Cut Garden Costs by Starting Seeds Indoors

Starting seeds is the inexpensive way to grow more of your favorite plants. Here's what you need to know to make your seeds blossom.

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Face it, people: Gardening can be pricey. New plants, tools, and all those extras can add up. So how do you slice your gardening budget? Consider starting seeds as part of the answer.

Many people are convinced that seed starting requires both time and energy. They're wrong: You can start a few seeds or a lot. You can even fake it with what you have on hand—no need to buy anything special. Plus, with a bare minimum of effort, you can save the seeds from flowers, vegetables, and herbs you're already growing, then use them during the next gardening season. Here's what to do and when to do it.

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How to Start Seeds Inside

1. Figure out the average last frost date for your area. Trust us: You'll need this.

2. Choose your seeds. If it's your first time starting seeds, go small. Pick just one or two types. Some good flowers to start from seed include:

3. Look on the seed package label. You'll find the number of weeks you're supposed to start seeds indoors before the average last frost date. Count backward from that frost date: It's about six to eight weeks. That's when you should start those seeds indoors.

4. To start seeds, you'll need:

  • Seed-starting pots. They should have drainage holes in the bottom.
  • Seed-starting mix. This is not soil—it's soil's lighter-weight cousin.
  • Labels for each pot.

5. Fill the pots with seed-starting mix, then moisten. The mix should be damp but not soggy—a spray bottle helps. You also can get the mix wet before adding it to the containers.

6. Gently press seeds into each container. If the seed package label advises it, cover the seeds lightly—but don't pat down the seed-starting mix.

7. Label your pots so you know what's growing.

8. Loosely cover the pots with clear plastic wrap, which helps maintain humidity and warmth.

9. Place your seed pots in a location that's warm and free of drafts, but not in direct sun. The ideal temp is about 75ºF but not hotter than 90ºF. Once the tiny seedlings emerge, then about 70ºF is OK. Sunlight is a big deal, too—about 12 hours a day. To supplement natural daylight, place the pots up close to a low-intensity light—like undercabinet lights in a kitchen.

Starting Seeds Outside

Some plants are quick enough growers that the seeds can be planted right in the ground—after the outside temps and soil have sufficiently warmed up. To plant them, just check the directions on the seed package label. Cover with as much soil as directed, then lightly water. Some seeds—marigolds, zinnias—you can simply scatter.

Now What?

You started your seeds. Their heads are poking up in the pots. What do you do next?

Give 'em some air: After plants pop through, take off the plastic wrap.

Thin the seedlings: As the seedlings make their presence known, they need their space. Keep the ones that look healthy and strong, and snip the rest so there's just a single plant per pot.

Moving day: After they're about 2 inches tall, your seedlings need an upgrade. Transplant them into larger containers—this time in a potting soil mix.

Keep watch: Don't let the seedlings dry out! You can chill a bit on the supplemental light as the plants get stronger, too. Fertilize lightly with a diluted seedling mix.

Harden off: As your plant-outside date approaches, you have a couple of days to boost the hardiness of your seedlings. To do that, you harden off the plants. What's that, you ask? Simply place the seedlings outside—in a protected spot—for a short time (think an hour or two). Every day, increase the length of time you leave them outside.

Container Options

Use seed flats—they're super easy for planting. But dig through your recycling bin, too. Just remember to punch a drainage hole in each container before planting. You can repurpose:

  • Cut-down milk jugs
  • Cardboard egg cartons
  • Yogurt cups
  • Disposable pans

Cheap and Easy Seedling Pots: Use Newspaper

What's Wrong with Your Seeds?

Even if you do everything right, your seeds might struggle. Here's why:

A fungus: Sudden wilt on seedlings might be a sign of damping off caused by a fungus that sometimes appears because of overwatering or overcrowding. Solution: Poke holes in your seedling container to better air circulation. Visible fungus can be scraped away with a spoon.

Floppy, leggy plants: Not enough sun or too-hot temps can result in leggy seedlings. Solution: Water your seedlings more consistently and rotate them daily so all sides get equal sun exposure.

Curling or discolored leaves: Too much fertilizer makes for uneven, struggling seedlings. Solution: Flush the seedlings with water and repeat every few days to rid them of excess fertilizer.

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