How to Successfully Start Seeds Indoors

Start seeds indoors

Start seeds indoors. Every winter, I get itchy to start planting seeds, because I want to get my garden growing. Even though the snow is outside, or it’s cold weather. So in today’s video I’m going to walk you through exactly what to do to start seeds indoors.  Then you will have a fantastic garden that’s ready to go as early as possible in the season. So stick with me to the end of this video and you’ll see exactly what it is you need to do to be successful with growing seeds indoors.

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Why start seeds indoors

Now, first of all, the question is “why would you want to do this?” Well, mostly, you would start seeds indoors for plants that like warmer weather. So particularly things like tomatoes and peppers, which love warm weather, and they’re not going to germinate until the ground has gotten to a certain temperature. So if you plant them directly outside it’s gonna be really late in the season before you get anything growing on those plants. In fact, you might not even get tomatoes or peppers depending on where you’re living. So you’re gonna want to start those in advance.

Other plants, like Lettuce and spinach and peas and beans and corn and things – those are going to go straight into the garden. You don’t need to start them indoors. But there are a lot of other vegetables and flowers and some herbs that you want to start inside. In the notes underneath this video we have for you a download showing you when to start what. Which plants should be started inside, which ones can you put directly into the garden. And usually the date at which you decide to plant your seedlings indoors or outdoors has to do with the expected last frost date in your area.

There is a great selection of seeds and equipment on this Amazon page

What do I need?

So what do you need to grow seeds indoors? Well, it’s pretty simple. You only need a few things. You need something to plant your seeds in. Also you need some kind of seed starting mix, you need water, and you need heat. That’s pretty much it. So let’s start with the seed starting mix. What are you going to plant this in? Now there are a lot of different types of seed starting mixes out there. We actually tested a ton of them and, again, down there is a link to our review of over a dozen different types of seed starting mixes. And the one that I really like best is this one from Coast of Maine organic seed starter. But there are lots of other good ones out there as well.

Use seed starting mix

A few things to keep in mind: First, never use garden soil. We tried that as well you know people are always saying, “yeah, sure, you can try it!” It’s got all sorts of insects and pathogens in it that especially you’re starting your seeds indoors, you don’t want to bring that inside. It’s also less likely that your seeds are going to germinate in that mix, so just don’t do it. Potting mix similarly. It can work but it’s not going to be as optimal of a growing environment for your seedlings as a seed starting mix – one that’s specifically built for it. So this is the one we’re going to use today. A few things to keep in mind.

First of all, when it comes out of the bag, it’s dry. It’s really dry, and you need to moisten it. So what I do is I put the seed starting mix into a large trug. So you can see here – you can put it into anything but you’re gonna want to add moisture to it – water – and it’s probably gonna take a lot more water than you think it is to make it nice and moist. If you’re only planting a few seeds obviously you don’t need something as big as this. A bowl will do, but make sure you’re not just using it straight out of out of the bag. Now people do do that – they put this into the seed trays and then they water it. The problem with that is it doesn’t absorb moisture very easily when it’s dry.

Moisten the seed mix

So if you’re just going to water it on top you’ll get parts of your mix that are wet and part of it that is dry and that will never work properly. Your seedlings won’t grow very well so always moisten the soil first. Make sure when you do that that it isn’t too wet, so when you squeeze it, you don’t want water to come dripping out. If it does, it’s too wet. Add some more dry mix. And when you bounce it in your hand it should fall apart If it doesn’t hold together at all, it’s too dry. So that’s kind of the test is it too wet or is it too dry you want to just right. It holds together a little bit, it doesn’t squeeze water out, and when you bounce it it falls apart.

You’ve got your seed starting mix nice and moist and ready to go, what are you gonna put it in? So this is something that you’ve probably seen; you can get these in every hardware store, big box, garden center or any of those things, and it is a very simple system. You’ve got a tray a waterproof tray so that keeps things the water in there Then you have a bunch of these plastic cells these plastic trays. They’re pretty flimsy, they’ve got holes in the bottom and they fit in there. And then you have a greenhouse cover that goes on top. That’s important because it’s gonna keep the moisture in.


So while seeds are germinating, you want them to be in a nice moist – not wet – but moist environment and the easiest way to do that is to cover it with something like this. You could also use a plastic bag, you can use Saran wrap, you can use pretty much anything you can find that’s gonna keep the moisture in, but nice and easy this way. Now this is what a lot of people use, and there’s nothing really wrong with it unless you’re a pretty lazy gardener like me. I tend to forget to water things which means that these dry out on me. You’re gonna put the water underneath, you’re gonna put these in there and, I find, I come and my seedlings are all wilting because I forgot to water it.

Self watering systems

Therefore, I like an all-in-one self watering system. So this is one of my favorite ones. It’s got the same components, generally speaking. Here is the seed tray. Now this one is from Gardener’s Supply. It’s their Deep Root Seed Starting tray, or as part of a kit you can get it as well. I like it because these cells are bigger, right? You can see the difference in size. What that means is that, as the seedlings develop in here, I don’t need to transplant them into a larger pot. So when you start them in something like this, you’re probably going to transplant them into something bigger like this to grow on before you then put them into the garden.

If you put them directly from here, either they won’t have enough roots and they’ll be too small and they’ll just get flattened or blown over or die in your garden, or you’ve left them in here too long the roots have all wrapped around and they’re also going to be less likely to survive when you plant them out. So starting in this, you probably do want to transplant up into something bigger. That’s why I like this. It’s larger; I don’t have to transplant. This also comes with a watering tray You can see, I use that quite a lot. I really need to wash it before I use it again.

Clean seed starting equipment

You want to use clean seed starting equipment right? Particularly, you don’t want any bacteria, fungus anything from last year or since then to infect your seeds as you’re growing them, so I gotta clean this. One thing I like about this, it’s dishwasher safe so I could just rinse it stick it in the top of my dishwasher as well as this, and that will essentially sterilize them. Otherwise what you’re probably going to do is you’re going to use a water and bleach solution – ten percent bleach -to wash all of your seed starting trays before you use them again. So this, I could do that, right, and water it that way.

Capillary Mats

What I like with this system though is that it has this sort of platform or tray that goes in there just like that and this sits on top so the bottom of these containers are not sitting directly in water. So then the question is,”how does the water get from down here into the seedlings?” and that’s where this comes in. This is the capillary mat. It’s a piece of special fabric and you lay it in here on top and you make sure that one end of it is hanging over and it’s sitting in the water in the tray underneath. And what that’s going to do is it’s going to wick the water from underneath up across the entire surface of this capillary mat so this is going, to be wet.

You now put that on top and the moist seed starting mix that’s in these cells is then  wick water from the capillary mat up into your seedlings. So it’s a really nice system you can’t overwater this way. The problem with with these is the bottom is sitting in water. You know, I’ve over-watered them many many times, and then you get all sorts of problems with fungus gnats and molds and all sorts of dead seedlings, which you don’t want. This kind of a system prevents that from happening. So I really like that. It also has a greenhouse cover.

Other self watering systems

Then I have some other systems as well. This is one I’ve had, it’s a very similar type of self watering system. I’ve had this one for about 15 years I think. I got it from Lee Valley and it’s the same sort of idea. So you have your water reservoir in the bottom, and then you have your table, your platform with your capillary mat. This one is structured a little different, it hangs off the sides it sits in there. This is what you plant your seeds in, and then it has a greenhouse cover. There are a couple of extra features on this system that I really like, and one is this right here. So this allows you to see how much water is in the tray underneath.

This little indicator. Inside is a little float. As you fill the tray with water,the red thing moves up and you can see when it’s time to water. Which is great because then you’re not gonna run out of water in here. The other thing I like and you can’t see it so well with that, is that there are openings on both ends here to fill the tray with water. So it makes it much easier to water it. You don’t have to pick the whole thing up to fill it with water.


The final thing I really like about this, is when you are ready to transplant your seedlings. They’ve grown and you’re gonna transplant them. Instead of having to poke them all out from the bottom, you simply turn this upside down. Do that,  and it will push your soil blocks right out of here. You just grab them and plant them. Perfect! Nice and easy. This is this is one system that I really like.

Now there are lots of other similar sorts of systems out there. One that I’ve had for a long time is something a little bigger. This is called the Bio Dome. This is from Park Seed. You can see I have it labeled with all sorts of things I’ve been planting. It’s got vents on top so you can control the amount of air circulation and moisture inside this, and you can put any seed trays you want inside this bottom reservoir here. Now these are all systems that you buy. They range from this this jiffy 72 cell pack was about eight bucks to twenty five, thirty, forty dollars for a system like this. But you don’t need to spend that kind of money.

Peat pellets

So if money is the issue absolutely don’t bother with this. You can do this yourself. You don’t need anything fancy. One thing I do recommend is that you have some sort of waterproof tray to put underneath all your seed starting stuff. This is a boot tray. This isn’t even specifically for seed starting and when you have this, all of your seed starting kits can fit inside this. So that’s great; you’re not gonna get wet water everywhere. but you can also do other things.

So let’s say you decide you want to start with peat pellets instead. Well some people do this. You put a seed in here you just stick it in water and it expands – that’s one option. And can use peat or in this case these are cow pots so this is cow manure, basically, pots -biodegradable – the idea being that as the seedlings develop and the roots start to come out the sides you just put this whole thing in the ground and it biodegrades and fertilizes the plant as its growing. You can use those. Also you can start seeds in plastic containers, styrofoam cups, anything. This is just a yogurt container. Poke some holes in the bottom, you put your seed starting mix in it. There you go.

Saran wrap

Now you would want to cover this with Saran wrap or a plastic bag you just kind of put it on top like that like a dome, as your as your greenhouse. Or you can use any sort of recyclable plastic things. This is, Jack’s spinach was in this. You poke some holes in the bottom,you would fill it with about that much potting mix. You really don’t need much. An inch or two, something like that. Sow your seeds in it, put the lid back on, put it in your tray so you can water it from the bottom. One of the things with all of these it’s really important to keep in mind that you need to water from the bottom.

If you’re watering from on top like with a watering can or something, you’re going to end up flattening your seedlings as they emerge. The seeds will wash away and won’t be in the trays where you put them, so you’re always going to water from the bottom and that’s why you like that tray.

Supplemental heat

Okay so that’s what you grow your seeds in lots of different options. The next thing seeds need for germination many of them, at least the ones that you’re going to grow indoors, is heat so if you’re growing in, say, a colder garage or maybe you’re growing in like I grow them out here outdoors and we’re in Tucson right now and it’s cool at night. It gets down to about 50. That’s a little on the cold side. But in the day it’s in the 70s which is perfect, so I can do that but you need to give your seedlings some supplemental heat, and the easiest way to do that is with a seedling heat mat.

It arrives rolled up, you you plug it in, and it heats up. It’s not waterproof. It’s water resistant. So don’t submerge it in the water. Don’t put it in the bath to wash it or something like that, but if it gets wet it’s fine. So you can throw your seeds directly on this. If you want you to put your containers on it, I prefer to put the seed mat underneath the waterproof tray. What this does is it heats up to 85, 90 degrees maybe and it heats the soil, the seed starting mix in your containers. It heats that up as well.

Heat mat required for some seeds

There are some seeds, particularly things again like tomatoes and peppers, that need to be at maybe about 85 degrees (the soil) in order to germinate. So without this heat mat you’re unlikely to get the soil warm enough to successfully germinate your seeds. Or if you do manage to without the heat mat you’re going to be much more successful with the heat mat.

Now these come in different sizes; this one’s four feet long 22 inches 20 inches and I use it because one of these will fit on it and I can stack a lot of them side-by-side. This one runs about a hundred bucks so it’s not cheap. It’s well worth it if you’re going to be starting a lot of seeds. You can buy it anywhere – on Amazon. A lot of companies sell these and make them. So far I haven’t found any real differences between the different brands. They’re all essentially the same, so go with whatever you can find. If this is something that isn’t in your budget, there are other things you can do to create a warm environment for your seeds.

Alternative heat sources

Seeds don’t need light in order to germinate, so you can put them, for example, in a closet. Maybe you’ve got a warm closet that’s next to the hot-water heater or the furnace or something like that put your seedlings in there. You can put them on top of the fridge. That generates quite a lot of heat. You can put them beside your computer or your TV – but be really careful with that – you don’t want to short out your system by getting it wet. Another option is to use a metal tray or a metal shelf and put this on it and put an incandescent light bulb underneath. A 40 watt what bulb should do it. It has to be incandescent so that can be you know those old-fashioned light bulbs or a halogen bulb.

LED is ineffective

An LED isn’t going to do it because it doesn’t give off heat, nor do fluorescent lights really. So, again, it has to be an incandescent light bulb, to heat that up. I sometimes get asked, “well if it needs heat, can I put this in front of a sunny window?” That’s going to get really nice and warm during the day and that’s true it might get really nice and warm during the day, but what happens at night? Generally, as the temperatures go down outside, that window – unless it’s some triple insulated thing – it’s going to get cold and it’s going to cool down your seeds to below the temperature at which they’re going to germinate. So I don’t recommend trying to germinate in say a south or west facing window and expecting it to heat things up.

Filling seed trays

So the next step then is filling up your seed trays with potting mix. Therefore let’s go ahead and do that. So I’m just gonna fill my tray with the pre-moistened mix. I’m not gonna pack it in there or anything I’m just going to lightly put it in like that and then what I’m gonna do is each one of these, I’m just going to lightly push down the center. Nothing too hard, I just want to make sure there are no air pockets in there. And then I’m going to fill it one more time. And again I’m not going to pack it in there.

I’m just going to flatten it out like that okay and that is all there is to it. I’m just gonna go ahead and fill all of them right now. Well, there we go! We have all of the 72 cells full of seed starting mix just lightly tapped down a bit so that it’s not gonna blow away. The process that you used to fill this is exactly the same as you would do with larger ones. So if I was filling something like this, for example, I would do the same process. Lightly fill it, push down the center, lightly fill it again. So the next step then is to actually sow the seeds. You’re going to find your seeds. I have a ton of seeds I’m going to be growing this year.

Sowing hot peppers

I have a lot of hot peppers. Jack likes hot hot hot peppers, so we’ve been growing Trinidad Scorpion and Ghost Pepper and this year I’m growing for him Carolina Reaper. Now this is the hottest hot pepper out there (supposedly even more hot than the ghost pepper) so we’re gonna try that.

Every seed packet should tell you on the back how long it’s going to take to germinate. Now not all of them do, this one, these seeds are from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, they don’t say it. I get a lot of seeds from Renée’s Garden. They’re terrific; they have a ton of information on the back,exactly when to sow it, how deep, how far apart I want to germinate – all of that kind of information. It’s terrific. Botanical Gardens is another one that has a lot of seeds, and they’ll put that information on as well. So look for that information if it’s there.

Sow two per cell

These are pretty small seeds, so you’re going to want to just lightly cover them when you sow them. You’re not going to push them way down into the middle. Although peppers are pretty resilient. You can poke that thing down about half an inch and it will probably still germinate, but for best germination, just going to lightly lay it on the surface. I’m going to put two seeds in each cell. Now you don’t have to do that and for larger plants, ones that come up really quickly and have very very big seedlings, I wouldn’t do that, but for something smaller like this I’m going to put two in each cell. I’m doing that because there’s a chance that they won’t germinate.

So by putting two in each cell, the end result is I’m probably going to have one nice strong seedling in each of these cells. If they both come up,by the time they have their first set of true leaves, what I am going to do is I’m going to pull out or cut off the spindlier, thinner or weaker one, get rid of it, and let the stronger one grow. Let me just go ahead and put these seeds in. So they’re just laying on the surface right now and I go to just make sure they’re nice and firmly there, some of them are going under. Then what I’m gonna do is I’m going to take a little bit of mix and just spread it on top like that. So that they’re covered but just a little bit and that’s it.

Label your seeds and seedlings

We now have Carolina Reaper seeds in here. The question is how am I ever gonna know that? So one thing – don’t forget to do – is put labels on your seedlings or your seeds. You have a lot of different options. For example, here’s these little wooden they’re kind of like popsicle sticks, but they’re sold specifically for seeds. But you don’t need to get the ones that are shaped like this, you can buy just regular popsicle sticks or craft sticks at craft stores.

Hardware stores sometimes have them, and you’d simply write on it the name of what you’ve planted, and stick it in there. You can also use these are just plastic tags that have come out of plants that I bought. Write on the back with the seeds that you’re planting. You can get all sorts of different sizes. This is another seed tag label thing that I bought.

Put your greenhouse cover on top

Now something to keep in mind is, as you’re doing that, don’t forget you’ve got to put your greenhouse cover on top. You want to make sure that those seed labels aren’t too tall. This one isn’t going to work. What I recommend is make sure before you stick these in that they’re short enough, and something like this – what I would do is, I’ve simply cut it in half and then I have two for the price of one. And there you go. You can write on these with pencil, a china marker, a sharpie. Something indelible or that isn’t gonna run because they’re gonna get kind of moist when you’ve got the greenhouse lid on.

You don’t want to come back in a few weeks and realize you can’t read what it says on here. The plastic ones are a little easier that way. You can use a sharpie or a pencil actually works really well on these. These wooden ones you know, when you do transplant these into your garden, these wooden ones probably aren’t going to last very long. So what I normally do, if I want to know what these plants are when I transplant them, I’m going to use something like this. And I write on it with either a sharpie or a china marker, and stick that in with the plant because these tend to fall apart and kind of disintegrate over the season.

Carolina Reapers

So okay so these are Carolina Reapers. Now, once I’ve got my seeds all set up in there I’m going to give a very light mist. Just so that the surface is nice and moist. Now you don’t want to make it wet. You don’t want anything sopping wet at any time, just keep it nice and moist and put the lid on it. The other thing I’m going to do is I’m going to water it and when you have your seeds in here, you don’t want to water from on top. A lot of people will do that. They’ll get out a watering can or something and try to water from on top. There are a couple of problems with that. First being you start watering on top and you wash away the seeds.

Or if you actually have seedlings that have come up already, you’re gonna flatten them, you’re gonna break them. You don’t want to do that so it’s not as good to water from on top. The other thing with watering from on top is you can’t really tell how much water you’ve put in, and you could find that you’re ending up with water sitting in the bottom of this container and you’re going to end up with fungal problems. Mold, fungus, gnats all sorts of nasty things. You don’t want that so with these it’s a little harder. You’re gonna have to lift it up and you’re going to pour in enough water. Maybe a quarter of the way up to the sides of the cells every time you water. And it should absorb it all.

That’s all there is to it!

If, after 15 minutes, you come and take a look and there’s still water in the bottom, pour that off. You don’t want this sitting in water. That’s all there is to it for starting seeds! In our next video, I’m going to show you what happens when these seeds germinate, because when they start to come up you’re gonna need to do a few things differently. First of all, you’re gonna take it off the heat. You don’t need heat anymore. But then there are some things that your plants absolutely need at that point and there’s one extra little thing that many people don’t know about, but that makes a real difference in having really strong, stocky plants that are going to do really well.

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