The What, Where & How of Seed Starting

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Thanks to a snowy day there is order where once was chaos.

There is a certain kind of panic at this time of year when the winter starts to draw to a close and I calculate how many tasks I need to finish before the last piece of wood is thrown into a hard-working furnace. The irony of wishing heartily for signs of spring, yet fearing my workload once we’re there always strikes me as funny – but it happens every year.

Chief among these tasks is seed-starting, which beautifully encapsulates both states of mind. Spring, hope, green and the musty smell of warm earth contrasted with late winter cold, shed chaos, seed chaos and where-on-earth-am-I-going-to-put-all-of-these-flats chaos.

Still, seed starting makes sense on many levels: one gets one’s choice of varieties, it’s economical, it’s a fabulous process for children to watch, and it starts off the growing season when snow is on the ground. Why then does it seem onerous?

As with gardens in general, we plant too much. Most of us do not have greenhouses and must deal with seed flats on top of washing machines, or on bookcases in bedrooms, or in disused bathtubs. It is so easy to plant far too many seeds under the assumption that many won’t germinate, or if they do, you’ll give them away. The first assumption is false, the second is simplistic.

If you ask your friends and relations, you will find that no one wants a flat of tomato seedlings crowded three-to-a-cell. What they want is for you to transplant, label and transport said seedlings to their front door at precisely the time they need to be planted.


“Garden Babies” container butterheads from Renee’s Garden. Love this variety. LOVE IT.

As we now find ourselves in the season of Lent and sacrifice for others should be the driving force behind many of our actions, this may appeal to you on a spiritual level; but there are limits to piety, and I find that acting as chief seed propagator for friends who will take these pots and put them on the back porch until they die of exposure, tests and exceeds those limits.

So, under the assumption that you will keep yourself well within bounds and only start a reasonable amount of seeds (bearing in mind that the phrase “reasonable amount” might be too elastic to be trusted with rabid gardeners), where you start?

1)   Get yourself a planting chart for your region. The extension service for your state does a beautiful job of nailing this down and publishing it online. The chart I use for my 6b/7a garden is University of Maryland’s publication HG-16, which I laminated years ago and which hangs inside a cupboard in my kitchen for easy reference.


And if this isn’t enough info, there’s still the flap telling you what the heck Broccoli Raab is, and a gorgeous watercolor of what it looks like.

2)   Get yourself some good seeds. There are many worthy companies out there, but this year I’d like to highlight Renee’s Garden. Granted, I am a sucker for inspiring watercolor artwork, heirloom varieties and cottage garden favorites, but Renee’s goes beyond eye-candy and excellent selection. Rather than hiding plant info on the inside of the packet for regrets and recriminations after you’ve bought the seed and opened the packet, a flap is added to the outside in order to give the gardener more information than just when to plant and how deep. Plus, Renee Shepherd is a real person, a real gardener, and she writes cookbooks. Enough said.

3)   Use clean soil, but don’t be afraid to use old cookie sheets, foil pans, etc.. for containing your soil. If you don’t have anything of this kind, 72-cell seed starting “greenhouses” are available fairly reasonably at big box stores. Treat them kindly and they will last a very long time. I have always used a razor blade to cut the cells into six-packs so I can plant similar varieties together and move them around depending on germination rates. If you’ve ever planted a zucchini seed next to a pepper, you’ll know why I take this step.

4)   Plant within reason. Yes, that word again. Seriously folks, let’s keep this fun and enjoyable, not life-taxing.

5)   Light! And I say again, LIGHT! Windowsills are nice for rooting coleus, but seedlings need fourteen hours of direct light a day. Get a shop light, hang it from hooks in your ceiling (oh, go on), and keep it 4-6 inches from your seedlings. You will be amazed at the difference in health, vigor and general pluckiness of your specimens.

6)   Water your trays from the bottom and you won’t wash your seeds and soil away. Once you have germination, take the humidity domes off the trays or you will encourage disease.


My standing cold frame, standing cold on the deck with the last of the transplants.

7)   Hardening off your seedlings is a crucial step and one that is often forgotten. It’s labor intensive and involves bringing flats in and out of the house for a week or two until they have gotten used to an outside environment and are old enough for a sleepover. Unless I have something that is very precious, I usually just transfer the flats to a standing cold frame and take my chances.

8)   Planting out usually coincides with fourteen other things that need to be done at the same time, but if you let those seedlings languish in pots, you run the risk of stressed, root-bound specimens that subsequently bolt to seed within weeks of getting them in the ground. Sprint through the finish line and you don’t waste the work of the previous eight weeks.

There are a few hard and fast rules to be sure, but don’t be uncomfortable with experimenting to see what works for you. (These days I’m a big fan of the outdoor milk-jug technique.) After all, it’s only seed, and as precious as a single seed can be, so is your time. Use it wisely over the next few weeks and you can be proud of the results.



2018-02-20T20:41:23+00:00 By |

About the Author:

Marianne is the mother of two, wife of one and the voice of The Small Town Gardener. She gardens and writes from her home in the scenic (and exceptionally convenient) heart of Virginia's wine country.


  1. Jean Campbell February 20, 2015 at 8:53 am - Reply

    Thank you for your practical advice that makes seed-starting sound like the fun thing that it is. I like Renee’s Seeds, too.

    Yesterday there was a minor explosion from the window sill as I stood at the kitchen sink. A seed pod of Pride of Barbados decided at that moment it was time to open up and scatter pea-sized flat seeds. Never a dull moment.

  2. Casa Mariposa March 17, 2015 at 7:57 pm - Reply

    Hi Marianne,

    It was wonderful to meet you. Love this blog! I’m surrounded my seedlings right now and am excited to watch them develop and grow. How cool is it to plop a seed into soil and have it turn into a plant? Magic, beauty, and science all rolled into one. 🙂

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      Marianne Willburn March 18, 2015 at 10:30 am - Reply

      Great to meet you too Tammy – it’s always fun to hang with hort people for the afternoon!

  3. Green Gal September 10, 2015 at 3:10 pm - Reply

    Thank you for these helpful reminders and for sharing your insight! Watering from the bottom totally makes sense for seedlings; I’ll have to start doing that!

  4. Allison June 2, 2017 at 8:31 pm - Reply

    I can start them, but often kill them when I transplant. Must learn to toughen them up

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