This seed starting guide will help you to figure out everything about starting your own seeds - why to do it, where to find the seed varieties, step-by-step tutorials, and more.
Winter is a great time to start thinking about the garden. Not only is it a great way to combat the winter blues, but you can use the outdoor garden down-time to plan and dream. And then - start some seeds indoors!
Since I've written quite a bit about starting plants from seeds here on AOC, I thought I'd bring them together here for you in a seed starting guide to give you the "why, where, and how" of seed starting.
In this guide, you'll find all the things you'll need to begin growing plants from seeds as well as tips to help you grow strong seedlings.
With lots of different information and ways to simplify the process, this guide is perfect for growing vegetables from seed for beginners, as well as more experienced gardeners.
What's the big deal with seeds?
It wasn't until I started growing my own vegetables and flowers from seed that I truly felt like a "gardener." To choose and plant what I wanted meant I had control of exactly what I grew as well as when I wanted to grow and when to plant them.
Plus, there's something a little magical about planting a tiny seed, seeing it spring to life, growing it, and then eating or enjoying the fruits and flowers. It's a beautiful thing.
Through trial and error in growing my own plants from seeds, I found some methods that consistently produce viable starts that then grew to produce lots of flowers and fruit.
Above all, I found it was easy. And saved so much money. Why pay $2-$3 for a tomato start when I could pay that for a packet of seeds that would last 2-3 years?
That's why I encourage every gardener to try growing some seeds indoors before the gardening season, as well as outdoors directly in the ground. I'm pretty sure that once you do, you will be a 'seed gardener' for life!
Seed Starting Guide
Why Start Plants From Seeds?
If you aren't sold on starting your own seeds yet, here are the top four reasons it's a good idea to start your vegetables - and flowers - from seed.
Well, at least some of your plants.
You don't have to start all your garden from seed if it doesn't work for you. I don't pressure myself to start every last thing from seed - especially when I want only one plant (an example from my garden is tomatillos).
But it's wonderful having broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower (or your favorite strain of marigolds) ready to go out in the garden when you're ready to plant and not just when the stores start carrying them.
Plus, you can grow exotic flowers and the newest vegetables from seed that you won't find in the nurseries.
Starting Seeds for a Fall Garden
Need another reason to start your plants from seed? It makes having a fall vegetable garden easy!
You can have the varieties and number of plants you want all ready to go when you need to plant. Garden centers and nurseries may have nothing for the fall or if they do, it's even more limited than spring planting.
Where to Buy Seeds
If you have a reputable store that sells good quality seeds, you can buy them there, but I like to buy seed packets from catalogs for the most variety.
Reading the catalogs is also a good way to learn about gardening. You can get TONS of information about different varieties, growing conditions, and harvesting tips.
When you only buy from a store, you are really limited to a few varieties for each type of vegetable or flower. It's simply a matter of space for the store.
There are no limits like that for catalogs, so you are free to read about and try new varieties, or stick with your tried-and-true favorites.
If you have a seed company that is close to your area and also has a catalog you are doubly blessed, because then you know the growing information will be spot-on for your garden, too.
Here are some of my favorite catalogs:
- Pinetree Garden Seeds (my number 1 for cost and selection)
- Territorial Seed Company (local for me)
- Nichol's Garden Nursery (also considered local for me)
- Johnny's Selected Seeds (great organic option, though prices are higher)
You can read more about why I like these companies in this article about my favorite gardening catalogs.
I encourage you to go to their websites and fill out the form for a catalog to be sent to you. While I always place my order online, there's something wonderful about slowly reading through a garden catalog, marking the seeds you're interested in, with a cup of tea in the winter.
Once you have your seeds, you might wonder where to keep them from year to year. Here's my simple system to organize and buy seeds each year.
How to Start Vegetable Seeds Indoors (& Flowers, too)
If you're sold on growing some of your plants indoors and you've bought your seeds, then you'll want to read through the simple step-by-step tutorial I wrote using only basic (i.e., not expensive) equipment:
I've pictured each step of how to start seedlings at home to take any mystery out of it, as well as the equipment you need to have.
How to Care For Seedlings
I always thought seed starting tutorials left me hanging after the seeds sprouted. So I created three more how-to articles to show you how to treat your baby seedlings at every stage of indoor growth through planting as part of the Vegetable Gardening 101 series:
- Caring For Seedlings at One Week
- Caring For Seedlings at Six Weeks Including the dreaded (at least for me!) "hardening them off" stage to prepare them for outdoor life.
- How to Plant Seedlings in the Garden See when to transplant seedlings from seed tray, complete with lots of pictures of how I prepare my beds and plant the different types of vegetables.
And if you'd like a good laugh, here is what might happen to your seeds if you have a dog that goes crazy one night. (Spoiler: everything was okay!)
Seed Varieties to Try:
- Seeds: New Vegetable Varieties + Tried & True Favorites
- Why I Love Emerite Pole Beans (& Why Pole Green Beans Are Better Than Bush)
Seed Starting Guide FAQ:
How long does it take for seeds to germinate?
Seed packets will have a germination rate on them. All seeds germinate at various times. For example, tomato seeds are pretty quick to sprout, usually 4 days to a week. Pepper plants, though, can take three weeks or longer (I've had much better luck using a heated grow mat with them, though).
What about old seeds?
Seed packets always have a date on them. Most are good for at least 2 years, many for more than that.
If you've started seeds in the past (or just thought you would and never actually planted them- not that I've ever done that...ahem) and now have old seed you're wondering about, Southern Exposure Seed Exchange has some good information on how to test seed for germination including the paper towel test:
- Place 10 seeds an even distance apart on a damp paper towel. Roll up the towel and place in a plastic bag.
- Leave the damp, rolled towel in a warm spot in the kitchen for two to five days. The location's lighting doesn't matter.
- After the two-to-five days, check the paper towel to see which seeds have germinated.
Can you start seeds in potting soil?
It's best to use a soil-less seed starting mix that's specifically formulated for starting healthy seedlings.
If you can find that, look for a potting soil mix that doesn't contain field soil, compost, or manure that could introduce a fungus to your seedlings. Or make your own starting mix using this method.
What seeds should I start indoors?
You can refer to the Organic Vegetable Gardening Checklist for the seeds you can start to keep almost a year-around garden, but here's a basic list of my favorite seeds to start indoors:
- brassicas: broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower
- lettuce (to get an early start before seeding outdoors)
- kale and chard
- new varieties I want to try
- marigolds for the vegetable garden
- sunflowers (to get earlier blooms)
The better question is, "What seeds to NOT start indoors?"
There are some plants that resent transplanting and so should always be started outdoors, never in a pot. These include:
- turnips and parsnips
When should I start vegetable seeds? When should I start flower seeds?
You can plug in your zone if you know it or navigate to your state for more detailed planting information, including first and last frost dates of the town you're located in.
Once you know your first and last frost dates, you can find planting information on the seed packets, both for vegetables and flowers.
What about starting seeds outdoors?
Again, finding out your first and last frost dates are key. Then follow the seed packet directions for planting directly in the ground.
In addition to the vegetables listed above under what not to plant indoors, I find these seeds seem to do best when planted directly outdoors:
- lettuce (Planted every two weeks after your early seedlings are planted for a constant supply.)
- pumpkins and squash
Seed Starting Guide: More Tips
Finally, here are some other tips for starting plants from seed:
- 10 Seed Starting Tips from Fine Gardening.
- Best Seed Starting Tips from Mother Earth News.
- Starting Plants from Seeds by the University of Minnesota Extension.
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