New Garden: Starting Seedlings Indoors or in the Garden?

I was recently talking to someone who is thinking about starting plants from seeds for the first time.  Some of her questions included whether it’s too late to start seedlings for this year and if she is going to do indoor seedlings,  how should she get started?   Since these are some of the questions I had when i was new to gardening, I thought it would be good to share some of my experiences here.

A few points: I’m not a professional farmer,  I grow a backyard garden in the suburbs.  My knowledge comes from experience, web research and consulting with others who grow gardens. 

A lot of facts about timing depend on what region and USDA plant hardiness zone you are in.   There are very different answers for people growing gardens in the southern US versus in New England vs another country.  All of my experience is from New England zone 6b to be exact (although the Veggie Gardener  points out that if you use 3 different hardiness zone maps they will probably put you in 3 different regions – especially on the East Coast). 

So you want to start from seeds… I’ve been trying variations on this in recent years to try and save a few dollars.  There are different answers depending on what you’re planting:

Plant seeds in the ground in the early spring
Some plants can go in the ground in the early spring (now if you’re reading this when I’m publishing it) as seeds.  For these plants the rule of thumb is “when you can work the ground to put the seeds in.”  These include plants like snow peas, snap peas, lettuce, spinach and broccoli. 

Plant seeds in the ground in the late spring
There are other vegetables that I’ve had success with as seeds straight into the ground a little later in the season.  These include carrots (should soak seeds in water overnight), squash, green beans, corn & cilantro

Planting seeds with children

Even a toddler can help plant seeds

I’m a big fan of putting seeds straight into the ground because this is a very rewarding activity for children to do.  Even the youngest children can drop the seeds on the ground and it’s easy for them to help with the watering.  When you plant straight outdoors, you don’t mind as much if they spill half the can on the way to the garden!   Another nice side-effect when children plant seeds outdoors is that they have to go outside to check on their plants.  I find that when children have plants inside they check on them several times a day and get quickly frustrated that the plant isn’t growing fast enough to keep their interest.   If the plants are outside they don’t check the plants as often and their attention lasts longer through the sprouting time.  The outdoor plants are also more forgiving to the amount of water children give them.

Plants to grow from seedlings
There are some vegetables that I’ve really only had success with if I start with seedlings.  These include cucumbers, tomatoes,  basil and any berries including strawberries.  Your mileage may vary on these,  but I have had very little success starting these plants from seeds directly in the garden in my region.

Growing your own seedlings
If you are going to grow your own seedlings, consider whether you have a sunny, southern location indoors that you can use to grow them.  If this is your first time growing seedlings, I recommend going to a garden store and getting a kit.  Once you’ve done it a few times you’ll know what pieces you need and you can buy just the individual parts.  We no longer have space inside to grow seedlings, so I either get them from friends or buy them.

Your seedling-growing space should be secure from pets and small children.  Some of the problems we’ve run into include cats eating and knocking over the plants, children dumping out the dirt and putting them in such a secure area that they don’t get watered often enough.

Plants that plant themselves
For what it’s worth, we’ve planted several things that come back year after year.  This isn’t surprising for the strawberries & blackberries, they’re supposed to take several years to establish and production tends to increase over the first few years.  The following items are either perennials and come back reliably, or are annuals that tend to re-seed themselves each year: Chives, cilantro, sage, mint, tomatoes & squash.  I now usually leave one or two “rogue” squash plants in my garden each year and let myself be surprised by what kind of squash I get. 

A few interesting points on our returning plants:

  • Mint is VERY aggressive and hardy.  Once you plant it it’s hard to get rid of it.  
  • We were able to harvest sage all winter long – as long as we could get through the snow to it!
  • No matter how hard you try, dandelions are very hard to get rid of permanently.  Consider giving in and trying dandelion soup or salad!

Happy Gardening!


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  1. Thanks for writing this. My husband and I are looking to start from seeds this year and were feeling like we had missed our chance again. Last year was our first attempt at a garden, and over all it went really well. We had a hard time with the squashes and the animals eating them, but I want to try again. We got a ton of tomatoes and egplant, so I think we may cut down on what we plant there. Last year the kids were only 1 1/2 (twins) and 2 1/2 (older son) Mid summer, so it was hard for me to participate in teh actual gardening. I am hoping with them being a little older this year, that they will be able to play a little more on their own. I can’t wait to start planting!

    • Depends on where you live and soil conditions plus wehhter your ground freezes. Check with your local County Extension or a garden nursery to find out what zone you live in. Your time to plant will be determined by the zone. What you plant should be chosen according to your zone also. Most often bulbs are a good bet if the ground is frozen yet.

  2. Amy, as parents of twins we know they can be a handful. We found the more involved we were with having them help out, even if it was something as simple as sprinkling some dirt over seeds, the easier it went overall. Good luck with your garden!

  3. I find the picture with your child planting seeds as cute! If I have a baby someday, I’ll do the same. I want my future children to love nature.

  4. Great tips, Alicia. I’m still undecided whether I should start seedlings indoor or outdoor, but I will definitely seriously consider the insightful words you’ve imparted in this article.


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