How To Save Money By Starting Seeds Indoors: The Complete Guide

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Every year I plant a vegetable garden and quite a number of flower baskets, boxes and pots around the house. When my kids were little I would use my birthday/Mother’s Day money (within a week of each other) to buy several trays of started plants. I would look for the small cell packs that usually go on sale around Mother’s Day. I would of course keep them sheltered outside until I was sure there would be no more frost. This is Ontario after all!

Over the years the cell packs went from 12 started plants down to mostly 4, of course the price also went up and the sales really haven’t been that great. It also seemed that every year there was a particular plant whether that be a vegetable or an annual that was just no-where to be found. It was always a plant I just had to have like a cucumber, or specific tomato or even one year the regular shade loving impatiens were sparse.

So I decided to try starting my own plants from seeds. Guess what it works! With some tweaking over the years, I have mastered quite a few vegetables and even some annual flowers that I will share here.

Getting started

  • Make a Plan
  • Order your seeds
  • Order any equipment you may need
  • Set up
  • Plant your seeds
  • Thinning/weeding out
  • Hardening off
  • Get your garden/flower pots ready

Make a Plan

This is the dream section that inevitably ends in an almost realistic plan. What I mean is, this is where you Pinterest, google or search up what plants you want. This is done either in fall or winter. I usually start my in January here in Ontario. Start by deciding how big a vegetable garden you want/have. So after dreaming of 15 different vegetables you decide to do easy vegetables the first year like tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, beans, peas, lettuce and zucchini.

Order Your Seeds

Depending on where you live, if you have a nursery, or a department store close by you can walk in and pick out your seeds. You can also order online from a nursery like Veseys. Ordering on line allows you to get so many varieties that you may not be able to get locally and they usually ship your order just before you need it. No misplacing the seeds you bought back in the fall! Experience! 🙂

Order Any Equipment You May Need

  • peat pods
  • trays
  • cell packs
  • seed starting soil or potting soil plus peat moss
  • shelf/table top
  • florescent light or grow light (s)

Obviously you need pots, trays, soil, a place to put them (shelf) and most likely a light. You can totally buy all of the above or you can use what you have. (toilet paper rolls, milk cartons, yogurt cups, etc)

I like to use the trays that I have picked up over the years: these do not have any holes in them. They are strictly used to hold water so that the cell packs/peat pods can have a good access to bottom water. I also use mostly cell packs that I have collected (bought) over the years that came with plants or that I purchased as a seed starting kit.

Soil can be bought in bulk or in a bag. Potting soil is often heavy which compacts and makes it hard for seeds and seedlings to grow throughout the soil. I usually use a 50/50 mix of potting soil and peat moss. You could also cut soil/grass squares with a knife out of your soon to be garden spot or yard. I usually just buy some all purpose soil/peat moss and/or seed starter.

Set Up

I use a chrome shelf that I purchased years ago along with some growing lights on chains. Now if you wanted to set this up in a porch or garage you may also need a heated mat to go under your seed trays. The lights should be set only 1-3″ above the top of your seed containers at first. The chains allow you to raise them as your seeds start to grow. Most people will suggest you “greenhouse” your trays (cover them with either a plastic cover or piece of saran wrap) , however I find this to increase the likelihood that my soil will keep too much moisture on surface which creates surface mold that could damage your seed.

Planting Your Seeds

On the back of the seed packages it will list ‘start indoors’ and how early to plant. It will say start indoors 4-6 weeks earlier. Figure out roughly when the date of the last frost will be. (or by following your local almanac) You can than count backwards from there to determine the best planting time for your seeds. For me in Ontario, our last frost last year was 2nd week of May. However some years we can have a frost right up until the last week of May. So I usually count backwards from 2nd week of May so that it gives me about 2 weeks to harden off the seedlings before I plant them on our May long weekend!

Now you get to plant! Fill up the container of choice with your soil. Water your soil well before planting. This prevents the seed from getting washed away or the soil cover washing away from on top of the seed. Always use room temperature water and never softened water from a water softener; it has salt in it which will kill the seeds chances or seedling.

Follow the seed packet for the seed depth – this is very important. If the seed is too deep it will not have the energy to grow and push its way to the surface. If the seed requires very little or surface planting – please do this as the seed may need the light or have very little energy therefore it can not push through the soil.

Tip: The rule of thumb is usually plant each seed at a depth of 2x the size of its width.

When To Plant Vegetable Seeds

CROPWEEKS BEFORE LAST FROST
Onions10-12
Early Tomatoes10-12
Celery8-10
Mid-Season Tomatoes6-8
End-Season Tomatoes6-8
Early Peppers6-8
Peppers4-6
Cabbage4-6
Cauliflower4-6
Broccoli4-6
Head Lettuce4-6
Cucumbers4-6
Melons4-6
Zucchini/Squash3-6



If you notice that beans, beets, carrots, parsnips, leaf lettuce, peas, spinach, radish, squash and even pumpkin are missing from my above list. This is because these seeds do better planted directly in the garden once the last frost has past. Here in Ontario, that is usually by the long weekend in May about May 24th. Zucchini can also be one of these direct sow plants, but they can also be started indoors. I usually start about 6-12 zucchini seeds just to get a head start on getting some zucchini especially the yellow ones that are often called summer squash. Now you can start some of these (follow seed packages) early but some of them can’t handle the transplanting, so always check. This also goes for some annual flowers.

Flowers

In the last few years I have also started growing annuals from seed. They follow all the same procedures as vegetables from planting to hardening them off before they can be planted in baskets, boxes, pots and the garden. I often start some of the tinier seeds like petunias in a non divided planter/tray. I find it is too hard to separate the seeds plus I usually just use a spoon or tool to lift out a group of small seedlings to transplant into my baskets and pots. I do leave quite a few seedlings growing in their original trays until I have hardened them off or until I need them to go into a deck planter. They all start at different times but they all have this printed on the seed packages. This year I have started petunias, million bells, marigolds, nasturtiums, portulaca and coleus from seeds that I collected from my own plants and a few others that I purchased from Veseys.

Watering

Always use room temperature water and do not use softened water. (salt kills) Rain water is best but if you use tap water, let it sit for at least 4 hours to allow any chemicals to settle to bottom… and than just avoid using the bottom inch of water in container. Once the seeds have started germinating (or when the soil looks really dry) and there are tiny green specks or stems you can spray the soil lightly with squirt bottle to keep surface moist. Once the seedlings have started growing leaves you can place some water (about 1-4-1/2 inch) in the trays under your cell/pots, whether that is simply a lipped tray or plastic container or plastic plant tray or its see through lid. This way the roots can take up what ever water they need when they need it.

Light

If your only growing vegetables than a regular florescent light is all that is needed. Of course you could use a special grow light but it really isn’t necessary. What is necessary is how close the light is to the seeds in the beginning- 1-3 inches. Once the seeds germinate and small seedlings pop up you can raise the light slowly about 1-2 inches above the seedling tops. If you lift light to high your seedlings will become leggy and the stem becomes very weak which won’t hold up to a breeze or wind later. The seedlings need 12-16 hours of indoor sunshine. 🙂 I physically turn on/off all 3 of my lights daily (my timers are all tied up in the barn)

Thinning/Weeding Out/Transplanting

Lets face it, seed packages come with several seeds and if you designate one tray of 6 to peppers or 12 to tomatoes (maybe different kinds), you are going to have partial packages left. What if you plant your seeds and wait and only 4 out of 8 came up? You wasted all that time and now it’s too late to plant more seeds. Well you could plant more than 1 seed in each cell/container….couldn’t you? Lets face it, some of these seeds are tiny and it is so easy to accidentally plant more than 1 seed but it is also easy to think … ah, there is lots of room when it is a seed your planting! YES! You can but you will need to thin them out or transplant them. Otherwise the little seedling won’t have enough room to grow and establish a strong root system.

So now you got 3 tomato plants in one 2 inch cell/pot. Once the “true” leaves come in (the 2nd set of leaves) you can thin the cell/pot down to one plant. There 2 ways to do this.

  1. You can pinch the 2 smallest seedling either at soil top or gently pull them out and discard them.
  2. You can gently pop or carefully loosen all the dirt from the cell/pot and than gently divide the soil into 2-3 portions with each seedling in one. (This is what I try to do because I don’t like to kill/waste a perfect seed)

If you have divided the plants by the soil mounds than you can now plant them back into same cell/pots or go up to a slightly bigger pot. I usually start with 1 inch cells and move up to 2 inch cells/pots; so that I don’t have to transplant them again until the garden. If you went with #1 than you can even thin/weed out before the true leaves come in if it is obvious one plant is stronger looking than others. You can now leave the seedling in cell/pot or transplant it now or in a few more weeks when it is bigger.

Tip: If you know you are going to thin/weed out than plant seeds in slightly larger pot right away.

Hardening Off

This is the most important part of starting seeds indoors because if you don’t harden off before planting in your garden your plants will die. That’s it, all what you did will be gone.

Hardening off is a simple process of introducing your young plants to the outdoors before planting them in the garden. Some people swear by only a week to do this, but I strongly suggest 2 weeks. I first cut back the watering (to once a week) and fertilizer (hold off until hardened off) if you use any about 2 weeks before hardening off. Pick a cloudy day or a shady area on a calm mild day with little to no wind. (if wind is present you could create a wind block) Now put your plants out for about 2 hours at the most. Bring them back inside. Repeat adding another hour or 2 depending on weather each day thereafter. Once they have been outside for about 4-6 hours for a few days you can now move them out into the sun for 1-2 hours (water before you put them in the sun the 1st time or 2) before moving them back to the shade. Gradually increasing the direct sun and until the plants can stay out all night/day. Bring plants back inside if late frosts or colder than usual temperatures are in the forecast. If you have a cart, use that so you can easily move plants around outside or inside the house/garage if weather changes.

Getting the Garden and Flower Pots Ready

While your starting to hardening off your seedlings you can get the garden ready or earlier. If your making a garden for the first time? I always suggest digging up the grass and turning it upside down in the fall if possible or at the very least in the early spring. This allows the grass to decompose and keeps valuable nutrients like nitrogen in the soil. Now if it is an old or existing garden, I suggest adding triple mix every year or 2nd year. If it is a very clay soil than add peat moss to it. Either rototill the garden or turn it over with a shovel than rake it reasonably level about 1-2 weeks before planting. The last few years we have paid a farmer a small amount to till both the main vegetable garden and the pumpkin patch behind the barn too. We use to share the rent of rototiller from Home Depot with the neighbours.

No one likes spending all their time weeding which is why I have tried a variety of ways to stop the weeds! Some worked but one was an awful fail! Don’t use left over orange construction tarp as a ground cover!

Omg, the tarp only highlighted and warmed the soil so much that it was as if I was growing weeds in a terrarium! The tarp was lifted up into hills of which giant weeds/ground covers had layered themselves up to 1 foot high under it by mid summer!

True Story in my garden. Lesson learned!

What does work is using newspapers and cardboard layered or landscape fabric to cover the whole garden. Cutting holes to plant in and using rocks or wooden cut stakes to hold down the edges. I have used all of these and of course the orange tarp! I usually use landscape fabric with old carpet tiles (15″ by 15″) from our house. I use the carpet tiles upside down (rubber backing up) to hold the landscape fabric down. I place them edge to edge to form a walking path around my rows or square plantings. Other things that work to keep weeds down are straw, mulch, ground up dry leaves or you can use the “lasagna” method of layering compost with papers/cardboard and soil. I find this a lot of work for my rather large sized garden.

Getting flower pots, baskets & boxes ready is much easier the garden, but there are 3 things you should know:

  1. Use good soil mixed with peat moss because you don’t want the pots, baskets and boxes to be too heavy.
  2. They need water everyday unless they get enough rain because they hold a smaller amount of soil, they dry out daily,
  3. They will use up their nutrients in their small amount of soil quickly so I suggest a fertilizer that mixes with water every 2 weeks.

This is not only how you save a ton of money growing your garden but how to develop a life long love for gardening. Yes, it is a lot of work but as soon as you experience each steps success and the end result, I believe you will be hooked like me! 🙂 Let me know how it goes and if you ever need any help just shot me an email or hit up my social media sites for instant contact.

Gardening is a learning process and every year we learn something new or find a different way of doing the same things. The reward is always worth it!

Max

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3 comments / Add your comment below

  1. I needed to thank you for this good read!! I certainly loved every little bit
    of it. I have you book marked to check out new stuff you post.

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