting mistakes and how to avoid them. Here is what she said:

Over or Under Watering
“Using a media like coconut pith or coir is a wonderful way to control the moisture content-especially if you water from the bottom,” said Moore. “The coir wicks water as needed so seeds don’t get soggy. Don’t forget to add diluted fertilizer within 72 hours after the first leaves appear.”

Growing in Low-Light Conditions
“South facing windows may work well, as long as the spot isn’t drafty and daylight lengths are greater than 12 hours,” suggested Moore. “Supplementing with grow lights (up to 18 hours of light) will speed up growth. Make sure to read the directions for each grow light as it’s a common mistake to place the light source too far away from the plants.”

Temperatures Too Cool for Root Growth
“Cool temperatures on the surface encourage compact growth, but roots need warmth,” said Moore. “Adding bottom heat with a seedling heat mat encourages healthy root growth, which makes for healthy plants. Make sure to use a media that won’t dry out too quickly with bottom heat.”

Not Starting Enough Seeds
“It’s also a good idea to plant more seeds than you will need,” recommended Moore. “This will allow you to pick the healthiest starts to plant.”

Your turn

Now that you have some basic tips and mistakes to avoid laid out, in the comments below let me know what vegetable seeds you’ll be starting indoors and when.

Image courtesy of normanack on Flickr

37 Comments so far. Feel free to join this conversation.

  1. Meemsnyc February 24, 2012 at 1:55 am -

    I totally need to invest in a grow light setup for even light.

  2. Juliejacquet90 February 24, 2012 at 6:23 am -

    What is your opinion on grow lights? Do they work as well? I’ve read that combining a warm and cool fluorescent light provides a good spectrum for the plants??
    It still seems bizarre growing plants under bulbs…..

  3. Juliejacquet90 February 24, 2012 at 6:30 am -

    Thank you for the extremely helpful post!!! 

  4. Phoenix49 February 24, 2012 at 8:37 am -

    Mike you always seem to have the info I need when I need it!  Thank You!

  5. Phoenix49 February 24, 2012 at 8:38 am -

    I am starting with Tomato this week as I am in FL

  6. Anne February 24, 2012 at 8:42 am -

    I’ve never used a heating mat, maybe I’ll pick one up this year and see if it makes any difference. Very nice post, thanks.

  7. Kat February 24, 2012 at 8:44 am -

    I have been saving any clear plastic to-go containers with lids (it is the only option at my hospital’s cafeteria) to use as mini cold frames to start seeds without worrying about damage done by external forces ie. my cat.

  8. Angelina Singson February 24, 2012 at 8:53 am -

    i cannot afford a grow light, but I bought a garage light from HOme Depot. It is 48 inches suspended from the ceiling in my laundry room/plant room and it is working well for me. I bought 2 floursecent tubes, just the basic ones at Home Depot as well. The set up cost like $34 for the frame and the 2 tubes might be $10. Since fall 2011,  I have seeds sown successfully such as beans, rosemary, lavender, coleus, cactus seeds, cantaloupe. more herbs starting soon, and so flowers, and vegetables. It works and it is on about 8 hours at night, cause power is cheaper and then I turn it off during the day.

  9. Angelina Singson February 24, 2012 at 8:55 am -

    Anne: heat mat makes a difference on seeds that needed heat like host, pepper and eggplant…as I tried them. the rest…the small seeds like coelus, beans and cantaloupes are just happy with light. 

  10. Stevi February 24, 2012 at 9:35 am -

    We have a south facing sun porch and I lugged all my deck containers inside in December (a big “Duh!” for me this year, I’ll be doing this about Halloween next year!) and then it took about a week for the soil to defrost.  Since then I’ve nursed my parsley & rosemary back to health, and moved the 2 lettuce plants that were adamantly still growing in the strawberry patch (even under the straw!) into one of the pots.  I figured if they were still toughing it out then they deserved a chance.  Then I planted some fun stuff like beets, spinach, basil (with helper plant chives), and swiss chard.  The beets are about 1-1.5″ tall and it just makes me so damn happy!  🙂

  11. Mike Lieberman February 24, 2012 at 9:49 am -

    I have some that I’m going to start messing with.

  12. Mike Lieberman February 24, 2012 at 9:49 am -

    Nice! Live and learn. All good.

  13. Mike Lieberman February 24, 2012 at 9:50 am -

    Great question. Check this post about selecting grow lights

  14. Mike Lieberman February 24, 2012 at 9:51 am -

    I’m good like that.

  15. Mike Lieberman February 24, 2012 at 9:51 am -

    Lemme know how it works for you.

  16. Mike Lieberman February 24, 2012 at 9:51 am -

    Damned cat 😉

  17. Mike Lieberman February 24, 2012 at 9:52 am -

    Nice, but for that price you can likely buy a grow light. Searching Craigslist might be a good option for cheap lights.

  18. Sue in Hull February 24, 2012 at 11:18 am -

    Yooooo there I am England…. cold and still a chance of frost here outdoor.  Will be planting red pepper seeds tomorrow, windsill as it gets plenty of sunshine.  Then a blue spectrum florescent light until they are good and strong.  If the chance of frost has gone they will continue outside.

  19. Real_Food_Freaks February 24, 2012 at 12:10 pm -

    Mike, any recommendations about soil?  I have a lot of concerns buying potting soil from the garden center.  Is compost sufficient?  Can I mix compost with my own garden soil for the starter soil?

  20. Mike Lieberman February 27, 2012 at 12:13 am -

    Nice. Good luck!

  21. Mike Lieberman February 27, 2012 at 12:13 am -

    I’ve been using Fox Farm’s Ocean Forest. It comes filled with everything. You can get it from most hydroponic stores.

  22. AH February 27, 2012 at 9:30 am -

    I’ve started tomatoes, bell peppers, and marigolds (to keep pests away from my tomatoes this year!). Already have some seedlings. They are so cute. 🙂

  23. Mike Lieberman February 27, 2012 at 1:24 pm -


  24. Hopefull February 28, 2012 at 7:35 am -

    Is it the bell peppers AND marigolds that are protecting your tomatoes or just the marigolds???? My first round with tomatoes has just begun, tips are appreciated 🙂

  25. Annabelle February 29, 2012 at 5:32 pm -

    How “diluted” should the fertilizer be?
    This is my first year starting plants from seed. I’ve got tomato seedlings (heirloom of course :-), and they look a little “yellow”.
    They’re planted in a manure/peat moss mix.
    Any suggestions?

  26. Mike Lieberman March 1, 2012 at 8:04 am -

    It usually says in the directions. Likely safe to go with something like 1 tbls per gallon of water.

  27. Rachelle ODonnell Lance March 15, 2012 at 10:39 am -

    Hi! I started my seeds last weekend and I put a plastic dome over them to keep the warmth in because the room they are kept in is drafty.  I will be purchasing a grow light but need to wait another week ($$).
    I checked on my flats yesterday and they all have fuzzy greyish-white mold on the top of the soil.   It is (unseasonably) pretty warm in our area ( 60-70 degrees) right now so I put them outside in the sun hoping to “kill” off the mold….. Is this ok or do I need to start over?

  28. Mike Lieberman March 15, 2012 at 1:52 pm -

    Nice. Give it a lil bit to see if it goes away.

  29. why_me March 26, 2012 at 12:53 am -

    hi – i grow my seed indoor in a south facing window. i live in a mountain region and the main problem in spring is rapid temperature changes so i have to move them around and keep off drafts. i try each year to get early and late crops so i do 2 cycles for tomatoes. i have bought an outdoor cheapie plastic seed cover so i can harden up outside.

    i have just planted spring onions and basil (to stay in) and koriander. i have planted outside, fire beans and mangetout – next week i will do tomatoes and aubergines. chilli does well but i ate too much and got a bad stomach.

    i planted a grape vine too this year.

    i get so much crop i may need a drier to store some. sounds a bit much but its real urban – i’m 500meters from the city central station and live on the 6th floor.

    thanks Mike for your site – great tips and a nice community action – even a global one.

  30. Maria April 16, 2013 at 5:48 am -

    Hi Mike, I am also a plant expert like you lol .
    I used to know everything about plant because i have planted since
    young age, gardening is my life, but… Im from Brasil, now I’m here in Vermont, believe me, things are not the same, is not just the weather, there are all kinds of animals eating my plants…so much to learn and so much deception. First year i planted to early because was hot, the cold came back and kill everything, than i seed it again and i have no time for harvest all. But this year will be perfect, starting indoors, the best lamp, all organic, best seed starting, and the worst boy friend that don’t let me turn the light on at night, he insistent that plants needs to rest. I dont know much but i think that indoor lights are not like the sun and we want to speed up the plants, time is short here, beside our house at night goes to 50 witch i think is cold. Can you help me with that? how many hours of light? what the ideal temperature? thank you very much

  31. Emmy May 7, 2013 at 10:56 am -

    Just started carrots, beets, and red romaine lettuce today. Super excited. First time ever! I’m doing the soda bottle containers because I live in an apartment and don’t have a balcony or anything. Good amount of south facing windows, though. Hopefully my first time will be a success. 🙂 Also got my seeds from Seedsnow.

  32. dwarf burning bush January 16, 2014 at 11:32 pm -

    that is quite interesting ..looking for something like this….Good one

  33. Lou March 25, 2014 at 12:52 pm -

    What kind of soil do you recommend for the seed starter kit? I only have a lowes by me

  34. Jennifer Lee Takacs April 8, 2014 at 5:34 pm -

    1) Miracle-Gro Moisture Control Potting Mix it’s pretty much goof-proof.
    2) Use 8-count peat pots – I like Jiffy 5254 4 Count Seed Start Strips, 2-1/2-Inch
    3) For as many peat-pot sheets that you get, get the same number of clear plastic shoe boxes.

    Fill peat pots with soil.
    Place inside the shoe box.
    Water carefully – leave 1-inch of water in the bottom of the shoe box.
    Plant seeds.
    Cover with plastic wrap (from your kitchen). Remove plastic wrap when the seeds come up.

    Happy Gardening!

  35. Court March 28, 2015 at 12:21 pm -

    I started my seeds veggies and some flowers in a 36cell seed starting kit. I didnt label them😣 (mom brain and i started them quickly on nigth 😞). any advice for what i should do now that i dont know whats what….they have just started srouting.

  36. Michelle Vermeland April 8, 2015 at 10:06 am -

    I am starting seeds indoors for the first time. I just moved into a house with a greenhouse window. Do I still need to cover with plastic?

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