Seed Starting Indoors For An Early Start Outdoors

  • Post published:04/11/2020
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Seedlings 8 days old  – Mesclun and sunflowers on the left

This is the time of year when we can’t wait to start planting seeds. Unfortunately it is not the time of year when we can put vegetable or flower seeds in the ground. Fortunately for those of us who want a jump on the season we can start seeds indoors without too much trouble or expense. It is helpful to know the date of the last frost in your area. It is also important to know the temperature of your garden soil. The soil temperature is even more important to your seedlings that the air temperature.

Seed Starting Equipment

A soil thermometer is a good investment. It will cost about $15. Different seeds need different soil temperatures to germinate energetically. Your seedlings will also need warm soil. One way to insure that your soil is warm is by covering your planting space with a clear plastic sheet or a tarp for a few sunny days.

Another way to protect seedlings when they go in the ground is to use row covers supported by wire hoops. These low tunnels will provide some heat, and they will also protect plants from hungry insects. I used row covers in my small vegetable garden in Heath and really appreciated the protection it gave early in the season. Greenfield Farmers Coop has all the items you will need for seed starting from trays and seed cells, soil thermometer, hoops and row covers. And seeds.

Having assembled your equipment and seeds it is time to plant. Fill the seed cells with moist seedling soil mix, but leave room for the seed and covering soil mix.

I started my seeds in my basement under a grow light. A grow light is the best way to germinate seeds, but people have been putting their seed trays on a sunny windowsill for years. If that is what you need to do, you will have to keep turning the seed trays. Seedlings are always bending towards the light and you want to keep them as upright as possible. Expect the seedlings to be a little leggier than they would be under grow lights.

Progression of Seedling Growth

April 11 – Mesclun has been hardening off, almost ready to plant in my new vegetable garden

Some seeds like mesclun lettuces germinate very quickly, others will take longer. I planted my seeds on March 18. Mesclun was the first to sprout.  As I write the seeds that have germinated are sunflower, zinnia, cosmos, calendula, and fennel. Other seeds have not yet germinated. I have to wonder whether they need more time, or if the seed is no longer viable. Some of these seeds have been in my stash for more than a couple of years. I will wait a little longer before I give up on them.

Some of my seedlings have begun to develop ‘true’ leaves. I expect them to be ready tor transplanting in four to six weeks. I checked my weather records for 2019. I won’t say I take perfect temperature records, but last April 7 was the last day I recorded frost. As April progressed temperatures did not go below 40 degrees. I expect to put my seedlings in the ground by the first full week of May.

Of course I will not take my seed flats outside and immediately plant them in the soil, no matter how warm the soil is. Seedlings raised indoors are delicate little things. I will harden off my seedlings first. That means gently getting them accustomed to the sun and breezes. The first day seedlings can go outside they need light shade for two hours and then bring them back indoors. For the next six days add more sunny hours gradually to their outdoor stay. Don’t forget to keep the seedlings watered. The soil will dry out faster outside than indoors.

4-11 Look at those sunflowers! Fennel also doing well.


The day before the seedlings are ready for transplanting I will water them with a dilute solution of liquid fertilizer. This will give them a little extra strength when they come out of their cell. Now comes the trickiest part. Do not try to pull the seedling out of the seed cell by its fragile stem. The seedlings are very delicate and tender. I tear my little plastic cells to remove the moist soil and seedling carefully and pop it into the prepared bed. Some gardeners prefer using peat pots for growing seedlings. The planted peat pot can go right in the ground with no tearing or fussing. No worry about damaging the plant or its roots at all.

I have been told that starting seeds indoors can be done in the summer as well as in the spring. Some crops like broccoli and cauliflower can be started indoors the first August and be harvested in late October. My temperature record last year said all of October was very mild with no frost until November 1. It will be fun to see if I can get a fall harvest of broccoli and cauliflower.

At my age, an important aspect of gardening is having fun. It is fun to try out new flowers and vegetables. If they fail, finding out why can be quite intriguing.

Since moving to Greenfield I have not grown any vegetables. My wet garden is not suitable for vegetables. I do have a small spot where I can grow herbs, near the kitchen door, but that is not the same as being able to harvest my own carrots, zucchini, lettuce and tomatoes. This year I will have my own small plot in the Community Garden. The size of the plot will control extravagances. My sister/fellow gardeners will make working there especially pleasant. Expect more reports.

Between the Rows   April 4, 2020

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