The Simplest Method to Starting Seeds
There’s a little secret I need to share with you.
When you think about starting seeds for the first time or for the upcoming season, what emotions do you feel?
In the past I’ve felt overwhelmed, stressed, and anxious.
What if it doesn’t work? What if something goes wrong? What if my dog eats them? The paranoia is real.
But - then I had an epiphany.
What I now think is: Starting seeds is gardening on borrowed time with absolutely 0 risk.
How can that be?
Well, let’s say you start your first round of seeds in March. And when we get to March, let’s just say you’ve had a low germination rate or other issues. At this point, you can simply pop to your local garden center or nursery and fill in any missing plants in your garden plan. And voila, you still have a full season of gardening ahead!
But, if you follow the Mind & Soil Method below then you’ll have an abundance of seeds - so many that you’ll be choosing which ones to keep for the season ahead!
So whether you’ve started seeds for many years or this is your first try, we’re here to take the stress away and help you grow!
Why should I start seeds indoors instead of outdoors?
Beyond the point mentioned above, there is no shortage of reasons why you should start your seeds indoors:
- Ideal Temperature: A few months ago we did some germination tests and plants have a very hard time germinating when the ambient and soil temperature is below 70F. Given how cold evenings get in the early-Spring presents a challenge. By starting indoors, we are able to circumvent this obstacle and ensure a much higher germination rate.
- Controlled Conditions: Plants are most fragile in their first two months. By starting indoors, we can control the amount of light they get, how intense of winds (from fans) they experience, and ensure they don’t get overwatered from uncontrollable rain. This allows us to nurture our seedlings and expose them to these elements incrementally (culminating with hardening them off in the weeks before transplanting them outdoors - which we’ll be covering in a few months!).
- No pests: A baby seedling can be quite the appetizing meal for birds, slugs, or four-legged garden dwellers. Once a little further along though, they lose some of their appeal. By starting indoors, we can make sure no pests get to them until they are big and strong enough to thrive in the garden.
- Save Money: With seedlings costing $3-$20 per plant (depending on its maturity), it can become very expensive to buy a whole garden worth of seedlings. However, by starting by seed you can purchase hundreds of seeds for just a few dollars and fill up the garden for a fraction of the cost.
- Succession Planting: Not only can we start from seed indoor early in the season, but we also can in the middle of season. Rather than waiting until some vegetables (i.e. garlic, broccoli, cabbage, etc.) are harvested and pulled from the garden to begin our fall crop, we can start these seeds indoors. By doing so, we are adding 1-2 months onto our growing season by getting them started before their forever home opens up in the garden.
- Deeper plant knowledge: When you see a plant grow from seed, you begin to understand it much more deeply and intimately. This will allow you to grow it more effectively through the season, enable you to differentiate between normal growth and any issues, and ultimately set it up to yield the best results.
When do I start seeds indoors?
The timing to start your seeds will depend on where you live and the corresponding growing zone. It’s super easy to figure out your growing zone and what you can start. To do this, all you need to do is:
- Google the name of your city and “Growing zone” (i.e. Toronto Growing Zone). You’ll be able to quickly see from a few results the Zone (i.e. Zone 6).
- Google your Zone and “Planting Chart” (i.e. Zone 6 Planting Chart). You’ll get an a number of results. It’s advisable to take a look at a few of them just to ensure they’re consistent and that will give you a feel for what you can be starting for your specific region!
PS - If you are located in British Columbia, West Coast Seeds has put together some great Planting Charts.
What do I need to start seeds indoors?
To start your seeds indoors, there are only 6 items that we’d classify as “Must-have:”
- Seeds: We're huge fans of the seeds that come from the fine folks at West Coast Seeds. What's most important here is that you spend a few minutes reflecting on the vegetables you love to grow and purchasing these seeds. To help you with this, we've put together a full guide for Planning Your Perfect Garden.
- Seedling Mix: Well we're of course a bit biased here - but we're also getting endless positive reviews of our Worm Casting Seedling Mix. It's the simplest and most sustainable product you can get your hands on. Sustainable because it is primarily compost and worm castings opposed to peat moss. And Simple because we have done countless (and ongoing!) iterations on the recipe - this means that when you buy a bag of our worm casting seedling mix you don't need to do any mixing, measuring, or amending. Simply pop it into your seed cells and your plant babies will have all the macronutrients, micronutrients and microbes that your plants need to grow big and strong before moving to their forever home!
- Seed Cells/Trays: Once you have your Seeds and Seedling Mix, you need a container to put them in and grow. We use 3.5" Seed Cells as we find this size is small enough that you can fit more than 20 under a 2ft grow light, but large enough that no potting up is needed before transplanting into their forever home (garden beds or containers).
- Grow Light: If there is one thing that we believe is 100% critical to successfully starting seeds indoors, it is a grow light. We have taken it upon ourselves to spend hundreds of dollars testing different grow lights so that you don't have to. Two of our favourites are the Sunblaster T5 Fluorescent and the Monios T5 LED. If you go with either of these options you are going to have some amazing results.
- Thermometer: As mentioned above, it needs to be at least 70F (21C) for seeds to successfully germinate. Therefore, we need to find a space that is consistently above this temperature. To do so, we'll need a thermometer to gauge the temperature. This can be purchased from a dollar store and doesn't need to be anything fancy!
- Spray bottle: Lastly, for seeds to successfully germinate they need to be in a moist and warm environment. To do this, a spray bottle or turkey baster does an amazing job. They allow us to get moisture into the seedling mix and into the seeds (which we'll walk through below) in a slower and softer manner than a spouted can.
Okay - I have my seed starting supplies, what do I do first?
Step 1: Fill your seedling cells, Tamp it down, Spray with water.
To get started, all you need to do is fill your 3.5” seedling cell nearly to the top with your worm casting seedling mix.
Once it is filled, you will then use the bottom of a second seedling cell to gently compact the soil. Have you ever pushed one of those “That was easy” buttons? It’s about the same amount of force that you will apply here to compact the soil. Enough pressure so that it compacts, but not so much that it becomes a brick. This will give the roots some structure to grow and establish in. And while you tamp it down, make sure you say, That was easy.
Now that worm casting seedling mix is tamped down, we need to create a moist environment for the seed to germinate. To do this, you’ll grab your spray bottle and give it 30-50x sprays of water. This gently mists the area without soaking it. Overwatering is the leading cause for seedlings dying early on.
Step 2: Add Seeds, Spray with water.
With the worm casting seedling mix in our seedling cell and tamped down, we should have about 2cm from the top of the cell. On the top of this seedling mix we will place 5 seeds for the plant we want to grow.
For instance, if we want 1 tomato plant then we will place 5 seeds in this cell. What if you wanted 2 tomato plants? Well in that case you would simply dedicate a second 3.5” cell to tomatoes and add 5 cells to this cell as well.
Once the seeds have been placed in the tray, you’ll grab your spray bottle and give it another 30-50x sprays. This will moisten the seeds while also adding more moisture to the worm casting seedling mix. By using the spray bottle and adding the moisture sequentially, we eliminate the risk of overwatering.
Step 3: Top up, tamp down, add water.
With your seeds placed and sprayed, we’re now going to cover them with seedling mix. Fill the cell with worm casting seedling mix to the top and then gently tamp down. That was easy.
This last bit of worm casting seedling mix that we added also needs to be moistened, so 30-50x more sprays and now the seeds will have moisture above and below them.
Once sprayed with water, the seeds are all set. We just need to find them a nice and warm place.
Step 4: Find part of your house that is 70F or warmer
Using your thermometer, place it in some areas of your house that you think could be 70F (21C). Place it for a few minutes, come back to it, and check the temperature. Ideally, you’d like to find an area where they won’t mistakenly get knocked over or intruded upon by a toddler or pet.
If you have any area that you can hang your grow light from, perfect. However, you can also easily build a little stand for your grow light with one 12’ piece of wood from Home Depot. If you have them cut it into 36”, 32”, 32”, 12”, and 12” lengths, you can then drill them together and place it over top of your seedlings. This allows you to turn any part of your house into their temporary home before moving to their forever home in a few months.
Step 5: Place your seed cells under the grow lights
Now that you’ve found an area that is +70F, you can move the seed cells containing your soon to be plant babies to this area. Once you have them placed, you’ll want your grow light sitting about 6” above them. Most grow lights come with great cords that allow you to adjust the height of them. So, simply adjust these cords to about 6” above the soil. As your seedlings begin to grow, you will slowly adjust the cords to raise the light - keeping the light about 6” above the seedlings at all time.
If you use either of the grow lights outlined in the Mind & Soil Method, you don’t need to worry about burning your seedlings by having them too close.
Step 6: Monitor and water every 2-3x days
Seeds need a moist environment to germinate. So, now that your seeds are in their worm castings seedling mix, in a nice warm area, we just need to make sure the soil stays moist. Two easy ways to do this:
Touch: If you place your finger on the top of the seedling mix, you’ll be able to gauge whether or not it is moist. If it is not moist, then apply 30-50x sprays.
Look: When you look at the seedling mix, if it more of a milk chocolate brown opposed to dark chocolate, then it is beginning to dry up. In this instance, apply 30-50x sprays.
Depending on the temperature, this will be every 2-3 days. For instance, if the area is just over 80F then the seedling mix will dry up more quickly than if it is close to 70F.
I've started my seeds - now what do I do?
Now that your seeds are into a moist and warm environment - we wait. And next thing you know, 4-5 days later you'll have your very first precious little plant babies beginning to poke through the surface!
Continue to gauge the water levels and water every 2-3 days until we get closer to April/May when we will begin hardening the plants off and moving them outdoors!
Do I need a heating mat to start seeds indoors?
This falls into the good ol’ category of “it depends.”
If you cannot find an area in your house that is consistently at least 70F (21C), then yes - you will want to buy a heating mat to ensure the temperature of your worm casting seedling mix is warm enough for seeds to germinate.
If you find an area in your house that is consistently above 70F, then no - you do not need to purchase a heating mat. We did a test where we starting the same seeds at 50F, 60F, 70F, and 80F and the results were very surprising.