Starting Seeds 101

By Homesteading Mom / February 24, 2012

I used to worry about whether or not I should start seeds indoors or outdoors. Should I bother with a seed starting mix, or can I start the seeds in regular garden soil? Should I use those plastic trays? Do I have to…

I was making starting seeds way more complicated than it needed to be. As my husband is fond of saying, “Seeds want to grow!”

What do you really need?

Besides the seeds, not very much. Assuming you’re starting your seeds indoors and not direct seeding into the ground, you need containers, soil, water, a warm spot in your home until you’re ready to transplant.

  • Containers: You can buy new stuff, or use what you have on hand. I’ve used plastic containers from baby food, plastic yogurt cups, and those plastic seed starter kits. Make sure you poke a small hole in the bottom for drainage. I’ve also used the Pot Maker, which reuses newspapers to make starter pots, with good results. You can then compost your newspaper. My favorite method is using Soil Block Makers, but I still use some of each of these methods to varying degrees. I have not had good luck with peat pots breaking down properly.
  • Soil: I know, every web site you go to will tell you not to start your seeds in garden soil. They all say to use a soil-less starter medium. Well, perhaps I’m a rebel, but I start my seeds right in garden soil with soil block makers. It seems counter intuitive to me that soil would harm a seed. Soil-less mixes have no real nutrients, so you have to feed fertilizer. That’s not how nature does it. Break up any big clumps, and go ahead and use the garden soil.
  • Water: Keep the soil moist, neither  wet or dry. When transplanting a seedling, I water right in the hole where the seedling is being planted, then put the plant in and fill in with soil. If a plant prefers really wet or really dry soil, the seed packet (or catalog) should tell you. Those plastic seed flats have a clear plastic top that helps keep the environment humid. I’m not a fan of planting in the plugs, as they tend to break apart on me. But, I still use the bases and the tops with my soil blocks. If you don’t have these, those plastic containers from sheet cakes work well.
  • Temperature: If you’re starting cold tolerant seeds (like kale or celery), room temperature should be fine, away from drafts. If you’re starting a heat-loving plant (tomatoes, peppers, etc), they may need a little help. My grandmother had radiators with decorative covers that would get warm, but not hot. They made perfect shelves on which to place germinating seeds. Get creative. I’m thinking a small, 10-gallon fish/reptile tank with heating pad (and full-spectrum lights on a timer for after they germinate) would be an ideal way to start tomato and pepper plants. I’m really wishing we hadn’t given away those items now.
  • Optional: You might want to have on popsicle sticks (or something similar) on hand and stick into the soil to write down the variety of seed you have planted. If you’re planting more than one variety, odds are you are not going to remember which is which.

The seed packet (or the catalog or web site) should indicate how many days to germination. After that, be on the lookout for roots, which will be your cue to transplant. You do not want your plants to become root bound. It’s a pain to separate them after the fact, and you end up losing a few plants in the process. Better to just avoid it in the beginning. When you transplant them to a larger container, let it sit for 4-5 days, and then begin hardening them off (leaving them outside during the day for increasing periods, bringing in at night, or moving them into a cold frame) before planting them outside as their permanent home.

There are some seeds that will require them to be soaked in water overnight before planting. This will be clearly marked on your seed packet.

For great non-GMO, heirloom seeds, please check out the following seed companies:

Do you have any questions about starting seeds? Please leave them in the comment section below. I’d love to read your feedback!

About the author

Homesteading Mom

Homesteading Mom is run by Cat Ellis, an herbalist, prepper and aspiring homesteader. Cat is the author of two books, Prepper's Natural Medicine and Prepping for a Pandemic. Cat Ellis also blogs at,, and

  • Jessica says:
    I am total newbie to homesteading and am trying to begin in my apartment. My first question is whether it matters how you water them. I planted some strawberries and I usually just water them with a cup but that doesn't really distribute the water nicely i feel so is it worth it to get a watering can? I don't think this matters but I'm just asking. My second question is whether it's a down right bad idea to plant mixed mystery seeds. I got some seeds from a friend but they were all mixed up in a baggie so I have no idea what is what. I tried to separate them but didn't work very well. There is such variety in there; carrots, basil, broccoli, enchinnea,sunflowers, no idea what is what. Should I toss them and just get new ones so I KNOW what is what? Thanks!
    • Hi Jessica, I haven't attempted strawberries yet. I really should, since my son adores them, but there is a lovely farm nearby that has gorgeous strawberries. I should probably do a few entries on gardening indoors, and container gardening. A quick general answer for indoor and container gardening is to invest in self-watering containers. They save time and effort in watering, and bring water to the roots, where it belongs. They can get pricey if you buy them, but they will all be uniform, if that's a concern. When food becomes part of your decor, what the pots look like can be more of a consideration. However, if you google "Self-Watering Containers", you will find lots of web sites that tell you step-by-step how to make them yourself. As far as that bag of seeds go, if at all possible, try to identify what those seeds are. Different plants need different things, more or less space, etc. If you provide proper light, water, soil, and temperatures, just about anything will grow. But, do you have the space to grow sunflowers in your apartment? Are they a small variety? The basil should be perfectly fine. If you give the carrots a deep enough pot, they will be good to go. Does that help? Clear as mud?

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