Back to Blog
Indoor Seed Starting

Family Seed Starting: A Simple Guide for Growing Together

parents and teachers Feb 21, 2024

Thank you for being a parent  or teacher who cares about growing food with your children. In this guide, I will show you how to start seeds and grow seedlings at home. This advice comes from years of experience in various settings, from schools with enthusiastic and not-so-enthusiastic teachers to private and public environments. This family-friendly approach will help you create a hassle-free and worry-free indoor seed starting experience. By following these steps, you'll end up with strong seedlings and a successful gardening journey with your children.

So, what defines success for a family garden?

To cultivate a food garden with minimal effort, all done by your children, that produces food, while you have no worries and can focus on teaching important gardening lessons!

And if you are new to gardening, WELCOME!

This blog post is designed for you, so you can avoid the pitfalls of "hope gardening" and follow a plan for successful seed starting indoors.

Where do you start with a plan? You start right here, at seed germination and seedling starting.

Let’s embark on this journey together and create a beautiful and fruitful experience for your children.

Why start seeds indoors?

Depending on your location, starting seeds indoors might be optional. If you live in colder climates like Toronto, where frost lasts from October to mid-May, it's essential for crops with longer maturation periods, such as tomatoes. Starting seeds indoors extends the growing season and ensures a better harvest.

Even in warmer climates like Australia, where outdoor planting is feasible year-round, growing seeds indoors can be a fun and educational experience and some plants are easier to cultivate if they are grown indoors into strong seedlings first. It offers insights into germination, seedlings, and caring for small plants, including the essential steps of hardening off and transplanting.


To get started with indoor seed starting at home, you'll need a few essentials:

  • Starter containers
  • Water
  • Soil
  • Light (natural sunlight is highly preferred)
  • Seeds
  • Good timing

You might be thinking, "wait, this is not that hard." And you're right! In theory it's not! You know this; place soil in the starter container, create a hole for the seeds, water the soil, and find a spot with ample light. Follow this routine at the appropriate time of the year, and you're good to go! It's not rocket science, but there are some key tips to ensure success, and that's what this post is here to help with.

Now, you might be thinking, "Wait, it can't be that easy." Well, you're right. There are some nuances to consider to make your seed-starting experience a breeze. This blog post will walk you through the process, highlighting common mistakes to avoid and providing you with the know-how to set up for success.

The great news is that by the end of this blog, you'll feel confident to give it a try. After your first successful attempt, you'll proudly realize that it's easy – as long as you follow the instructions outlined in here, of course!

Starter Containers and Water

General advice suggests that you can start seeds in various containers, such as pots made from newspaper, paper towel rolls, or recyclable containers available at home. I've personally used all of these when starting seeds for my own garden, and I often demonstrate these methods to my family, providing valuable lessons on recycling and sustainability. But...

It's crucial to note that not all containers are suitable for starting seeds and growing seedlings in a home setting.

For home seed starting, I recommend using plastic cups, like the red one in the picture above.

(hopefully most of you reading, hate using plastic! Don't worry, I have other options for you below)

This choice is influenced by considerations of watering and size. Seeds require consistent care in terms of watering, and cardboard and paper containers tend to lose moisture quickly, making them less suitable for the home environment.

Therefore, containers like brown paper pots, paper towel rolls, egg cartons, and origami newspaper pots are not ideal for home use. While these can be valuable for teaching purposes, it's best to use them at home, along with clear instructions for daily watering. Additionally, these containers are prone to mold if overwatered.

Plastic starter containers are a better choice for home gardening, although the commonly used black plastic seed starters may be too fragile and small for most vegetables. Their small size often necessitates transplanting at least twice, increasing the risk of root damage, transplant shock, and weakened plants.

Personally, I prefer using strawberry containers and cake lids, especially at home. They effectively retain moisture without developing mold. However, their size may still be suboptimal for deeper root vegetables, requiring multiple seeds in one container and potentially leading to tangled roots and transplant difficulties. These two containers are well-suited for herbs and vegetables that benefit from broadcasting seeds, such as coriander, parsley, certain basil types, and leaf lettuce.

For single-planted vegetables, my favorite is the plastic cup. Plastic cups effectively retain moisture, avoid quick mold growth, and provide the right size for one vegetable seed or even two. They also offer sufficient depth for root growth, eliminating the need for frequent transplants.

Important to note: I strongly advocate for reusing containers year after year at home. Ensure thorough cleaning with hot water and soap before storing them to prevent sanitation issues and reduce disease rates for the following year. This practice not only promotes sustainability but also saves you money in the long run.

For those who hate plastic (and rightfully so!) I have another option. This is an option that we searched for forever, and finally found it! A biodegradable film that can be used to make cups for seed starting. You can read all about it in this blog:


I only use certified organic or at least organically-made soil from sources I trust for my home garden. I never buy soil with chemical fertilizers in it. 

There is no need for fertilizers, even organic ones, at this stage anyway. Seeds have enough food inside them for as long as they grow their true leaves (the second set of leaves), and then they start making their food by photosynthesis. Organically-made soils are rich in everything a seedling needs from germination to when it’s big enough to be transplanted in our home garden.

And I certainly don't go out in the yard, dig soil up and bring it in for starting seeds. You might be scratching your head as to who does that! Trust me, I've seen people do it. They think that saves them money, but it only brings them disappointment.

The main reason soil is important at the start has to do with anchoring and water. Soil gives them an anchor to stand up, and it also holds onto the water for them.

So to keep it simple without getting too much into soil science, as long as our soil is a good loam it will have enough nutrients, and it will hold on to just enough water and let the excess water drain out nicely.


This one is THE MOST important requirement. Without enough light, your seeds will spend all their energy looking for it. They will get tall (leggy is the term) and very weak, and eventually, they will not do well.

Strong seedlings are those that had enough light shining on them directly from the start.

You need DIRECT strong sunlight for your seedlings for at least 4 hours a day.

In your home, south-facing windows that are not blocked by any buildings or trees will do best for your seedlings. If you don’t have a south-facing window, then go for west-facing and east-facing windows as the last option.

North-facing rooms might seem very bright. But trust me! They will not work. Not at all! Don’t even give it a try. You will fail! Seriously! You need the sunlight to shine directly on your plants for many hours, and your north-facing window will not do even one minute of that.

To increase the light on a west- or east-facing window, you could add mirrors that would reflect the light at your plants. That will increase the light density, which could compensate for shorter hours of light or too many rainy days.

Indoor fluorescent lighting would be your last option if you have no sunny windows. But the lights have to be placed very close to your plants— as close as possible, like almost touching the soil.

So, you will need to set up a seed-starting structure like the one in this picture. You should build flexibility to be able to bring the light up as your plants grow.

How do you know if you have enough light?

If your seedlings got their first leaves almost immediately at the soil level (picture on the left), you can be sure you are giving them enough light. If they get tall and skinny (leggy), literally stretching their necks looking for the light (picture on the right), they are screaming “not enough sunlight”.

You need to listen immediately and move them to a sunny spot.


And of course, you need seeds. Seeds have so many sizes and shapes that still amaze me to this day. I am mesmerized by seeds. They are such incredible miraculous things that all life depends on.

For a home garden, I usually recommend that seed-starting be for annual vegetables. If you are planting perennials, and that would be wonderful really, I suggest you start with purchased seedlings or cuttings. I am generalizing here to make your life as a beginner or even intermediate home gardener easier. Most perennial plants are better to be purchased and transplanted into your garden directly. It is usually difficult (again generalizing to make things simple) to successfully start perennial plants from seed when you are not an expert.

I categorize annual vegetable seeds into two: 1) Easy to grow at home and 2) Not-so-easy-to-grow-at-home.

I have a recommended list of seeds for home gardens on the website. I highly suggest you pick it up and use it.

And… drum roll…

My ONLY recommended technique to grow at home.

Now that we know which containers to use and where to place them to get enough sunlight, we can talk about THE one seed-starting technique I recommend for a home environment.

Why ONLY this method?

At home, you are busier, and the caretakers of the plants (the family members) are more forgetful. Also, there are many days in the spring when no one is around.

Besides weekends and long weekends, you might have extra holidays during spring.

If you rely on people to water your seedlings every day, you are not setting yourself up for success.

Also, this method builds a very strong root system for your plants. When you water from below (which is what we are doing here), the roots will spread deeper to get the water, which makes your plant stronger.


1) Make holes on the sides of the bottom edge of the cup. These holes have 2 roles:
a. To drain the excess water, and
b. To soak up the needed water from below. Don’t make the holes at the bottom where the cup sits on. You don’t want to block the holes

2) Put your cups in a plastic container (reservoir). You want your container to be strong to hold your cups and the water steadily. Choose a container not too big for your family members to move. Also, make sure your container is completely full of cups so that the cups support each other.
3) Add soil to the cups all the way up to the top and gently tuck the soil in (gently!) to remove air bubbles in the soil. You want the roots to be in soil and water, not air! THIS STEP IS VERY IMPORTANT!
4) Water each cup slowly and thoroughly. Time-consuming but you will only need to do this once before planting. You want all of your soil to be gently tucked down by the water and most of the air taken out. Air bubbles in your soil are bad news.
5) Pour water into your big container (reservoir) all the way up to just above the holes they made at the bottom edge of the cups.

6) Your setup is ready. Time to seed! Depending on your seed size, create a hole in the middle of your cup. The depth of the hole should be the same as the length of your seed.
7) Place your seed lying on its side, flat in the hole that is as deep as the seed’s length. You only need to be this particular with bigger seeds of course. If your seeds are small, don’t worry about which side it is lying on, and make sure your hole is as tiny as your seed. Seeds buried too deep will get leggy under the soil and turn out weak.
8) Cover it up gently. But don’t compact the soil.
9) Label it with the name and planting date. You want to know which is what and when it was planted. 10) Place it under lots of light and wait for the growing to start. 11) When the water in your reservoir is completely used up, it’s time to fill it up again (to just above the holes). Depending on how dry your home gets and how much sun shines on it, this could be once a week or even once every 2 weeks.

No need to water from the top, inside each cup ever again. Yay! No need to water every day either. Double Yay!

Seeds germinate at different rates (depending on the variety and quality). Some seeds poke their head out in a matter of a few days and some seeds take as long as 2 weeks to come out. You better do some research to know what to expect!

Never seed only a handful of seeds of a vegetable.

Always seed plenty!

Even if you have the best quality seed, there will always be some seeds that won’t germinate. If you only seed 3 tomatoes, there is a high chance that none of them grow. But if every family member seeds 1 tomato, there is a high chance that you can get many to germinate and a few get really strong to be planted in your home garden.

ALL seedlings belong to ALL family members not only in your household but the entire home. This is a communal garden. There is absolutely no need to write family members’ names on the cups. The practice of putting family members’ names on the cups creates unnecessary competition; remember: not all seeds grow.

It’s always better to have!



Timing is crucial for successful seed starting. Use online tools like to determine the optimal planting and transplanting times based on your climate zone. This tool provides a color-coded schedule, simplifying the process and ensuring that your plants are ready for outdoor transplantation when the time is right.

Next Steps

As your seedlings grow tall and strong, involve your children in gentle activities like petting the plants to simulate wind and breeze. This helps strengthen the plants and teaches your children to be gentle and caring towards their garden.

Remember to harden off the seedlings before transplanting them into the garden, either in the ground or in larger pots and containers.

I wish you and your family all the luck and success in your seed-starting adventure at home!