Starting seeds indoors is a crucial part of any prepper’s food security plan. Growing your own groceries is the best way you can ensure that your family does not starve during the apocalypse.
The only thing worse than not starting seeds to bolster your food supply would be to spend a lot of time and money only to do it all wrong and have a small or no harvest after many hours of hard work.
Seeds starting can be accomplished indoors no matter where you live. Sure, if you’re a country prepper (like I am) with ample space for a greenhouse you can start copious amounts of seeds and grow food year-round.
But even suburban preppers can start seeds inside and in small cold frames, while urban preppers can also start their own small garden by germinating seeds indoors, as well.
Relying on a local commercial greenhouse to fill your garden with plants is a sure way to go hungry during a SHTF event.
There is only one way to ensure that you will have a growing season to supplement the long-term shelf stable food buckets you have stockpiled, as well as the livestock, fish, and wild game that you can harvest, and that is to start your own quality seeds indoors the right way.
Preppers should always have enough seeds preserved or purchased to get a new growing season started, without relying on running out to a store to buy more, purchase plants, or any of the other items necessary for germinating seeds inside.
Not only should you be starting vegetable seeds for a traditional garden plot, you should also be growing fruit seeds and dwarf trees as part of the indoor grocery growing endeavor.
The growing zone you live in as well as the indoor space available will dictate how many seed trays you can start as well as how many dwarf trees can be grown. Due to their portable nature such trees can be relocated outdoors during warm weather months.
5 Reasons To Start Seeds Indoors
✅ Reason #1. Seed starting will allow you to KNOW you have food to help you family during a disaster.
✅ Reason #2. Starting seeds indoors allows you to increase your growing season just long enough such that non-native varieties and plants from outside of your growing zone could be cultivated.
If you live in an area with a short growing season, like Alaska and states along the United States and Canadian border, starting seeds indoors can allow you to grow more traditional garden crops that are otherwise unsuited for your natural environment.
✅ Reason #3. Cold hardy crops can be started as seeds indoors to give them an extra growing boost before they are hardened off, and relocated outside.
Crops like lettuce, radishes, carrots, Jerusalem artichokes, kale, snow peas, and broccoli can be ready to harvest by the time you are starting the typical garden season.
✅ Reason #4. Seed starting also helps preppers cultivate portable crops. Even if your survival plan is to bug in on a retreat like mine is, having a backup bugout plan in case leaving is the only way to keep your family alive is incredibly wise.
When garden plants begin as tiny seeds inside your home, they too can be loaded with the rest of the stockpiled preps and taken on the road, creating a portable food source.
✅ Reason #5. The money saved by starting your own plants from seed instead of buying them from a gardening store can be put to far better use stockpiling more preps.
When to Start Seeds Indoors
Some seeds are traditionally sown directly into the soil (unless you have a short growing season), but this doesn’t mean you can’t start these types of plants inside (green beans for example) so you can bolster the yield.
Following the sowing directions can help prevent some of the most common seed germination pitfalls. If your sprouting seeds become too spindly and tall, or root bound while being cultivated indoors, the plants typically have a reduced yield, or they can die out entirely.
Damping (or dampening) off can also happen if the they’re being grown in too cold or too humid environments. It’s extremely rare for a sprouted seed to be able to recover from damping off disease.
Starting not just seeds but tuber and bulb crops like potatoes, Jerusalem artichokes, and onions, can all be done inside the home, a greenhouse, or in a cold frame outdoors.
All vegetable, fruit, herb, and medicinal flower seeds come with starting and growing tips right on the packet.
If you are a first-time gardener (or one who has struggled germinating seeds in the past) who was given preserved seeds to start from a friend or loved one, the seed starting guide below will help ensure your success.
Annual varieties of seeds are typically planted indoors about six weeks before the threat of a last hard frost is anticipated.
Soil quality and density play a significant role in the germination process. Far too often, novice gardeners use the same type of dirt for every seed they plant regardless of what soil type is recommended.
A seed starter mix is usually best because it is fine enough for the small seeds to penetrate, and prompts the growth of robust roots.
Using your own carefully crafted compost is often fine, but adding vermiculite and/or peat moss into the dirt will help separate the texture enough for seeds to germinate properly.
Vegetables and Fruit Seed Starting Tips
- The seeds require a minimum of eight hours per day of sunlight.
- The recommended soil temperature for most seed varieties is roughly 80 degrees F.
- Seeds grown in an environment that is 60 degrees F or lower will likely not germinate or produce a strong sprout.
- Most fruit and vegetable seeds are started indoors, in a greenhouse, or a cold frame at the beginning of February.
- Sprouting seeds need approximately 6 to 8 weeks of supervised growing indoors so they are at least 8 inch tall young plants when they are hardened off and relocated outdoors.
How to Start Pepper Seeds (All Varieties)
- Soak the seeds in lukewarm water for 24 to 48 hours before planting. The water helps to permeate the tough shells these seeds are comprised of.
- Dampen a coffee filter or paper towel just slightly, and put the pepper seed on the moistened material.Place the filter or towel with seeds in a Ziploc bag that is hung in a window with direct sunlight.
- You can carefully peel the paper towel or coffee filter away from the seed when removing it from the Ziploc bag, or simply cut the seed sections apart and place them – along with the moistened covering, directly into the potting soil.
- For best results, plant the pepper seeds in soil that is 80 to 90 degrees F in temperature. You can heat the soil using a seed mat, a plant grow light, or by placing the seed tray on top of your refrigerator.
- Plant pepper seeds one-fourth of an inch deep in the dirt, unless the packet for your specific variety says differently.
How to Start Onions Seeds
- Onions can be started as seeds indoors about 10 weeks before the weather is going to be warm enough to harden them off and relocate them outdoors. If you are planting bulbs (also commonly referred to as ‘onion sets’) they do not need to be planted until 14 to 21 days before outside relocation is possible.
- Both onion sets and onion seeds must be placed in a well draining soil in a full sun area in order to germinate and thrive into viable plants.
- Plant both seeds and onions sets one inch deep in the dirt. Onion sets must be planted with the narrow end up.
How to Start Brussels Sprouts Seeds
- This vegetable plant can typically be grown two times a year – in the spring for a summer crop and in the late summer for a fall crop.
- Brussels sprouts seeds for a fall garden need to be started 16 weeks before the anticipated first hard frost of the year.
- When growing Brussels sprouts seeds for a summer crop, they should be started about four to six weeks before the expected final hard frost of the season.
- Plant the seeds a half of an inch deep in a well draining soil.
How to Start Cucumbers Seeds
- These seeds are usually planted at the end of February.
- Cucumber seeds are best started by germinating them inside of a dampened coffee filter or paper towel.
- Next, place the now wrapped seeds in a pie tin or shallow bowl, and cover them with plastic wrap.
- Put the bowl in a spot that garners direct sunlight.
- In about three to five days, the cucumber seeds should sprout.
- Unwrap the seeds carefully, and plant them in nutrient-rich soil, leaving the paper towel or coffee filter covering on the seeds is fine.
- Plant the seeds about one inch deep in the soil.
How to Start Summer Squash Seeds
- It takes about seven to 10 days for summer squash seeds to germinate.
- Plant the seeds one inch deep in the soil.
- These seeds grow best in soil that is between 85 and 88 degrees.
- Time the planting of summer squash seeds so they are ready to transplant once the outdoor temperature remains a steady 70 degrees during daylight hours.
How to Start Eggplant Seeds
- Eggplant seeds should be started indoors eight to nine weeks before the last anticipated hard frost of the spring season.
- These seeds thrive best in a vermiculite or a soil that is both loose and fine.
- Sow eggplant seeds one-fourth of an inch deep in the soil.
How to Start Cauliflower Seeds
- Cauliflower seeds should be sown into the soil roughly 10 to 12 weeks before the final expected frost of the fall if planting a late garden.
- Plant the cauliflower seeds two to three weeks before the last expected crop of spring for a summer crop.
- Plant the seeds a half an inch deep in the soil.
How to Start Peas Seeds
- Soak the pea seeds in cool but not cold water for 24 hours before sowing.
- While it varies depending upon the variety of the pea, expect germination to take between three weeks and 30 days.
- Plant pea seeds a half an inch thick in soil that is both well draining and moist.
How to Start Cabbage Seeds
- Cabbage seeds definitely should be planted one to a plant seed cell, and not have several scattered about in a single growing area as some folks do.
- Start the cauliflower seeds approximately 12 weeks before the last anticipated hard frost of the spring.
- Cabbage seeds prefer moist but not wet soil during germination.
- Plant cabbage seeds half an inch thick in the soil.
How to Start Broccoli Seeds
- Plant broccoli seeds between one fourth to one half of an inch deep in the soil.
- Broccoli does best in vermiculite or a potting soil designed specifically for seed starting.
- Broccoli seeds and plants do best in moist but not damp soil.
- Start broccoli seeds between seven to nine weeks before the last hard frost of the spring.
- Broccoli plants should not be relocated outdoors until the plant has four or five true leaves.
- The temperature should be a steady 70 to 75 degrees F during daytime hours before the broccoli plants are hardened off for outdoor planting.
How to Start Swiss Chard Seeds
- Typically, each Swiss chard seed can produce several plants – use a spacious container and not a seed cell to sow this vegetable variety.
- Sow the seeds one inch deep in a quality seed starter mix.
- Thin out the plants before hardening off to relocate outdoors.
- Start the seeds three to four weeks before the last expected frost of spring.
How to Start Rice Seeds
- Soak the seeds in cool but not cold water for 36 hours before planting.
- Permit the rice seeds to air dry thoroughly for 24 hours before planting.
- Rice should be planted six inches deep in potting soil.
- The dirt covering the rice must be covered by five inches of water.
- Place the rice in a warm spot that garners direct sunlight.
How to Start Strawberries Seeds
- Strawberry seeds should be started at least three weeks before you plan to relocate them outdoors.
- Sow the seeds in a spot that will garner full sun both during the germination and plant growing period.
- Strawberries thrive in moist and warm soil. A heat mat of similar source of extra heat is often beneficial during the germination period.
- Plants should not be relocated outdoors until they have a minimum of three true leaves .
How to Start Tomatoes Seeds
- Some tomato growers prefer to soak their seeds overnight before planting. I have never started these seeds this way, but others swear by it. If you soak your seeds, allow them to air dry thoroughly before sowing.
- It takes tomato seeds between five to 25 days to germinate depending on the type and exposure to heat, and sunlight the seeds garner.
- Tomato seeds germinate most successfully in 70 to 75 degree F heat. Once the seeds sprout they are usually hardy enough for 65 degree temperatures. Placing a heat mat or heating pad underneath of tomato seed trays usually fosters the germination and hardiness process quite well.
- Tomatoes will need a grow light and not just a windowsill with direct sunlight to stay warm enough not to get spindly or accrue dampening off diseases unless you live in a place with a warm and wonderful winter like Florida, Georgia, or California.
- Plant the tomato seeds a half an inch deep in loose and well draining.
- Cover the tomato seeds with soil fairly firmly, but do not compact it. Thoroughly moisten the seed-starting mix, and then fill the containers to within 1/2″ of the top. Firm the mix but don’t compact it.
- Mist the tomato seeds immediately after sowing. I mist the hole the seeds are going in before planting as well and this seems to work great when I am using our compost material and not a seed starter mix.
- The tomato seeds should be moist but not wet – check the soil daily for best results.
- Covering the seed tray with a clear plastic lid or clear plastic wrap will increase humidity, and create a greenhouse like environment that tomatoes thrive in.
- Grow light should be kept only an inch or two above the sprouting plants unless you are using a powerful and expensive variety instead of a common $20 to $35 home model. If you are using a shop light with a fluorescent bulb, definitely keep the lights low to the plants because they put off far less heat that dedicated grow lights.
Pumpkins, Watermelon, Honeydew, Cantaloupe, and Gourds
- Due to the required long growing season of these vine crops, they must be started by the middle of February for optimal results.
- Melon seeds should be planted one inch deep in the soil
- The soil should be 65 degrees F when sowing the seeds.
- Typically, melons need four weeks of indoor growing before they can be hardened off and relocated outside.
- Green bean seeds should be planted two inches deep in the soil.
- When starting bean seeds indoors, do so about two to three weeks before their planned hardening off and relocation.
- The seeds must be soaked in cool but not cold water for 12 to 24 hours and allowed to dry thoroughly before planting.
- Green beans grow best in soil that is 65 to 70 degrees F.
- The seeds thrive in a moist but not wet soil.
Herb Seed Starting Tips
The germination of herb seeds varies greatly. Some herbs, both medicinal and edible, have incredibly long growing seasons and must be started indoors in many climates. Thankfully, most common varieties of herbs can be grown in small containers indoors year round.
- These seeds should be started about six to eight weeks prior to the last expected hard frost.
- Basil seeds are sown about one fourth of an inch deep in potting soil.
- This herb will do best when seeds are planted in soil with a temperature of 70 degrees F.
- Keep the soil moist but not wet throughout the germination process.
- It takes approximately 7 to 14 days for basil seeds to germinate.
- Oregano seeds are broadcast right on top of the soil surface.
- It takes approximately 10 days for oregano seeds to germinate.
- Once broadcast, squirt the seeds lightly but thoroughly and then cover the tray with clear plastic wrap to increase humidity.
- Oregano seeds should be placed in direct sunlight.
- Plant oregano indoors about four to six weeks prior to the last anticipated hard frost.
- Start stevia seeds approximately eight to 10 weeks before the last hard frost threat has passed.
- The seeds take approximately one to three weeks to germinate.
- Plant stevia one fourth of an inch deep in the soil.
- The seeds will grow best when placed in 75 degree soil.
- Chamomile seeds should be started 21 days to four weeks before the final expected hard frost.
- Broadcast chamomile seeds directly on top of the soil.
- Mist the seeds lightly, but thoroughly with water after broadcasting.
- Chamomile seeds do best in 75 degree slightly moist and well draining soil.
St. John’s Wort
- These seeds prefer a moist soil and full sun but are hardy enough to tolerate partial shade and a dry soil.
- It takes roughly 10 to 20 days for St. John’s Wort to germinate.
- Broadcast the seeds and then lightly press them into the soil but do not cover them with dirt.
- They grow best in 60 degree F soil.
- Broadcast the thyme seeds loosely over the soil and then scatter seed starter lightly over top of them.
- Cover the seeds with clear plastic wrap after misting them with cool to lukewarm water.
- Place the seed trays in a warm spot that garners direct sunlight.
- It will take about 10 to 20 days for the seeds to germinate.
- Start borage seeds about 21 days to four weeks before the final threat of a spring hard frost.
- The seeds should be planted just barely below the surface in a well draining and moist soil.
- It takes borage seeds roughly five to 15 days to germinate.
- You may need to thin of the seedlings before hardening them off to relocate outdoors.
- Borage prefers a well draining soil.
- This difficult to cultivate herb is far easier to start from fresh cuttings than from seed. There is typically a 30% germination rate even per packet of quality heirloom seeds.
- Rosemary seeds should be sown loosely on top of the soil and barely covered.
- Lightly mist the seeds with cool to Lukewarm water and cover with clear plastic wrap.
- Place the rosemary seed tray in a warm and sunny location.
- It usually takes about 15 to 30 for rosemary seeds to germinate.
- The soil should be kept at a consistent 80 to 90 degrees F during the germination period.
- Start rosemary seeds about three to four weeks before the final threat of a hard spring frost.
During my first few years of gardening, I either over-watered or vastly under-watered my seeds and lost nearly half of them. I have found that using a squirt bottle instead of even a small watering can is helpful in keeping the soil moist, and not causing any damage to the developing sprouts.
The power of the water stream pouring out of the watering can is capable of damaging or dislodging the root system on the sprout, causing stunted growth or death. Always water the soil and not the growing little plant. A turkey baster can also work quite well for watering seeds and young plants.
Always water the plants in the morning so their soil has time to dry before the lights are turned off or turned down at night. This same process should be followed when hardening off the plants. Watering plants outdoors during the heat of the day often scorches them – causing a reduced yield, or death.
If the growing instructions recommend thinning seeds as they grow, wait until the plants have at least a second set of leaves unless otherwise directed by the growing packet.
After thinning out the plants, always water them and keep them in a warm and sunny spot to help the young plants acclimate to their new surroundings with as little trauma as possible.
I find it best to do plant thinning during the morning to give the plants and the soil plenty of time, dry before evening when the room is cooler or grow lights are turned off for the day.
If you have a window with good sunlight for the bulk of the day that may be enough exposure and heat to germinate some seeds, but the odds are not in your favor in most regions of the country.
During the late winter months the chill coming off of the windows, even if they garner powerful southern exposure, if often not enough to keep the soil warm and germinate seeds properly.
Using grow lights and in some cases a heated seed mat (or heating pad) as well, are needed to ensure the best possible germination conditions. Grow lights range in price from $15 for small clip on style ones that are powerful enough to grow a single tray or seeds – or three stackable planters.
Follow the lighting strength and time on the seed packet by the letter to avoid seed and sprout killing fluctuations in both “sunlight” and heat. If the growing seedlings are leaning to one side or another, it is not receiving the light evenly and will need the tray or planter rotated to avoid deformed growth or dampening off disease.
Always label each seed tray of container with the contents. Even though you may feel certain that that identification later will be simple and the seed trays will never be moved out of order, do not change improper growing methods of mistaken identification.
While the hardening off recommended time can vary widely by plant variety, ALL plants must be hardened off before being relocated outside.
Taking a plant, regardless if it is young or near maturity, out of a well-heated and well-regulated environment into the spring air that WILL fluctuate greatly not just from day to night but from day to day OFTEN kills the plant.
If your seed packet or growing zone specific gardening guide does not offer specific steps to follow, here are some general ones that tend to work well for almost everything that can live in USDA Growing Zone 6.
- Move plants outside in one hour increments in a partially sunny spot for a full week. The plants must come back inside before dusk when the temperature drops.
- If a day is unseasonably damp, humid, cold, hot, or stormy, reduce or eliminate the hardening off routine for the day.
- During the second week leave the plants outside for up to half a day in a slightly sunnier spot – unless the plant is supposed to be grown in partial shade.
- During the third week, allow the plant to remain outdoors from morning until dusk.
- By the fourth week, the plants should be acclimated enough to the great outdoors to be put in the ground or grown outside in containers.
- Be especially careful when hardening off fruit bushes, trees, or dwarf trees of any type – especially those that are not designed for your growing zone. The second week of hardening off might need to extend into a two-week session to ensure these more fragile plants do not become chilled.
The Most Common Seed Starting Mistakes
- Lack of proper light kills more seeds than any plant disease or even improper watering. Do NOT rely on natural light unless you live in a tropical region.
- Keep lights no more than three to six inches above the seeds unless you have a top quality light that can be raised up to one foot above the seeds.
- Give hte seeds 12 hours a day of light unless you growing packet explicitly recommended less for optimal results.
- Never water the plant from top to bottom. This allows moisture to pool on the leaves, and can cause wilty, mold, or mildew to form – in addition to the force of the water potentially causing damage to sprouting seeds.
- Press your knuckle into the soil daily to test the moisture level. Plants can go several days without water, and handle a little extra moisture also, but seeds absolutely cannot deal well with either scenario.
- Do not get overly excited about the spring gardening season and start your plants too early. Allowing a young plant to grow too large in a little plant cell or small container can cause stunted growth and stress that can lead to failure during the hardening off period. If you did start too early, transplant the young plant into a large container, but do not attempt to harden it off before the weather is warm enough to sustain its growth.
- Follow the recommendations for depth of planting and how the seed should be covered with soil – or if at all, for greater success. If a seed is planted too deep or too shallow, its roots will not take shape properly, it may not be large and strong enough to grow up through the soil, or it could become overly exposed to sunlight and water.
- Do not rush the hardening off process. Follow the specific rules for each plant variety you are growing. Some seedlings may need to stay indoors for far longer than others. Relocating the plants too soon or improperly can quickly kill a plant that would have otherwise provided you with a bounty of fresh and nutrient-rich food.
When starting seeds indoors, even if you are an accomplished gardener who has great luck with freshly purchased plants every year, expect to lose at least 10% of the seeds. Seeds are fickle, and sometimes are just not going to grow no matter how well you tend to them.
Remain mindful of the growing space available to you when cultivating seeds – it can be easy to get carried away if you have the indoor or greenhouse space to do so.
If you discover you successfully sprouted too many seeds for your traditional ground plot garden or raised beds, consider using hanging planters, portable containers, and vertical gardening to grow more groceries in every inch of nice sunny space your property offers.
Tara Dodrill is a homesteading and survival journalist and author. She lives on a small ranch with her family in Appalachia. She has been both a host and frequent guest on preparedness radio shows. In addition to the publication of her first book, ‘Power Grid Down: How to Prepare, Survive, and Thrive after the Lights go Out’, Dodrill also travels to offer prepping tips and hands-on training and survival camps and expos.