Seed Starting: When to Start Seeds, and What Happens If You Start Too Soon

Here at J&R Pierce Family Farm, I think it’s important to connect my readers with valuable insight from other master gardeners. Today’s post is a guest post brought to you by Stephanie Maguire.

The seed catalogs have started to come in the mail, the seed displays have started showing up in the gardening section, and it’s been a long winter. You are ready to start your seeds and get to gardening! 

I know it’s incredibly tempting to start them as soon as you’ve selected your seeds for the season, but properly timed seed starting and planting are essential for facilitating happy, hearty plants and bountiful harvests. 

In this article, I explain why gardeners start their seeds, when you should start your seeds, and what will happen, and what you should do, if you start your seeds too soon. This is a common seed starting mistake!

when to start seeds

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Should I Start Seeds Before the Last Frost?

when to start seeds

Starting your seeds is the process of enabling your seeds to begin germination and to become seedlings in a comfortable, controlled environment.

This gives plants with a longer growing season a “head start,” and increases the likelihood that they will bear fruit before the first frosts of winter, which they are not likely to survive. 

This is especially advantageous if the plants you chose don’t produce fruit until late in their growing season (like tomatoes). Starting your seeds not only increases the likelihood for bearing fruit before the end of their season, but increases the likelihood of an earlier harvest and a greater yield. 

Starting seeds provides an “ideal” growing environment (unlike the outdoors, which has varying temperatures, winds, and lighting levels) which increases the likelihood for germination and for producing strong, healthy seedlings.

However, it is important to note that some seeds are direct sow (are planted straight into your garden), some prefer the colder soil, and some like to be transplanted a couple weeks before or after your average frost date. Not all seeds are to be treated, started, or sown identically. 

When Should I Start Seeds?

when to start seeds

The first thing you should do is make sure you know when your last average frost date is for your area. This is especially important if you are planning to plant in the spring. 

The last thing you want to do is start your seeds, and plant them outside, only for them to be exposed to temperatures that will more than likely lead to their untimely demise. 

If you aren’t sure when the last average frost date is for your area, you can ask an experienced gardening neighbor, an employee at your local gardening shop, or there are many charts and calculating tools that are easily accessible online.

Once you know it, look to see how many weeks before your last average frost date it is suggested for you to start your seeds. Some places where you can look to find out when it’s suggested that you should start your seeds are on the seed packet, or on the seed company or the seed catalog’s website. 

Use your last average frost date to calculate when to start your seeds. You can count back from your last average frost date yourself, or you can use an online seed starting calculator like this one. All you have to do is enter your last average frost date and it will make a suggestion for when you should start your specific seeds. 

Following these suggestions allows your seeds to start germinating while giving the soil an adequate amount of time to warm-up and be able to provide a sustainable environment where your seedlings will continue to develop and grow. 

Most seeds won’t germinate until the soil reaches a certain temperature and most summer vegetables like soil temperatures to be between 55 and 65 degrees fahrenheit.

The actual date of the last spring frost varies yearly, so the “average last spring frost date” is technically an educated guess. But, it gives you a great starting point.

Is it Too Early to Plant Seeds?

It is commonly advised that you should start your seeds four to six weeks before your last average frost date. This varies slightly between plant species. Consult your seed packet or catalog website for each seed’s individual suggestion. 

When it comes to starting seeds, your ultimate goal is for your seedlings to be mature enough to be planted outside when both the soil temperature and the weather are favorable for them.

What Will Happen If I Start Seeds Too Soon?

when to start seeds

If you start your seeds too soon, you will likely end up with larger plants that are ready to go outside far before weather permits.

You may wind up having to repot your plants into bigger pots multiple times before they are finally able to be planted in the ground. 

Your seedlings may be leggy and spindly from being started at a time when there wasn’t enough light in the day, or from reaching for the light. Unfortunately, leggy, spindly seedlings don’t make for sturdy, top producing transplants. 

They are also at risk of being exposed to temperatures that are intolerable for your young plants and seedlings, or to soil that isn’t warm enough for them to survive.

Many plants do not tolerate cooler temperatures. Exposing them to chilly air or cold soil will be stressing to them. Stressed out plants are more susceptible to pests and disease. 

Plus, planting too early can cause wilting, surface pitting, foliage necrosis, andincreased susceptibility to disease. It can stunt growth and can prevent roots from developing.

What Should I Do If I Started My Seeds Too Early?

when to start seeds

Once you notice that your seedlings are leggy, spindly, and weak, there isn’t much you can do to turn them into a top producing plant. 

You can try transplanting them once your soil has warmed enough (ideally into black plastic, like this). Unfortunately, your best bet is often to start over and try again by starting a new set of seeds. 

Another option is to repot your seedlings into a slightly larger container. When you do this, bury as much of the stem as you can without burying the leaves. This may save your seeds, although it doesn’t always work.

If it is early enough, you may still be able to salvage your growing season. 

It is actually better to start your seeds late, than it is for you to start them early. 

Seed Starting Tips

when to start seeds

If you’re wondering if it’s better to start seeds indoors or outdoors, make sure you check out this article on how to build a germination station! It will give you all the information you need. 

Otherwise, when your seedlings are almost ready to go outside, you need to prepare them for the transition by “hardening off.”

It is not in your, or your seedling’s best interest to be directly planted from the inside of your home, to your outdoor garden. 

This process involves gradually exposing your plants to the elements. This will allow them to get acclimated and will prepare them for the experience of growing outdoors. Over the course of six to ten days, start by opening your windows. 

Then, place your seedlings outside in a protected area during the day and bring them in at night. Slowly increase the amount of time you expose your seedlings to the elements every day. Make judgement calls based on the temperature and precipitation. Plants that aren’t properly hardened off are much more susceptible to sunburn, windburn, and breakage.

Keep a journal and make note of which plants were too big or too small at planting time. Note the details of your indoor growing set-up, your starting times, and your transplanting schedule. That way, you can make adjustments and improvements next year based on this year’s experiences. 

Make sure you know whether or not your seeds need any pre-planting preparation before starting. For example, some seeds need to spend a month in the refrigerator before starting. This information will likely be listed on the seed packet, in the seed catalog, or on their website.

What is the Cheapest and Best Way to Start Seeds Indoors?

when to start seeds

Consider using grow lights in your indoor seed starting set-up. These grow lights are fantastic and can really speed up your time to germination. A heat mat can also help increase the time it takes to go from seed to seedling. 

Another benefit of using LED grow lights (despite their initial start-up cost) is that your seeds don’t become leggy as they creep toward the only available light in the window.

A great way to stay organized is to sort your seed packets by the number of weeks they 

take for germination and whether or not they are seeds you will be starting indoors, or will be directly-sown.

You may also want to look at a planting calendar like this to get an idea of the best planting times for your vegetable type and growing zone. 

Transplanting times may require adjustments based on growing conditions where you start them. For example, if you start your seeds in a cool basement, you may need to add a week or two to when you plant them outside. 

Or if you start them in a warm bedroom, you may need to subtract a week or two to when you transplant them. Heat promises rapid growth. 

Some types of vegetables, such as beans and squash, are best started outdoors. They have fragile roots and don’t transplant well. Be sure to consult your seed packet, catalog, or company website for whether they are best started indoors or outdoors.

Most plants are ready to go outside four to six weeks after you start the seeds.

How Long Does it Take Seeds to Sprout Indoors?

when to start seeds

Be patient! Your seeds will be up before you know it. In most cases, it takes three to fourteen days for seeds to sprout indoors – but this can vary. 

Either way, starting your seeds indoors is a great way to get a “head start” on your growing season and to help ensure that you have crops to harvest before the first frost of winter.

Be sure you know when your last average frost date is for your area. Cconsult the seed packet, catalog, or company website for when it is suggested that you start your seeds. 

The timing of indoor seed starting, sowing, and transplanting is paramount and is individual to each plant. Improper timing will more than likely detrimentally affect the timing of your harvest and the amount of crops you yield.  

But while the idea of potential failure can feel intimidating, don’t let that deter you from getting your hands in some soil and starting your seeds. Even seasoned gardeners sometimes have to start over after a set of seedlings weren’t worthy of transplanting. 

The best way to get better is to get started! So go get yourself some seed packets, wait until the timing is right, and get to gardening! 

Do you start seeds indoors? Have any good tips? Let us know in the comments!

Stephanie Maguire is a freelance writer. After transitioning from a diet of predominantly highly processed, pre-packaged products to a lifestyle that is “whole food, plant-based & gluten free,” Stephanie reversed multiple mounting health concerns, lost 110 pounds, and discovered a passion for the healing power of plants!

Now she’s a plant-powered mama on a mission to share her plant-based-plates so you too can feel great and be living the life of your dreams!

You can read more about her story, and see her plant based plates on her website, Crunchy Veggie Mama.

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Author: Rebekah PierceI'm a writer and small farm owner, and lover of everything outdoors. I'm hoping to share my passion for farming, gardening, and homesteading with you on my blogging journey.

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