Start Seeds Indoors in Four Simple Steps

I can still picture my grandfather fetching a plastic washbasin from the laundry room. We were planting tomato seeds indoors—and didn’t have any trays or pots. It didn’t bother him. He added a few handfuls of potting soil to the basin, tore open the seed packet, casually sprinkled on some seeds, and encouraged me to sprinkle on a few more. We covered them with a bit of soil and were done, except for a label made from masking tape.

That memory conveys what I’d like to share: starting seeds indoors isn’t rocket science.

Let’s break down planting seeds into four simple steps:

1. Soil Meets Container
First of all, a quick note about soil…or lack of it. A soilless mix is a good choice for starting seeds. Such mixes, often made of peat moss, perlite, and vermiculite, are generally free from disease, and allow good movement of air and water around your seedling roots.

Lightly fill your container right to the top with your soilless mix, but don’t compact it. Don’t bother tamping with your hands or a flat object, which many books recommend as a way to remove air pockets. You’re just complicating things. Instead, simply give the filled container a couple hard knocks on the table. This will cause your soilless mix to subside—to sink a bit—leaving you room to add your seeds and some more mix.

2. Seeds Meet Soil
Don’t sweat the spacing of seeds, and definitely don’t buy any seed dispensing gadgets. Usually when we start seeds, it’s in a temporary home—somewhere they can germinate. So a bit more or less space between seeds simply affects how soon we need to transplant the seedling to a larger container.

Hand sprinkle (broadcast) the seeds from the packet onto the soil. Sometimes tapping the seed packet will dispense the seed uniformly. But not always…If seeds are too small for hand sprinkling or dispensing from the packet, try this: Place seed in the fold of a piece of folded paper. Then, tap the paper or use a pointed object (a finishing nail works well) to move the seed from the paper onto the soil.

3. Covering Your Tracks
Now we cover the seeds with soilless mix (2-3 times the width of the seed.) Some gardeners cover seeds with fine vermiculite or sand, which, with a finer texture, can be easier for germinating seeds to poke through. I find soilless mix works just fine and don’t bother with these additional supplies. At this point, tap your container again to remove air pockets. In most cases, very fine seed can be lightly pressed into the surface of the soilless mix instead of being covered.

4. Water, Cover, and Wait
Now it’s time to water, and you have choices. You can (1) use a watering can (gently, so as not to wash away seeds); or (2) water from the bottom by setting the container in a couple inches of water (the water will wick upwards) for a couple hours.

With seeds planted and watered, cover them to keep them moist. Use a plastic dome or clear plastic bag. Check daily for moisture and for germination. BE PATIENT. Germination takes anywhere from a couple days to almost a month, depending on what you’re growing and the temperature.

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