Advice for Successfully Starting Vegetable Seeds at Home

Posted on Mar 2 2012 - 1:35am by Mike Lieberman

By Michelle Moore
Owner of The Greenhouse Catalog

There is nothing like new life in spring…

…and starting seeds is one of the best ways to enjoy the start of the season.

Unlike transplants, seedlings are fragile and require newborn-like attention:

The right media, temperature, light, water and food.

To a new gardener, meeting these needs may seem like a challenge.

But with a little knowledge and the right equipment, success is easy and just a few short days or weeks away.

With a little knowledge and the right equipment, seed starting success is easy. — Tweet This

Note–before you even start

It is important to select the right seeds. There is nothing wrong with planting seeds that are more than a year old, but if you are trying seed starting for the first time and need a confidence boost—stick to current year seeds for the best germination rate.

What You’ll Need for Seed Starting Success

Media: The best seed-starting media holds moisture and air. Seedlings need to stay moist, but not wet, and need to have plenty of aeration. You can purchase specially formulated seed starting mix, use coco-pith, or a number of seed starting cubes for the best results.

Temperature: Seeds need warmth, so don’t put your seed trays in a drafty area. Add bottom heat for even better and faster roots to development. Seedling heat mats are an excellent investment.

Light: Most seedlings germinate best in light. A sunny window may be enough light, but the addition of a small grow light can make a tremendous difference in a healthy start. Plants receiving too little or too much light tend to get leggy and don’t make for the best transplants. T-5 or LED grow lights are extremely energy efficient and do not take up much space. They also don’t create a lot of heat, so seedlings won’t dry out as quickly.

Water: Seedlings dry out quickly, so it’s easy to overwater them. The best methods include frequent but gentle misting, or bottom watering. We love the Smart Float tray. It provides an excellent media and the sturdy Styrofoam base floats on the water, so seedlings are never over or under watered. Additionally, the Styrofoam insulates tender seedlings and the white base reflects lights back to plants.

Feeding: Once plants have their second set of leaves, they are ready for food (generally within 72 hours of spouting). A high-quality organic fertilizer, diluted to ¼ strength for the first feeding, works well. Continue feeding at ½ strength until seedlings are ready to transplant.

Happy planting and be sure to check all of the seed starting supplies at The Greenhouse Catalog.

About Michelle Moore

Michelle Moore is the owner of the Greenhouse Catalog where she has worked with greenhouses for 20 years. Michelle writes and lectures about greenhouse gardening as an Oregon State University Master Gardener and member of Garden Writers Association. Michelle and her husband live in Oregon, but they enjoy hints of summer all year in their greenhouse! Become a Greenhouse Catalog fan on Facebook to get year-round gardening tips and advice.

Your Turn

Share this post with your friends and family to help them successfully start their seeds this year.

Photo courtesy of janeyhenning on Flickr

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

  1. Tony March 4, 2012 at 4:00 pm -

    Always good information here.  I am a big proponent of starting plants from seed instead of buying plants.  You have so much more variety available and get healthier plants.  This is great advice on getting started.

  2. Mike Lieberman March 4, 2012 at 6:12 pm -

    Thanks man. For beginners, def easier to start from transplants though.

  3. megan March 13, 2012 at 12:53 am -

    This article mentioned grow lights; I followed the link but it didn’t really help me. I have a few plants on a balcony that receives no direct sunlight whatsoever, it gets ambient light reflected off surrounding buildings and trees. I put just a regular compact fluorescent bulb in the balcony light, will this help my plants at all?

  4. Mike Lieberman March 13, 2012 at 7:26 am -

    I don’t think a regular compact fluorescent bulb will work though you may see if it does. The grow light article explains the different kinds of lights, colors and what’s needed for growth.

  5. Megan March 14, 2012 at 10:23 pm -

    Started some broccoli seeds and garlic today, I’ll see how they do! PS, I soaked the garlic cloves in the solution from your post on how  to grow garlic; fungus is a real problem in the Pacific NW.

  6. Mike Lieberman March 15, 2012 at 12:39 am -

    Keep me updated.

  7. Vicki Schoenwald March 18, 2012 at 7:00 am -

    I purchased 2 very cheap greenhouse flats with the greenhouse plastic lids and the heated seed mats included with the kits. They will not hold up to major use but they will get me by until I can.  These have been so much of a blessing for me.  With little sun in the late winter/early spring light,  and little access to heat, I have been very successful in starting tomatoes and peppers for me.  These have been so much of a problem for me to start.
    I have heirlooms going now, Stupice, Mortgage Lifters, and some peppers.
    My access to light is a small bathroom with a small south window. Between the heat mats, and the sunlight, everything is coming up very well.
    For me, these are part of the secret of starting seeds.

  8. Mike Lieberman March 18, 2012 at 6:05 pm -

    Awesome. Thanks for sharing!

  9. cccquilter March 22, 2012 at 5:53 am -

    This is my second year using the wintersown method. I have never had much success with sowing indoors; they mostly die or I forget to water, etc. But wintersown has given me so much more success; almost everything germinates! Now I need to get success with potatoes in trash cans!

  10. Mike Lieberman March 22, 2012 at 7:15 am -


  11. megan March 22, 2012 at 4:40 pm -

     My broccoli seedlings are going crazy! They poked out of the soil yesterday morning and most of them are .5″ – 1″ tall. I used pre-fertilized organic potting soil, do you think I should still feed them after the second leaves show up?

  12. Mike Lieberman March 22, 2012 at 8:49 pm -

    Go for it.

  13. Pam Smith March 20, 2013 at 12:36 pm -

    my seedlings get very leggy started indoors and then they die before I can get them outdoors and planted or are too weak for me to want to plant them. Would being near a drafty NE window be causing this or not watering them the right way? I am using a grow light.

  14. Sue Reimund March 20, 2013 at 3:57 pm -

    Garlic should be planted in fall not now. You plant them outdoors just like you’d plant tulips.

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