Sowing seeds indoors

Sowing seeds indoors is a March-April-May ritual for me. After perusing seed catalogs during cold January/February days, and ordering what I need/want to add to my collection of seeds saved from previous years, it’s really nice to finally start sowing seeds into soil.

Gardeners develop their own routines for starting seeds. Here’s mine, slightly updated from a January 2013 post explaining the same.

  • The container: black plastic flats saved from prior nursery purchases. Paper cups, rectangular plastic vegetable containers, small pots, or just about any food-safe container that holds a couple of inches of soil and has drainage.


  • The prep: fill containers with light weight potting mix, gently packed down so the soil  gives a little … like a sponge. Cut-to-size newsprint will keep soil from escaping through holes.


  • The planting: I plant seeds into dry potting mix. Scatter small seeds, such as lettuce and radish, in rows or over the entire flat, then sprinkle with a light coating of soil. Larger seeds are inserted a bit deeper into the soil. Use a blunt pencil to create rows and push larger seeds to the correct depth. The general rule: plant as deeply a seed’s diameter.

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  • The watering: place flats into a larger, leak-proof tray containing about an inch of water. The soil absorbs water through the drainage holes in the bottom of each flat. After sowing, moisten the top of the soil with a gentle spray from a sink sprayer or a clean spray bottle. Thoroughly moisten the soil initially, then keep the soil moist – not soggy. Cover the flats with clear plastic to maintain moisture until seeds sprout, then remove the plastic to allow air circulation.
  • The lighting: Most seeds don’t need light until after they sprout – there are some exceptions but the seed packets should explain this. Indoor-started seedlings usually become leggy; very few homes receive enough light to prevent this. Grow lights, kept as close to the plants as possible, without actually touching the top leaves, will insure plants do not grow tall and spindly before it is time to harden them off outside.
keep indoor grow lights close to seedlings to prevent seedlings from growing tall and spindly.

Keep indoor grow lights this close to seedlings to prevent  tall and spindly growth.

I use a home-made light rack (thanks to dear Hubby) that allows me to adjust florescent lights to the height needed. As seedlings grow, I raise the lights.

Home-made grow light rack for indoor seed starting.

Home-made grow light rack for indoor seed starting.

  • Continued care: Even under grow lights, rotate seed flats to encourage even growth. Water when the top half of the soil is dry, preferably a little at a time into the bottom of the tray. Add only enough water for the flats to soak up through their holes. If you come back an hour or two later to find flats in standing water, drain the tray. Plants, especially seeds and seedlings, will rot in constantly over-soaked soil.

Some additional tips:

  • Label all flats/pots. Repurpose saved plant tags from previous purchases, create labels attached to toothpicks for each flat, or attach sticky labels to the outside of each flat.
  • Keep a calendar, journal or some sort of plant diary to track your methods, planting dates, successes, and failures. I find it useful to note, in the upper right corner of each seed packet, the year they were packed, and note date and number of flats sowed for future reference.
  • Most seeds are viable for more than one year if stored in a dry place. I’ve had success with seeds up to three years old. If unsure, test plant just a few older seeds to see if they sprout.
Newly planted tomato seeds and their seed packets.

Newly planted tomato seeds and their seed packets.

When to sow seeds indoors: Seed packets recommended indoor sowing periods, usually listed as x to y weeks from last frost (find your hardiness zone and average frost dates). I tend to indoor-sow closer to lesser suggestion – if the packet suggests 6-8 weeks, I sow around 6 weeks. Smaller healthy seedlings transplant and adapt better than overly leggy seedlings.

The ever-critical hardening off: Indoor grown seedlings must be gradually acclimated to outdoor sunlight and conditions to prevent sun-scald and shock. This requires exposing them to outdoor sunlight and temperatures a little at a time. Shade, but bright light for the first 3 days, gradually increasing exposure to full sun a few hours every few days. Also protect seedlings from harsh winds. I prefer giving seedlings two weeks of hardening off before planting them into their permanent summer home.

Learn from your mistakes: Don’t beat yourself up. A mistake is not wasted if you learn from it. Everyone makes mistakes, even seasoned gardeners.

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Protect blooming bulbs from heavy snow.

It’s disheartening when weather turns wintry after spring bulbs have started to bloom. But there’s no need to lose these blossoms under heavy wet snow when just a few easy steps will protect blooming bulbs.

Narcissus 'Tete-a-Tete' blooming in late winter in zone 6 Connecticut.

Narcissus ‘Tete-a-Tete’ blooming in late winter in zone 6 Connecticut.

Crocus tommasinianus 'Ruby Giant' blooming in late-winter in zone 6 Connecticut.

Crocus tommasinianus ‘Ruby Giant’ blooming in late-winter in zone 6 Connecticut.

Heavy wet snow would weigh down blooming stalks and destroy the petals of early-bloomers like these narcissi and crocus.

It’s just depressing to look out at once-beautiful flowers that have been beaten down by late snow.

Avoid this by spending a few minutes of your pre-snow time to place an overturned apple basket, or large plastic pot, over each set of blooms.

An overturned basket protects blooming bulbs from heavy snow.

An overturned basket protects blooming bulbs from heavy snow.

Once the basket is in position, sink two or three short posts or rods through openings in the basket and into the ground. This secures the cover from blowing winds.

A good sized flat rock will also work to keep the basket, or plastic pot, from blowing over. This trick also works to prolong blooming bulbs from heavy rains.

Once the storm passes remove your cover of choice and go on enjoying your blooms.

You can pick narcissi with buds close to opening to enjoy indoors during the storm, but if you don’t pick them they should be fine. After the storm passes you can pick any broken bud stems to enjoy indoors.

Don’t fret over newly emerging foliage of hardy perennials such as iris and daylilies. The tips of their foliage may brown during late freezes, but the plants will do fine under a blanket of snow.

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