For us, starting vegetable seeds indoors is a long-awaited signal that Spring is right around the corner!
All of those long Winter months of cold and frosty mornings somehow become more bearable when those little seeds start to sprout through the soil. We spent this week getting our seed starting rack and soil mix ready – knowing it won’t be long until those harvest baskets are filled with tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and more!
Contrary to what you may hear or read, growing your own vegetable and flower plants from seed does not require expensive equipment! In fact – we have been starting ours easily for years with a homemade plant stand and ordinary inexpensive flourescent shop lights. It’s simple, fun, and not to mention – it saves us a TON of money on our plants! (We have links at the bottom of the article to our DIY seed stand and also a table top version for those that want to start a flat or two)
Starting Vegetable Seeds – Using the Count Back Method
To figure out when to start our seeds – we simply count back from the day we want to put our plants into the garden. Although most seed packets list 4 to 6 weeks as a starting time – we like to use 6 to 8 weeks for nearly all of our vegetable plants.
The extra week or two allows time for the plants to germinate and grow strong – and also gives them the chance to harden off on the back porch. Hardening off is nothing more than letting your flats of young seedlings get used to the fresh air, sun and fluctuating temperatures of outdoor weather a few days or weeks before going in the ground. We put our young plants on the back porch a few weeks during the warmer days of Spring – only bringing them in when temps fall too low at night. It is such an important and often overlooked step that can really help your plants get off to a great start once planted.
For us here in central Ohio – our typical planting day in the garden falls somewhere between the 15th and 22nd of May – so using the count back method, we’ll start those seeds on or close to March 20th to give them a full 8 weeks. For fast germinating and growing plants like zucchini and cucumbers – we wait until about 4 weeks before.
The big exception to the 6 to 8 week rule is our ornamental and hot pepper seeds – which we start a full 10 weeks before planting day. For whatever reason, hot pepper seed varieties such as cayenne, habanero, jalapeno and our favorite Chinese Five Color take a long time to germinate in the soil. In fact, some can take up to 28 days before popping through!
We plant all of our seeds in a homemade mix of compost, perlite, soil and sand. Whether you use commercial potting soil or make your own – the important key is to make sure the soil is light for seeds to easily break through.
After we plant our seeds into the tray – we lightly mist with a spray bottle to dampen the soil. We then cover our trays with a plastic top and put them in a dark room. There is no need for light at this point, and in fact – the seeds have always sprouted better for us when we leave them out of direct light. We check on them every few days – misting when necessary to make sure the soil stays damp.
Once we have a few seedlings sprouting from the soil, we remove the lid and place it under our shop light stand. It may sound close, but when using ordinary shop lights you want the bulbs to hover down about 1 to 2″ from the top of the plants. Continue to adjust to keep them that close as the plants grow. This prevents seedlings from becoming spindly and weak.
All that’s left is to keep watered and get ready for Spring! And remember – when it comes to watering – your plants will require more as they grow – sometimes even morning and night as they begin to fill the soil up with a healthy root structure!
So get those shop lights and seeds ready – Spring is just around the corner!
Happy Gardening – Jim and Mary This post may contain affiliate links.
For detailed seed starting instructions, see our previous articles below: