Caring for Vegetable Seedlings

By: C. Colston Burrell

Select the right containers for your plants when starting seeds indoors.

Starting your own vegetable transplants indoors can extend your growing season and give you an earlier harvest and increased varietal choice. Seedlings require special care -- read these tips to get your vegetable plants off to a healthy start.

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Starting Seeds Indoors

Containers and medium should be selected to suit the needs of the varieties that you will grow. Commercially available flats, seed-starter trays, cell-packs, peat-pots, and flower pots as well as plastic-foam or paper cups and aluminum baking trays are typical containers. Be sure each container has adequate drainage. If containers have been used previously, be sure to clean them with a mild bleach solution to prevent the spread of plant diseases. Choose a light-weight sterile seedling mix to start your seeds. Mix the medium with enough water to moisten the mix well. Fill the container with two to three inches of medium and firm the mix lightly.

Sow small vegetable seeds at about eight to ten seeds per inch.
Sow small vegetable seeds at about eight to ten seeds per inch.

Sowing the Seeds

Small vegetable seeds should be sown in rows at a rate of eight to ten seeds per inch. Make row indentations about 1/4-inch deep with a label or pencil and sprinkle the seeds evenly in the rows. Cover the seeds with the potting mix and press lightly to ensure contact between the seeds and the medium. If you're using individual containers, sprinkle two to three seeds on the surface. Press them about 1/4-inch into the mix and cover. If all three seeds germinate, cut two seedlings off at soil level, leaving the strongest plant.

Transplant your seedlings to individual containers when they've grown a few "true leaves."
Transplant your seedlings to individual containers when they've grown a few "true leaves."

Transplanting to Individual Containers

Seeds grown in flats must be transplanted into individual containers before planting outdoors. Do this after they've developed a couple of "true leaves." The first leaves that appear are seed leaves; the next set of leaves are the true leaves. Gently lift the healthiest looking plants from the seed bed from underneath using a knife or spatula. Hold them by their true leaves and separate them from neighboring plants. Make a hole in the new planting medium deep enough to accept the roots without curling or crowding them. Press the soil firmly around the roots. Water the new plants thoroughly.

Want more information about vegetable gardens? Visit these links:

  • Caring for a Vegetable Garden: Read our guide to nurturing your vegetable plants for the best harvest.
  • Vegetable Gardens: Find out everything you wanted to know about vegetable gardening.
  • Vegetables: Pick out your favorite vegetables to plant in next year's garden.
  • Gardening: We answer all of your general gardening questions in this section.
  • Garden Care: Whether you're growing cucumbers or columbines, we have all the information you need to nurture a thriving garden.