Starting Seeds – A Basic Guide for Beginners

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It’s that time of year. The time when our seed packets, warm weather, or both have arrived and we can get to growing. But it’s always cheaper to grow things from seeds than it is to buy plants at the garden center. You can get many plants for less than $2 or pay that amount for only one specimen. If you’re worried about making a mess of it, here are some tips that will help.

Starting Seeds – Supplies

Tomato seedlings being grown in a biodegradable container.

Potting soil
Normally I advocate recycling fresh, disease free soil but in this case you want to buy a new bag. If you don’t, you have a good chance of growing weeds. Make sure you’ve got potting soil not gardening soil because they’re not the same thing. However, if you mistakenly buy the latter, just mix in some perlite, vermiculite, and/or horticultural sand. This will give it good enough drainage that it won’t clump together and kill your plants.

You can buy new ones or reuse leftovers from previous years. If you’re reusing old seeds, you might want to test them before planting them to make sure they’re still viable. To do that, you have to wrap the seeds in water-soaked paper towels then shove the lot in sealed plastic bags. Leave them somewhere warm for a bit (like the top of the fridge) and in check back on them a few weeks. The seeds should have sprouted by that point if they’re still usable. Mine grew mold.

You can purchase seed trays or pods to start them in. These normally come in black plastic or biodegradable varieties. You can even make your own newspaper pots if you’re crafty. Or you can simply wash and reuse the dinky plastic containers that the garden centers pass out with every single plant they sell. I usually go for the latter because it’s the most sensible solution financially.

Ye Olde Mason Jar makes a handy watering can.

Watering Can
You can even use a small drinking glass, if you want. The objective here is to be able to pour water onto the seeds without causing them to float away. Later you’ll want to be able to water the seedlings without drowning them. If your garden hose has an attachment with a sprinkler feature that should work fine but you want to be careful not to overwhelm your seedlings with heavy jets of water. It might also be a good idea to provide them with some cover or bring them under shelter during heavy downpours until they get to be a decent size.


Warm temperatures are important when starting seeds. Most summer annuals such cucumbers, tomatoes and pepper as well as a number of other plants won’t sprout when it’s too cold outside. Extremely chilly temperatures can also damage some seeds so they’ll never germinate and may naturally kill off tender seedlings. Of course, this does vary by species since there are also plants like alpine strawberries, poppies, and tulips that do require a chill period in order to sprout. Be sure to check up on what you’re planting to see what steps you need to take.

The best time to start your garden is on a warm, windless day. It’s even better if it’s slightly overcast or scheduled to rain that afternoon. You can also start seeds indoors if temperatures in your area are still cold outside. Planting them is pretty much an idiot-proof process. After all, basic instructions can be found on every packet of seeds.  I also wrote a photographic how-to guide for starting herbs, which works just as well when it comes to starting regular garden plants and summer vegetables. But, in case you missed it or don’t want to bother with the link, here’s a basic refresher course on what you need to do.

Starting Seeds – A Quick Step by Step

Seeds being planted.
  1. Preform any needed prep work such as soaking the seeds, scarifying (nicking) them, or cold stratifying them in the refrigerator.
  2. Wash the containers, if necessary. Fill them with potting soil. Add seeds, putting 1 or 2 in each pod if you’re using those. Cover seeds with dirt. Water carefully until liquid comes out the bottom of the container so as not to move the seeds.
  3. Store the container some place warm and sunny until they sprout. If necessary, adjust the seedlings to life outdoors once the weather stabilizes.
  4. If you need to transplant them, do so once they’ve reached a few inches tall and sprouted a couple sets of leaves. Be careful not to damage the roots when you do this.
May there be peas on earth and goodwill to gardeners everywhere.

Happy seed starting!

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About Lauren

Lauren Purcell is a freelance writer from Savannah, Georgia. She is the proud owner of two spoiled little dogs. Her hobbies include gardening (in case you hadn't noticed), cooking, traveling when she has money, and waiting on her key lime tree to produce fruit.

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