Columns | Daily Chronicle

Growing for tomorrow: Tips for sowing seeds indoors – and out – ahead of the growing season

Editor’s note: This is the February installment of a monthly column written by the city of DeKalb’s Citizens Environmental Commission that focuses on increased awareness of issues such as promoting projects and ordinance changes involved in recycling, reducing energy consumption, and planting native habitat.

A seed. The promise of tomorrow. Of beauty. And, of food. But how do we successfully nurture these seeds to productive maturity?

Let’s begin by assisting their germination and juvenile progression.

Some plant varieties are grown for food, some for beauty and others for both. Both annual and perennial plants can be started from seed. We focus here on annual fruit, vegetable and ornamental varieties. These plants will grow to maturity in one growing season and set seeds of their own before dying with the onset of cold weather.

As DeKalb is in USDA hardiness zone 5, annual varieties that require a long growing season to reach maturity are best started indoors from seed and transplanted outside after danger of frost has passed. Some of the most popular of these are tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower.

In order to successfully start seeds indoors, you will need to provide a growing medium, water, light and often heat.

Preformulated seed growing mixes are sold locally at home goods stores and garden centers. Soil containers can be anything from preformed plastic trays and peat pots to empty food containers and eggshells. It is very important to provide proper drainage or the roots of your young seedlings will be deprived of oxygen.

The growing medium of the seedlings should never be allowed to completely dry out. However, it is very easy to accidentally overwater your plants. Place a clear cover over the planters before germination to contain moisture. After sprouting, only water when the surface of the soil begins to dry. Water the planters from the bottom or, if watering from the top, take care not to wet the leaves as this can lead to mold or bacterial infection.

Either bright natural sunlight or light bulbs that simulate sunlight is imperative to the proper growth of new seedlings. At least eight hours of direct light is required for strong, robust growth.

Several seed varieties need bottom heat for best germination results. Heat can be provided by using commercially available seed germination heating mats or even a floor register.

After the danger of frost has passed, usually after Memorial Day in our area, when your seedlings can safely be transferred outdoors – beware! Seedlings grown indoors must be “hardened off” before the final transition can be made.

Gradually acclimate your seedlings to direct sunlight: 20 minutes for the first couple of days, 40 the next, then an hour, etc. Daylong direct sunlight will damage or destroy indoor-grown seedlings without this gradual adjustment.

Many annual plant varieties do not require an indoor head start and are best directly sown in the garden, typically after the danger of frost has passed. These include most leafy greens, radishes, corn, beans, carrots, beets, and parsnips.

Before planting the seeds, be sure the soil has been well loosened and fertilizers have been applied. Each seed variety has certain sowing, fertilizing and watering requirements, therefore it’s best to read each seed packet and/or vendor descriptions.

Planting season is just around the corner. Happy growing!

Come see us on Thursday, February 23, at 7 p.m. in the Yusunas Family Room at the DeKalb Public Library, 309 Oak St., for our presentation “What Tree Should I Plant in My Backyard?”

Please visit the Citizens’ Environmental Commission at and the city of DeKalb Facebook page.

  • Rachel Farrell is a member of the city of DeKalb’s Citizens’ Environmental Commission.