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Six Questions to Ask Yourself Before You Plant Seeds Indoors

Your answers could save you time and money

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Starting seeds indoors for your container gardens can be a great and economical way to get a jump on spring. However, it can also be a waste of money and time if you don't do it right. So as a first step, here are a few questions to ask yourself before you start.

How attentive am I?

Container Garden Picture of Nasturtiums
Photo © Kerry Michaels

Before you start seeds you should know that they need a lot of attention - seeds are basically divas. If they dry out, they are usually toast. Too much water and they are toast too. Until they are a pretty good size, seedlings are incredibly fragile and you don't have much latitude with their care. I have killed more than I care to admit, so if you are going to be away or don't want the hassle of babying a bunch of needy seedlings, consider spending the money to buy full blown, robust plants.

How ambitious am I?

container gardening picture of a "pizza," Container Garden
container gardening pictures

While you may be tempted by seed catalogs, don't order more than you'll need. And make sure not to start more seeds than you'll be able to care for. Remember that even two tomato plants in containers can give you lots of tomatoes. Also, if you're a beginner start with easy seeds like nasturtiums, tomatoes, zinnias, cosmos, morning glories, cukes or squash. Lots of herbs are also easy to start. Try basil or coriander. Dwarf sunflowers are also fun.

Do I have enough natural light or will I need artificial lights?

container gardening pictures of sunflowers
Photo © Kerry Michaels

Seedlings that don't get enough light, become spindly, wimpy plants that won't thrive. Chances are high that your seeds will not get enough natural light - 6-8 hours a day - in a window. If you don't have enough natural sun, which usually means a south facing window, you will have to provide artificial light. You can use grow lights, which are available at hardware stores, catalogs or nurseries. For a more economical solution, you can use fluorescent shop lights hung from a movable chain. This will allow you to raise the lights as the plants grow. If you're using this set up, put in one warm bulb and one cool bulb. Also, keep the lights very close to your seedlings - about 1 or 2 inches above them.

Putting artificial lights on timers is also a good idea and set them so that the seedlings will get 12-16 hours a day of light.

When is the last frost?

container gardening picture of a container garden filled with lettuce
Photo © Kerry Michaels
To get an idea of when you should plant your seeds, figure out when the last frost in your area will be. This is, to say the least, an imprecise science. There are lots of places to find information that will help you make an educated guess, including your local cooperative extension service. I also like The Farmer’s Almanac Web site, which has a cool interactive map that will tell you the date of the last frost the previous year. For more detailed info NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has a chart with dates and frost probabilities for specific locations.

Can I protect my seedlings from frost?

container gardening picture of container garden filled with coleus
Photo © Kerry Michaels
One of the true beauties of container gardening is that the answer to this question is usually yes. This gives you huge flexibility in when you can start your seeds. I plant early, because while there is still danger of frost, I put all my tender plants on wagons and wheel them in and out of my garage. It's kind of a pain, but worth it. If your containers aren't mobile, there are several other ways to protect your plants from frostbite.

Can I count backwards?

container gardening picture of pea plant
Photo © Kerry Michaels

Now you'll want to figure out when to start your seeds. First get out a calendar. Take your last frost date (see above), or when you want to put your plants out and start counting backwards, usually around four to six weeks, depending on your seeds.

For example, if your seed package says that you should start your seeds four to six weeks before the last frost, and you want to put your plants out at the beginning of May, you would count six weeks back, which would start your plants in March.

There is a great interactive "grow guide" from the "Weekend Gardener," that can help you choose dates. This is particularly helpful if counting backwards is not your strong suit (I'm raising both my hands here).

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