Starting Seeds

This is the second in a series on gardening tips for success.

By Linda Belles

Last month, I covered the essential equipment needed to start seeds indoors. Because the right equipment is critical to starting seeds indoors, I recommend reading that post before continuing – click here.

You have your equipment, potting mix, and seeds. Now for the how-to information to make starting seeds a success.

Best sources on the internet

There are many sources of advice for the basics of seed starting on the internet, and over the years, I have gravitated to certain websites time and time again. You can’t go wrong with these two!

University Extension Office

Every state has a public university extension office dedicated to serving homeowners and farmers with advice from lawn care and vegetable gardens to large agricultural farms. In Lake and McHenry Counties in Illinois, the extension office can be found at

This video from U of I Extension covers basic seed starting and, as a bonus, utilizes everyday household items.

Johnny's Selected Seed

Whether you are new at gardening or a professional market farmer, this company is a go-to source for growing information. Because the company is in Maine, much of their advice translates well to north-eastern Illinois.

Pitfalls to avoid

Tip #1: Knowing when to start seeds and following recommended growing instructions

Plants, while adaptable, are a bit like Goldie Locks when it comes to being seedlings. Too hot, they don’t germinate; too cold, they germinate slowly or not at all. Timing is critical too. Start too soon, and you risk large seedlings suffering from being in their small pots too long; too late, and they won’t be big enough to transplant when the weather warms up. Johnny’s Selected Seeds has a handy calculator that takes the guesswork out of when to start seeds. But you’ll need one critical piece of information: the last frost date in your area.

For NE Illinois, that date is the end of April, but delaying until after Mother’s Day is recommended due to cold easterly breezes off chilly Lake Michigan that are prominent in spring. Tomatoes and peppers are not planted outdoors until June because these plants prefer nighttime temperatures of 60 degrees or warmer.

As mentioned earlier, learning the best temperature for germination goes a long way to early seedling success. If you give seeds optimal growing conditions, they pay you back with outstanding growth.

Tips #2: Proper watering

You followed the advice from Johnny’s or U of I Extension and have planted your seeds. Hurray! Now starts the process of germination, where you discover if the seeds you have are viable and if they will grow successfully without damping off. The number one killer of seedlings is a group of fungi known as “damping off disease.” The fungus is usually in the soil or can be introduced through unsanitized containers and tools. Keeping the soil moist but not overly wet is key to minimizing the risk of the fungus. Also, using a germination dome is good for keeping humidity high for germination, but don’t leave it on too long once the seeds sprout or the risk of fungus attacking the seedlings rises substantially. To read more about damping off, see this article from University of Minnesota Extension.  

Tip #3: Correct temperature for germination and early growth

I’ve already touched on this in tip #1, but it bears repeating. All vegetables and herbs have their preferred temperature for germination and early growth. Once again, Johnny’s Selected Seeds has all the best growing information in one place.

I had no success growing amaranth microgreens, with every attempt ending with fungus, no matter how much care I gave to sterilizing trays and soil. Then I checked Johnny’s recommendations to find I should have used a mat to keep them at a higher temperature. Small details like this can make all the difference between success and failure.

Just remember there are no gardening mistakes, only experiments.

Take time to learn what each seed needs, and you will be rewarded with beautiful, tasty vegetables that nourish your body. 

Happy Growing!

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