What Do You Need to Start Seeds Indoors?

Hope, Faith and Patience

By Stella Veraduccia 

If you’re like some people, the winter months seem dreary and endless, and spring cannot arrive soon enough. One antidote for the winter blahs is to get an early jump on your spring garden by starting seeds indoors.   

What You’ll Need

There are several different ways to start seeds: the pellet method, the peat-pot method and, for lack of a better term, the paper-towel method. Your supplies depend on which method you choose. In all cases you’ll need quality seeds, markers to label them (wooden popsicle sticks from craft stores work well), a spray bottle with a misting nozzle, containers, warmth, and light. Oh, and equal parts of hope, faith, and patience.

All of your materials must be squeaky-clean — not quite medical-grade sterile, but almost. If you are repurposing household objects as containers or reusing old potting materials, they must be thoroughly washed. Use warm, soapy water mixed with bleach or disinfectant to kill any lingering life-forms that may contaminate your seedlings, and dry completely before use.

Pellet Magic

If you choose the pellet method, you’ll need a supply of peat pellets (also called Jiffy pellets) and a clean container to put them in. These pellets are small round discs that look like checkers, made of compressed dry peat moss in a very fine netting, which magically triple in height when rehydrated. For the container, clean plastic or styro egg cartons are a perfect fit for the rehydrated pellets, as are small yogurt containers or paper cups.

To begin, spread the pellets out in a single layer in a shallow bowl or baking dish and slowly add warm water just to cover the top of the discs. As the water is absorbed, the pellets will grow and swell a little; if all the water is gone, you may need to add more to get the pellets to full size, about two inches tall. Here’s where patience comes in – it can take up to 60 minutes to fully rehydrate the pellets. 

While you’re waiting, you can prepare the containers. Remove the lid of the egg carton, use a large nail to poke a few small holes in the bottom of each compartment, then slide the lid under the carton as a drainage tray.  If using paper cups or other individual containers, be sure to allow for drainage. Once the pellets are fully rehydrated, place one in each compartment, spread the netting a bit at the top, and use a nail to make a small hole for the seed, following the seed packet directions regarding depth. Place a seed in the hole, cover lightly with loose peat, and add a few drops of water. Add your seed-marker stick, tell the seeds you believe in them, cover, and move the tray to a warm spot to start the germination process (more on that below).

Practical Peat Pots

Peat pots are molded flower pots made of compressed peat moss, sometimes mixed with wood pulp, which look like cardboard but are biodegradable and can be planted right in the ground. (A cowpot is a similar product but made of processed cow manure.) If you choose this method, you will also need a commercial seed-starting mix, which is a light, loose soil-less planting medium specially designed for seeds (not potting soil or garden soil, please, which are too heavy and will smother your seeds). Peat pots come in various sizes and shapes – individual rounds or squares, or a multi-part “flat” with small individual compartments that can be separated before planting.

Fill the pots with seed-starting mix, place them in a drainage tray, and mist the top liberally with water from your spray bottle. Using a nail or pencil eraser, make a few holes or narrow rows in the top, following the seed packet directions regarding depth and spacing. Place the seeds in the openings, cover lightly with mix, and mist well; plant a few more seeds than you want or need, as you will thin them out after they germinate. Insert your seed-marker sticks, tell the seeds you hope they’ll be happy, cover, and move them to the warming spot (again, below).

The Quicker Starter-Upper

If you are not naturally gifted with large amounts of hope, faith or patience, the paper-towel method is for you.  In addition to clean paper towels, you will also need clean zip-lock baggies, a pen to label your seeds, a tray, and the willingness to transplant your seedlings once they have germinated.

To begin, fold a clean paper towel in half, open it and mist one side liberally. Place your seeds on the wet half, either scattered randomly or in a row, but with enough space between them to be able to lift them out later. Fold the dry half to cover them, mist well, insert it into a baggie which you have already labeled, and seal.  Each baggie should contain only one type of seed, as different plants have different germination rates; place the baggies in the tray and move to the warming spot, where they should sprout both leaves and roots in just a matter of days. You should then remove the most robust ones gently with tweezers and plant them either in a rehydrated pellet or peat pot filled with starting mix.

Regardless of which method you choose, all seeds require warmth to germinate, then light later to grow and, of course, moisture. Place your pellets, pots, or baggies in a large disposable baking pan with a fitted plastic lid – a makeshift greenhouse – and put it in a warm spot: the top of the refrigerator or radiator works well, as does a sunny window. Check daily for moisture and mist liberally if they are drying up. Once they have sprouted leaves, remove the cover, water and fertilize lightly; place them in a cooler spot that gets at least six hours of bright light a day. Rotate them periodically so that they don’t get leggy, and use a fluorescent grow light if you don’t have a south-facing window. When the seedlings have sprouted true leaves (the second set after germination), the pots or pellets can be planted in larger pots to continue growing indoors into small, full plants. A few weeks before planting them outdoors, they need to be “hardened off” by spending a few hours in the shade outside on warm, dry days.   

Winter is here. You could give in and hibernate, or you could perform a supreme act of hope, faith, and patience by starting your garden seeds indoors. 

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