Planting Indoors to Get a Jump Start

You may want to start some of your garden plants that need a longer growing season inside.   In some parts of the country, people have already started their tomatoes, peppers and onions inside.  I just started my peppers and tomatoes a few days ago.  Of course, you can always plan to buy your plants from a greenhouse later, and transplant them into your garden when the time comes.   That’s the simplest way to do it, but if you have certain varieties you prefer, or if you don’t want to depend on the greenhouses, you may want to make the investment in time and equipment needed to grow your own seedlings to transplant.

Equipment Needed

Light, warmth and good soil are essential.  I discuss each below.


Your light must be full-spectrum, because plants use sunlight to manufacture their food.  If you don’t have a heated greenhouse, sufficient sunny windows or a sun room, you will need to buy grow lights.  Don’t do like I did one year.  I didn’t want to pay for grow lights, so I bought daylight flourescent lights instead.  They didn’t work so well.  Now I have to buy the grow lights anyway, and so it ended up costing me double.  That’s what I get for being cheap!  This year, I bought Jump Start brand four-foot grow light systems.  They are around $59.00 dollars each.  They also sell two-foot systems, but they are only a few dollars less, so the four-foot systems give you more for your money.


You must also have a decent quality of potting soil and some kind of fertilizer.  Depending on your circumstances, you can mix your own potting soil using compost and garden soil, and you can use fish fertilizer diluted in water or aged manure (someone even sells aged manure in teabags to use for your plants!).  You could also just use Miracle Gro or some other liquid fertilizer you add to your water.


For heat, I am using the inexpensive heat lamps you can buy at Walmart or a hardware store for a few dollars each.  You can buy heat mats to go under your seed flats, but they are prohibitive in cost at over $35,00 each.  So I will just rough it, as I have been doing for many years.  There are other heat sources one can use, depending on one’s circumstances.  One can use those electric radiator-looking heaters that are filled with oil, or one can just provide warmth from the home heating system.  I have seen some innovative methods, but I am just keeping it simple for now.  Make sure your heat source is not too drying, or you may have to provide humidity.  And don’t get it so warm, your plants are damaged. usually 60-70 degrees is sufficient for the most heat-loving plants.

Regional Differences  in Growing Seasons Dictate when to Plant Indoors

Deciding on when to plant indoors often depends on where you live.  The most important thing to learn is when is your last frost date.  Some parts of the country have frost every month of the year, but the majority of us live in places where we have a growing season with 60-150 frost free days.   You don’t want your tender plants to become too overgrown or root bound before it’s safe to put them outside. Of course some plants are frost tolerant, and you can put them out when they might get frosted on, but you don’t want them to freeze.  I’ll write more on frost-tolerant transplants later in this blog.

Onions and Leeks

 Because it is a little late to start onions from seed this year, I have ordered onion sets to plant.  These look like tiny baby onions.  You can plant them in the garden about April (here in North Idaho) and they will grow into nice large onions to braid and hang in your root cellar for winter.  You would plant them as soon as the ground can be worked in the spring.  They are frost tolerant.  Onion sets can be ordered from Pinetree Garden Seeds You can also order onion plants from many seed companies, but, they won’t ship to certain states, such as Idaho, because of state regulations.   You can, however, order good onion seeds from out of state  if you can’t get sets.  I do recommend ordering onion seeds right after Christmas in order to be prepared for early sowing indoors.

Leeks have a long growing season, so it is probably a good idea to get them started now.  Start them in an undivided flat of potting soil in little rows about three inches apart.  Leeks, like onions, can tolerate frost, so you can set them out when there is still danger of frost, but not a hard freeze.

Tomatoes and Peppers

As I said, some people have already started their tomatoes and peppers last month.  Most seed packets say to start them 8-10 weeks before your last frost date.  People start them even earlier, but you need optimum growing conditions to do so.  I choose shorter season maturing varieties, so I can get away with starting them a little later.  I am still getting three weeks head start on what I did the last time I had a garden .  Even so, I calculate that they will be 11-12 weeks old by June 7, which is often our last frost date here at 2700 feet altitude.  I will probably have to protect them at nights for awhile if I put them out earlier.

Melons, Cucumbers and Squash

These are the tenderest of the garden plants.  They are usually planted after the soil warms up, as they don’t even like cool soil.  They also do not transplant well if their roots are disturbed at all.  Up here in the north, we get a head start by planting them a couple of weeks early in peat pots, and then planting the whole thing, pot and all.  Peat pots are organic and they break down, but I have found that one needs to tear them down the sides in strips when setting the plants outside, or the roots can’t escape from the pot into the surrounding soil.  If one can get larger peat pots, one could plant them up to a month earlier.  This year, I have saved up empty Folgers coffee plastic containers–the kind with the snap-on lids.  I am going to turn them upside down and saw off the bottoms (which will then be the tops). Then I will snap the lids onto the container and use what was previously the top of the coffee container for the bottom of the now altered pot.  I will plant my melons, squash and cukes, also zucchini, in them a month ahead of the last frost.  When it is time to put them out, I will unsnap the lid from the bottom and gently slide the whole plant out of the bottom of the coffee container into the garden soil.

 Cole Crops: Broccoli, Cabbage, Brussel Sprouts

Crops such as broccoli, cabbage, brussel sprouts, collards, kale and cauliflower are known as the cole crops.  These plants are frost tolerant ranging from slightly frost tolerant, in the case of cauliflower, to hard frost tolerant in the case of some mature cabbages and kale.  You can start them indoors about 4-6 weeks before setting them out in the spring, if you want some early vegetables for eating in the summer.  For winter/fall plantings you will make another planting in the summer sometime, depending on where you live.  Up here I can probably get away with planting some indoors about the last week of March, if I want to set them out at the end of April to first of May.


The culinary herbs that you need to consider starting indoors are parsley, basil, rosemary, thyme, sage, oregano, sweet marjoram and winter and summer savory.  These herbs should be planted soon, as they are slow germinating and slow growing.  I will probably be starting mine next week.  Some of them take up to three weeks to germinate, and you need to keep them moist, but not wet, the whole time you are waiting for them to germinate.  So you can see that the sooner you start them, the better.   

Lettuce and Greens

Lettuce is actually quite hardy and you can plant it when there are still frosts, but sometimes it is nice to plant a few plants and some other salad greens indoors, so that you can start enjoying those fresh salads as soon as possible.  I wouldn’t plant them any sooner than three weeks before you can transplant them out, but some people grow them as micro greens to harvest early, or even as young plants to harvest right from pots.

Wrap Up

So, there you have it.  This should keep you busy until you are ready to start direct planting in the garden.  You can do some or all of the above suggestions.  You can even do none of it.  Even if you wait until the last frost, you will still have time to plant quite a few veggies to supplement your family’s food budget.  Enjoy, and if you have any questions or comments, please feel free to leave comments.

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