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Saturday, January 3, 2015

A Quick but Comprehensive Guide to Starting Vegetable Seeds Indoors: Lights, Starting Mixes, Watering, Germination, Feeding and Transplanting!

A Quick but Comprehensive Guide to Starting Vegetable Seeds Indoors: 
Lights,  Starting Mixes, Watering, Germination, Feeding and Transplanting!

Vegetables and Herbs I Started Indoors - TRG 2015
The best way to get an early jump on the gardening season and save money is to start your own vegetables indoors. It is really easy once you understand a few principles. You can get vegetables to your table a good 4 weeks before seeds planted directly in your garden would be ready. The goal is to grow healthy indoor transplants to size, but not too large, while you still have frost and cold outdoors. The timing should be frost free or warm nights arriving when your indoor vegetable plants reach transplant size. And don't worry you have a lot of leeway.

Herbs Under Grow Lights - The Rusted Garden 2015

I get asked this question all the time and my answer for 2015 is 14-16 hours of grow light with bulbs that sit about 1-2 inches above your seeds or plant seedling leaves. Bulbs vary, so pay attention to heat coming from the bulb so you don't damage your plants. If you don't have enough intense light, your plants will become what we call 'leggy'. They will be tall and spindly and they are basically putting all their energy in stretching to the light, instead of growing strong and stocky. 'Leggy' plants make for poor transplants. Once your plants are established, lighting is more forgiving.

I also get asked if you can start seeds on a windowsill. My answer is NO unless you absolutely have a south facing window that gets full DIRECT sun for 8-10 hours. If you don't have this intensity of sun, your plants again will become 'leggy'. You have to be able to look out and see the actual sun from the window.

Here are some videos that explain lighting and tell you what type of bulbs to buy. Incandescent bulbs got to hot. You don't need special grow light bulbs. They are no better than what I describe and they will cost you more money. You can mount them in closets, create grow light stations or even use storage totes to build grow light boxes. I recommend you start small and give it a try. You will be surprised at how easy it is. You can find a lot more videos on vegetable plant lighting and designs by searching my YouTube Channel.

A Quick Vegetable Grow Light Box from a 5 Gallon Bucket: 
Apply the Principle!

Basic Vegetable Grow-Light Closet Design - The Right Lighting

Grow Lights for Vegetable Seed Starting Closets: 
Lumen and Kelvin Values Fully Explained

Part 1 of 2 How to Build an Inexpensive Indoor 
Garden Grow Light Station

Starting Mixes:

You will notice I vary my starting mixes in different videos which is really due to just trying new things season to season or finding products on sale. There is no perfect mix or exact recipe. You do not need to spend a lot of money on mixes. The key to starting seeds indoors is that the starting mix needs to be sterile. Never bring in soil from outside. You will be bringing in bugs, fungus, disease and disappointment. You can buy starting mixes that are sterile at most do-it-yourself stores, Walmart and nurseries. Check around and see how prices vary.

Basic Sterile Seed Starting Mixes - TRG 2015
Some Sterile Seed Starting Mixes - TRG 2015
I make my starting mixes out of perlite, peat moss, vermiculite and other things at times. It is much cheaper to buy things in bulk and make mixes yourself. This year I am using coco core that I purchased in 250 gram bricks. I add hot water and  have enough material to fill a full 72 cell seed starting tray.  Here are some videos that provide in depth details for using starting mixes and setting up you seed starting cells. Always thumb pack the medium into the cells. You want a firm planting base for your seeds.

How to Make Your Own Seed Starting Mix and Potting Mix: Save 75% 

Three Minute Garden Tips: Preparing Seed Starting Mix - Pre-Moisten,
 Thumb-Pack and Bottom Water 

How to Prepare 250 gram Bricks of Coco Coir for Seed Starting:
 Inexpensive & Effective 


I am often asked how often do you water your seed starts and the answer really is when they need it. Too many factors come into play that don't make it possible to say when and how often. But the guideline is less when seeds are starting and more when the plants are bigger. The tip I have is to look at your starting mix and notice the color when it is dry. This is typically how it looks out of the package. When the top of your seed cells turn that color... you are ready to bottom water your seed starts or transplants. The top of the starting mix will always dry first.

Seed Starting Mix will Lighten when Watering is Needed
Watering from the bottom is the best method for 3 key reasons. 1) It will save you a lot of time. 2) You won't splash starting mix and seeds out of the starting cells. 3) You will greatly - greatly reduce the risk of spreading diseases like the dreaded 'Damping Off Disease'.  A disease where a cotton like fungus grows on the stems of you sprouts and kills them.

Basic Bottom Watering for Seed Starting - TRG 2015
For that reason of diseases I also don't recommend using humidity domes. A lot of people do and don't have issues. Very few seeds need to be germinated in a humidity dome. The domes create a perfect environment for diseases and fungus to grow. Here are some videos that show you how mold and fungus grow, for fun and my basic water method. If you aren't growing in seed sells make sure there are holes in the bottom of your starting containers and just sit them in foil cooking trays. You can bottom water that way. What every water is not absorb after 30 minutes, just pour out.

Garden Mythbusters: Do Seed Tray Humidity Domes 
Promote Fungus & Mold Growth?

Improve Seed Germination: 
Pre-Moisten, Bottom Water and Pack Seed Cells 

Part 2 of 2 Garden Grow-Light Station 
How to Manage Lighting and Watering

Germination and Feeding:

Seeds germinate at different rates. Some will germinate in under a week and others can take up to four weeks. You can find that information on the seed packet. Basically just follow the instructions on the seed packets timing and planting depth. Generally speaking the temperature should be in the 70's (Fahrenheit) for germination. You can purchase a heating mat if the area you are using isn't getting into the 70's. I have tomato varieties that need high 80's for good germination but in general you want a 70+ degree seed starting area. Remember the lights will add heat to your germinating seeds.

Planted at the Same Time but Germinated Differently
Feeding your vegetable transplants starts when they get their first set of true leaves or about a week thereafter. That is typically the second set of leaves that form after germination. A seedling will initially use the seed coat itself for food. After that, I recommend using a liquid fertilizer at 1/2 strength or less when you water your plants. I recommend a synthetic fertilizer indoors for the sake they smell less and are less likely to promote unwanted fungus growth.

Think fish fertilizer, beet extract or other organic fertilizers that not only feed your plants but create a friendly food source for fungi and bugs.  This is 100% my opinion but, what every you choose, use a liquid fertilizer. You can also initially throw in a granule type fertilizer into the starting mix when you are preparing it for starting your seeds. Again, use a lot less in the starting mix. More harm can come from over doing it with fertilizers.

How and When to Start Lavender Indoors: 
Takes a Long Time to Germinate 

60 Seconds or Sow: 
First Leaves or True Tomato Leaves, What are They? 

When to First Fertilize Your Tomato Seedlings with Liquid Fertilizer 


At some point you will need to move your seedlings into larger cups. This all really depends on what you are growing and when you started them. The key for starting seeds indoors is to grow a nice size healthy transplant that hasn't sat in the house too long. You don't want your plants to be flowering indoors. If that should happen, remove the flowers. You need to time your seed starts, so they can go outside when the conditions are right. That is typically after the last frost date in your area. Most seed packets will tell you when to start seeds indoors.

The general range for starting most seeds indoors is 6-8 weeks. There are exceptions. Many herbs can be started 10-12 weeks indoors. Squash, cucumber and certain melons should be started 4 weeks indoors. Again the weeks time is based on when they can go outside, free from risk from frost. However, some plants like warm weather, so you need nights that stay if the 50's. If you put a warm weather plant out too soon, it just sits there. Do a search on cool weather crops and warm weather crops and that will help you understand when to start them indoors as to match them with the outdoor conditions they like.

Plant and Root Size Ready for Transplanting
Labelled and Going Into Cups - TRG 2015
Transplanted from Cells and Waiting Spring
Most plants can be started in the small seeds cells, even divided and then moved into cups. Certain seeds, typically bigger seeds, like zucchini, squash, melons and cucumber should be started in bigger containers. They won't need to get transplanted into bigger cups. They can grow to size in their containers and eventually be transplanted directly into the ground. Here are some videos on transplanting tomatoes into larger cups indoors and starting plants in larger containers. There are a lot more videos on my YouTube Channel.

How to Transplant Tomato Seedlings into Cups 

How to Transplant Pepper Seedlings into Cups 

How and When to Seed Start Cucumbers Indoors: Warm Weather

Good Luck with Your Garden,
Gary (The Rusted Garden)

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