ashley englishoutdoorsmall measures

small measures with ashley: starting seeds indoors

by Grace Bonney

Last Tuesday’s snow fall finally fully succumbed to this week’s warming trend. A brief walk around my property the other day revealed the presence of many, many daffodil buds sending their green arms of praise and golden heads of happiness up and out of the ground, rousing themselves from this winter’s protracted cold, ready for the spring throw-down to officially commence.

Their arrival reminded me that it’s time to get started growing seeds. Accordingly, today’s small measure covers the fundamentals of indoor seed starting. Whereas some seeds are directly sown, meaning they do best by simply being planted outdoors, straight into the soil, others benefit from indoor sowing, leisurely taking their time to germinate, sprout, and transition (oh so gradually) to the wilds of the great outdoors. The backs of individual seed packets will detail which route, direct sow or sown indoors, would best suit your seed’s needs. When planning your approach, there are a few tips to keep in mind for seed sowing success (or, at least, we hope success is the outcome!). To begin, base your sowing times on the calender. We all live in far-flung locales, with wide variation in climates. A plant’s “growing season” is the period between your region’s last spring frost and its first fall frost (those designations apply to residents of the Northern Hemisphere; Southern Hemisphere folks need simply reverse that order, with growing seasons running from fall to spring). Base your planting times on your region’s growing season. If a seed packet indicates to sow indoors 6 weeks before the last spring frost, and you live in a region where that occurs sometime towards the end of April, then you’ll need to get busy sowing around the first or second week in March.

CLICK HERE for the rest of ashley’s post and step-by-step photos for growing seeds indoors!

Secondly, take the time to figure out just how many plants you’ll need to sow to care for your family’s food needs. We’ve all heard stories of the ambitious, yet unaware, green thumb-er who found themselves swimming in zucchini, proffering it onto neighbors, family members, the mail carrier, and beyond. Read the yield on the back of seed packets, as well as the specifications for planting dimensions. Once you’ve got that information, do a little math to figure out just how many seeds you’ll need to sow. It never hurts to plant a few extra, for insurance, in the event that one or two fail to germinate (you can always thin them out later; more on that ahead). Next, be sure to use potting soil for your indoor sown seeds. It’s lightweight, providing plenty of room for air and moisture to fully penetrate the potting container. Lastly, you’ll need to provide plenty of light, water, and humidity in order for proper growth and germination to occur. While the water part is pretty self-explanatory, light needs to come from either a very sunny room (ideally experiencing 12 hours of sunlight daily), or via fluorescent grow lights, which mimic the full spectrum of naturally occurring sunlight. Humidity can be introduced either by covering the pots over with a glass dome, plastic lid, plastic bag, or plastic film into which small holes have been pierced (just use a sewing needle or safety pin for puncturing).

Once seeds begin to sprout, you’ll need to thin (i.e. remove) extras; otherwise, the seedlings will crowd each other out, competing for nutrients, water, and growth room. Simply snip off extra seedlings at their base. If the thought of doing so makes you cringe, it’s possible to avoid this by placing only one seed per potting container, although, as mentioned above, you run the risk of wasting space should individual seeds fail to germinate.

As far as potting vessels are concerned, seemingly limitless options are available. If your pockets are deep, small terra cotta pots are always lovely. These composted cow manure pots, as well as these coir pots made of coconut fiber, are attractive, fully biodegradable options. For more low-fi, low-cost options, turn to your recycling bin. Empty, washed out yogurt containers, milk or juice cartons, or egg shells all work brilliantly, as do paper towel and toilet paper rolls. Gayla Trail of You Grow Girl has an excellent tutorial on making seed starter pots from toilet paper rolls found here.

I’m particularly fond of twin British brothers Dave and Andy Hamilton and their indispensable tome of sustainable living The Self Sufficient-ish Bible. In their book, the brothers offer a very simple DIY pot suggestion using black and white newspaper (you want to avoid colored or glossy pages). I’ve outlined the basic steps here:

1) Begin with a sheet of black and white newspaper (I used a 22″ x 11.5″ sheet)

2) Fold the sheet in half at its crease.

3) Fold the creased sheet in half again, at its width.

4) Fold the paper in half one last time.

5) Using a drinking glass or other cylinder as a guide (I used a 1/2 pint mason jar), form the newspaper into a circle.

6) Remove the jar from the paper.

7) Tuck the ends of the newspaper into one another, creating a secure hold. If you need to provide further support, you can tie a piece of garden or butcher’s twine around the pot’s circumference (you may need to momentarily slip your drinking glass or jar back into the pot’s opening to provide support as you tie the twine).

8) Now to make the pot’s base. Take a sheet of newspaper and squeeze it as tightly as possible, forming a ball. Place it in the bottom of the pot. Using your drinking glass or jar, press down on the balled paper as tightly as you can, flattening it out.

9) Fill your pot with potting soil and seeds. If you’re only starting one pot, place it on a saucer. If you’re making a number of pots, place them on a tray. Water very gently.

10) Once your seeds have sprouted and the weather reaches the right conditions for planting, you can transition your pots outdoors. Simply dig a hole deep enough to accommodate the planter, lining up the top of the soil in the pot with ground level soil. The newspaper will rot away over time and the root system on bottom needn’t be disturbed.
Once you’ve potted your plants, where to site them as they grow? Willi Galloway, west coast editor of Organic Gardening magazine, has a simple, affordable idea for fashioning a seed starting unit out of an IKEA shelf.

Wondering which plants do well starting from seed? For herbs, consider: dill, chervil, marjoram, cilantro, chives, fennel, thyme, mint, sage, rosemary, parsley, oregano, chamomile, and basil. Vegetable-wise, consider: peas, summer squash, pumpkins, spinach, turnips, carrots, corn, melons, lettuce, beets, broccoli, eggplant, celery, okra, peppers, leeks, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, tomatoes, and leafy greens like collards, kale, and chard.
Have any tried and true seed starting tips you’d like to share? Favorite seed suppliers? I’d love to know! Happy sowing! -ashley

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  • What perfect timing for this post! I just bought an aquarium via Craigslist to start my seeds. Good for enhancing humidity and cat-proofing!

  • I’m starting my seeds this weekend. wish i would’ve seen this post before i bought the expensive seed starting kit. although, it’s never too late to take it back. i love using the newspaper as pots. the newspaper is also great for the dirt and helps elimante weeds for sprouting! Thanks!

  • I’ve got a ridiculous stash of yogurt containers saved up for starting seeds- Knowing me though I’ll get a little seed happy and plant more than I need! I’m actually using my SAD light on my seeds this year since we only get morning light in our apartment.

  • I so wish I could start from seeds, but last year they died because we can’t get this old house warm enough. Well, and possibly because I wouldn’t let my husband thin the seedlings ( “you can’t murder the baby basil!”). I think we will try buying baby plants this year, my mom did that and had a veggie jungle despite her black thumb!

  • If anyone lives in the Philadelphia area, you should really keep an eye out for Grid Magazine, which is all about working toward a sustainable city. The April issue that’s out now is all about gardening…I may be a little biased because I illustrated the cover this month (goes perfect with this D*S post!) but it really is a great magazine. You can even read it online!

    Thanks for another great post, Ashley!

  • I saw this clever seed starting shelf http://www.finegardening.com/how-to/articles/nurture-seedlings-tiered-growing-stand.aspx and thought, ‘I bet ikea has something that would work!’. The addition of bottom heat is essential! Especially for heat loving tomatoes and peppers.

    I have had great success with seed starting the last few years. I love Johnny’s for seeds, they are the best. Also, remember that the little 1″ seedlings need to go into bigger, and bigger pots as they grow. Plants like tomatoes start taking up a lot of room before they are ready to go into the ground. You can do dozens of plants for the cost of one plant at the greenhouse.

  • What if you can’t transfer your plants to the outdoors due to lack of a yard? Can you start them this way and transfer to a larger planter to place in the windowsill?

  • When I was a kid we just put some potting soil in a zip lock sandwich bag and poof instant greenhouse. I just started growing cammomile that way last week. When the sprouts outgrow the bag I will put them in pots.

  • Great post, I love the community that springs up around gardening, and all the fabulous creative ideas for reusing materials.

    Melissa – I just checked out your illustration for Grid Magazine – lovely! Also a very good issue on sustainability. (p.s. @blackkettles [aka, me] tweeted about your blog)

  • Such a lovely idea…..i was using egg cartons but this works much better, when the little sprout is ready you can dump the whole thing in a pot!

    Thanks ♥

  • i’ve heard of people using egg shells too, if you wash them out. Bio-degradable! though i guess they take a bit longer to rot away than newspaper….

  • The growing season in the Southern Hemisphere is the same as here: from last spring frost to first fall frost. Just like everywhere else. The only difference between S and N is the months of the year during which spring and fall take place…

  • I had bad luck with basil a few years ago but this post has me thinking about trying again (well, the post and the uncharacteristically good weather here…). Thanks! I love the newspaper pot idea.

  • Hello, Neat post. There’s a problem together with your site in web explorer, may test this? IE still is the marketplace leader and a large section of other people will omit your fantastic writing because of this problem.

    • Cooking Pots,

      Thank you for letting us know! Can you send an email to submissions at designsponge dot com w/ a screen shot or description of the problem? We will definitely look into it and try to resolve the issue.

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