To Seed Or Not To Seed? That Is The Question!

Should You Start Seeds?

Every year I ask myself that question.  Is it worth tying up valuable real estate on the windowsill or under grow lights?  How about the  disappointment of seeing a whole tray of healthy looking seedlings succumb to damping off fungus? Or the cost of buying seed starting mixture, fertilizer, and seeds?  How about the time involved? But every year like clockwork, I start my own seeds, even increase the amount of seeds that I plant, because no matter what, gardeners are driven to plant seeds. And every spring, I feel hopeful and enjoy seeing those little seedlings emerge.

I start my seeds in Tupperware containers
I start my seeds in Tupperware containers


  • Money Saver

The huge advantage of starting seeds is you can save a lot of money! And that perk is what gets many gardeners hooked. Spending money on sterile seed starting medium is essential as well as your seeds, unless you are a seed saver. But for everything else, you can come up with alternatives. I use an array of different containers, from milk cartons to egg cartons. The plastic clam shells that contain spinach and greens are perfect as mini greenhouses or  planting containers. I bought a bunch of large Tupperware containers at the dollar store for my mini greenhouses.

Also, instead of buying a few transplant varieties of the plants that you want, you can easily grow dozens and hundreds. This can be significant to attract pollinators, as it is essential to plant in drifts and not singly.

  • Something Different

Ageratum Blue Horizon is a flower that I can't do without but cannot find transplants anywhere
Ageratum Blue Horizon is a flower that I can’t do without but cannot find transplants anywhere

The other main reason to start your own seeds, is you can find and plant many unusual unique varieties that you can’t find at any nursery or garden center. There are hundreds of thousands of plant varieties, and there is no way that a nursery can even come close to carrying them all. Nurseries tend to be very conservative in what they carry, and go for the varieties that appeal to the mass market. I am not included in that mass market!! I want different and unusual plants. Go to Plant Geek Alert to see my post on unusual varieties that you can start from seed.

Asclepias physocarpa, commonly known as Family Jewels- Where else could I get this plant if I didn't start it from seed?
Asclepias physocarpa, commonly known as Family Jewels- Where else could I get this plant if I didn’t start it from seed?
  • New Varieties

There are hundreds of new varieties that come out every year due to plant hybridization and these are the ones that I like to jump on and try. This year, I am trying a new tomato variety called Indigo Apple from Wild Boar Farms. The tomato has a dark indigo coloration that claims to have high levels of lycopene which has many health benefits. I will be profiling Wild Boar Farms and the exciting new varieties that are in the pipeline in a future post.

Indigo Apple Tomato available from Wild Boar Farms
Indigo Apple Tomato available from Wild Boar Farms

And I keep on going back to those plants that you can’t buy at a nursery, which is the biggest draw for me. Asclepias physocarpa, or Family Jewels which is a Butterfly Weed, is one, pictured above. I love using this for my dried arrangements and it is a great attractant for pollinators. Also, I grow it because it is a great conversation starter!

Cup and Saucer Vine-another little beauty that I start from seed
Cup and Saucer Vine-another little beauty that I start from seed

Here is another called ‘Cup and Saucer Vine’, Cobea scandens. I love how the beautiful violet flowers nod against my fence all summer long. This is definitely being planted in my seedling flats soon. And yes, this cannot be found at the local nursery! Browsing your catalogs, you can find so many new and unique seed varieties that don’t land on the nursery benches!

Seed Starting Guidelines

For help in ordering seeds, go to my post Art of the Seed to see what companies I order from.

Seed starting is not rocket science but here are some pointers that will help out a newbie if you decide to take the plunge.

  • Don’t start your seeds too early, especially tomatoes! Most annual flowers and vegetables should be sown indoors about 6 weeks before the last frost in your area.

  • If unsure of your last frost date, go to Best Planting Dates for Seeds chart, by The Farmer’s Almanac, which is based on your frost dates and by the Moon.

  • You may have to soak, scratch, or chill seeds before planting, as directed on packet. Read the instructions! Some seeds need light to germinate, and you just need to press the seeds into the medium and not cover them.

  • Think clean!! I sterilize my containers with a dilute solution of bleach  and water (10 to 1) to discourage a fungal disease called “damping off”.  Most seed catalogs offer seedling flats, peat pots, and other growing containers, but egg cartons and milk cartons make good containers, too. Be sure to poke holes in the bottom of the containers you use for drainage.

Egg and milk cartons can be used as seed trays
Egg and milk cartons can be used as seed trays
  • Label your containers when you plant. There’s nothing more frustrating than forgetting what you planted.

  • Fill clean containers with seedling mix. Use a good sterile seed starting mix. Don’t use potting soil as this compacts down and won’t let air flow through.

  • Pour soilless mix into a large bucket and moisten with warm water. Fill your containers to just below the rim.

Press your seeds in the medium with the eraser end of a pencil
Press your seeds in the medium with the eraser end of a pencil
  • Plant your seeds according to your seed packet. Most seeds can simply be gently pressed into the mixture; you can use the eraser end of a pencil to push in seeds. Cover lightly with chicken grit or parakeet gravel which retards “damping off”, by allowing air to circulate. To read more about the advantages of parakeet gravel or chicken grit, go to: 

    Parakeet gravel has grit, oyster shells, and charcoal which all retards "damping off'
    Parakeet gravel has grit, oyster shells, and charcoal which all retards “damping off’
Milk carton with parakeet gravel covering seedlings
Milk carton with parakeet gravel covering seedlings

Seed Tip: When planting seeds, plant the largest seeds in the package to get the best germination rate.

  • Cover containers with plastic wrap or place in Tupperware containers until new seedlings poke through.

Seed starting in Tupperware containers
Seed starting in Tupperware containers
  • Water newly started seedlings carefully!! It is easy to spray water into your newly planted seeds and wash then all away.  A mist sprayer is gentle but can take a long time. Try using a meat-basting syringe, which will dispense the water effectively without causing too much soil disruption. Or you can bottom water for least amount of disturbance.

Try using a turkey baster to water newly planted seeds so you don't flood the seeds out
Try using a turkey baster to water newly planted seeds so you don’t flood the seeds out
  • Find a place in the kitchen where there is natural bottom heat—on top of the refrigerator or furnace, or near the oven. I use a simple bottom heating seed mat available from most seed catalog companies.

Bottom heating mat set on top of a large cookie sheet
Bottom heating mat set on top of a large cookie sheet
  • Seeds sprout best at temperatures of 65 to 75°F (18 to 24°C), which is the temperature of most homes.

  • When seedlings appear, remove the lids and move containers into bright light.

Once your seeds have germinated, move them under grow lights or in a bright window
Once your seeds have germinated, move them under grow lights or in a bright window
  • When the seedlings get their second pair of leaves, prepare each pot filled with a potting mix with plenty of compost. Move the seedlings carefully to the new pots and water well. Keep pots out of direct sun for a few days to acclimate.

Seed Tip- Don’t start your seeds too early. Read your seed packet and see how many weeks are recommended before setting them outside. The problem with starting them too early inside is that they can get leggy(reaching for light) and you will have to repot the plants into larger and larger containers because they could become root bound.

Making Newspaper Pots

Newspapers clog up my recycling bin and I found that I could use them in making simple seed starting containers. The advantage of starting in newspaper is you can plant the entire compostable newspaper-covered seedling outdoors intact, or pot up the container in a larger planter before setting out.

How to make newspaper pots for seed starting
How to make newspaper pots for seed starting

Newspaper pots for seed starting is the ultimate sustainable way of gardening. Here is the method, starting at the top left corner of the collage:

  1. Lay out a single folded sheet of newspaper.
  2. Fold over one layer and crease.
  3. Use a straight side juice glass to roll up your newspaper tightly.
  4. Fasten with twine and tie tight.
  5. Remove the glass and start tucking up the bottom flaps to form the bottom.
  6. Fill with seed medium and plant.
  7. Place in your mini greenhouse (Tupperware, plastic baggie, saran wrap) until the seeds sprout on top of your heating mat/furnace/refrigerator and then uncover.
  8. Be sure to label everything with names and dates. If something doesn’t sprout right away, some seeds take longer than others. But if a couple of weeks go by, you need to restart them.
  9. Keep your seedlings in the brightest light possible, preferably a west or south-facing window or grow light; turn them so they grow evenly; keep misting them or use the meat baster and don’t let them dry out.
  10. When the seedlings have at least 2 sets of leaves, you can transplant them carefully into each pot.

Labeling/Record Keeping

By keeping records year to year, you won’t make the same mistakes twice. You can note when you started something too early or too late and adjust for next year.

Add names and dates to your labels
Add names and dates to your labels

I am very forgetful about what I plant where because I plant different varieties of seed in one flat.  When the seedlings send up their small shoots, they all look alike. So, if something doesn’t come up, you will know to try it again. I use old venetian blind pieces cut to the right size and label with a permanent marker like a sharpie, including the date started.  Or try using popsicle sticks/coffee stirrers. Remember you will be watering these and any other markers will smear and disappear.

The Exciting Part

Then I check the flats everyday to see what is coming up.  I love seeing the newly hatched seedlings pop through with their cotyledons, the scientific word for the first two seedling leaves that come through. These leaves are just the embryonic first seedling leaves that every seed shoots out upon germination.  They will disappear in the next couple of weeks after the true leaves start to form.

Jacaranda seedling about 10 days after germina...
Seedling with first leaves-Image via Wikipedia

Grow Lights

If you own grow lights, you can control the amount of light that your seedlings receive and have healthier, stockier seedlings. After the first seeds germinate, put the flats under grow lights which can be as simple as fluorescent tubes hanging from the ceiling with chains.  The chains are critical because you need to adjust the height of the lights above the seedlings.  Place the lights about 3 to 4 inches above the height of the seedlings. At first this seems awfully close, but seedlings are hungry for light, and if they don’t get at least 12 to 14 hours of their allotted light, they will get spindly and unhealthy looking. For a tutorial on making a grow light stand out of PVC, go to Your Own Victory Garden . These are simple to follow instructions to build your own system, stand, and grow light for less than $60. Or go to to see videos on seed starting, and a great three-tiered grow light stand that you can make out of 2 x 2’s.


Since your soilless medium has no nutrients, you need to supplement this lack as soon as the seedlings have their true leaves formed.  The original seed will have some stored food for the seedling to draw on but that is soon exhausted.  Pick up some miracle grow or something similar to feed your seedlings regularly. Follow directions on your package for feeding seedlings.

Inside or Outside

Some seeds are best planted outside- Larkspur, Nigella, Poppies, Zinnias, Cockscomb, Sunflowers are just a few to come to mind. For veggies, I start all my vining crops, radish, peas, and beans outside. Tomatoes and peppers are better started six to eight weeks before your last frost date.

Plant Poppies outside
Plant Poppies outside


Poppy, Larkspur, and Nigella seeds are so tiny and need some chilly weather to germinate so I just scatter these outside in early spring or late winter. Sunflowers and Zinnias readily germinate in the spring outside and grow quickly so it is not worth the space to start them inside. Sunflowers, Cosmos, Zinnias, and other quickly growing annuals should be started when all danger of frost is over in your area.

Cockscomb is best planted outside
Cockscomb is best planted outside

Happy seeding!

7 Replies to “To Seed Or Not To Seed? That Is The Question!”

  1. I’ve tried to get seeds to grow and this very minute have ten plants – five kale and five romaine – actually growing. They aren’t looking happy, though, so only time will tell. Damping off has been a real problem despite a sterile environment. I’m finding that watering with chamomile tea helps a lot. I will have to try your trick with newspaper! Thanks for putting this together.

  2. Hmmm…. You and I start seeds quite differently. I have mine under grow lights connected to stands that are wrapped in tin foil to prevent the light from diffusing into my basement. I also use cheapo coir pellet pots I buy at Home Depot so I don’t have to worry about damping off. They dry out faster than peat and are totally renewable. To keep them moist, I just mist them with a spray bottle.

    Some of my seeds are planted directly into big red Solo cups with holes poked in the bottom with a hot screw driver tip for good drainage. I use a bagged seed starting mix from Espoma. This way I don’t have to worry about transplanting them and the extra depth allows for good root development. Some seeds I winter sow so Mother Nature can do all the work. I’ve even used grow lights screwed into clamp lights clamped onto a wine bottle filled with pea gravel and then stuck into an empty asparagus steamer filled with sand. Super weird but very effective. Love that you grow hairy balls. Oops, ahem… Family Jewels.

    1. That is why I love to garden. Everyone has methods that work for them, and the end result is you have lots of seedlings that cost you a fraction of the cost. I do use a grow light with tin foil, and used to use it in my basement. This weekend I am going to construct a stand out of PVC(from the link on my post) and set it all up on my barn table in my kitchen area so I can watch them grow! Thanks for the input.

  3. I’m not “doing” seeds this year – I have never had good luck with them. Each year the seeds bloom, prosper and then fail to thrive. Maybe I just need a year off and I’ll try again next year.

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