You can make this as complicated as you want with germination mats, custom plant boxes,  fancy grow lights and such, but here’s a basic (less-daunting) guide to getting your hope springing.

I use egg cartons, yogurt containers, peat pots, and "real" seed starting trays

I use egg cartons, yogurt containers, peat pots, and “real” seed starting trays

  • Containers and a seed-starting mix. Your local hardware or garden supply store — or seed catalog — will offer you an amazing variety of options. If you’re new to this, start simple. You need a container — any clean (sterile if you’ve used it before), shallow container (yogurt cups/milk cartons with holes poked in bottom, egg cartons, etc.) — will do. Seeds don’t need nutrients to germinate (they’ve got all they need packed right inside); they just need a friendly medium. Look for sterile potting mixes specifically designed for seed starting. Regular potting soil is too heavy, making it difficult for the new shoot and roots to navigate.
  • Put the potting mix in the containers and dampen with water. The mix may be dusty, so try spraying first, then add water so that all of the potting mix is damp, but not soaking.
  • Plants seeds according to package directions — generally three times the depth of the seed. That’s not very deep.
  • Label containers with seed name and planting date.
  • Cover with clear plastic — You can make a tent from plastic wrap or clear plastic bag — not too tight, let in a little air — or if you are using a seed starting system, it will come with a little dome. This forms a nice warm terrarium.

    these seeds have their plastic cover during germination. The legend tells me which plants are in which cells -- very helpful!

    these seeds have their plastic cover during germination. The legend tells me which plants are in which cells — very helpful!

  • Let there be light! Let there be warmth! To germinate, your incubating plants need to be warm (70 — 80 degrees) and once they have germinated, they need light — lots of it. If you have a terrific sunny window, or are willing to transport your seedling around the house to follow the sun, you might get by with natural sunlight. More likely, you’ll need help from another source, such as low-hanging fluorescent shop lights. No, for garden seed starting, you don’t really need that pricey grow light system, or even grow lights. I use shop lights with one cool-light bulb and one warm (or natural) light bulb. The trick is to make sure that you keep the plants close to the light source (4 — 6 inches).
  • Remove Greenhouse, Feed — Once the seedlings have germinated and have a set of true leaves, take off their greenhouse. Water as necessary to keep them from drying out completely, but not so much that the soil is always damp. This will encourage fungi to invade. Also, give them a little fertilizer (half-strength fish emulsion) once a week.
  • Transplant to larger pots as they grow. Handle very carefully, these babies are pretty delicate. Pot up gradually — you can’t go from 1-inch seed tray to a 5-inch pot so as to save time. The plants can’t use that much moisture at one time and will be struggling to get oxygen. Go from 1-inch to 2-inch and so on.
  • these tomatoes were very happy for over a month in this egg carton

    these tomatoes were very happy for over a month in this egg carton

    Air circulation, if you can. It will help the roots if there’s an occasional gentle breeze. It makes the plants believe that they need to put down strong roots to hold them in place. It also wards off fungal attacks.

  • Get Ready for Graduation Day — When the time approaches to put your charges out in the cruel world, take a few weeks to “harden off” the plants first. This means that you gradually introduce them to the conditions that they will be living in, which will be different from their very protected infancy. Take them outside for a few hours in a shady place for the first few days. Then increase the time that they are outside and increase the amount of sun to which they are exposed. At the end of about two weeks, they should be ready to face a world with full sun and strong breezes. Be sure to keep them watered during the hardening off time. Those small pots dry out much faster outside than they did inside.
  • Plant your transplants following the directions on the seed packet.