A DASH of Gardening: How to Start Seeds Indoors

A short guide on how to start seeds indoors and strategies to rescue seedlings when things don’t go as planned

Lettuce plants in containers on a wooden bench
The salad greens this past December pre-harvest

A Quick Update on the Overwintered Fall Garden

And perhaps a short rant about how crazy the last couple weeks coming back to work has been.  I was intending to post this originally the 1st week of March.  Then as each work day started creeping more and more into each evening while trying to get caught back up, I hoped I would at least get this written and up last weekend.  And then I spent all my energy last weekend on housework, and then right back to being too busy this past week from work.  The last couple weeks has been rough and I’m bummed that between work and resting enough and not letting my house completely fall apart everything else seems to go by the wayside.  The most important thing that I can do for myself right now as all this craziness settles itself out is be kind to myself.  I know that in the same way that I had to allow myself to be sick and to be in recovery mode the first couple months of this year, that I have to cut myself some slack now as well.  I can’t always do everything, that’s part of living with a chronic illness, and part of being human – we’re not perfect and sometimes things will fall apart.  But then you just pick yourself up by your bootstraps and put things back together as best as you can and move on.

Broccoli and kale plants in a garden cart
The garden cart in December. As things got crowded I just harvested the leaves off the plants and made a lovely garlic sauté of greens to go with our dinners. Fresh greens are the best!

AND…it’s not like everything really fell apart.  Gardening and doing things around my house to decorate or cook or bake or craft are all things that contribute and help me heal and recover and get through stressful times.  So though I had to put getting my musings down in readable form aside temporarily, versus them living as chicken scratch in my notebooks, life around my home carried on and my garden kept on growing! 

My Productive Container Garden

The small fall vegetable container garden on my deck has been wonderfully productive.  The salad greens stayed protected in the mini greenhouse and I got a nice dinner salad every couple weeks from them of the most tender and sweet lettuces.  The kales and other more cold hardy greens in the garden cart were protected from heavy rain (and snow) by the plastic I had wrapped them in to keep them from any mice or rats that might have still been looking for food on my deck.  After the heavy snow that Seattle received this past February, I uncovered them to find that some of the plants were getting too big for their cover.

Broccoli-raab plant
I am always impressed by the resilience of plants. After the snow this past February, I pulled the cover off the garden cart and was delighted to find the Broccoli-raabs were coming along nicely!

One thing that actually did fall apart was my mini greenhouse, though I was not entirely surprised.  I bought it the first spring that we lived in the house and so after 5 years, the clear plastic cover had become very brittle and after a wind storm, a puncture in the cover became a large hole. It started looking more and more shabby as the season progressed after that.  So I finally upgraded to a larger wood framed greenhouse with corrugated plastic walls.  And just in time for seed starting season!

Lettuce plants in a small wooden greenhouse
The lettuce plants settling into the new greenhouse on the deck. If you are wondering why two are missing from the middle container, while I was moving plants around a little blonde dog decided he needed a snack…

How to Start Seeds Indoors

Indoor Growing Set Up

Though some folks can get good enough light in some rooms of their houses to start seeds next to a window, at least in my house and other places I’ve lived in the Puget Sound area, it is necessary to set up an indoor growing station with grow lights to get plants started right.  For mine, I’m using a 48” wide wire rack with 4 shelves.  I have them set up so that one shelf and the lights above are spaced for seed germination specifically, then the spacing grows between the other shelves so that as the plants continue to grow I can move them and provide them successively more light and space to encourage continued growth.  This supports me start seeds successively because as one round germinates, I can move them down to the next shelf (or outside to the greenhouse if they are mature enough) and then my germination shelf is free again for a new round of seeds.

Pea sprouts growing indoors
Peas sprouts popping through the soil!

Most of the lights I’m using are 20W LED panels that are linked together using a 9-volt daisy chain that I bought online.  This keeps me from having tons of plugs going into a power strip and also allows me to have all the lights on a single light timer.  The timer is an especially important thing for me because I am absolutely terrible at remembering to turn lights on and off when I should.  In past years I frequently forgot to turn the lights on or off and my poor plants either went a day without any light or they got fried getting too much light.  Right now all the lights are set for 12 hours on a day.

I did find that when I set everything up this year, I needed to adjust some of the hanging heights of the lights to make sure that the seedlings would not get leggy.  It’s really important to have lights about 6-8 inches from your soil surface when germinating seeds so that when they do start sprouting, they don’t feel like they need to stretch out to get the light levels they need.  For me, I found I really need to be closer to 6” above the soil surface because I don’t have any ambient light in the area (the grow station is in my basement) and the directionality of the lights that I’m using means they don’t cast as broadly as some do.  Even still, I did also end up adding a single smaller light to each side of my germination shelf to help compensate for some of the light needs without overpowering the delicate seedlings.

Last thing that I have at my indoor grow station is a small rechargeable fan that I can clamp to the shelves to get air movement over the trays as the plants are growing.  This helps to encourage stronger seedlings and also prevents mold or mildew from growing on the soil surface.

Planting Seeds and Germination

Now that I’ve gone through all the details of my grow station, let’s talk about the actual planting of seeds.  First thing you should do is understand the planting depths for the seeds that you are planting. Most seed packets will have instructions on the back for how deep to plant them. The only seeds that I don’t necessarily follow these instructions for are any that say to only plant 1/8″ below the soil and also most peas and beans. I ignore the instructions on any with 1/8″ or shallower planting mostly because if you are not very careful about how you water or mist the soil until the seeds germinate, they can wash away. I usually plant everything about 1/4″ deep to make sure this doesn’t happen. For peas and beans, when I am starting them, I plant them about 1″ deep so that there is still some room below for them to start establishing roots. Most planting trays are only 2-3″ deep which means the roots can run out of space to grow in if seeds are planted too deeply. You can buy deeper seed starting trays or special seed trays with extra deep cells called “root trainers” but I’ve been doing ok with the regular trays and just planting the seeds a little shallower to make sure that there is room for the roots.

Once you have your seeds tucked away in the soil, the next most important step is to water them thoroughly and keep the soil surface misted so that the seedlings don’t try out as they are trying to pop through the soil. I recommend that you water from below so that the soil in the seed trays wicks the water up which not only ensures that the seeds are not overwatered, but also continues to support root growth by encouraging the roots to seek the water below them. Place them under your grow lights or in a very well lit room and wait patiently for your little seeds to germinate! That’s honestly about it, but let’s talk about soil for a hot minute.

Soil for Starting Seeds

When you go online and start researching how to start seeds, there are lots of posts that talk about making sure everything is completely clean, using sterile seed starting soil, and washing your gardening tools with bleach solution even before you start planting seeds.  After trying this a couple times and finding this elaborate and expensive, I decided to forego the super clean process and just see what happened if I used my normal materials. After trying starting seeds with some good old organic potting soil in degradable seed trays with my grubby hands and not seeing a significant different in the germination rates of my seeds…I’ve decided I’m not sold on the sterile soil for starting.  Maybe some seeds need this, or perhaps the soil mixes back in the day when all this knowledge started were not very high quality and so this used to be much more important.  But for me, I’m having great success with my organic soil mixes.

 One thing I did add to my organic soil was a little compost and some special organic fertilizer that is meant for seedlings to help encourage a strong root system.  This fertilizer was a new addition to my seed planting process this year, but I’m glad I did it because all the seedlings I have now have very robust root systems and are taking hold quickly as I move them outdoors now that the frost has mostly passed.

Seed Starting Adjustments

Earlier I mentioned that I had set up the indoor grow station so that I could move the plants to a new shelf with more lights and spacing every couple weeks to support successive planting and each round of seedlings continued growth.  I also mentioned that I had to adjust and add some more lights to the germination shelf.  This was because my first round of seedlings did get a little leggy and that was not something I wanted to continue.  Now some people when seeing their seedlings get leggy will immediately just garbage them and start over.  However, you can recover many leggy seedlings, which leads me to the next section of this post…

How to Rescue Leggy Seedlings

Yes!  You can rescue them!  Or at least most of them.  It just takes making sure you are correcting the environmental conditions that led them to be leggy in the first place.  For my first round, it was issues with the lighting and that when I was getting treated at the hospital, I forgot to water them and they got stressed out.  The main reasons that most people should evaluate for their seedlings if they do get leggy are:

  • Light levels are too low
  • The lights are too far from the plants
  • Not watering enough
  • Watering too much
  • Not enough air movement
  • Too much fertilizer
  • Other environmental stresses like extreme cold or heat
Leggy Seedlings in a growing tray
While I was getting my kidney stone addressed, I lost track of when I had last watered and that I needed to move the seedlings down to a brighter shelf to support them better. When I finally hobbled downstairs to check on them a couple days late, they had gotten super spindly and floppy. Time to get into action and see about recovering these little guys!

As soon as you can check and correct these situations for your seedlings, they will usually recover within a week or so.  For my seedlings, I made the following adjustments and saw the plants recover within about a week:

  • Lowered the lights by an inch and added extra for more ambient light coverage
  • Increased air movement a bit (or ran my hands gently over the seedlings to encourage stem strengthening)
  • More frequent watering
  • Once weekly feeding with a light solution of water and seaweed extract

It’s really amazing how just these little fixes can make such a huge difference!  Look at how these seedlings turned themselves around in just a week!  They went from thin, floppy and spindly to healthy and leafy seedlings in a week.  Plants are awesome!

Next Steps for Spring Gardening

My earliest starts (from early January) are currently hardening off in my greenhouse on the deck.  I have cleared my 4’x8’ raised bed in my front yard of old growth and weeds and prepped it for planting.  I have also purchased some new pots and containers for the deck garden as well.  Once the plants have finished hardening off, I will be dividing them between the two planting areas.  I am hoping that by starting the first round of seedlings so early, that I can get an early spring vegetable harvest in addition to the summer and fall gardening and harvests that most folks normally do. This early spring garden will have many of the same plants types that I had started in the fall including cabbages, collards, kale, lettuce, and radishes. I will also be starting the carrots so that they have plenty of time to establish and grow ahead of the summer months.  Stay tuned, more updates on this and how I’m planning my garden this year coming in early April!

These are the garlic plants that overwintered. Super excited to see how they grow!

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