Here’s your indoor growing guide for 2020! Everything you need to know to grow healthy, strong seedlings for your kitchen garden from seed to transplant!
After successfully growing for market for nearly a decade, I’ve scaled back to kitchen gardening for our homestead here in Harpers Ferry, WV. There’s a lot of know-how gained in that much time growing food for others with a 4-season garden. This year, it’s all being recorded in growing guides to help others plan and grow their gardens from seed to harvest and pantry!
This Comprehensive Seed Starting Guide picks up where our garden planning post left off! Click the link below to review that post before diving into seed starting indoors.
This post contains affiliate links based on my personal experience with products that support a seasonal lifestyle. As an amazon associate, I earn from qualifying purchases. I hope you find them useful.
Why Start Seeds Indoors? Here’s your Indoor Growing Guide!
Gardens are not made by singing, ‘Oh, how beautiful,’ and sitting in the shade.Rudyard Kipling
It is good to dream and plan the kitchen garden, or any garden for that matter. But, if you want any dream or goal to come to fruition, it all begins with the first action toward the goal.
There is a Buddhist saying that may seem banal, but I find it a consistent mantra in my daily life: good in the beginning, good in the middle, good at the end.
Starting seeds with skill, forethought, and the best supplies you can afford goes a long way toward creating a garden that is good at the beginning.
A good beginning, I find, gives you time to tend to soil and structure in the kitchen garden, as well as seed starting. These initial phases of creating a vital and nourishing kitchen garden will set you up for productive harvests of tasty ingredients for future meals.
So, we have good in the middle.
Use this Indoor Growing Guide for Seed Starting in August, too!
In a four-season kitchen garden, there really is no end, just an endless succession of beginnings and middles. But, perhaps, for may of us, August is the end with its relentless heat and lack of rain.
Starting seeds indoors sets you up to be better prepared for the big turning of the kitchen garden in August when seed starting begins again if you are planting a fall garden.
You can download my seed starting schedule at this link to see how I plan for August with the first seeds started in January. It is designed for a 4-season garden in agricultural zone 6a. Below, we’ll explore ways you can adjust the schedule for your agricultural zone.
8 reasons to start seeds indoors this winter:
- Connection to your kitchen garden from the beginning. It is said that people waste less food when they grow it themselves. This is true for Bob and I! The garden becomes a much-loved extension of ourselves when we know the plants from seed to harvest.
- Confidence in yourself as a grower and in the quality of food you eat and preserve.
- Earlier harvests because you control the hardening off process, planting schedules, and frost protection strategies for your seedlings.
- Increased variety and flavor of your seasonal meals, and pantry inventory.
- Budgeting is much easier for a garden when the expense of seedlings is reduced to the cost of seed and good soil.
- Creative satisfaction is limitless as you learn the particular requirements of different fruits and vegetables grown in your kitchen garden.
- Pantry planning is easier when you plan your garden from the day you start seeds indoors.
- Seed starting builds your soil by adding quality soilless growth media with every plant placed in a garden bed.
How to Create Your Seed Starting Schedule | Indoor Growing Guide
This indoor growing guide begins with researching your growing environment, knowing your pantry end-game, and having a good plan.
I’m just as guilty as the next girl in willy-nilly planting of seed and plant starts in my kitchen garden. As a matter of fact, that’s exactly what happened here at the farm as we migrated our growing from the market garden to the kitchen gardens.
You know what happened? I spent a lot of money on quality ingredients for winter meals. Ingredients I could have easily grown for myself! It’s been a good lesson and I’m happy to share what I’ve learned to save you the heart ache and expense of an unplanned kitchen garden.
Know Your Frost Dates
I build gardens at my micro-farm nestled in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia. We are near the historic town of Harpers Ferry. The USDA hardiness zone for this area is 6a. Our last frost is Mother’s Day and our first frost is mid-October.
It’s a lovely climate with four equal seasons, usually predictable frost dates, and a welcome environment for 4-season gardening (vegetable gardening that allows a harvest every month of the year).
If you are new to gardening, the term hardiness zone might be new to you as well. It is a map created by the USDA to help growers know which plants will develop successfully in their area. The map is based on average winter minimum temperatures, and most growers use it to determine their last frost date in the spring, and the first frost date in the fall. Click here to identify the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone for your garden.
Here’s a quick overview of plant hardiness zones. Photo Credit: Wikipedia.
Know Your Pantry
Maybe your kitchen garden is designed to bring tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers to your summer table. That’s great! This indoor growing guide can certainly help you do that in joy and with skill.
But, this post is designed to help you grow a 4-season garden designed to feed your household every month of the year!
That includes growing enough food for fresh harvested ingredients for daily meals, and enough to preserve for off-season meals.
We’ve got you covered in both areas! Take the FREE 5-Day Food Preservation eCourse. Then, use this workbook to plan your pantry. That’s the best way to get this most from this Kitchen Garden Planner. See, there’s plenty of garden work in December and January! It’s just not the kind that requires us to be down on our knees in the warm delight of moist soil.
Remember, food preservation isn’t complete without lacto-fermentation know-how!
Garden planning is a mindset exercise as much as anything else. Giving yourself time to dream aligns intention with action.
Having a clear vision of the garden, through the seasons, helps dispel the overwhelm that comes from knowing what you want, but not how to make it happen.
This garden planning post is comprehensive. It is designed with the 4-season kitchen gardener in mind. Click here to get started with your garden plan!
When using this indoor growing guide to start seeds indoors, you’ll need to keep two things in mind…
Heat Loving Plants
Some of the first seeds you’ll start will be heat loving plants that have a long way to grow from seed to fruit. Starting these seeds indoors will speed up your harvest significantly.
Here, we’re talking the beloved tomatoes! 🍅
But, we’re also talking pepper (hot and sweet), okra, and eggplant to name a few.
Make sure you have room in your indoor growing area for these plants, which can grow quite large before they are ready for transplant.
Cold crops are the ones that can be transplanted or direct seeds as soon as the soil temperature reaches 50 degrees. They will need some frost protection, but can tolerate, of not benefit from being exposed to a late spring frost.
I’ll admit my bias! These are my favorites in the kitchen garden. The list includes: arugula, kale, spinach, broccoli, cabbage, and some lettuces. This is just a few. You can see the full list in my own planting schedule.
Sourcing Your Seeds
When it comes to good at the beginning, seeds are right there!
The quality of our seeds can make or break your garden year.
The first thing to do is inventory your current seed collection and discard old seed.
These are my good seed for the year. They needed to be organized before my next seed swap foray so I know what to look for and what I can share.
I had a pile of seeds that were more than 4 years old. I pooled them into a glass jar and will sprinkle them over our pasture.
If you are new to the world of seed catalogs, it can be both confusing and overwhelming to sort through them. Click here for my advice on how to winnow your sources of seeds down to the best of the best.
Last year was my first foray into the wonderful world of seed swaps. I loved everything about the experience!
Community, diversity, thrift, and skill-building were all an intricate part of the experience.
Because of those experiences, I highly recommend seed swaps. I participated in the Super Duper Seed Swap last year and saved a lot of money, added varieties to my garden I’d never used before, and felt like I joined a community.
I dream of organizing one this year for our sweet little community. We’ll see how that all comes together…
Your Indoor Growing Guide for Reading Seed Packets
Reading seed packets is essential for effective indoor growing.
Seed packets will help you know whether it is best to direct seed or start them indoors. They also help you calculate the best time to start seeds indoors, or know soil requirements for direct sowing.
Seed catalogs are an essential companion to the seed packets as they have even more detailed information about the required conditions for your seeds. Of course, your suppliers website warehouses all this information to me readily available when needed without a lot of foraging through your stack of catalogs.
For this reason, I keep my suppliers to no more than 3 when ordering seeds. This helps me understand the reliability of suppliers and their information.
Follow these basic guides when reading a seed pack:
Be sure to check the plant name if you are looking for a specific variety. Recording varieties in your garden journal can help you know what vegetables and fruits grow best in your specific micro-climate.
These pithy little descriptions are useful when choosing between varieties. For example, is the variety particularly cold or heat tolerant? Shade tolerant? Etc. Require specific growing conditions?
Be sure to check the amount of seed in your packet so you buy enough and get value.
Accreditations and CertificATIONS
Be sure to check your seed packets for organic certification and non-GMO designations. Other certifications may include fair trade, and open pollinated or hybrid seed.
Package and/or Sell-by Date
Purchasing fresh seed will help you ensure good germination. It also helps when storing seeds between growing seasons.
Type of Plant
This description will help you know if you are purchasing annuals, perennials, bi-annuals, cold or heat tolerant, and various other plant types.
Instructions for Agricultural Zones
This is a quick reference information that helps you know the planting window for groups of agricultural zones.
Seed Starting Instructions
This section will let you know of the seeds can be started indoors or need to be directed seeded.
It will also describe specific growing requirements for germination like light, water, planting depth, etc.
The seed packet will let you know days to germination and days to harvest.
Days to germination will help you care for the seedling and not freak out if you don’t get a spout in the first week.
Days to harvest will help you know when to start your seeds and plan your crop rotations.
Keep in mind
Keep in mind that the information on the seed packets is a summary intended for quick reference. When planning your kitchen garden, be sure to use the fuller description provided in your seed catalog or the supplier’s website.
Seed Starting Indoors | Supplies and Equipment
In keeping with the notion of good at the beginning, organizing your supplies and equipment will go a long way in ensuring healthy, viable plants from you indoor growing efforts.
I find containers to be the hardest part of starting seeds indoors.
I hate using plastic, but find plastic to be the best container for maintaining the moisture level best for seedlings.
Because of this tension I recycle a lot. When you recycle plastic pots, be sure to wash them between uses. You do not want bug eggs, old, or other diseases having easy access to your tender seedlings!
I’m not one for using plastic cups for seed starting because I can’t seem to find a way to organize them that doesn’t look scatter and messy. They just make me nuts!
For years I’ve been wanting to take the time to make seedling pots from newspaper. Maybe this will be my year!
Honestly, I’ve never purchased shelving for seed starting. It’s the one thing that seems to be available for free or close to free!
Things to look for with shelving include:
- Height and the ability to adjust the lighting.
- Ability to handle moisture.
Honestly, we set up a DIY fluorescent system with full spectrum bulbs years ago. the system is adjustable, moveable, flexible, and cheap.
When I need to replace the system, I’ll go LED lights to be more efficient but they weren’t an option back when we built our grow room.
I can’t state enough how important it is that your lighting is flexible.
When you get those spindly little seedlings it’s because they were started too far from your light source. Keep lighting 4-6 inches above the plants at all time.
Make your own potting mix whenever possible. It will save you money and give you control over what’s feeding your plants.
Click here to get my recipes for large and small batch potting mix. It’s worth the effort, I promise!
Heat Germination Mats
Heat germination mats are use to keep the soil at a consistent 50 degrees during germination. If you grow in a basement like me, the ambient temperature can vary depending on weather conditions. These mats really help to get the best germination from your seeds.
Once you see sprouts, move the seedlings to a shelf without the heat mats. The plants will be healthier when roots learn to grow in various conditions.
This means you don’t need a lot of germination mats. When we grew in the market garden, we only needed 6 mats. These days, I’m sure I could get away with 4.
Moisture needs for seedlings changes through the various stages of the plant’s life.
When germinating, the soil should be kept moist and a dome or layer of plastic wrap over the soil will help germination. It is important that these payers be removed as soon as you see growth to thwart mold growth on top of the soil.
When seedlings are very young, before first leaves, soil should remain moist.
After the first leaves appear you can go to watering every 2-3 days. This will help stimulate root growth and plant hardiness.
Be sure to water with a can that has a long spout so you don’t get the lant wet while watering. the moisture on leaves attracts pests and disease.
How to Start Seeds Indoors | Indoor Growing Guide
As mentioned, starting seeds indoors is both an economical venture, saving the expense of purchasing mature plants. This rite of mid-winter also gives you control over the type and quality of transplants for your kitchen garden.
This is where the proverbial rubber of the indoor growing guide hit the metaphorical road!
Relying on local producers for our fruit and vegetable starts ties our gardens, and eventually meals, to the growing methods and varieties that they choose.
Use this indoor growing guide to create the colors, flavors, and textures of your seasonal meals.
Seed starting indoors also completes the circle of the garden as it runs from harvest to pantry. You know what you eat, and that informs what you grow!
Nurturing Your Seedlings | Indoor Growing Guide
We have our seeds and know how to read their packets for their requirements for a healthy start.
Now the indoor growing guide helps you care for your plant babies! That’s where the indoor growing guide has taken us along our seed starting journey.
We’ve organized our grow room and collected our supplies and equipment.
The joyous time is here to participate in the miracle of life inherent in the seed. Read on to learn how to manage the basics of starting healthy seeds indoors and creating strong and vibrant transplants for the kitchen garden!
Place seeds in the soil according to the directions in the packet. Then thoroughly soak the potting mix. Cover the seed tray with either a plastic dome or sheet of plastic wrap to stop the top layer of soil from drying out under the lights.
Once you see growth, remove the cover from your seed starting containers. This will help prevent mold growth.
For the first week or so, water the seedlings every day or every other day until you see the first leaves. Once those cotyledons, first leaves, appear, you can cut the watering back to every 3-5 days.
Place your seed starts 3-4 inches below your light source. This will ensure strong plants with thick stems. If you start your seedlings too far below the light source, they get spindly and remain weak.
I have systems where I can remove the light, and others where I elevate the starts and then lower them as they grow. Either ay is fine as long as you remember to keep a watchful eye on them.
Place newly planted seed trays on a heat mat to keep the soil temperature consistent at 50 degrees. Once you see growth, the seedlings should be removed from the mat so that they grow healthy through fluctuating temperatures.
Once you see growth, the seedlings will prefer a humidity level around 50%.
I recommend a thermometer unit that also gauges humidity. The biggest problem with humidity is that if it is too high you run the rick of fungal infection that can harm or even kill off the seedling before it gets growing.
We often plant seed starting cells with 2 seeds to ensure germination in every container. Most times this results in a crowded container and you may choose to thin the plants.
Thinning lessens the competition for water an nutrients. This is very important when seedlings are in the first containers, which are usually quite small, perhaps an inch square.
Only thin plants once they have their first true leaves. These are the ones that grow after the cotyledons and look like the true plant.
While you can pull the weaker plant from the container, this can harm the healthier plant by disturbing its roots. I recommend using a small set of scissors and snipping the unwanted plant form the container at the root line.
Of course, you’ll need to be supper careful not to accidentally snip the healthy plant.
If you choose to simply pull the unwanted plant, be sure the soil is very moist. It will come clean much easier and with less stress on the healthier plant.
I sometimes pull plants to thin and replant them in a new container if both seedlings are equally healthy. If you choose to do this, make sure that the new soil is lightly packed around the root ball of the transplant. Otherwise you will smother the roots and the plant will not thrive.
Add fertilizer to your seedlings after the first month. You can do this by watering with a weak infusion of liquid fertilizer like compost tea, fish emulsion, or other organic liquid fertilizer.
You can also have the same effect by potting up the plant with fresh potting mix. I still water these plants with a weak mixture of fertilizer. By weak, I mean half strength of what recommended by the manufacture, sometimes even a quarter concentration. You don’t want you plants to bolt, you simply need to help them thrive until their transplant date.
This is my absolute favorite part of the entire seedling journey!
I think this is because I am finally gardening outdoors!
To harden off your plants means to give them a transition period to adjust to the outdoor environment. The indoor environment has protected the seedlings from wind, temperature fluctuations, and cold nightime temperatures.
To harden off plants, you need to have a safe area where they can enjoy direct sunlight, sheltered from harsh winds. You also want the area to be protected from hungry critters eager to nibble away at all your hard won beauties!
For cold hard starts like cabbage, kale, broccoli, etc., I have a four foot high table set near my basement door. The starts sit on the table in the full sun during the day and are covered by agrobin, floating row cover, at night. I allow them to stay outdoors as long as the temperature remains above freezing, there is little to no wind, and any rains are gentle.
The table is near the basement door so that the seedlings can easily be brought indoors when the weather turns harsh with high winds, driving rains, or late hard frosts. After a week, more or less, the seedlings are ready for transplant!
Early crops should have frost protection readily available. I leave a section of agribon the length of the raised garden bed folded near the bed, ready to be spread and secured at a moment’s notice!
Troubleshooting Indoor Seedling Issues
Of all the issues facing the indoor grow area, I think over watering is the most common.
Overwatering invites disease and pests, and make the plants spindly and weak. Obviously, this is an easy problem to fix if the seedlings are healthy. Simply cut back on your watering!
Seedlings Falling Over and Dying Off
There is a common problem of plants falling over and dying off before the first leaves emerge. This is called dampening off and is caused by bacteria affecting the base of the plant. Common causes of dampening off are:
- Non sterile pots. Remember to wash and thoroughly rinse recycled containers!
- Poor soil mix with either too much or not enough nutrients.
- Plants need ventilation. If your grow area feels stuffy, run an fan in the room, but do not place directly on the seedlings.
- Watering over the plants from the top. Be sure to water at the soil.
Leaves of Seedlings Turning Yellow or Brown
When the leaves of your seedlings turn yellow or brown, it is a sign they are in some pretty serious trouble. The source of the problem is either in the soil or your watering habits, and results from either too much or not enough water and/or fertilizer.
When I see this, I pot up the seedling in new soil and give a moderate amount of water without fertilizer.
Flimsy and Weak Seedlings
As mentioned earlier, this is most likely due to the seedlings being started too far from their light source. A good thinning will help your weak seedlings, as will adjusting their light.
With some plants, like tomatoes, you can pot them up higher along the stem. Not all plants will respond to this. Do your research and see if it is an option.
If the weather in your area is mild, placing the plants outdoors in natural sunlight can also help remedy this legginess. You have to keep a close eye on the plants as they are still quite fragile. No exposure to wind! Bring in after 4 hours maximum.
Soil gnats cn gather around seedlings when the soil is kept too wet or your grow area does not have enough air circulation.
Once they arrive, they are very difficult to eradicate. They usually are more a nuisance than a real threat to your seedlings.
The time they can cause the most damage is when you are growing indoor greens like microgreens. It is very difficult to get a clean harvest and I have to either discard the lot or allow it some clean fresh outdoor air if at all possible.
Like more people, it’s amazing what good water and fresh air can do for a plant!
How to Transplant Seedlings Successfully
Seedlings will respond well to a good transplant! Micronutrients and beneficial bacteria will give the plant the nourishment it needs to spring from the ground in joyful vitality.
With this section, the indoor growing guide moves outdoors!
Here are my steps for a good transplant day:
- Be sure plants are hardened off for about a week.
- Check the weather forecast for an extended period of good weather. Look for signs of a late frost, high winds, torrential downpours.
- Prepare garden bed by removing weeds, enhancing the oil, and aerating the soil.
- Create rows. Add fertilizer and/or vermiculite if desired. Vermiculite can help the soil retain moisture around the roots. I use it often when transplanting and direct seeding.
- Gently remove seedlings from their container and place in the soil so that the tops of their soil is equal to the soil line in the garden bed. The exception to this rule is tomato plants, which can benefit from being planted an inch or tw below the soil line.
- Water gently.
- Cover with floating row cover if you think they need a little protection the first few days. If covered, check daily.
It’s that simply and one of the most enjoyable days in the garden all year!
Direct Sowing in the Spring | beyond Indoor Growing
I just couldn’t leave this indoor growing guide indoors! There’s so much more to seeds than grow shelves in late winter!
You can direct sow many crops in the weeks of early spring. Consider direct seeding carrots, beets, cold-hardy salad lettuces, arugula, spinach, fava beans, peas, and kale once the soil gets to 50 degrees.
Your seed packets will have instructions for direct seeding your cold hardy crops. Usually it’s as simple as cutting a row in a freshly prepared bed and following the instructions for depth and spacing. Give a good water and let nature take her course!
Back to those seed packs, and planting instructions in catalogs and websites of your suppliers. Be sure to know the soil temperature your seeds need for germination.
This is true for both spring plantings when the soil is cool, and late summer plantings when soil temperatures get rise above 80. You can warm soil temperatures early by building hoop houses and cold frames. You can cool summer soils with irrigation and shade cloth.
As mentioned earlier, soil thermometers are a gardener’s best friend!
Next to that soil thermometer, a bolt of agribon, sometimes called floating row cover, is an ally to a healthy start to your spring garden. Installing covers over your early plantings protects them from the weather, helps keep early weed seeds from the garden, and offers protection from birds and other critters.
Building hoop houses has become a pretty standard practice in the 4-season kitchen garden. These simple structures covered in UV plastic can help elevate soil temperatures and allow for earlier planting of seedlings, protect from variable spring weather, and give the gardener a place to play when the weather would otherwise keep her indoors!
Chitting and Planting Potatoes
A good beginning for this spring garden project starts with your seed potato. You can plant potatoes as soon as the ground thaws and reaches that magical 50 degrees! I always, always!!!, plant my first bed of potatoes on St. Patrick’s Day. No matter the weather!
Any organic potato that is allowed to sprout eyes is a seed potato. Giving the potato what it needs to sprout before planting is called chitting.
Chitting, helping the potato to sprout prior to planting, is easy! The potatoes above are from my store of seed potatoes. I put them away last fall in a cool dark cupboard in the basement. They naturally began chitting and are now very ready to go into the ground.
You can either plant the whole potato or cut the potato between the eyes and plant the separate pieces.
We’ll have more on the process of planting potatoes in the March garden post!
Planting Onions in Early Spring
Onions are another crop that can be planted early in spring. Use either onions plants or sets when planting early. Follow supplier’s instructions for seed/plant depth and spacing, keep watered and they are good to go!
Onions need very little attention and are quite hardy. The biggest problem with onion beds are the weeds. You’ll do well to keep on top of these weeds early to allow the onions the water and nutrients they need to flourish!
A Word About Wildflower Seeds
Start your wildflower beds while it is still wintery outdoors. Wildflower seeds need the fluctuating temperatures and exposure to weather to properly germinate. If you’ve ever started a wildflower bed from seed in the late spring or summer and had poor germination, it is because the seeds did not have the wintery coditions they require for germination.
Counter intuitive, I know! I just learned this from the John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seed newsletter last fall. It explained so much!
Use these links for detailed monthly garden tasks!
Kitchen Garden Planner and Journal
Have you ever experienced garden envy?
You know the feeling. You visit a friend’s kitchen garden and eaten their produce. Then, you find yourself thinking, I’ll never be able to keep up with a project like this!
Yes, most gardeners and would-be gardeners have such experiences.
Have you ever dug into gardening with great enthusiasm in the spring only to find yourself overwhelmed by weeds, bugs, and expenses come midsummer? This is a common gardening phenomenon as well.
Bob and I know first hand the joys and trials of growing clean, tasty fruits and vegetables year after year. We’ve grown for ourselves and our friends and neighbors for nearly a decade. Using the wisdom of 10 years of experience building a 1-acre market garden, we created this beautiful, useful, and inspiring Kitchen Garden Planner and Journal.
The 20 steps below can be completed without the Kitchen Garden Planner and Journal, but the $5 investment will make the whole process a whole lot easier and more organized!
There’s a party happening and we’re waiting for you to arrive!
We also gather over email once a week to focus on one specific garden, kitchen, or wellness topic in-depth, with lots of step-by-step how-to’s. The best way to jump into the email conversation is with the Seasonal Living Workbook, you can download it here and explore the seasonal living framework with an email course!
So much love and free information in one place, but it’s not the same without YOU!