How to Start Seeds Indoors

I'm Rob Patterson with Utah State University Extension in Carbon County.

Today we're going to talk about starting your seeds indoors. There may be several

reasons for starting seeds indoors; most of all it's just kind of fun to do, but

also in our area here in the southeastern Utah high desert country we

don't live in a very high populated area so we have to travel over the mountain

to get our sta...our starts, or they may not have the varieties that we want

here, and if you've got a big garden it may just be more economical to start

plants indoors. Generally speaking if you're just going to have three or four

pepper plants, or three or four tomato plants and a couple of cucumbers, then

probably economics is not the reason you want to do it but if you like to have

fun here's one way to do it. One thing you need to consider is which plants do

you want to start indoors. Some plants do not transplant well, for example radishes

or carrots do not transplant well, they're better to start outdoors so

we'll save those for when we're planting outdoors. But you can get a jump on the

season if you're going to be planting say peppers, or cucumbers, or you've got

some squash, there's some summer squash there, there's melons and tomatoes; you

can even start - if you want to you can start - spinach and lettuce indoors. Most

of these plants will transplant quite well, just have to schedule out when

you're going to be starting them and when you will need to get them

transplanted and out into the ground. One of the things that determines when you

will transplant these plant... if you're going to do peppers you need a fair

amount of time to get your peppers planted up and growing and transplanted

and ready to plant outside, so you want to start peppers eight weeks before

you're ready to plant them outside. Tomatoes you can do those four to six

weeks before you're ready to plant those outside - probably about six weeks.

Cucumbers and squashes and melons I would go about four weeks for those

before I'm ready to plant them outside. Eggplants

are probably along about the same time as peppers - about eight weeks - for the

eggplants to come up and get transplanted and ready to plant those

outside. So that's kind of the timeframe that you're looking at on how

early in the season to get these started indoors before you're going to plant

them outdoors. Now certain plants are very hardy and then certain plants are

very tender, and this is regarding frost - how well they'll tolerate the frost - and

so things like tomatoes and peppers and cucumbers and squash and melons those

are very tender plants; any frost at all, even sometimes getting down to 35

degrees, you'll get a chilling damage but you get down to where it's freezing and

those plants do not tolerate that very well.

Other plants like spinach and lettuce and cabbage and broccoli those plants

you can...they'll tolerate the frost as long as they've been hardened off

correctly before you set them outside. So the climate is kind of what depends how

far back you're going to be planting those plants; if you've got a way to

protect them even if it's going to be freezing - like you've got some sort of a

frost protection type thing that you use - then you can actually bump it ahead it's

just you need to decide in your own mind when you're going to plant those out. So

if I want to get way ahead and plant my my tomatoes out in the middle of April

and I have good frost protection for them out there, then I will back up from

that middle of April date four to six weeks for planting my tomato plants -

getting them started indoors and then they will be the right size when you

plant them outdoors. Your cabbages and things like that they'll tolerate those

frosty days like in late April...mid April... maybe even early April, and so those

plants you're probably looking at starting them indoors about four or five weeks

before you're going to plant them outdoors. Make sure you get them hardened

off then you can plant them out and they'll tolerate the cold. The other

thing you have to be careful of course is the wind; around here in our

southeastern Utah area we have a lot of really heavy spring winds so that can be

another thing we have to protect against. But that's...that's how you determine when

you're going to start these plants indoors. You don't have to have fancy

materials to start things indoors you can, for example, just take a butter

carton and punch holes in the bottom of it. You want to make sure that you've got

drainage, anything that you've got your seeds starting in you want to have good

drainage in, so you can do that and then you can start your seeds inside that -

set it in a window...that will work just fine.

Some other things that you'll need to do, if you're doing different varieties you

want to have some labels for them, and a real cheap way is to take a-again a

butter carton or something that's got a clear side to it and you can cut this

into labels quite easily - if your scissors work. So that...cut off the top

ring and then the bottom down have a piece of plastic it's got pretty

much white stuff and then you can just cut those into labels. So I cut that

carton up, I've got lots of tags, you can have a four inch tag if you want

or if you want you can make them shorter. I like my little bit shorter because I

don't need to have that much sticking up above, just enough to let me know what

varieties I'm growing. Of course if you wanted to you could go to the store and

buy labels, but I'm pretty cheap. For the cartons here on the bottom I've made

some holes, you want to make sure you have drainage, so I made four about

quarter inch size holes and that'll drain out quite well when I'm ready to

go with that. So that's kind of the cheap way to do it; if you want to use flats

you can purchase flats at the store. For starting your seeds you want to

make sure that you have a flat that has holes in the bottom - again for drainage -

you want to make sure that you've got that but if you're also if you're

starting indoors and you're going to put this on your furniture, you'll probably

want to have in addition to that a flat that doesn't have holes in the bottom of

it. So that your wife doesn't get upset with you - or your husband - if you happen

to leak all over the furniture. So you put a flat inside of the flat, you get

the drainage, but it also is protecting your furniture from that water. If you

want you can can purchase the inserts - they have these numbered based

on how many cells, so this is an eight oh four - there's eight of four packs in the

flat, they just fit right into the flat like that, but that's not what you

typically...I don't have as good a success starting seeds in this. I start the seeds

in the flat and then I transplant them. So what I have here is a flat of

tomatoes that I started, and they're ready for transplanting. Now how you tell when

you're ready for transplanting is you look look at these

leaves: you have these first two what we call seed leaves or cotyledons are the

first two leaves that come out on these types of plants, and then you have the

first set of true leaves. When these first set of true leaves are about the

same size as the cotyledons then they're ready to transplant. So these...these tomatoes

need to be transplanted so that's what we're going to do. So as we look at this

flat here we have...we can see that there's a variability in how big they

are. You can actually take these that just have the cotyledons showing, like this,

and they'll transplant and they'll probably will survive - quite well. If you take

them and you get these too big the transplant shock may be a little tough

on them, they can still survive but they don't...they don't transplant quite as

well. They're just a lot easier to handle, they're not quite so tangled in there, if

you get them when they're about this size here: these true leaves the same

size as the cotyledons. When the cotyledons, this true leaf here, is just

kind of coming out it'll probably survive. If you want to have a good even

crop you can throw out the old...the little ones - I have a hard time throwing

any plants out - but you can throw out these little ones that are just barely

starting to come up and germinate late, and then have a pretty

a crop of plants in your flat. Another alternative to these inserts that you

put in the flats would be to just get you a plastic six ounce Dixie cup and

make...make the holes at the bottom of that, again you need to have drainage,

these are pretty easy to just cut the corner out so that you've got drainage

out of the bottom of that. And you can use those instead of these inserts, again

another cheap way if you don't want to have to buy a whole carton of inserts

you can just buy a package of plastic drinking cups, cut holes in the bottom of

those and use those as well. There are different ways you can mark these little

labels that we've made here: crayons would work and they don't fade in the

sunlight quite too bad but they don't stay on, they'll rub off quite easily,

there are these China markers or wax pencils that we can use these for and

you can write on your label what plants you're planting there and those will do

quite well, you can also use a Sharpie if you want to. These I've found aren't

quite as durable actually as the wax pencils are so you may want to kind of

test around a little bit what you want for labels and for the markers, but

these China markers...pretty inexpensive... this material you can get your local

office supply store. You want to use a potting soil that is designed for

houseplants and transplanting is fine; you don't want to use soil from outside.

Soil from outside is going to carry weed seeds in it and...and be a little bit too

heavy, you're not gonna get the drainage you want, especially if it's soil from

from our country here in the high desert country of Utah - doesn't work real well.

So we want to have good potting soil in here, we don't need to fill a flat full

for starting the seeds, probably about an inch worth of soil - inch to an inch and a

half will be plenty when we get that soil in here and get it

leveled out, smoothed out and then we'll get our seats planted. If you're going to

do a single variety and plant a whole bunch of one variety you can just

broad cast these over, put a little soil over the top of it and that's fine. We're

going to be dealing with several different varieties, and so what we want

to do is keep them separate. A good way to do that is to just create some sort

of a track along here and then you can plant those seeds; you don't have to be

close, probably about an inch apart is good, but I'm going to have these tracks

along here - making it with my pin - then I'll put the seeds of different

varieties, put my labels at each track and I will have...know what's growing

where so when I transplant it I can keep them straight. Something you need to be

aware of as you're planting seeds - this is a tomato variety that I'm planting -

you want to know how to deep to plant these tomato seeds and the rule of thumb

is about four times the diameter of the seed. Tomatoes you'll plant about a

quarter of an inch deep; if you start getting shallow, more shallow or less

deep, than that when those cotyledons come out sometimes the seed coat doesn't

pull off very well. You want to space them within this row, kind of depending

on how viable the seeds are, you plant them about 1/2 to 3/4 of an inch apart

and you get good spacing in there; it makes it easier to pull them apart when you're

ready to do the transplanting. So I've got my tomato seeds planted all

across here - several different varieties, they're all labeled - I'm going to cover

them with about a quarter inch of soil. Different seeds you can plant closer

together, you can cover them with less or more soil, or however you want to do it

but you want to make sure that those seeds don't dry out in the germination

process. The three things you need for seeds to germinate are: the proper

temperature, moisture, and oxygen and in some cases

sunlight helps with certain...certain plants but other plants really don't need the

sunlight. So we're just going to cover these up, get a good covering on them,

then we'll pat it down so we've got a good seed contact with the soil. Make

sure we get good seed contact...pat that down, soil down. Another thing that I

found very helpful with seeds is to cover it over, you can cover a flat with

cling wrap - those saran wrap or whatever brand you use - you just cover it over the

top. You can get those commercial domes that you cut over over the tops of the

flats, if you're going to do it in one of these pots you can just put your soil in,

your seed, and then cover that again with the saran wrap type cover. And that helps

it so it doesn't dry out during the germination process. Once those start to

germinate and they pull up and I see the seeds coming out I'll take that dome off,

because we don't want to have too high of a moisture content and encourage

disease problems, but for germination it's good to keep that covered and

moist. So we'll get these watered in now, put the cover on them and get them ready

to start germinate, so we'll have some seeds pop up here in a few weeks. Now

to water these in - you need to have moisture in there - I like to have my

water actually just a little bit warm, but not hot, you don't want to get it too hot.

You don't want to spray that water too heavily; the stream would wash out so

the spray pattern is better and then you just lightly run the water

over the top of your plants.

Again you don't want to have that water stream so heavy that it's going to wash

the soil away and put your seeds in a different spot than where you originally

planted them, so don't sit there and gush the water out, just be careful with it.

Let that set, let it drain in the sink, and when it's done draining - or you could do it

now - you just put that dome over the top and that will keep that moist and

shouldn't have to water that until after the seeds have popped up. So we'll...we'll

put that in the window. Here's the plat- flat that I just planted...I'll put this in my

window. Now the best window is a good south-facing window; I don't have a good

south-facing window so my choices are east or west. North is probably not a

good choice, west is not as bad, east is probably a little bit worse than

west, but I've got a west windows - pretty good sized window - I'll get good light in

here but probably not enough, So I built this structure here that I have and it's

got lights that grow...there are on the... the room side of the plants and then the

windows on the outside of the plants, so they're getting pretty good light from

the window, so you're getting light over the top of the plants here. It's just

another expense if you're going to be starting seeds indoors you have to make

sure you have a good light - good windows. One thing that I will do is every day

I'll take these flats and I'll rotate them. Then I'll actually rotate them in

position as well so for example, it's a little bit darker on

this side you get a little bit more light on this side because the angle of the

sun, so I'll take this one out and rotate it down there, then we'll rotate these

all around up here, take this one up there and rotate these around

they'll get rotated in position. The plants will grow towards the light,

they'll stand up straight, otherwise you get these reaching plants so that's what

I do to keep my plants rotated and keep them growing up tall.

They need to think about am I going to have to supply a little bit

more light for these plants. Eventually I'll get

these outside - I've got the place outside that I can keep them so it's not always

quite this crowded, but this time of year it's always this crowded. So that's how I

do light; you really don't need to have light for tomatoes and peppers and

whatnot until after they pop up, so I can put this flat here somewhere else if I'm

crowded for space and eventually then get it moved out. You get this put back in

when they'll start to germinate I get them in to where they'll have light and

that will help them to pop up and grow well; so that's how you handle the light

with your indoor planting. So now that I've got these tomatoes are coming up

real well, they're looking really good, I'm ready to transplant them into a

individual pot. You can put them into pots this big but they seem to do

better if you do them steps at a time, you just to have to consider

that's much...that much more labor, maybe that much more soil. If you're going to

get them planted out not too big these smaller containers would be just fine,

again here's the cup, the cheaper way to do it, and it works just fine. So lots of

different ways you can do it and it will be...they'll be happy and healthy. So you

take your plant, you got the roots - when you grab it don't grab it by the stem. It

only has one stem; if you happen to tear a leaf, well it's got more leaves to take

its place but it's only got one stem. Take a pan or a Dibble stick of some

sort - that is an actual term Dibble stick - and then plant them in there push those

roots down a little bit. Now tomatoes you can plant deeper than they are

originally are in the soil; they will root along the stem. Other plants like

peppers and and some of these other plants...the cucumbers and the squash

the cabbages...plant them again at the same soil level. So you want - you can put

those down - tomatoes down - a little bit deeper if they get a little bit kind of

stretched out then you can do that. So I got that one, had a little bit more soil

on there than I wanted to, take my Dibble stick and I want these to be down quite

deep so that they're not quite so tall and lanky when I'm ready to plant them

out, so I'll plant them fairly deep. So we'll get this flat with plants planted

here and... and then we'll let them - It's probably

not a bad idea to set them not in direct sun for a day or so, so that they can get

past that transplant shock, and then get them back into the light because you

need to have them growing and photosynthesizing get that

growth going. And then you've got your flat of tomatoes and when they're the

right size you plant them outside. So there you have it: just another way to

have fun in your garden.