Ten Tips for Starting Vegetable Plants from Seeds

Monday, March 12, 2012

Now is the time to start thinking about what veggies to grow in the garden. Why not start some plants from seed this year? It’s an easy and fun way to fill your garden with varieties not available at the local store. Here are some tips to get you started.

1.    Use soilless seed starting mix. Not garden soil. Not potting mix. Seed starting mix (a mixture of perlite, vermiculite and peat moss) is specially formulated to be light and fluffy which encourages sprouting by providing oxygen to baby roots while maintaining adequate moisture.

2.    Don't start your seeds too early. The aim is to have small, compact plants ready to go into the garden at the right time. Trust me - you don't want to deal with a bunch of 10 week old, two foot tall floppy tomato plants! I start tomatoes toward the end of March and aim to have them in the ground mid-April. Peppers and eggplant grow more slowly but need warmer outdoor temperatures. I start them mid-March. The University of Maryland Extension Service has suggested planting dates for all veggies as well as tons of other useful information. Here’s the link:

3.    Any small (clean) container can be used to start seeds. I prefer the seed starting kits with individual 6 packs.

4.    Water soilless seed starting mix until damp.  The best tip I have for selecting a soilless seed starting mix is to make sure it includes a wetting agent.  Peat moss holds moisture well when it is damp but repels water if it is very dry. A wetting agent makes moistening the mix a snap.
5.    Don't bury seeds too deep. Follow the seed packet instruction. Some seeds (like lettuce) actually need light to germinate.

6.    Cover the containers with plastic and place them in a warm place to encourage sprouting. Top of the fridge or water heater works well. I use a heating mat specifically made for starting seeds.

7.    Keep the newly seeded pots damp until the seeds sprout.  It is important to get the seedlings under light as soon as they sprout. Check them frequently. If one seed in a six- pack sprouts, move them all. You'd be amazed how fast a seedling will grow weak, pale and leggy without adequate light.

8.    Seedlings need tons of light! I use standard, inexpensive 4 foot fluorescent light fixtures with the lights 2" from the top of the plants.  Read that again. Lights should not be more than a couple of inches above the seedlings. You want strong compact healthy seedlings.  Most long, leggy, weak seedlings are due to inadequate light. Set a timer for the lights to be on 18 hours and off six. While you may be able to raise seedlings on a sunny window sill, fluorescent light is best.
9.    When the seedlings have grown their second set of leaves, water with a half strength fertilizer solution.  When they are about 3” tall, move them to a bigger pot (4” works well) and give them another drink of dilute fertilizer.  Once the weather has warmed, allow your seedlings to get used to being outside gradually.  Start with a few hours a day outside in a sheltered place and increase the exposure daily. Seedlings exposed to direct sunlight without being “hardened off” will get a fatal case of sunburn!
10.    When you are ready to plant, choose a day that is overcast and not windy to give them a chance to get settled in the ground. Plant your seedlings in the garden and water well.
That is what you need to know to start healthy veggie seedlings. If you have any questions, send me an email. Happy Growing!
Beth Grem (ndbg4688@gmail.com)
Charles County Master Gardener
Horticulturist Certificate, University of Guelph, Ontario

Beth Grem grew up in Bucks County, PA and moved to the La Plata area in 1994.  Although her full time job is as an Aerospace Engineer at Patuxent River NAS, her passion is growing vegetables both indoors and out and experimenting with new techniques to push the boundaries of how and where vegetables can be grown.

She became a Master Gardener in 2006 and earned a Horticulturist Certificate from the University of Guelph, ON in 2009. Current interests include growing vegetables both hydroponically and in self watering containers, growing heirloom tomatoes and raising vegetables year round indoors under fluorescent lights.