Monthly Archives: February 2014

Seed Starting Without a Greenhouse

Seed starting

Even though it is cold outside it is time to start thinking about this year’s garden.  Whoo, Hoo!!!  To me there is something so rewarding about growing your own food.  I love watching the seeds come to life when they first sprout and then harvesting the fruit.  In all my years of gardening it still amazes me that something as small as a seed can produce something so wonderful.

Now is the time to get some seeds started indoors so that you will have plants that are ready to plant in the garden in the spring.  Starting seed yourself can save you lots of money and allows you the opportunity to grow more varieties since you will not be limited to the types offered at your local nursery.  Starting seeds seems to intimidate lots of people, but it is really quit simple.  You just need to get a few supplies.

Seeds need dirt, moisture, and in many cases, heat to germinate.  I highly recommend that you purchase a heat mat designed for starting seed.  I would not use a heating pad that you get at your local drug store.  You are going to be adding water to seed trays and you want a mat that is designed to withstand moisture.  You can normally get a small one for around $20.  If you don’t want to purchase a heat mat I have heard of people having great success with putting their seed trays on top of their refrigerator.

This is the heat mat that I use.


You will also need…

Seed starting trays, potting mix made for germination,water, seeds and plastic wrap.


We use a germinating mix made by Fafard.  I do not recommend using regular potting soil.  In order for seeds to germinate they  need constant contact with loose soil.  There is a local nursery near me that uses Fafard products and they sell me the bags I need.

Now you need to choose a location in your home that gets lots of sunlight.  If you don’t have a sunny location don’t fret.  Even though we have a rather sunny spot in our dining room I still use a fluorescent light to help the plants grow properly.  You do not need the sunlight to get the seeds to germinate, but once they sprout they need lots of light.  I normally set up a shelf that can hold the heat mat, a few seed trays, and a fluorescent light.

Here is what my current greenhouse set-up looks like.


Make sure that your shelves are wire, not solid, so that the light can get to the plants.  If you are planning a small garden then obviously you will not need all the shelf space that I have.  Since we plant hundreds of plants I have to start lots of seeds.

Here is another look at the shelves with some seed trays.


The light is just a cheap, metal fluorescent light that you can pick up from your local hardware store like Lowe’s or Home Depot.  I just lay it across the top and let the pull chain that turns it off and on hang through one of the square openings in the top shelf.

Sowing the seeds is very easy.

First, fill your trays full of dirt.



Next, make a hole that is no deeper than two times the size of the seed.  I normally use a sharpened pencil to make the holes.  Drop the seed in the hole and cover with soil.  I normally sow two seeds per hole.  You will have to thin the plants if both sprout, but this way you can almost guarantee you will have a plant in each cell.  Of course you can wait and see if they all sprout and if they don’t put another seed in the cell that didn’t.  I don’t like to do this because I end up with plants of different ages in the same flat.  This can be a pain when it comes time for planting.


Water well but do not soak the soil.  You want the soil to be damp but not soaked, so that the seeds do not rot.


Cover the tray with plastic wrap and place on your heat mat for twenty-four hours.


The plastic wrap and heat mat are going to create greenhouse conditions.  After twenty-four hours, take the tray off of the heat mat, but leave the plastic wrap on the tray.  Once the seedlings sprout, remove the plastic wrap completely.  You can start multiple trays at once even if you only have a heat mat that will only hold one tray.  What I do is sow all the seed that needs to be sown on that day, and every twenty-four hours place a new tray on the mat.  Some people like to leave the trays on heat mats until they sprout.  I haven’t found this to be necessary.  A day on the heat mat normally warms the soil enough to activate germination.

One question that I am asked frequently is, “When do I sow the seeds?”  The first thing you need to do is find out what the last anticipated frost date is for your area. We are in Zone 7, and our last anticipated frost date is April 17.  You can find out this date by contacting your local agricultural extension office.  This date is very important because there are many plants (tomatoes, peppers, eggplants) that cannot live through a frost.  Once you know this date then you need to look at the seed you are going to plant and you need to know how many days it will take to mature. Most packets list a “Days to Maturity” on the packet.  This is how many days it will take from the time the seed is first sown to the time it will have fruit ready to harvest.  Do not get this confused with the “Days to Germination”.   Once you know how many days it will take to mature then you can determine when you can sow your seeds.  A general rule for starting seed indoors is to sow them six to eight weeks before the last frost.  For my area this is during February and March.  I start early season vegetables like broccoli and cabbage the last week of January.  I sow all of my tomatoes and peppers around February 8, making sure that I have all of them started by Valentine’s Day.

There are some seeds that are sown directly into the garden like carrots, radishes, corn, green beans, pumpkins, etc.  This is where your days to germination are important because you don’t want to sow green beans and have them sprout when it frosts.  There are some plants that can tolerate frost, like spinach and cabbage, but not many.  A great catalog and gardening guide that I recommend is the one from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange.  They also have some great growing information online.


We order most of our seeds from them and their catalog is full of very helpful information.  I highly recommend requesting one.

In the next few days I will be sharing what to do with your seedlings once they sprout.  Between now and then, get out there and get some seeds planted.  You will be glad you did.


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