Tips for Seed Starting Success

Growing plants from seeds is one of the smartest money-saving ways to grow a great garden.


Long before winter is over, I start thinking about seed starting. But I’ve never written down my tips for seed starting success—until now.

Starting plants from seed is rewarding in any ways. You get a whole tray full of seedlings for the price of one pack of seeds. You can share them with other gardening friends. Most importantly, you can cultivate many more varieties than are available as seedlings at your local garden centers and home supply stores. Here are a few seed starting success tips to get you started. Also read our story about the Best New Vegetable Seed Varieties.


Tips for Seed Starting Success #1

burpee seed packets for seed starting successThe first tip for seed starting success is really important. Start with fresh, quality seeds that have been properly stored in a dark, dry, and cool spot. Good seeds mean reliable germination rates. Check the date on the seed packet. Discard old seeds or any packs that look like they have been exposed to moisture. Local garden centers are a great source for fresh seed, and so are mailorder catalogs and websites. For more information about some of the best garden catalogs, read 9 Great Garden Catalogs.


Tips for Seed Starting Success #2

Next, select the container or containers in which you will be planting your seeds. When I start a large number of seeds, I use traditional seed trays. They can be purchased at any garden center or online.

A new twist on seed starting trays is biodegradable seed-starting pots called CowPots. They are made from composted cow manure. After your last frost date, CowPots can be planted right into your garden soil. This prevents transplant shock, and it gives the seedling a great start in the garden.

CowPots are the best way to get seeds off to a great start
CowPots are 100 percent biodegradable seed-starting pots

If you are not using seed starting trays or pots, then almost anything can be used as a container. A wide, shallow plastic container with a clear lid is ideal. If you are re-using or re-purposing a container, be sure that it is sanitized and impeccably clean. I like to use those salad take-out shells. Poke several holes in the tray bottom. Then put the lid of the tray underneath to collect any excess water. Use an extra lid on top to form a mini-greenhouse dome.


Tips for Seed Starting Success #3

Give your seeds a good potting mix. Look for a brand without added fertilizers, which are unnecessary for tiny seedlings. In fact, fertilizers may actually “burn” the new growth.

tips for seed starting success potting mixYou want a lightweight potting mix especially labeled for seed starting. Add water to the potting mix. Fill each container with no more than about two to three inches in depth of the moistened mix.


Tips for Seed Starting Success #4

hand planting and tips for seed starting successSow your seeds according to package directions. That’s right. Turn the pack over and read the instructions carefully. Many eager gardeners skip over this step and then wonder why their seeds are not germinating or growing properly. Seed packs are a font of wisdom and will tell you virtually everything you need to know—including how deep to plant the seeds, how much spacing plants need in the garden and the number of weeks until harvest.


Tips for Seed Starting Success #5

Water the seeds well using a spray bottle filled with filtered water, set on mist. Keep the soil moistened by misting it a few times a day. For most varieties, you should start to see seeds sprouting by the end of one week or so.


Tips for Seed Starting Success #6

germinating tomato seeds and tips for seed starting successCertain seeds need bottom-warmth to germinate. These include peppers, which can take several weeks to sprout without that extra bottom heat. You can use a special heating pad, or place your tray on top of your water heater or refrigerator until the seedlings emerge.


Tips for Seed Starting Success #7

Give them light and air circulation. At the first sign of seedlings coming up, take off that plastic dome cover and remove the bottom heat pad. Then place them in a bright, sunny window or under an LED light system that you set up. For air movement, place a small desk fan on a nearby table. Rotate your trays so the seedlings don’t grow too leggy or stretch out towards the light.


Bonus Tip #1

Once your seedlings develop their “true” leaves, start the hardening off process so they can acclimate to outdoor conditions. This means putting them outside in a sunny but protected spot (such as your front porch) for an hour a day.

hardening off seedlings for seed starting successThen gradually increase the time outdoors until, after a few weeks, the young plants can stay out for the majority of the day. They can be planted outside once the last frost date has passed in your area.

Follow these tips for seed starting success, and you have taken another step toward unlocking the wide, wonderful world of gardening!


About the Author

Kathy Jentz is the Editor/Publisher of Washington Gardener Magazine. She can be reached at

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