Starting Seeds Indoors

After arguably the coldest, snowiest winter on record, I am ready for spring. Okay, maybe the winter of 1934 was colder. So what? I still have snow, and my woodpile is pathetic. I am picking up sticks and burning soggy remnants of previous woodpiles. To keep my spirits up on raw, gray days, I plant seeds indoors.


I started back in March, planting artichokes, onions, leeks and peppers. Now I am planting the brassicas: Brussels sprouts, broccoli and kale. Those hardy souls can go out around the time of the last frost, even if the ground is still cool. My tomatoes, the queens of the garden, I will start closer to mid-April and go in the garden in June – well after the last frost – when the soil warms up to 60 or more.


One key to success with plants indoors is having enough light. A bright, sunny windowsill might be enough for the first couple of weeks in a plant’s life, but to grow good healthy tomato plants for 8 weeks requires artificial lighting.


Shop lights are relatively inexpensive: a two-tube, four-foot fluorescent fixture should cost under $20, plus the bulbs to go in them – which vary widely in price. You don’t need fancy “Gro-Lights”. Those mimic the spectrum of daylight, but for starting lettuce and tomatoes for the garden, ordinary cheap tubes work just fine. And if you can mix cool white and warm white tubes, you can have something close to daylight wave lengths.

Homemade plant stand


A few years ago I built a simple wood A-frame plant stand that has worked out well for me. It uses 3 fixtures and will illuminate 6 flats of seedlings. I suggested at the time that your local lumber yard will be glad to take your parts list and cut lumber to the appropriate sizes. To get the directions, go to my website ( and type in “Plant Stand” in the search engine, and the article will come up. Or send me a self-addressed, stamped envelope and I will mail you the directions.


Another item that will help you is an electric heat mat to put under the flats while your seeds are getting ready to germinate. Most seeds have a protective mechanism to keep them from germinating too early. They need the soil to reach a certain temperature in order to know that winter has gone by. Garden centers sell 2 sizes: enough for one flat, or enough for four flats.


Last spring I started all my corn indoors in plug trays (containers with over 100 planting places per flat) and put them on a heat mat. They germinated in just 3 days – but would have taken 10 or more outdoors. Corn sometimes rots if the soil is cold and wet. Crows love to steal corn when it is first up, but I planted the seedlings when 3 inches tall and they rooted right in, so the crows didn’t steal a single one.


Moisture is another important factor when starting seeds indoors. Get your planting mix thoroughly moist before you plant. That can be done by placing a tray of planting soil in six-packs in a flat with water in it, and letting the water soak up from the bottom. Or pour water into the bag of soil mix the day before using it.


If the soil mix dries out when seeds are just starting to crack open and send out a rootlet, your seedlings will die. You can prevent that by covering the planted six packs with a plastic dome. These are clear plastic so you can see what is happening, and so that the seedlings that have germinated can get light while others are still waking up. By the time your seedlings are two inches tall, they will be crowding the dome and you should remove it.


Have you ever had bad germination rates? I have. It could be due to bad seed or old seed. In general it is best to buy new seeds every other year, even if you have plenty. Most seeds are good for 3 years or even longer – but at a lower germination rate.


But bad germination may also be due to the position of the moon and stars. I have been following a celestial calendar called “Stella Natura” ( for a few years now, and although I can’t prove that its advice is right, I’ve had some interesting results.


I planted lettuce seeds on a “leaf” day, and then some more the following day, which was a “blackout” day (not recommended for planting anything). Even though I used the same seed package and planting mixture, I got a very low germination rate for seeds planted on a blackout day, but the others did well. The calendar has good days for planting fruits, flowers, roots and leaves. But this year I followed the calendar and still got very low germination for my artichokes, so who knows?


Remember when you calculate the cost of your tomatoes that building a plant stand for $50 and then buying lights for $100 is a multi-year investment. If you like messing around with plants in spring, starting seedlings indoors is a good idea. You can get rare and unusual seeds from catalogs that you would never find at your local farm stand. And, as one of my fridge magnets says, Gardening is Cheaper Than Therapy!


Henry Homeyer is a fruit tree pruner and gardening consultant. Contact him at or P.O. Box 364, Cornish Flat, NH 03746.