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.


​​​​​​​ 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!

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! 

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