Starting Seeds Early

by Catherine Haug

Last year we hosted a gathering on Seed Starting Indoors, by Deb Schatz. And now it’s time to start thinking about this activity again. Some of us have greenhouses or have joined Paul Renner on his Peaceful Gardens project, which includes a large shared greenhouse. Paul will be giving a presentation on his project at our March Gathering (March 24, 7 PM, Clementines).

For the rest of us, we’ll soon be setting up our grow lights, readying our pots, and preparing or purchasing our planting medium. Better Homes and Gardens magazine featured an article on “Growth Fun: A Guide to Super-Simple Seed Starting” in it’s January 2010 issue. I thought I’d share the highlights with you, along with info I’ve gleaned from Deb’s presentation and other research.

Which Seeds Should You Start?

Check with your seed company, but I provide some guidelines below. See The EssentiaList: Seed, Root-Stock and Mushroom Sources for seed sources.

Starting indoors: In our area where we don’t get adequate sun until July, and where our soil will be too cold for germination in the early spring, the following are excellent candidates for starting indoors:

  • Heirloom tomatoes and peppers
  • Unusual varieties of lettuce
  • Peas, snow peas, snap peas
  • Pole beans
  • Corn
  • Chard and beets
  • Cabbage

Direct sowing: Beans, corn, cucumbers and squash do best planted directly

What You Need to Get Started


For small projects, clear a table in front of a window. If you want to use natural light, choose a south-facing window that receives direct sun. However, this may not provide enough light, for enough hours, on our northern early spring days.

For larger projects, you will need a space to hold a rack. As the weather warms and your root cellar is emptying out, consider setting up your system in the root cellar. A well-designed root cellar will maintain a temperature between 50 and 55 degrees throughout the spring.


No matter what containers you choose, it’s important that they allow excess moisture to drain away. Deb recommended using plastic pots in 3 increasing sizes, for transplanting; but you do have options:

  • If you used plastic 6-packs and larger pots last year, clean them out for reuse
  • Consider using biodegradable containers such as coir pots or “Cow Pots” for the final replanting, as they can be planted directly in your garden. Or use peat pellets.
  • Or make your own biodegradable pots from newspaper; see (Remember: use only black and white newspaper; shiny, colored pages contain toxic heavy metals).

Place your small starter pots on a tray designed to collect the moisture that leaks from the pots, without the pots having to stand in the water.

For small projects, place your tray of pots on a table top. For larger projects, arrange your trays on a rack. You may want to add an electric heat mat under the tray(s).

Place you table or rack in front of a window.

As your seedlings grow and begin to crowd each other, it’s time to transplant them to the next larger size pot; typically two transplantings are advised (3 different pot sizes), before the final move to the garden.


For best results you need a planting medium with the following characteristics, which optimize your seedlings’ quick growth and survival into strong, healthy young plants:

  • light soil;
  • contains nutrients for growth;
  • holds moisture evenly;
  • free of weed seeds and disease organisms.

Many people choose a soil-less seed starting mix because it has all these qualities.


Incandescent lights give off considerable heat, which may be detrimental to your young plants when the light is placed the recommended 2 – 3″ from the plants (see below: How to tend your seedlings). Fluorescent bulbs are much cooler.

You have options:

  • Deb recommended a fluorescent light fixture fitted with 1 grow light tube and 1 regular fluorescent tube.
  • The magazine article recommends a south-facing windowsil that receives direct sun; or a dual-tube fluorescent fixture with a cool-white tube and a warm-white tube to provide a full spectrum of light.
  • For smaller projects, you can use a clip-lamp with reflecting shade and fitted with a screw-in grow bulb.
  • A timer is helpful, but not necessary.

Sow and Grow

When to Plant

  1. First determine your plant hardiness zone. Consult the revised USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map, updated in 2009 with climate change stats. Most of us in the Bigfork Area are either zone 5a (valley) or 4b (mountain).
  2. Next determine the average last frost date for that zone. See; this is a tiny map but I think we are in the green (valley) or brown (mountain) areas. Green is between April 30 and May 30; brown is May 30 or later.
  3. Check your seed packets; they provide information on when to start seeds by referencing your average last-frost date. For example, if it says to start transplants indoors 6-weeks prior the average last frost, and you consider your last-frost date to be May 15, count back 6-weeks from that date, which is April 3. If you are using seeds from last year’s crop, you can look up the information on the web.

If starting indoors, plant on that calculated date (6-weeks prior to last frost, in above example). If sowing directly in the garden, follow the instructions on the seed packet.

How to Plant and Tend Your Seeds/Seedlings

  1. Plant Properly: Read your seed packet for planting depth. If seeds are too small for sowing with your fingers, fold a small strip of paper in half lengthwise to create a trough. Place a few seeds in the trough and gently tap them into the soil. Plant only 1 – 3 seeds in each pot, and cover (or not), as instructed.
  2. Light Brightly: Your seedlings require about 12 hours of bright light per day to grow strong, stocky stems. If using fluorescent lights, situate the lamp about 2 – 3 inches above the tops of the plants, adjusting light fixture upward as the plants grow.
  3. Thin Ruthlessly: Like any proud parent, it’s hard to say goodbye. But we must thin out the weakest plants in each pot at soil level, so that only 1 -2 plants remain in each cell, or all will suffer.
  4. Feed and Water: Once seedlings are established and thinned, every time you water, use liquid fertilizer at one-quarter the rate listed on the package. Water with this mixture as needed to keep seedlings moist. Liquid fish fertilizer is a good choice.

Hardening Off

It is not advisable to move your plants directly from house to garden, without slowly hardening them to the outdoors, protected from wind and hard rain. You can do this by carrying them outdoors to a sunny spot for a short time, increasing the time outdoors each day; or use a cold frame to keep them outdoors around the clock (close the cover on chilly nights to to retain heat).

  • Cool-season plants: such as salad greens, turnips and broccoli, can tolerate a light frost. They can be hardened off and planted as soon as the ground thaws.
  • Summer veggies: Wait until nighttime temperatures are in the 50s to harden off. Move them indoors overnight if temperatures dip into the 30s.

Cold frames:

You can build one yourself:

  • lean a recycled window (in the frame) against the house or other structure, and block the ends with wood or straw.
  • use recycled windows (in the frame), secured to form the 4 sides of the box and the lid.
  • Build a wood frame for the box, and fill in the sides and lid with glass, plastic sheeting or lexan.
  • Make hoops of plant shrubs (serviceberry, chokecherry and lilac are good choices; see The EssentiaList: Garden Hoops from Natural Materials) or PVC; place in your garden and cover the hoops with plastic.

You can purchase one, or view several to get ideas for building your own at the following websites:

Planting in the Garden

After your plants have hardened off, it’s time to plant them. This is a very exciting time for a gardener.

Dig and plant: As you dig each planting hole, incorporate compost into the soil. Plant each seedling only as deep as it was in the pot. Exception: tomatoes. These should be buried several inches deep.

Water well: Use a watering can with a sprinkler head. Fill can and let it warm in the sun before watering your plants.

Protect seedlings

Apply mulch around the newly planted seedlings to retain moisture and reduce weeds.

If frosty nights threaten plants, protect them with sheets, hot caps or cloches. Remove when weather improves.


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