Starting Seeds Indoors

Have you ever started seeds at home? What was the outcome? Were the seedlings leggy and stretched? Did the seedlings die?  

If these are some experiences that you have had, no more! Today, on episode 1 of the Sunshine Gardening Podcast, I will share secrets to growing seeds indoors successfully. This information will make the difference and I assure that you will have healthier plants to transplant later into the garden. Stay with me to hear what secrets I have for starting seeds indoors for the Kentucky garden.

The joys of starting seeds

Starting seeds indoors can be such a rewarding experience for many gardeners! The thought of planting small seeds in the soil, watching them emerge each day, handling the tiny seedlings, and seeing them develop into young plants just warms my soul! Then, when the time is conducive for planting outdoors, gardeners can transplant their seedlings into the ground to watch it grow and mature further into an adult plant. This process from seed to plant is pure satisfaction and gratification for avid home gardeners!

Home gardeners are able to grow new, improved, and unusual plant varieties that they might not find available at local garden centers or nurseries. For instance, if you can’t find an heirloom tomato variety called ‘Hillbilly Potato Leaf Tomato’, get seed from another grower and grow it yourself. Gardeners can be the best source for heirloom varieties. Another added benefit with starting seeds at home is that gardeners reduce the amount of time required between planting and harvesting of at least 4 to 8 weeks. This my friends is music to my ears!

What to know ahead of time?

While starting seeds indoors is fun, it does require time and patience from gardeners. Regular monitoring of transplants is essential. Check seedlings daily for water and to see if any additional fertilizer is needed. Growing seeds at home will require equipment such as grow lights, maybe a plant stand if growing several different plants, trays to support the developing plants, and possibly a timer system. Cost of this equipment be based on your needs, so make sure to budget for them. 

List of materials for starting seeds indoors

1. Seed

  • Find a reputable source for seed. Companies that are reputable will stand behind their product and replace seed if there is a problem.
  • Make sure seed varieties are locally adapted to the area.  
  • For recommendations on vegetables, check out ID-133. It lists vegetable cultivars that are suitable for Kentucky. 
  • Seeds sold in packages should display the crop, cultivar, germination, percentage, and chemical seed treatments, if any.
  • Make sure to pay close attention to the sell by date.
  • Inspect the seed before starting.
  • Buy new seed since some seeds over a year old will not germinate (sprout) well.

2. Artificial Lighting

A lot of gardeners that I talk to one on one at the Extension Office mention to me that they start their seeds in the windowsill. In other areas of the United States, this area may be fine, but for Kentucky, we get poor results when starting seeds in the windowsill. Seedlings turn out leggy and stretched where they are trying to reach the light.

  • Options may be to use cool white fluorescent lamps alone, use a mixture of cool white and warm white fluorescent lamps, or a mixture of cool white and plant growth fluorescent lamps. All of these options are acceptable.
  • Position the lamps 5 to 10 inches above the foliage.
  • Operate them 12 to 18 hours/day. It might be a good idea to purchase a timer that will allow the lights to come on and off automatically.
  • Keep seedlings cool enough about 60 to 65 degrees Fahrenheit for strong, sturdy growth after germination occurs.
Do-it-yourself (DIY) grow light stand constructed out of PVC pipe

3. Soil Media Mix

A desirable soil medium for starting seed should be loose, well-drained and fine-textured. It should not contain any disease causing organisms or significant amounts of fertilizer. Prepared media possessing these traits are available commercially, or component material can be purchased individually and mixed at home.

Soilless mixes are inert mixes containing no soil that are available for starting seeds. They are usually composed of a combination of peat moss and vermiculite or perlite. These can be purchased ready-made or can be mixed at home. Note that if using these mixes, they have little fertility, so seedlings must be watered with a diluted fertilizer solution.

4. Containers

Containers for starting seeds should be sterile and free from harmful chemicals. Previously used containers should be sterilized before use. Wash plastic or wooden containers thoroughly with soapy water to remove all debris. Then rinse containers by dipping them in a solution of one part chlorine bleach to nine parts water, and allow them to dry before filling with germination medium. Containers should also be sturdy and fit into the space available for growing plants in the home. 

Plastic trays, fiber trays, or wooden flats

  • Plants that are easy to transplant may be seeded directly into trays or flats for later transplanting into individual packs or pots, or wider spacing in flats.
  • Starting seed in such containers saves space when compared with seeding directly into individual pots.

Peat pots

  • Biodegradable pots made from peat or paper waste fibers can be purchased individually or in strips or blocks.
  • They are porous and provide excellent drainage and air circulation to the root zone.
  • The entire pot can be planted.

Compressed peat pellets

  • Before hydration, peat pellets are about the size of a silver dollar but somewhat thicker.
  • When placed in water, they swell to form a cylindrical netlike container filled with peat moss, ready for seeding or transplanting.
  • Plant them directly into the garden.


Proper Planting Techniques  

Step 1: Moisten the germination media. Fill the container to within ¾ inch of the top with the medium. Use a clean, small board to level the germination media and gently tap the container on a table or hard surface to remove any air bubbles.

Step 2: If seeding in a tray or flat, use a ruler or even a large wooden plant label to make shallow rows 1 to 2 inches apart. If using only one variety of seed, scatter or “broadcast” the seed evenly over the soil surface. Now, if using different seeds in the same tray, make sure to label the rows with a plant label marked with the name of the cultivar.

Step 3: Sow the seeds uniformly and thinly in the rows. For many small round seeds, drop them slowly in the rows by tapping the seed package over the row. Again, use a plant label for each row to distinguish the plant type, variety, and date of planting.

Step 4: For large-seeded vegetables such as cucumber, cantaloupe, and watermelon, plant directly into containers such as peat pots. Other seeds may also be handled this way to save the gardener on transplanting.

Step 5: Next, cover seeds with dry vermiculite or milled sphagnum moss. The depth of covering depends on the size of the seeds. Most fine seeds, like lettuce and petunia, need light to germinate and should not be covered. As a general rule, seeds other than especially fine seeds should be covered to a depth of 2 times their diameter.

Step 6: Moisten the surface of the media with a fine mist. You can do this with a spray bottle of water.

Step 7: Place the seeded container in a warm location under grow lights for germination. Generally, a range from 65 to 75 degrees F is best.

Step 8: Inspect daily for germination. Seeds are quickly killed if allowed to dry during germination. Watch closely for development of any disease and, if evident, take control measure promptly.

Other successful tips

  • Moisture
    • Good humidity and adequate water are necessary for producing good plants. Adequate watering implies keeping growing medium moist at all times but never soggy. Allow some drying between watering, but don’t allow seedlings to wilt at any time.
  • Fertilization
    • Seedlings will need some fertilization for best development. It is best to use a soluble houseplant fertilizer that is sold in garden centers, nurseries or plant supply sections of department stores.
    • Apply fertilizer at about half the recommended strength a few days after seedlings have germinated. After that, fertilize according to the recommendations listed on the fertilizer label. Water and fertilize carefully.
  • Thin out other seedlings to make more room in the plant row.  
  • Hardening-off
    • The process of hardening-off involves exposing transplants to cooler temperatures and giving them less fertilizer and water to “toughen” them.
    • Begin the hardening off process about two weeks before planting in the garden. If possible, move plants to a shady, outdoor location with cooler temperatures. A cold frame is excellent spot for this purpose.
    • When plants are first put outdoors, keep them in the shade, but gradually move them into sunlight for short periods each day, gradually increasing the length of exposure.
    • Don’t put tender seedlings outdoors on windy days or when temperatures are below 45 degrees F. Reduce the frequency of watering to slow growth, but don’t allow plants to wilt.
    • After proper hardening, plant transplants outdoors and light frosts will not damage them.

By having the right materials and following the proper steps to growing seeds at home, gardeners can be more successful when starting seeds indoors. If you would like more information on starting seeds indoors, I highly recommend that you pick up a copy of the Home Vegetable Gardening in Kentucky publication also known as ID-128. This resource is great for learning more about home vegetable gardening in Kentucky from asparagus all the way to watermelon. For a link to this guide, make sure to see the show notes.

Hope that you enjoyed this episode of the Sunshine Gardening Podcast! To see the show notes for Episode 1 and additional resources mentioned from today’s show, please follow me on the blog at Warren County Agriculture, Feel free to leave any questions that you might have or any additional comments.

Make sure to tune in with me for more gardening information each week right here on the Sunshine Gardening Podcast! To be notified of other future episodes, hit the subscribe button wherever you get your podcasts to stay up to date on all the latest episodes. Each week, I plan to share seasonal gardening tips and tricks to help gardeners reach their goals and to help the sun shine a little brighter over their Kentucky garden.  

Happy Gardening!

Helpful Resources:

ID-133, Vegetable Cultivars for Kentucky Gardens 2013,

ID- 128, Home Vegetable Gardening in Kentucky

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