Tips for seed starting success this spring

It is just about go time for gardeners – the time to get seeds started indoors for transplanting into the garden this spring! I relish the anticipation of waiting for those precious seeds to germinate and the excitement when I’m finally able to plant those transplants outdoors.

Here are a few care guidelines that can help you be successful in your seed starting this year. Whether you’re a vegetable or flower gardener, starting your own seeds at home can be a way to stretch your gardening dollar and grow cultivars you would not otherwise find as transplants in the garden center.


  • After seeding, be sure to keep the soil evenly moist, but not sopping wet. The best way to test soil moisture is to stick your finger into the soil and see how moist it is. If the soil is dry, go ahead and water. If the soil is still moist, wait until it is dry to water again.
  • Always be sure the container has drainage and the seeds are not sitting in a pool of water at the bottom of the container for a length of time.
  • Be careful to water gently from overhead to not damage any seedlings or blast the seeds from their cells.


Windowsills are generally poor locations for seed starting. Even the sunniest windowsills will produce a leggy, weak seedling compared to one grown under appropriate supplemental lights.

Specialized grow bulbs and fixtures are designed to provide the proper wavelengths of light for plant development but can be expensive. You can assemble your own grow light for a fraction of the cost:

  1. Use a basic shop light fixture (48-inch long with room for two bulbs is a standard size; it may or may not have an on/off switch).
  2. For lighting, use one cool fluorescent bulb and one warm fluorescent bulb. Cool bulbs have a bluish cast and are generally among the most inexpensive. Warm bulbs have an orangey-yellow cast and are usually labeled for kitchen and bath and cost more than the basic bulbs. This combination will provide your seedlings with the appropriate light wavelengths for proper growth.
  3. Constant lighting is not necessary and in some cases can interfere with proper plant growth. Use a household timer to turn your new fixture on and off automatically for 16 hours on and 8 hours off, which is a typical schedule.
  4. Hang light fixtures so they are within an inch of the seedlings. Lights will need to be adjusted as the seedlings grow.


Warm soil will speed germination of most seeds. Place planted containers in warm locations such as on top of a refrigerator, water heater or in the laundry room to warm the soil and speed the germination process.

An air temperature of 65-75 degrees F is appropriate for most seedlings.

Common problems

Seedlings did not germinate well:

  • This could be due to a variety of factors, including bad seeds, disease problems or improper watering, temperatures or lighting.

Seedlings are long, leggy and stretched out:

  • The seedlings likely need more light. Move to a brighter location or move the grow lights closer to the seedlings.

Seedlings are dying:

  • This may be due to damping-off disease. This disease will show up as dead seedlings in areas scattered around the flat. The seedlings will rot at the base and fall over dead. The best prevention is to make sure the seedlings are not overwatered.

Follow these tips to success and you are sure to have some nice-looking transplants ready to plant in the garden when the time is right!