On Sowing Seeds

A packet of seeds is a packet of possibilities. From a tiny radish seed, you can harvest a delicious radish in as few as 21 days. With one seed the size of a fingernail, you can grow an 8 foot tall plant with big, bright sunflowers in a season. And from that little flat seed the size of a large crumb, you can get the essence of summer itself, the home grown tomato.

Don’t you just love it when you get all your seeds for the season? You spread the packets out on the kitchen table and look them over, thinking either how wonderful the garden will be this year or “my goodness, how will I ever time find to sow all these seeds”?

I think most gardeners who buy more than just a few packets of seeds soon realize that they will need a plan to manage all their seeds.

My first step in my seed sowing plan is to enter data about my seeds into a spreadsheet. I record the type of seed (vegetable, annual, perennial), name, variety, flower color, if I am sowing it inside or outside, and when I plan to sow the seed. In the past, I’ve added information like brand and price, but quickly dropped price because, well, sometimes it is better not to know the total cost of something. If I am sowing the seeds inside, I also include how many plants I want to end up with so that I don’t exceed my indoor seed growing capacity.

Yes, I keep my seed lists from each year, as I find it helpful to refer back to them to remember what I planted. I also have a drawer full of old seed packets, pictured above, and have several other boxes and baskets stuffed with seeds packets from the last 9 years, so if I had to I could go through those and sort them by year to see what I’ve planted. I also have another stash or two of old seed packets in the garage that I like to look at occasionally (more on that in a future post)

Believe it or not, I limit the number of seeds I start indoors to what will fit on my two plant shelf units. I have 6 full flats and 6 half flats. I looked at lighted plant shelf units in various gardening catalogs but was a bit horrified at the prices. My shelf units? They are the all-plastic 3 shelf units readily available at any discount store. I have two of them that I bought 15 – 16 years ago. I think they are nearly indestructible. I added my own lights which are regular, generic shop lights from the hardware store, each is 4’ long. I drilled holes in the sides of each shelf, and hung the lights using wire shower curtain hangers and ‘S’ hooks. I did splurge a bit and got broad spectrum fluorescent light tubes for plants. But, I think the most expense components of my set up were the extension cords and power strips for the light fixtures, and the timers that turn them on and off automatically.

Once I have my seeds, my seed list, seed flats (with clear plastic domes), seed starting mix and Jiffy strips, I am ready to go! I “just” follow the schedule I laid out, sow my seeds and grow from there. “Ha ha”, laugh all you seed sowers, “if only!”

I will admit that seeds sown indoors need more attention than houseplants. You should not let them dry out, you have to give them enough light to keep them from getting all leggy on you and you can’t just decide one fine spring day to set them outside and move on. You have to ‘harden them off’ by gradually acclimating them to the outdoors. This involves taking them outside a little bit at a time, first in the shade, then gradually letting them get more sun, always watching to make sure it doesn’t suddenly get too cold for them or that they don’t dry out on a windy day or get sunburned with too much sun.

Are there any hazards of seed sowing? Yes, if you use old soil or don’t clean your plastic flats from year to year, or don’t uncover germinated seeds promptly, you can end up with “damping off”, which causes the young seedlings to keel over and die! It is a fungal infection. And even if you think everything is clean, you can still have problems with “damping off”, especially if you don’t uncover seeds once they’ve germinated.

Covering the seeds to keep the soil moist is another thing I have to plan for when I sow seeds in flats. I group the seeds by how quickly I expect them to germinate so that a flat of seeds all germinates at nearly the same time or within a few days of each other and then I can safely remove the clear dome lid without having some seeds dry out or other seedlings be at greater risk of “damping off”.

Other hazards of sowing seeds? Well, if you have read through all the various posts about seed sowing that are sprouting up amongst the garden bloggers (pause… I’ve been trying to work in the word “sprouting” through this whole post, how did I do?), you should realize that seed sowing is habit forming. But a good habit to have!

I hope revealing about all the planning I do, the possibility of "damping off", and the care that seedlings need hasn't dissuaded someone from trying seeds. It really isn't that complicated or time consuming. Really, it isn't. Just start with a few seeds in some smaller flats in a bright window, and see how it goes. It might become your next gardening obsession, if it isn't already.


  1. Hey, how did you get in my house to photograph my box? A very nice post to get us all informed & excited about the process. I started a small selection indoors last year for the first time in years. It was fun to see how much they changed each day. I do need to be a bit more planned on which are planted in the same tray. Have fun preparing.

  2. Oh, how many years of seed experience to you have? more than 15 years? Wow! I just can look back on the past two years....
    BTW, when do you start to sow your seeds indoors? In February or March?

    I am looking forward to reading more about your ... obsession... :-))

  3. Well... I see that your box is bigger AND more stuffed than mine! I'm going to take that as permission to go out and buy more seeds. ;) (Although I should probably work on getting organized via spreadsheet first...)

  4. Better get to work Carol. Spring will be here before you know it.

  5. Carol, your seedbox is very full! Tomorrow we have a meeting of gardeners and swap seeds!


  6. I just linked to your garden & diary blogs in relation to my January project. Hope that's ok with you.

  7. Wow I did not know there was so much planning to do in winter, and here I am complaining about working year around in my garden.

  8. I followed a method outlined in one of the first issues of Fine Gardening. The seeds are sown in 3" square pots, so as they germinate they are taken out of the covered flat. But this makes an additional step where the seedlings have to pricked out and potted on in 6-packs, and then sometimes potted on again. The room where we have our seed lights is unheated and drafty, and I think that's part of the reason why we've never had much trouble with damping off.

  9. I need to copy your light tray set-up. I came this close to charging several hundred dollars on my credit card for an official set-up. Right now I have all my flats balanced on a board on the top of a ladder under the fluorescent ceiling lights in my garage. One wrong move and the whole thing can come crashing down.

    I've been hardening off as I go this year. Every one gets a 12-hour shift under the light, and the rest of the time outdoors where it's 40-50 degrees most of the time. About 80% have survived. I figure this little bit of natural selection ends helps everyone in the long run.

  10. Reading this post has made me want to go downstairs (where I have my seed sowing setup) and start cleaning my flats and cell packs...

    Seed sowing is definitely habit forming :-) And I'm at the point now where I've got my seeds slightly organized and I'm wondering...when am I going to plant all of these??

    Thanks for spreading the gospel of seed sowing!

  11. Hi, I just found you're blog and I love it! Have you ever heard of winter sowing? If you're interested, go to gardenweb.com and click on winter sowing. It's a whole new world in the way of sowing seeds!!


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