Maximizing success and minimizing failure in your seed starting efforts

Maximizing success and minimizing failure in your seed starting efforts

Got your seed starting plan handy? Ready to start prepping for the big start?

Who, ME? YES, YOU!
Surely, not everything you attempt to grow will survive. That’s just reality. Plan for it. Expect it. And do it anyway! That’s just part of learning, growing and becoming more successful. Starting your own seedlings is good for the soul after a long winter— it’s good spring therapy!

There will be successes— and failures. Let’s maximize success and minimize failure. Let’s get you set up to grow! We’ve covered the WHO— that’s YOU. Now we’ll cover the what, where, when and how— what you need, where to go, when to sow, and how to grow.

What? Here’s what you need:

  • Seeds: Grab your pile. Don’t have everything you need? You’re in the right place— search our collection here.
  • Seed trays or ‘cell packs’: Something to grow the seeds in! You can use recycled containers— like cardboard egg cartons, repurposed milk cartons, and re-used ‘cell packs’ from previously purchased plants. Or you can purchase long-lasting trays— like our 30 cell natural rubber starter trays.
  • Bottom trays: to hold the seed trays or cell packs and prevent water spills. I've gleaned second hand stores for old cookie sheets. Or purchase some quarter size sheet pans (about $4 each). Ikea has low priced durable trays.  Or you can purchase leak proof greenhouse ‘1020’ trays online or at a local garden center.
  • Dome lids or plastic wrap: to cover and help retain moisture during germination. We use recycled window film— the kind used to winterize windows on the inside of the house. Even a bread bag will work!
  • Seed starting mix: look for a soil mix that is specifically for seed starting. The texture is finer and easier to work with. Or you can make your own— here’s our recipe. (Scroll down to "Our seed starting mix" in the middle of page.)
  • Plant ID markers: so you can label what you planted! We use a yogurt container cut vertically into multiple 1/2" wide tags and a black permanent Sharpie marker.
  • Heat mats: IF you need them— cuz your space is just too cool (more on that below).
  • Grow Lights: if you don’t have 16 hours of daylight, your gonna need them! Here’s a blog post on that topic!

You might be thinking its tricky to find a place to start your seeds.  All you need is a small space to accommodate this temporary need. Remember this is a functional need— it's not about ‘pretty.’ It doesn’t need to be 'perfect.' It might be 'in the way' but it's only temporary. It just needs to work.

Here’s some things to consider:

  • Light: If you don’t have a south facing window, or don’t get enough natural light in your location, you’ll need artificial lights. Light is critical to plant growth— your seedlings will do best if they get 16 hours of strong light each day. Lack of light will make your plants leggy, with long weak stems— reaching up, begging for more light, struggling to produce enough food to grow into healthy plants. Even if you have a south facing window, plan to supplement the day length with artificial light. If you have a shorter growing season and you’re starting plants early, you don't have 16 hours of natural daylight.
  • Temperature: Most seedlings grow best in temperatures between 65-75ºF. Some plants, such as peppers, need consistent warmth— a chill will delay and stall their growth. While the basement may seem like a good space, it may be too cool for vigorous growth. But you could remedy that by using heat mats or heaters for additional warmth.
  • Watering: You’ll need to keep a close watch, watering on a consistent schedule— twice a day. Don’t let things dry out— or worse yet— make up for a ‘negligent drought’ by watering too much at once. Steady and consistent. Damp, not soggy. Room temperature, not cold water.
  • Air Flow: Good air flow will help prevent disease problems. If you are working in a confined or damp space, a small fan can help provide a little air movement.
  • Pets— Care Required: Warning! Cats love warmth and dirt. Heat mats and open trays filled with soil are enticing. And I’ve heard woeful stories of a dog or a cat and a toppled plant stand. Just a word of caution! You don’t want your seedlings to end up in a heap on the floor.

In our last blog post, “3 simple steps and a FREE download to schedule your planting dates,” we talked about  the importance of knowing your final spring frost date. This is your target date for transplanting outdoors— after this date you can be reasonably sure it’ll be safe to plant most flowers, veggies and herbs outdoors. This is the date you count backwards from to start your seedlings. (Check out last week’s blog to download the spreadsheet for all our varieties— this is your ‘cheat sheet’! No need to count backwards— we did it for you!)

Make no mistake— Starting your seedlings too early means running the risk that your seedlings will run out of nutrients, or outgrow their container and become root bound before it’s safe for them to ‘go outside.’ It’s better to start your seedlings a little late and plant them out when they're healthy and strong. Starting them too early and having to ‘hold them’ indoors too long— means they’ll be set back and struggling when its ‘go’ time!

Seedlings emerging at Prairie Road Organic Seed


  1. Before you start filling your trays, moisten your seed starting mix. Your goal is damp but not soaking wet. Do this an hour or so ahead of time to allow the moisture to absorb, so it’s more evenly dispersed. Dan likes to mix in a 5 gallon pail. Or you can use a Rubbermaid tote for more ‘elbow room’ and less likelihood of an over spill. Once you’re done mixing and have achieved the right dampness, keep it covered while you’re working so it won’t dry out again. (Wear gloves if you don’t want your hands to feel like sandpaper! We’ve gotcha' covered with our Natural Rubber garden gloves here.)
  2. Fill your starter tray with the seed starting mix— ONE tray at a time. [NOTE: Fill one tray; plant one tray. Do not fill multiple trays ahead of time. They’ll dry out before you can plant and get the seeds watered in.] We use a tin can to scoop the soil and make a heap in the middle of the tray. Then use your hands to funnel the mix into the outer cells, using the left hand along the outer edge to prevent spillage. To finish off the tray, use a straight edge (such as a ruler) to ‘screed the soil’—using a back and forth motion, leveling it across the tray and removing excess. When filled, gently tap and shimmy the tray to make sure the soil settles and none of the cells are under filled. Add more if needed, but don’t pack tight or overfill. (We work on newspaper so we can pick it up between trays and dump the excess soil mix back in the pail.)
  3. Sow 1-3 seeds per cell (or more depending on the size of your cell) at the planting depth in the instructions on the seed pack. As a rule of thumb, most seeds are planted twice as deep as they are in size. However, some are surface sown and require light to germinate. Read and follow the packet instructions.
  4. After sowing, gently press down and firm the soil, making sure there’s good ‘seed to soil contact.’ Don’t press too hard or you’ll compact the soil. Firm but gentle.
  5. Place your seeded tray in its bottom tray to catch any drainage and water thoroughly.  The goal is to water the tray enough to stay damp until the seeds germinate. If the seed is surface sown or planted just below the surface, soak with a mister or spray bottle so you don’t dislodge and float the seeds, causing them to clump or bunch together.  [NOTE: your seed starting mix should be moist enough to readily accept water. If the water is beading on the surface, your soil mix is too dry to wick in the water. If you find yourself in this situation a gentle misting with a spray bottle will help to slowly moisten to where it will accept the watering. Now—before filling the next starter tray,  mix more water into your seed starting mix. Again, damp but not soggy!]
  6. After watering cover the tray with a with a layer of plastic or a dome lid, if you have one. This prevents the tray from drying out before the seeds germinate. This is the most COMMON reason for germination failure. DO NOT let the surface dry out before the seeds germinate. If you keep it covered, you should be fine. If you find that the surface is starting to dry, you can mist with a spray bottle. DO NOT overwater; just keep things moist.
  7. Set your trays in a warm place to germinate, wait, and WATCH! Seeds vary a lot in terms of days to germination, depending on the type. Some germinate very quickly, while others can take 3-4 weeks! We recommend germinating your seedling indoors where the temperature is controlled. We use our dining room table for this step. Bright lights are not necessary but keep careful watch!
  8. As soon as you see green, TURN ON THE LIGHT! When your seedlings begin to break ground, move the tray to a warm, brightly lit place— be it a window or artificial lights. Seedlings need 16 hours of light to grow properly, so if you live in the north and the days are still short, we do recommend using lights to get that 16 hours in. You can read our blog post, “Under the Bright Lights” here.
  9. Tend to your seedlings every single day. Lighting and watering are your primary tasks. The lights should not be too high above or too close atop. The soil should never dry out. Bottom watering is best until the seedlings are sturdy enough to handle overhead watering without tipping over or washing out. Water just what the tray can absorb; do not allow the trays to sit in water for an extended period of time-- that means you're over-watering! Set your lights on a timer— one less thing to think about. Our seedlings are located right at the bottom of the stairs— I turn the lights off on my way to bed and on again after a good night’s sleep! Dark for 8 hours ✔︎ Light for 16 ✔︎

Next week, we'll talk about the next steps-- transplanting from your starter trays into larger trays.  See ya' next time!

Our best to you,
Theresa & Dan