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Start Plants From Seeds in Small Spaces

Rachel worked as a farm manager for three years in Pennsylvania and now has her own farmstead in Minnesota.


Why Start Plants from Seed?

Save money!

Seedlings and started plants purchased from a nursery cost at least a few dollars each, and can certainly be more than 5 dollars each. A packet of 25-100 seeds, on the other hand, can cost as little as 99 cents, up to a few dollars, and each seed has the potential to be an entire plant!

Choose all your own plants!

When buying from a store or plant nursery, you're limited in what you can purchase to what they have in stock. This might mean you can't get certain heirloom varieties, or new varieties, that you're interested in growing. But when you start your own plants from seed, you get to choose what to grow! You're only limited by what seeds you can find for purchase, and with so many options on the internet, you're almost sure to find what you want.

Control how your plants are grown!

Starting plants yourself allows you to decide what planting medium you want to use, which is great news if you're an aspiring organic gardener. Plants purchased from a nursery may or may not have been started in your potting soil of choice.

Have fun and learn!

Different stages of plant growth require different management techniques. If you've never germinated seeds or managed seedlings, you have an opportunity to learn a new skill! If you have small children, it's also a fascinating and fun experience for them to share with you.

Seeds Need Basic Things to Start Growing

We call starting seeds "germinating", and it requires just a few things!

  • Warmth - most seeds like a soil temperature of between 60 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Moisture - seeds need water to "come to life"!
  • Light, sometimes - some seeds like exposure to a light source that mimics that sun
  • A container!

Supplies for Starting Seeds Indoors

  • Seeds
  • Soil
  • Something to put them in
  • Light source
  • Heat Source
  • Something to set your seed containers on
Easily use a small table and a window!

Easily use a small table and a window!

Where to Keep Seed Containers in Your Home

You really don't need a lot of space to start some seeds so you can have plants for your garden.

You can keep seed containers:

  • In windowsills in south-facing windows
  • On small tables under LED lamps
  • In a closet with a lamp overhead
  • Really anywhere in your home with a flat surface that you can suspend a light over, or that receives sunlight for most of the day!

You also don't need a fancy set-up to provide light for your plants. You can certainly use the free light source in the sky to start your seeds and grow your seedlings, but most young plants will do better with a more controlled, albeit artificial light source.

You do not need to purchase special, expensive "grow lights" - though you're certainly welcome to, if that's your thing. I use old-fashioned tube fluorescent lights, and long LED lights. Both of these options can be easily and cheaply hung over seed trays in basically any small or awkward space, as long as it's close enough to an outlet to plug the lights in.

I've used scrap 2x4 pieces to build a makeshift hanger for a simple fluorescent light that I suspended over a little table. You can get creative and find ways to hang lights!

You can easily provide heat sources for your plants as well, even if you don't have much space! I personally use the heat generated by the lights as my only source of heat for starting seeds indoors. For the first few days after sowing the seeds, I cover the trays in basic plastic wrap from the grocery store, to hold in the warmth and moisture. After a few days I remove the plastic wrap, so that mildew doesn't grow.

Other options for heat include special heating pads that can be placed under your seed trays and containers. You can also get creative and put the containers on a heater or radiator, just make sure it's safe to do so and not a fire hazard.

Super simple light holder I threw together with scrap lumber.

Super simple light holder I threw together with scrap lumber.

Plants I've Successfully Started in Regular Potting Soil










Get Your Seeds, Soil, and Containers

Acquiring seeds to start

You can purchase packets of seeds from many places - online retailers, just about any hardware store, specialty seed companies, and even your grocery store. I have personally had great experience with Johnny's Seeds (no affiliation).

You can also check out the seed exchange programs, either nationally or in your area. And, of course, you can save seed from your plants, provided they aren't hybrid varieties.

Keep in mind that some plants can't be started from seed - at least not if you want a particular variety that you are probably familiar with. These include most modern fruit trees, berry bushes, and other fruit-bearing plants, which usually need to be purchased as a bare-root started plant.

Soil & other planting mediums for starting seeds

Seeds need a mixture of organic material to germinate and start growing in that is pretty fine in texture. Using a simple potting soil is possible, and I've often done this with success, but it's recommended to use a special medium called seed-starting mix. According to the University of MN extension, these are usually made of peat and vermiculite, and don't contain any soil (or chance for contamination with germs and weed seed).

If you don't want to purchase a commercially made seed-starting mix, you can buy peat and vermiculite separately from garden supply companies and mix your own.

Don't just collect some soil for your yard or garden and try to start seeds in it - it will likely grow mold, weeds, and be too heavy and dense for your seeds to get a good start in.

Seed containers and trays

You need something to put the seeds and seed-starting mixture in! I prefer the classic black plastic seed trays with individual cells. Yes, these are not the most environmentally-friendly option, but they are extremely inexpensive for a large number of them. And I keep them year after year, washing them between seasons, rather than throwing them away after one use.

You really can use any container that drains to start your seeds in - plastic cups, sour cream or yogurt containers, or milk jugs with the tops cut off. Just make sure you poke several small holes in the bottom of your DIY seed starting containers for drainage.


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Rachel Koski Nielsen