Seed-Starting 101

From the Garden

Seed-Starting 101

By Megan Cain | Photos By Megan Cain 0

12 Tips for Successful Seed Starting 

Growing your own seedlings is a fun way to start the gardening season early, save money on plants and experiment with unusual varieties you won’t find at your local nursery. Here are 12 tips to help ensure a successful experience.

1.  You can’t grow seedlings in front of a window. This is the number one reason for less than stellar results. Seedlings need overhead light to grow properly, which a window can’t provide. The best option is to build or buy a light rack. See my preferred design here.

2.  Use a high quality soil. Don’t buy a cheap potting soil and expect it to feed your seedlings until they go into the garden. The chances are high that they’ll start to yellow from lack of nutrients. At the very least buy a high quality potting soil and mix in 1/3 compost or worm castings. Or buy a seed starting mix from your local farmer. If you live in Southwest Wisconsin, I like the Cashton Farm Supply Bedding/Potting Mix. If you live in Madison, try West Star Farm’s Potting Mix.

3.  Buy seed from reliable sources. Get your seed from the same places the pros do. Don’t buy your seeds from the local hardware or big box store. Invest in quality seed and varieties. I like to order from Johnny’s Selected Seeds and High Mowing Organic Seeds.

4.  Give your seedlings 12 hours of light per day. I have my seed rack lights plugged into a timer that goes on at 7am in the morning and off at 7pm at night.

5.  Keep the lights within one inch of the seedlings. A common mistake is to keep the lights too high above the seedlings. This makes them stretch for light and will result in tall and skinny (leggy) seedlings. Keep the lights about one inch above the seedlings.

6.  Use a germination chamber. Seeds need warmth and moisture for germination.  After seeding and watering a tray or pots, slide them into a plastic bag and seal it shut. Put the bag someplace warm and check daily for germination. Once the seeds germinate, remove the trays from the bag and place them under the lights.

7.  Keep simple records. Each year I keep a record of the seeds I start for my garden. That way I don’t have to re-invent the wheel each season. I often consult my records from previous years when deciding what to start. I keep track of the date, vegetable, variety and number of seeds planted.

8.  Make your own plant labels. I cut old yogurt containers down into strips and use them for plant labels. I use a sharpie to write the variety on each label. You can also add the date and vegetable if you’d like more information on the label.

9.  Don’t overwater your seedlings. It’s best to let seedlings dry out a bit between waterings. You don’t want them to be constantly wet.  Wait until the soil is about 70-80% dry before watering again.

10. Water with a bike water bottle. My houseplant watering can is too messy for watering my seedlings. I use old bike water bottles because I can control the flow more easily and less water ends up on my living room floor.

11. Keep one plant per cell. There should only be one plant per cell or pot. If you have two plants in a cell you need to either kill or move one. If I have space I’ll gently remove one of the plants and move it to an empty cell. If I don’t have room I’ll kill the plant. I know it sounds ruthless, but just keep telling yourself, “Crowded plants are not happy plants!”

12. Harden off your seedlings. If you take your seedlings from your house and put them right into the garden there’s a high likelihood they will die. The conditions in your house are pretty cushy – no wind, no rain, and pretty constant temperatures. In other words, your plants are wimps. They need to gradually spend more time outside for a few days before getting dumped into the garden to fend for themselves.

Starting the season with high quality seedlings leads to much better results in your garden.  If you want step-by-step guidance through the process you can find it in my e-book, Super Easy Seed Starting.

Have more questions about seed starting? Leave them in the comments below.

Megan Cain is setting out to create a legion of gardening addicts who successfully and passionately grow their own food.Through her gardening education business, The Creative Vegetable Gardener, she helps people get more out of their gardens by first mastering the essentials and then indulging in the colorful details that make gardening not just a favorite pastime, but a lifestyle. Jump on her email list at to get her best advice in the season you need it most.

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