Starting Seeds Indoors Part Two: Let’s Get to Work!

So you’ve got all the supplies you need to start seeds, including some alternatives to expensive seed starting supplies. Now what? 

First up comes a little math. You need to figure out when your local last frost date is. This is just the date where it’s reasonable to assume that you won’t have any hard frosts coming to kill your tiny little plants. You can find your last frost date on the Farmer’s Almanac website.

Now, most seed packages will tell you when to start them early. The back will say something like “start indoors 6 to 8 weeks before last frost”. If you can’t find that information, google is your friend. Just search “when to start name-of-plant-here- indoors” and you’ll likely get some reliable information.

With that, you just count backwards from your last frost date. So for example:

Last frost expected April 30

Seeds need started 6-8 weeks early

Count back 7 weeks and check my personal calendar. Nothing going on a week before or a week after, so it’s wide open! 

Now we think about the plant itself. Tomatoes get fairly tall and we don’t want to cut off the tops, so I would go with 6 weeks early rather than 8 weeks early. Basil, on the other hand, can (and should) be cut down shorter to encourage bushy growth, so that one I would start 8 weeks early rather than 6. 

Now comes the gardeners common sense, something that wasn’t very common when I started gardening! If you have had a LOT of snow and very cold temps, add a week to your start date. The ground is going to be cold and hard to work in after a winter like that, even on the last frost date. If you are planting into raised beds, move that start date a week earlier because raised beds warm up sooner and can be covered with bottle tops or milk jugs to protect delicate seedlings transplanted out early. 

If you aren’t sure at all, don’t move the date. You can always deal with a slightly too tall plant for an extra week before moving it outside! 

Setting the Stage

When it’s time, you are going to want to prep over a garbage bag, a cheap shower curtain, or at least a sheet that you can shake outside and wash right away. I usually opt for the sheet, using the outside play one and shaking it out before washing it. Cover your work surface with whatever you’re using and lay out your seed starting trays or recycled containers. 

Pour seed starting soil into each container, all the way to the top. I like to press down gently with my thumbs to pack it down a bit, then pour a bit more soil in. I don’t pack that second pass down, as you need some oxygen in the soil to nourish the seeds. 

At this point, your containers should be in their tray or re-purposed plastic container. Gently pour water over all the containers, wetting them thoroughly. Water should come out the bottom at this point, you can lift up the corner of a tray to check. I usually let them sit for about 15 minutes here, then gently tip the tray to remove excess water from the bottom. 

Finally, the best part!

Grab your seeds and start planting them! Each seed packet will tell you about how deep they should be. DO NOT press them to that depth, as you will be covering them with more soil. Instead, lay 2-5 seeds per cell/container depending on what you are growing. The smaller the seed, the more you can put in the cell. For reference, in a 1x1inch cell I’ll put about 3 spinach seeds in but about 6 thyme seeds in the same size space. You can always thin the seedlings out if needed, and lots of them transplant well. 

Now, look back on those planting depths. Seeds will usually need to be planted as deep as they are in size. So a tiny little thyme seed will barely need covered with soil, but a hardy spinach seed will need a 1/4in covering. I use a scoop or old yogurt container to gently shake soil over the seeds, guessing at the depth of the soil. If you really want to, you can borrow a ruler from one of your kids’ backpacks and check, but I’ve never been precise with it and have pretty good success. 

Now, this part is important.

You want to water the tops, but you don’t want to splash a heavy stream of water over it all. If you do that, you risk displacing the seeds you planted. I found that a sippy cup with the spill-proof plastic removed to be PERFECT for this. The water comes out in a slow, gentle stream and you can control just where it goes. Bonus, it costs you nothing if you have littles running around because you already have at least one of these in the cupboard! ​​​​​​​​​​​​​

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Pour water on them, just enough to wet the soil that you put on top because the soil beneath the seeds is already wet. After that, gently press down on the soil to ensure it is touching the seeds beneath it. 

Cover everything up

Now, if you have a purchased tray, you’ll want to cover it with the lid that comes with. If you are makeshifting it, you’ll want to cover with your DIY seed starting tray cover. Either way, your lids stay on to retain humidity until your seeds germinate and little tiny seedlings appear. At this point, you’ll want to remove the lid/cover and start giving them supplemental water and, if using grow lights, extra light. They should not need watered during the germination time (which the seed is working on creating a tiny plant to push up through the soil) if the lid stays on and you gave it enough water to begin with. 

I do not like to top water my seedlings, as they get pressed down into the dirt by the water. I usually will gently lift the corner of one of the containers and pour water into the tray beneath. I wait about 15 minutes, then carefully tip it sideways and drain any water remaining. You should check your tiny, adorable baby plants about once a day in the morning to see if they need water. 

DO NOT WATER THEM TOO MUCH!!! 

If you are one of those people who seems to kill every plant you come into a relationship with, it is likely because you overwater them. Almost all plants prefer for their top layer of soil to dry before being watered again. Seedlings can only tolerate a thin layer of soil being dry, because their roots don’t go very deep. As they grow, I let them dry out a little bit more and more. To begin with, waiting until the top layer turns a light brown is a good time to bottom water them. 

A note of importance. Many seedlings will have the hull of their seed stuck to the top of the tiny new leaves. This is good! Do not remove the hulls in the hope of helping your plant. It actually strengthens the little plant to have that extra weight on it. The hulls will fall off on their own time and go into the soil to hang out, no work on your part needed. (You can see hulls stuck to the spinach seedlings in the top image of this post if you need a visual.)

The other big thing that happens when you take that cover off is the need for sunlight or supplemental light. If you are using natural sunlight, get your trays in that place that you identified as having the most direct sunlight. If you are using supplemental lights, get them down about 5 inches above the tiny seedlings. If you don’t have gooseneck lights for your seedlings, you can always prop your trays up with books and remove a book at a time as they grow and get closer to the light. 

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Some gardeners get their lights closer, but I prefer that 5-6 inch mark between lights and the top of my plants. 

Your little seedlings will uncurl and start to push out their first leaves. These leaves aren’t actually leaves in the technical sense, they are cotyledons. These tiny leaves come from the seed itself and are there to start pulling in energy from the sun to help the seed develop its first set of true leaves.  

At this point, you just keep lights on the plants for about 18 hours (if using grow lights) and check if they need water every morning. And, of course, check them every 4 minutes or so to see if they’ve grown more!

The Toddler Years Weeks

Now, once your baby puts out its first set of true leaves (so the second set of leaves on the stem) you will want to give it a little of that fertilizer we talked about in the last post. Mix according to manufacturer’s directions and then pour in the bottom of the tray with your water when you water next. Just pour the fertilizer mix in first, wait 10 minutes and see if any is left. If it is, leave it for about 5 more minutes then drain, if not add more water and let that sit for the 5 minutes before draining. 

Depending on how intense you want to get with it, you can fertilize twice a week. I usually do about once a week for my babies, simply because it’s easy for me to remember that Sunday is fertilizer day. 

I also start top misting at this point, usually once a day in the morning when I’m misting my houseplants. Just spray a fine mist over the trays. I pull mine out from under the grow lights to do this, but again it is totally optional. It makes me feel happy and I like to think my plants enjoy it too. Its a super fine mist and my plants are under grow lights, so it doesn’t contribute to mold or fungi growth. 

If you’re growing basil or other herbs and they get too tall, you can pinch off the tops and plunk those tops in the soil to grow alongside the parent plant. You’ll end up with a super bushy plant!

The next thing you know, your plants will be all grown up and ready to move out of the house!

Starting Seeds Indoors Part One: Supplies

I’m going to be super honest with you here. Starting seeds indoors is not really something that you need to do if you are a brand new gardener. However, I know a lot of people like to try their hand at it, so I’m going to make it as simple as possible. 

When I first started gardening, I thought starting seeds inside was just part of the process. I knew seeds were way cheaper than seedlings from the local stores so it seemed a natural first step. I spent way more money than I had on trays, heat mats, grow lights, potting soil, a shelf, and little sticks to label my plants with. I diligently planted the seeds based on the instructions on each packet and then watered them. And watered them some more. And watered them some more. 

I didn’t get much by way of seedlings that year, but I had a whole lot of fruit flies! They loved the soggy environment I had created by overwatering my seeds. So, what should I have done differently, and what would I recommend you do?

Only start seeds inside that actually benefit from starting inside. Almost all herbs, beans and peas, cucumbers and melons can all be directly seeded into the yard when the time is right (more on timing later). Things with short opportunity for growth or particular needs are better to start indoors. I like to start greens like spinach and lettuce as well as tomatoes inside.

The greens I start early because they tend to get sad here in Iowa summers once the humidity and heat sets in, starting them now gives them a chance to grow up fast and be ready for harvest long before that happens. 

I start tomatoes early because they grow WAY better when you bury them deep. (More on that in another article soon, be sure to subscribe to get an email when we post new articles so you don’t miss it!) 

Back to you and your adventure in starting seeds indoors! 

What you’ll need (note that I share alternatives to store bought when I can, a lot of gardening is being creative and using things in new ways): 

Seed Starter Trays

There are a million different options, but I prefer the 6 packs sitting inside a larger more sturdy tray for plants I’m growing for my family garden.

Alternative to store bought

You can repurpose any plastic container as your base tray and use anything small for the individual cells. Washed and sterilized yogurt containers with holes poked in the bottom for drainage, the tops and bottoms of plastic takeout containers with holes for drainage, red solo cups with, you guessed it, holes in the bottom for drainage. The opportunities are endless. 

You just want two layers here- the first layer you are planting in (individual sections, like yogurt containers or red solo cups) with drainage holes. The second layer is what you are putting that first layer in. It needs to be fairly deep so that you can pour water in the bottom when it’s time to water your plants.

Note: If you are starting seeds in homemade trays and containers, you will need some sort of cover. You can pick up premade covers for about $1 at almost any store selling seeds and dirt. You could also use a clear Tupperware containers, just lay it upside down on your tray. Or you could be super creative and construct a frame to wrap in saran wrap… the possibilities are endless.

Seed Starting Soil

I just get whatever is cheap and on sale. The seeds don’t need extra nutrients at first, as they have everything they need inside of them already. After about a week or two, I’ll add a bit of liquid fertilizer to the water so it doesn’t need to be fancy soil. I actually prefer soil that isn’t full of Miracle Gro type additives. Just plain old seed starting soil, which used to be readily available, is often marketed now as “organic” seed starting soil. Go with that over the “time released feeding” junk.

Alternative to store bought

You can technically make your own soil, but it requires purchasing the components. You CANNOT just take soil from outdoors as that has a fungi network and hibernating bugs in the soil that you really don’t want in your house. This is one that I do not recommend DIYing unless you are planning to start a HUGE amount of seeds indoors.

Seeds!

​​​​​​​ I prefer to order mine from Seed Savers in Iowa. They are semi-local to me (in the same state anyway) and they do incredible work to maintain biodiversity and carry heirloom strains forward. Bonus, the seeds were gathered from plants grown on their Iowa farm so I know they are acclimated and ready for my climate. Double bonus, working with heirloom seeds means each year I have to order less and less, as I can collect and store the seeds from the plants I grow secure in the knowledge that they will grow true to form next year.

Alternative to store bought

Seed libraries! You go in, choose your seeds, and promise to return with more in the autumn. Then you grow what you can, save the seeds, and bring some to the library at the end of the growing season. This is a great way to meet other local gardeners and to get your hands on some unique strains of plants that might not be in big national catalogs.

Most seed libraries are at actual libraries, though it depends on the location. You can search the two sites below to find one in your area. If you can’t find one, don’t despair! You can always all your local library or county extension office, they should be able to connect you with a local seed library or a super nice local gardener who stores seeds for sharing! 

http://seedlibraries.weebly.com/sister-libraries.html

http://www.seedlibrarian.com/

From here, we get into the nice to have, but totally not needed stuff.

Grow Lights

For about $20 you can get a set of grow lights that will cover two traditional trays of seed starts. I prefer the gooseneck ones over the ones that stand at a set height, as they are easier to adjust and get really close to your seedlings. The ones with built in timers are a plus, I do not miss the days when my phone alarm went off at 10:30pm to remind me to turn off my seed lights. It always seemed to be the days I was exhausted that I forgot to do them before bed, and would have to get out from the warm covers to go turn off the lights. 

Alternative to store bought

Use a windowsill. You don’t actually need grow lights if you get enough southern sunlight in your home. If you have a window that you can pull a shelf or table in front of, you can totally start seeds without any fuss. They will grow a little slower, but they are easier and will be adapted to the sunlight before going outside. 

Heat pad

I don’t really use these anymore… I start my seeds pretty early so it doesn’t matter that they pop up slow. Heat mats do help seeds to germinate quickly, which is a bonus if you are working on a strict timeline. I suspect that most people reading this post aren’t in a rush to have their seeds germinate. If you are considering starting peppers early, it can be useful as they can be SO SLOW to start. But again, it isn’t needed. 

Fancy fertilizer

There are fertilizers out there that promise the moon. They might deliver, I don’t know because I won’t spend more than $20 or so on fertilizer for my indoor starts. I prefer Jobes, but any organic fertilizer with pretty even numbers will do. You won’t need much, as you’ll be mixing it into water so don’t worry about getting a big bag. 

Labeling sticks

Sure you can pick up a package of sticks for labeling your seedlings for a few bucks. But you can use those few bucks for a WHOLE EXTRA package of seeds for the summer! I just find a roll of masking tape and write what the seedlings are, then stick to the side of the tray next to where I planted them. 

If you really want sticks, grab a package of Popsicle sticks the next time you’re at the craft store or when you’re checking out on Amazon.

Up next, what to do with all this stuff! 

Gardening with Kids (Nine Tips to Make it Easier)

Let’s get a few things clear right off the bat. If your kids are under the age of 4 and they’re in the garden with you, they will eat the dirt. They will destroy some of your plants. They will make you finish half the garden chores in twice the time it should take to do them. 

They will also learn to love plants and treat them with reverence. They will eat vegetables fresh from the garden. They will surprise you with how many plants they know by name. They will be the bestest waterers ever! You’ll instill a love for nature and creativity and hard work that will pop back up in their lives when they need it most. 

So, with all that, there are a few things you can do to make your life a little easier:

1) Have a dedicated kids garden space.

It can be an old flower planter, a small square in your garden, or a whole raised bed to themselves. It doesn’t matter how much space you give them, but see if you can make it theirs. Trust me, spending a day getting this set up before you set up your own garden space will give you some peace.

Set them up with some smooth rocks and paint, they can create painted rocks to decorate their space with. Sticks and scraps of fabric can make flags or banners. There are endless ways to decorate their space and make it more appealing than your boring old patch of dirt.

2) Let them plant all the seeds (kind of)

When you’re buying your seeds for the year, grab a bag of fish gravel. (Shout out to Caroline for this genius idea!) I learned the hard way that planting just one or two seeds isn’t enough for a little one. They want to do more. And more! And more! 

If you have a small bag of gravel, you can give them some of those “seeds” to plant in their garden. When they come back for more, you can make it into a big deal. “Oh boy, you planted those fast! Do you think you need more?!?!?! I suppose I can give you a few more…” This makes it special and they’ll happily keep coming back for more “seeds” to fill their garden up. 

When I’m ready to go in for the day, I give my youngest 3-5 green bean seeds and have her push in sticks and then the seeds. She doesn’t even realize that her gravel didn’t grow, she’s too busy checking on her green beans! 

3) Have a backup plan.

Have some bubbles, finger paints, toy cars, blocks… whatever it is, just have a box of extra toys in your gardening shed. When they get bored with gardening, they can plant little bombs throughout the yard for Dad to find when he mows! (I’m kidding. Kind of.)

My youngest has an old sheet that we bring out and set under the umbrella. When she’s tired of gardening she lays down and plays with toys, which gives me about 30-45 minutes extra in the garden that I wouldn’t have without those toys. 

4) Be prepared to do less than you want.

It’s so easy to get frustrated with kids when they keep you from getting everything done, but really, what is more important? The time spent together in the garden and the lessons learned there are worth more than a few extra tomatoes could ever be. 

Let me say that again, because it’s so important. I say this as a mom of a boy who was two years old just yesterday, and now he’s 21 and chasing after his own son! You’ll have plenty of time to garden when the kids are older. Each year will get easier. Set reasonable expectations for yourself and focus on the joy of gardening with kids instead of the struggles of gardening with kids.

My first garden, it was maybe 4ftx4ft and had NO plants that required daily care. That’s ok, we got into the dirt and experienced growing something from seed. I also stayed (semi) sane gardening with 5 kids running around.
That garden turned into a combination of weeds + herbs that went to flower. It was fantastic! The girls picked herbs to bring over and share with family members and enjoyed the many butterflies floating around.

5) Let them eat things.

Even the unripe ones. When my oldest daughter was about 2, she went missing from my parents kitchen. She just vanished. We searched the house for her in a panic when someone noticed the kitchen door was slightly open. Going outside, we found her happy as a clam in the garden, eating peas off the vine.

My youngest daughter loves to eat bell peppers straight from the plant, even if they aren’t quite ripe. It’s fun to experiment with tastes and textures, and you get the bonus of having the only kid on the block who willingly eats vegetables! 

6) Have a spray bottle so they can help with watering.

Our youngest, spraying the flowers with her spray bottle… happy as can be.

Young kids LOVE to water things, unfortunately it’s often more than the plants need or want. If you give them a squirt bottle, they can “water” the hanging plants (or any plants for that matter) to their heart’s content. Just be sure it’s before noon so the plants have time for that moisture to evaporate before they go to bed at night! 

7) Let them pull weeds. (Fake weeds, that is.)

Until kids are old enough to actually listen when you tell them which plants to pull up, it’s best to have them weed in their own garden space or in the yard itself. Our youngest daughter has pulled up handfuls of grass (and maybe a few weeds) and put them in a bucket, she even adds them to the compost pile. She’s occupied and happy, I’m getting a few more minutes to fuss over my tomato plants. 

8) Consider growing a butterfly garden.

When you’re getting your vegetable garden set up, find a spot in the yard that is not used and gets a lot of sun. Toss down a packet or so of mixed native flower seeds and scruff them around with your feet a bit.

Maybe water them a few times (unless it’s really rainy where you are) and then forget about them for a while. Before you know it, you’ll have a little patch of flowers that invites butterflies and bees to your yard. Your kids will be thrilled to watch these tiny creatures and will enjoy picking flowers to give to you. 

9) Remember sunscreen and water.

I messed up on this one a bunch at the start of last summer. Our youngest was a little older and I was reveling in the ability to just go outside without a lot of prep work. Having a crabby, whining kid who is just dehydrated isn’t much fun. Having a sunburned kid is even less fun, and tugs on the mom guilt big time.

It’s part of our routine to put on sunscreen and a hat, then drinking a big glass of water before heading out. I set a timer on my watch for an hour so that we can go in and re-hydrate, re-apply sunscreen, and change her diaper before heading back out again. These little breaks are 100% worth it, trust me! 

I’ll be posting about our gardening adventures as spring comes, filled with more tips and how-tos for beginner gardeners and anyone trying to produce their own food for your family. If that sounds like you, be sure to subscribe to my newsletter. I won’t spam you or sell your info to anyone, but I will send you a quick note anytime a new post is up! 

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The Bees Did It! (or, Why I believe in Gardening as Therapy)

Some people call it God, others call it Divinity, the Universe… whatever “it” is, we find evidence of it in every spark of life, every breath, every moment of joy. 

Some of us struggle to accept or identify this mysterious filament of life, wondering what others see that we don’t see. I was one of those people for many, many years. I spent my life growing up in the Catholic church, lured by the ceremony of my first communion. I remember holding the rosary gifted to me on this occasion and feeling like I belonged, like I was part of something bigger. Isn’t that what so much of religion and spirituality is? Connecting us to something bigger, giving us a community and a place we belong?

Then sometime in middle school I began to question the validity of the stories told. How could we know those things actually happened? If big obvious miracles used to happen, why didn’t they occur in the modern day? Why did the Catholic holidays align so well with pagan holidays, but pagan spirituality was “bad”? That plus some serious teenage angst had me doubting the reality of more than just Catholic dogma. I became angry at the mere idea of God. I wrapped God up in this bubble of dogma, judgement, and who-knows-what-else. 

So, time passed, as it tends to do. Years and years later my mom called me to stop over and take photos of her apple tree. It was in full bloom and looked stunning. And everything I saw in the world shifted. 

I went towards the tree, taking photos and admiring the scent of the blossoms. A little closer in, I’m snapping away, only seeing what it immediately in front of the camera lens. When you’re in that place, you see with this tunnel vision. I’d move a little to get another shot, but was only minimally aware of my surroundings. Ducking under branches, pulling back a leaf to get a clear view, I started to notice something blocking my view momentarily. I’d be able to see through the viewfinder just fine, then a little fuzz would go by, then I’d see again.

When I pulled my face away from the camera to see what was going on I realized that the tree was DROWNING in bees. Literally bees everywhere. Hundreds I bet (ok, maybe dozens, but still) were happily floating around from flower to flower, gathering pollen and minding their own business. 

I had entwined myself deep into the tree at this point so jumping back in surprise wasn’t much of an option. Instead, I froze, slightly worried that if I moved too quickly it would trigger a sting (or two or three). But also… mesmerized. These bees were just going about their day, gathering pollen and drinking up nectar. They had no one telling them what to do or how to do it, they just did it. Even more remarkable, the apple tree needed those bees to use them in this way. Without the bees, they wouldn’t be pollinated and those beautiful blossoms would close up to die instead of closing up to produce an apple. 

How could a system to intricate, so detailed and with so many moving parts just come into existence? And those bees were just a tiny fraction of the miracle of nature! All these parts, all these dependencies and symbiotic relationships… how could the have just happened?

But then again. How could anyone or anything dream up that much detail? I realized in that moment that my anger at “God” was misplaced. It was more anger at the school I had moved to that I didn’t fit into, anger at a bunch of teenagers who didn’t know how to welcome someone new in, anger at my awkwardness and confusion in society. 

I still don’t think the Catholic church has it just right, and those bible stories seem more like a tidy way to teach common values while forming community. (Which is just my opinion and in the grand scheme of life it means no more and no less than anyone else’s opinion on the matter. Because in the end there is no possible way for us to know for sure either way.) 

But I now see the Divine in everything. God is in the seedlings breaking through the dirt under my grow lights right now. The Universe has a hand in the love we can feel for an absolute stranger, the way just the right combination of notes in music can bring some of us to tears, and the way certain people just click without knowing why. That magic is certainly in every plant sitting stagnant and dormant in my backyard, waiting for spring to come so they can emerge from their sleep and bring beauty and nourishment to us. 

So, I garden. I garden to keep sane. I garden to stay connected to the Divine. I garden to give my spirit nourishment and my body sustenance. I garden to teach my children that Mother Earth provides. I garden for the thrill of it, I garden for the easy source of procrastination on cleaning the house. I garden for a plethora of reasons, all of which stem back to that day in the apple tree. Nature is amazing and we who dirty our hands with her rich soil are rewarded with her bounty are blessed beyond measure.