Seed Germination & Growing Indoors

Mar. 27, 2010

Seed Germination and Starting Seeds Indoors… what a joy, especially in February and March when Chicago zone 5 winters drag on and on. I have to admit, I’m a chronic mister. Its sort of an addiction watching the little guys pop their heads out of the soil. Even if you can’t spend all day hovering over your seedlings, there are few tips to keep them thriving and get the seed germination process started.

Steps of Seed Germination

In order for seeds to germinate and grow, there are a few necessities. Light. Water. Warmth and Well Draining Soil. Troubleshoot from there. You can actually germinate your seeds without any light at all, but if they come up and immediately die (damping off) its time to buy grow lights. A heated porch that receives southern exposure would be an ideal environment for starting seeds. Since I have no southern facing windows in my home, I have to improvise… by drilling straight into the wall.

By some strange coincidence, I had three pieces of microfiber board in my garage, cut to the exact size of the space I was using. So I only needed wall brackets (70 cents), hardware lights and hooks to hang them with. I set up shop in my room, where I work from home designing websites. This way I can constantly check on the seedlings.



You can buy plant racks especially made for growing indoors, but with some 2x4s and a little skill, its easy to build yourself. Any shelving you can drill a hook into will work. Since I know where my studs are (trial and error), next year I’ll try track shelving so I can move things, add more lights and optimize space to get more seeds germinated. Like this kind >

Grow Lights:

grow-lights-for-seedling-germination48″ fluorescent light fixtures (shop lights) are the ideal size for starting seeds indoors. Make sure they have chains so you can adjust the height of the light as your seedlings start to grow. Also make sure the unit has a plug, and isn’t the kind you wire inside the wall. The best price on these was at Kmart ($9). The type of bulbs needed is determined by what you’re growing. I purchased bulbs made for growing plants, good enough for orchids, but I’ve seen no difference in how things grow. If you’re growing vegetables, regular bulbs will do just fine. As a rule, the light should be very close, 2-4″ above the seedlings at all times. Seeds need 12 hours of light each day. These should be safe to leave on all day as they don’t produce heat. (check the specifications just to be sure)

Keeping Plants Watered:



As I said, I’m a chronic mister. But the trick to keeping your seeds watered all day while you’re out is by using trays to hold your cell packs.  I had some old tupperware, and an old tray for developing photographs that served my needs perfectly, but the new ones from the hardware store only cost $1.80 each. Fill the bottom of the tray with water before you leave in the morning and the soil will absorb the water all day keeping roots moist. Bottom watering is ideal. Seeds aren’t washed out of place, there’s no damage to tender seedling stems, and it promotes good root development.

Seed Starting Soil:

The hardware or gardening store will sell you all kinds of good potting soil and soilless mixtures for starting seeds. I believe the cheapest starter soil is straight peat moss.


While most seeds will germinate at room temperature, you might hear some gripes from the veggies that like it warm. The tomato seeds were taking forever to sprout so I moved them under the hot lights. If you noticed in the original image of my setup, I hung round hardware fixtures with real grow light bulbs ($7)  from the garden center. I like these because they produce a lot of heat. For safety reasons, you would NEVER want to leave your house with these bulbs lit.  Your seedlings will germinate without extra warmth, but it will take longer. A plastic cover for your trays will help keep moisture and warmth in, but if you really want those babies warm, you can use a heat mat underneath the trays.

When to Start your Seeds:

There’s no accurate way to tell exactly when to start your seeds, as weather changes from year to year, but there are a few guidelines you can follow to ensure success.  Take a look at the germination seed charts for a good idea of what temperature your plants will withstand. Start your cold vegetables first, then move on to warmer vegetables.

Determine the last frost date for your zone, then count backwards on your calendar 6 to 8 weeks.

Zone 1: June1 – June 30

Zone 2: May 1 – May 31

Zone 3: May 1 – May 31

Zone 4: May 1 – May 31

Zone 5: March 30 – April 30

Zone 6: March 30 – April 30

Zone 7: March 30 – April 30

Zone 8: February 28 – March 30

Zone 9: January 30 – February 28

Zone 10: January 1 – January 31


Keep in mind how many plants you’d like to start and how much space you have. I only start a few seeds per cell, to give them enough space to grow, then add seeds to bare spots. If you have an unusually long winter, seedlings may become overcrowded or grow too long in cells. They may become root bound. Tangled, matted roots will stunt the plants growth. Make sure to have larger pots (disposable plastic cups work fine) on hand to give them more room to grow.

Hardening Off:

When its warm enough for plants to survive outside, bring them out initially only for an hour or two to get them acclimated to the outdoors. Find a shady spot to set the trays out. Do this for a week or two gradually increasing their time outside. Remember to keep your eye on the weather. If it gets to cold or you have an unusually windy day, bring them back inside or put them in a cold frame. Water well before and after transplanting them into the garden.

Update Feb, 2011

I did build new shelves this year. Theyre 2 rails with adjustable brackets to move shelves around as needed.


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