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Common Mistakes Made While Growing Seeds Indoors

Guidance on Watering, Lighting, and Other Growing Factors

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The Spruce / K. Dave

It is quite economical to start seeds indoors, especially when the seedlings grow into robust plants. However, growing seeds indoors can be challenging. To significantly increase your chances of success, avoid these common seed-starting mistakes.

Watch Now: Mistakes to Avoid When Growing Seeds Indoors

Not Supplying Enough Light

Seedlings need a lot of light to grow into sturdy, healthy plants. No matter what anyone tells you, chances are that you do not have enough natural light in your home to grow robust seedlings. Even a south-facing window usually will not do. You can, however, use artificial light to achieve the right amount of light required by seedlings. To do so, obtain grow lights explicitly designed for plants. Or, for a more economical solution, purchase large fluorescent shop lights outfitted with one warm bulb and one cool bulb.

Suspend the lights from chains so that you can raise the lights higher as the seedlings grow. Keep the lights as close to the seedlings as possible without touching them (2 to 3 inches). When seedlings first appear, keep the lights turned on for 12 to 16 hours per day. To reduce your hands-on time, use a timer to turn the lights on and off automatically.

Applying Too Much or Too Little Water

The amount of water you supply can make or break seedling growth. Watering is one of the most challenging aspects of seed starting. Because seedlings are so delicate, there is very little room for error when it comes to watering. You must keep the sterile seed-starting medium damp but not wet.

To increase your chances of getting it right, here are a few things you can do:

  • Create a mini-greenhouse to keep soil moist: cover the container with plastic until the seeds germinate.
  • Water from the bottom to enable the seedlings to soak up water through the container drainage holes. There is less chance of over-watering when you use this approach. Add water slowly for 10 to 30 minutes, and use your finger to touch the top of the soil to ensure that moisture has reached the top of the container.
  • Check soil moisture at least once a day.
  • Buy a self-watering, seed-starting system.

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The Spruce / K. Dave

Starting Seeds Too Soon

Many plants do not tolerate cold temperatures, and exposing them to chilly air or cold soil will stress them out. Chas Gill, who runs the Kennebec Flower Farm, agrees that one of the biggest mistakes people make when starting seeds is starting the seeds too early. Stressed-out plants are more susceptible to pests and disease. Most plants are ready to go outside four to six weeks after you start the seeds.

Planting Seeds Too Deeply

Seeds are finicky when it comes to how deep they are planted. Some seeds need complete darkness to germinate and others require light to germinate.   Proper planting depth is usually provided on the seed packet. If there is no information on the packet, the rule of thumb is to plant seeds two to three times as deep as they are wide. Determining depth can be a challenge, but if you are not sure, err on the shallow side.

For seeds that need light to germinate, make sure the seeds are in contact with the seed starting medium but are not covered. To do this, gently press the soil medium to create a firm surface. Then, place the seed on top of the medium and gently press down, making sure the seed is still exposed.

Moving Seedlings Outdoors Too Soon

There is no benefit to a tough-love approach with seedlings when they are young. They will either instantly die or become weak and then fail to thrive. Even the most stalwart plants, when young, need a considerable amount of coddling and attention.

When your seedlings are large enough to plant outdoors, you need to prepare them for the transition by hardening off.   Hardening off gradually prepares them for outdoor conditions like wind, rain, and sun. The hardening-off process is simple, though it can be time-consuming; it involves exposing your plants to the elements gradually. The first day of hardening off, place your seedlings outdoors for one hour, and then bring them back indoors. Gradually increase the amount of outdoor time every day for 6 to 10 days. You will need to make some judgment calls based on the outdoor temperature and the fragility of your seedlings. If it is a particularly cool day or very rainy, you will want to decrease the time of that hardening-off session.

Sowing Too Many Seeds

When sowing seeds, begin modestly if you are a beginner. If you sow more seeds than you can reasonably maintain, it will become challenging to nurture the seedlings into adulthood. Depending on the type of plant you want to grow, you might be able to direct-sow seeds in outdoor containers or in the ground when outdoor temperatures warm up.

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The Spruce / K. Dave

Keeping Seeds Too Cool

For seeds to germinate, most must be kept warm: about 65 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit. A favorite place to keep seeds warm in order to germinate is on top of the refrigerator. Or, you can purchase seed-warming mats to place under the seed trays. Once a seedling emerges, they can tolerate fluctuating temperatures (within reason). Whatever type of light you use, natural or artificial, make sure it produces enough heat to keep the plants in the 65- to 75-degree range.

Failing to Label Seeds

To be able to identify seedlings as they grow and to know when they will be ready for transplanting, you should label the seed containers as you are sowing. For every type of seed sown, use popsicle sticks or plastic plant markers and permanent ink pens to record the plant name and date sown. Insert the plant labels into the soil near the edge of the container or tray.

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The Spruce / K. Dave

Giving Up Too Soon

Starting seeds can be a difficult process. However, one of the most satisfying benefits of this labor of love is eating a tomato or marveling at the flowers that you nurtured from day one. Growing plants from seed takes dedication, attention, and time. Recognize that you might make mistakes along the way, but you should not give up. The results outweigh the challenges along the way.

Growing seeds indoors isn't hard, yet keeping them alive can be challenging. You can save a lot of money by starting plants from seeds.

7 Ways To Germinate Seeds Without Soil

Published: Mar 25, 2020 by Elizabeth Waddington · This post may contain affiliate links.

My typical seed starting mix looks like this.

  • 1/3 Compost (from my garden).
  • 1/3 Topsoil and well-worked and fine soil. (Hint: soil from mole hills or the hills made by other tunnelling mammals works well).
  • 1/3 Leaf Mold (which I make from the leaves that fall in my garden).

But not everyone is lucky enough to have a garden with access to topsoil, many people don’t make their own compost or can’t purchase any and leaf mold is a luxury that takes planning and patience.

So what if you want to start seeds now without soil?

Fortunately, there are several things you can use to start seeds without any soil or compost or leaf mould/ leaf litter at all.

Many seeds can be sprouted simply by placing them on a substrate that retains water. Others will germinate better when completely surrounded by moisture, rather than simply being placed on top of the material.

Here are some germination methods that can work for many of the seeds you may wish to grow:

1. Start Seeds On/ In Paper Towels

Cress and brassica micro-greens and many other common seeds should germinate well when placed on top of a fully moistened bed of paper towel.

  • Wet the paper towel thoroughly in water.
  • Then place it in any tray, tub or other container.

A tray or tub with a clear lid is ideal, as this will help retain moisture. However, you can use whatever comes to hand.

Kids often simply screw up wet paper and place it inside an egg shell or an egg box and place seeds on top. You can use a wide range of containers – often things that you may have lying around.

  • Sprinkle the seeds evenly over the surface of the paper. (Small seeds will not usually need to be pre-treated. But larger seeds like peas for example should be pre-soaked.
  • Place the container with the seeds in a warm spot (with temperatures suitable for the seeds you are trying to grow).
  • Make sure the paper stays moist until the seeds germinate and as they begin to grow.
  • Carefully remove your seedlings and plant them in soil/ potting mix (or in a hydroponic or aquaponics system) as soon as the seeds develop their first roots and shoots. Or simply eat them as nutrient-rich micro-greens.

(You can also fold up seeds within a piece of wet paper towel and place them within a container (such as a glass jar with lid only lightly screwed on) to retain moisture but still allow oxygen in. Then plant them in soil or use them in water-based growing systems as soon as the roots begin to grow.)

Remember, different seeds will have different requirements when it comes to germination. Some need darkness and some need more light. It is important to take these things into account when determining how exactly to sprout your seeds. However, this method will work for a number of common seeds.

2. Start Them in Pulp Made From Untreated Waste Paper and Card

If you do not have paper towels, you could also consider growing a number of seeds on a substrate of untreated waste paper and card. (For example, you could use toilet roll tubes and cardboard box material, pages from old sketchbooks etc..)

First, make the pulp for the substrate. Simply soak the ripped up/ shredded waste paper and card in hot water, leave them to soak for a while, then wring out the mix and use it in the same way as paper towels.

3. Start Seeds in Sponges

Sponge is another substrate that can be used for seed starting, as this is another material that will hold moisture close to the seeds to allow them to begin the germination process.

4. Start Seeds in Organic Cotton Wool

If you have some organic cotton wool for other uses around your home, this could also be soaked and used as a substrate for seed starting.

It is best only to use organic cotton, since cotton not grown organically comes at a huge cost to people and planet.

5. Start Them In Wet Natural Materials/ Plant Fibre Mats in Containers

You can also use wet natural materials such as cotton, linen or hemp in the same way as paper towels, either to grow seeds on top of, or to fold up seeds and keep them moist within a container.

Again, keep an eye on the seeds, as you will need to move them to a growing area or water-based growing system as soon as the roots and shoots have begun to form.

6. Start Them in Fine Wood Shavings

One final substrate option is fine wood shavings (well moistened). The wood shavings commonly used for pet/ animal bedding can work well. And these are something you may already have around your home. Like the other materials on this list, they can be composted after they are used.

7. Sprout Seeds In A Jar

If you want to germinate seeds to use as sprouts, you can do so simply and relatively easily in a jar.

Check out our guide:

Germinating seeds is something anyone can do right now. You don’t need to buy anything in to get started.

Don’t let a lack of potting soil or compost stop you from getting growing. You likely already have something you can use, so all you need is the seeds – and make sure you pick the best quality seeds!

Elizabeth Waddington is a writer, permaculture designer and green living consultant. She is a practical, hands-on gardener, with a background in philosophy: (an MA in English-Philosophy from St Andrews University). She has long had an interest in ecology, gardening and sustainability and is fascinated by how thought can generate action, and ideas can generate positive change.

In 2014, she and her husband moved to their forever home in the country. She graduated from allotment gardening to organically managing 1/3 of an acre of land, including a mature fruit orchard,which she has turned into a productive forest garden. The yield from the garden is increasing year on year – rapidly approaching an annual weight in produce of almost 1 ton.

She has filled the rest of the garden with a polytunnel, a vegetable patch, a herb garden, a wildlife pond, woodland areas and more. Since moving to the property she has also rescued many chickens from factory farms, keeping them for their eggs, and moved much closer to self-sufficiency. She has made many strides in attracting local wildlife and increasing biodiversity on the site.

When she is not gardening, Elizabeth spends a lot of time working remotely on permaculture garden projects around the world. Amongst other things, she has designed private gardens in regions as diverse as Canada, Minnesota, Texas, the Arizona/California desert, and the Dominican Republic, commercial aquaponics schemes, food forests and community gardens in a wide range of global locations.

In addition to designing gardens, Elizabeth also works in a consultancy capacity, offering ongoing support and training for gardeners and growers around the globe. She has created booklets and aided in the design of Food Kits to help gardeners to cool and warm climates to grow their own food, for example. She is undertaking ongoing work for NGO Somalia Dryland Solutions and a number of other non governmental organisations, and works as an environmental consultant for several sustainable companies.

Elizabeth Waddington is a writer, permaculture designer and green living consultant. She is a practical, hands-on gardener, with a background in philosophy: (an MA in English-Philosophy from St Andrews University). She has long had an interest in ecology, gardening and sustainability and is fascinated by how thought can generate action, and ideas can generate positive change. In 2014, she and her husband moved to their forever home in the country. She graduated from allotment gardening to organically managing 1/3 of an acre of land, including a mature fruit orchard,which she has turned into a productive forest garden. The yield from the garden is increasing year on year – rapidly approaching an annual weight in produce of almost 1 ton. She has filled the rest of the garden with a polytunnel, a vegetable patch, a herb garden, a wildlife pond, woodland areas and more. Since moving to the property she has also rescued many chickens from factory farms, keeping them for their eggs, and moved much closer to self-sufficiency. She has made many strides in attracting local wildlife and increasing biodiversity on the site. When she is not gardening, Elizabeth spends a lot of time working remotely on permaculture garden projects around the world. Amongst other things, she has designed private gardens in regions as diverse as Canada, Minnesota, Texas, the Arizona/California desert, and the Dominican Republic, commercial aquaponics schemes, food forests and community gardens in a wide range of global locations. In addition to designing gardens, Elizabeth also works in a consultancy capacity, offering ongoing support and training for gardeners and growers around the globe. She has created booklets and aided in the design of Food Kits to help gardeners to cool and warm climates to grow their own food, for example. She is undertaking ongoing work for NGO Somalia Dryland Solutions and a number of other non governmental organisations, and works as an environmental consultant for several sustainable companies. Visit her website here and follow along on her Facebook page here.