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Steps to Starting Your Garden


As a gardener in Chicago, unless you are buying your garden plants from a greenhouse to transplant, it's a must to start part of your garden indoors. We have great growing seasons spring through fall, we just don't always know when that spring will finally get here or how early the fall will greet us. When I first started gardening, the idea of starting the longer growing plants like peppers and tomatoes seemed pretty easy. Boy, did I learn a lot that first couple of years! While it's not difficult to start seeds indoors, there are definitely some dos and don'ts that will impact how successful your seedlings are. Starting seeds indoors isn't difficult but it does take some coordination and good planning. I thought I'd share some of the things I do to help you be successful.

By now, you should have your plan for your garden (See the previous blog post for more details). Now, it's time to start putting together your schedule and start your seedlings.


You'll need somewhere to organize your schedule. This might be a spreadsheet, your electronic calendar, or even a paper journal. I like to use an app called Trello. It's a great tool for setting up your own schedule, tracking your seeds, etc. and you can keep notes to use next year.


Indoor vs Direct Sow

The first thing you'll want to do is pull out your seed packs and determine what will be started indoors and what will be sown directly in the garden closer to the last frost date. There are lots of places online to help you determine what seeds go into which pile like the Gardeners.


Here are a few pointers for things we grow in the midwest:

  • Root crops and cold-hardy plants: Beans, Carrots, Peas, Radishes are direct sow

  • Tender or heat-loving plants: broccoli, peppers, tomatoes can be started indoors

  • Herbs can start indoors or direct sow. If you want to enjoy them before they go into the garden, start them anytime inside.

  • Lettuces/kale/spinach can go either way. If you think the temps outside are going to be stable enough early, you can direct sow. Or, if you want to transplant a heartier plant during those volatile days, start indoors. I tend to start indoors but closer to the frost date than farther out.

Indoor schedule

Once you have your packets sorted, take a look at the start indoor group. Most of these should start 6-8 weeks before your last frost date. Now, this may seem really early especially when it's still snowing outside 8 weeks out. Remember, most of the seeds take 14-21 days to sprout. Then, it will need a few weeks to grow, get the second set of leaves, and be ready for hardening off.

So, document the date that is 6-8 weeks from your last frost date. This will be the date you start your seeds indoors. If you have several vegetables you are starting, you may spread out starting them over the two weeks.

Direct Sow Schedule

For your direct sow group, you'll want to note when they are ready to go into the ground such as the Farmer's Almanac or seed companies. As a general rule, most will start right around your last frost date. Cool weather crops like kale, peas, etc. can be put in the ground ahead of the frost date as long as the daily temps are averaging around 50. For now, just note the dates when these should be sown for your schedule.

Almost There

Lots of information on hand now to put into your scheduling tool: when you should start the seeds, check for germination, plan direct sowing, etc. Once you have this all documented, it's time to start!

Starting Seeds

Using seed pods or starter kits are an easy way to get started and what I highly recommend. All you need to do is moisten the growing medium with warm water, plant the seeds and cover. You want to put the seed pods in a dark, warm place until they start to sprout. You can buy heating pads specifically for seedlings to help with this.

starting seeds

Once the seeds start sprouting, pop the top off of the container to give the seedlings air and set the seedlings somewhere where they will get a lot of light. Seedlings need around 14 hours of strong light per day. Your windowsill might work for this or you can buy grow lights. I used to use a set of windows in my house that was south/west facing. My seedlings grew but were often "leggy" (tall and thin) and leaned a lot toward the window. I would have to plant many more seeds than needed in hoping a few would make it to planting outside. I have since switched over to using grow lights. It's so much easier to set them on a timer and let them do their work. My plants are getting the light they need to be stronger to move outside. And, I no longer have to plant so many seeds.

A quick reminder: the seed starting pods or medium isn't more than just the soil to germinate the seeds. Once the seeds have sprouted, don't forget to start adding some fertilizer as you water the seedlings.

Whew! While this seems like a lot of work, it's not that much time and totally worth it. When you can get tomatoes and peppers in mid-summer rather than late summer, you'll appreciate the time spent. And, because you cultivated your plants from seed, you'll know exactly how they were grown and where they came from.

I know I'm excited to get my seeds started in the next week or so. I have a few new vegetables I'm trying in the garden this year: new varieties of tomatoes and hot peppers.

So, when are you getting started growing your seeds?


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