Indoor Seed Starting: How to prioritize when space and time is limited

This weekend I finally got around to starting some seeds. I’m not super late for Colorado. Our last frost date isn’t until mid May, but I like to live dangerously and get some things in the ground a bit earlier if I can. Our growing season is so short, I like to do whatever I can to extend it. This means utilizing things like row covers, wall of waters, and early seed starting.

I’ll let you in on a little secret; I don’t like seed starting indoors. Yeah, it’s fun to watch things germinate and I am usually super anxious to start planting stuff at this time of year, but mostly I just see seed starting as something that takes up a lot of space and requires a lot of work. Germinating seeds requires more dilligent and careful watering, it requires a lot of table space, and it requires keeping a light on those plants at all times (extra energy use, yuck!). Luckily this year I invested in an LED grow light (I was using plain old fluorescent lights before, which are okay, but because they don’t have the full spectrum of light plants need, you tend to get leggy plants with them), but because I couldn’t afford a light as big as I would like, I will have to rotate my trays every day so they each get equal exposure to that light. Then once they germinate, you have to worry about all the things that can kill them early on, like damping off, molds, and fungus gnats. So yeah, lots of work. But as easy and satisfying as it is to buy plants and plop them into my garden, its also a lot more expensive, so I am selective over which plants I buy as plants, which seeds I start indoors before last frost, and which seeds I direct sow into my garden.

Indoor seed starting: How to prioritize when time and space is limited

Here is this year’s seed starting set up! I have it on my craft table in my craftroom (which is the back half of our family room), and my new fancy light is clipped to the guard rail that separates my main level kitchen from my lower level family room in our super split level house.

Generally, my rule is that if it has a short growing season and grows prolifically, I direct sow the seed. Things like lettuce, spinach, and other greens, radish, butternut squash, spaghetti squash, zucchini, and summer squash all get sown directly into the ground. They are easy and don’t really need much nurturing early on. Also, I direct sow any root vegetables like carrots, parsnip, radish, turnip, beets, and kholrabi because they are generally difficult to transplant. Corn is also difficult to transplant, so I look for the shortest growing season variety and direct sow it into the garden as well.

There are a few short growing season plants I do choose to grow inside before last frost though. I grow my melons and cucumbers early because I have found that even though their packages say they have 70 days until maturity, to actually get good fruit off of them, they need more warm days than what direct seeding after first frost provides. Anything that has longer than 90 days to maturity, I definitely start indoors ahead of time. Generally, I try to select plants that mature in under 100 days if I can, so this year the only long season plant that I needed to plant indoors ahead of time was our pumpkins. Generally, they say you can plant things up to 120 days directly in the ground here, but I find that stuff with that long of a growing season just doesn’t make it as well as I like if I direct sow them. Now, you might also live in a zone 4-5, like me, but your garden might be in a different microclimate and you might find this isn’t true for you. It all depends on how warm your garden is, I think.

I also choose to grow beans and peas inside from seed as well, because the area I plant them in tends to be a little slug prone, and it’s harder for slugs to kill them entirely if they are a bit bigger when they go in the ground. Otherwise, I would direct sow beans and peas because they are super easy.

Now, when I plant things indoors, I don’t plant all the seeds I have. This year, I planted three pots each of pumpkin, cucumber, watermelon, artichoke, cantelope, and lemon cucumber, and each pot had 3-4 seeds in it. That leaves a lot of seeds left over in the packets. I like to have those in case any of my first seedlings don’t make it, I can replant them, but also, I will likely plant a good portion of those directly into the ground when I plant the ones I started indoors. This gives me a sort of succession planting effect. If those directly sown plants make it to maturity, I will have extended harvests of those plants because the ones I started indoors will begin producing sooner than the direct sown plants. They will also finish producing sooner, and the direct sown plants will keep producing longer. Growing more plants is also an insurance policy of sorts. Gardening is like having kids in the middle ages. You grow as many plants as you can, because you know some of them aren’t going to survive, and others are going to be duds that aren’t that useful.

So that leaves the plants I buy as plants, rather than as seeds. These are tomatoes, peppers, and strawberries. These plants just need a lot of extra work to grow good seedlings, I feel, and they are very easy to get as plants, so that’s what I do. They probably would be easier if we kept our house warmer, but we keep it cool to save energy and because I just generally like it cooler. I could invest in a warming mat for my seedlings, but besides just not wanting to buy another thing for an activity I don’t really like that much, buying packets of tomato seeds isn’t that practical for me. You see, I like to grow lots of tomato plants, but I like to have each one be a different variety. Buying 10 different varieties of tomato seeds packets, just so I can have one plant of each variety seems silly when for the same price (or less) of a packet of fancy seeds, I can just go buy a plant. This stands in contrast to something like, say, cucumbers, which I might only grow one variety of anyhow, and buying 10 individual plants for $2.50 a piece is much more expensive than just buying one seed packet for $2.99. Luckily, there is an awesome local urban farm near my home that grows amazing and unusual pepper and tomato plants for very reasonable prices, so I always buy my tomato and pepper plants there. They also grow a variety of herbs and other veggies, but I don’t buy those from them unless I had a massive failure of my pre started seeds.

Indoor seed starting: How to prioritize when space and time is limited

Freja was excited to help me get the seeds started with the new watering can the Easter Bunny brought her.

Speaking of herbs, those are the plants I always struggle with. Should I grow them indooors before the growing season starts, or should I just direct sow them into their forever homes in the ground? Both are equally easy, I think. Most herbs grow readily from seeds and transplant easily, so there’s not much of an advantage of one over another. The biggest thing I can think of as a benefit to starting herbs inside is that it’s easier to plant transplants in pleasing designs. Because I plan to plant my herb garden in my front yard this year, I’d like it to be as aesthetically pleasing as possible, but the problem I’m running into is that my space for seed starting is limited, and it’s already pretty full with what I’m starting right now. I think I might do one plug of each of the herbs I’m planning to grow this year ahead of time, and then direct seed around where I plant my plugs. What do you think?

Some people really like growing their plants from seed, so I’m not suggesting you shouldn’t if you are one of those people. But for people like me, this might help you to determine how much is worth growing from seed yourself. Certainly you can buy pregrown plants of the ones I choose to start from seed indoors if you prefer and the money isn’t that big of an issue for you. Also, if you are living in places that are more humid or have a longer growing season than Colorado, that could change things dramatically. In Missouri, where much of my family lives and I lived for a portion of my childhood, you could just put a tomato seed in the ground in spring and have more tomatoes than you know what to do with by the end of the growing season. Here, if you get tomatoes from direct planted seeds, you’re super lucky. I’ve had it happen from volunteers growing out of my compost before, but it’s rare. Usually a tomato direct seeded into the ground here won’t get mature enough to give you ripe fruit by the time it starts getting cold. Don’t even hope for direct seeded peppers.

Do you start seeds indoors ahead of time? What do you like to grow? Tell us about it in the comments!

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