Spring has officially sprung, even if the best way you can appreciate it right now is by opening your window and looking at the buds starting to sprout on your neighboring trees. For those of us with yards, gardening is a great way to get out in nature and de-stress—but even if you don’t, you can still grow your own food from scratch. In fact, seed starting is the perfect indoor activity.
All you need is a container, potting soil, some seeds, and a sunny spot to keep them, and within a few weeks you can enjoy garden-fresh herbs or vegetables grown in the comfort of your own home. We asked Ryan McCallister, personal gardener to Martha Stewart, how even a plant novice can get it done. Follow his step-by-step guide, and you’ll be the proud owner of a brand-new basil plant (or lettuce plant or cilantro plant, and so on) in no time.
Find a Sunny Spot
Before you plant your first seeds, you need to figure out exactly where you’re going to keep them. McCallister recommends a place in your home that gets a good amount of sunlight, but not so much that the plants will get overheated. You’ll also want to make sure they’re not too close to radiators or air-conditioning units.
Gather Your Containers
For most plants, plastic, ceramic, and clay pots are all fine to work with—as long as your vessel has drainage holes, you’ll be good to go. But when you’re starting with seeds, you have the option to plant in a smaller container (think: cut-up paper towel tubes, egg cartons, or shallow takeout trays), before moving the sprouts to a bigger pot or trough. McCallister recommends this method in particular for herbs, because it helps prevent them from getting overwatered. The only seeds that shouldn’t be started with this method are root vegetables, like turnips and carrots.
Select Your Seeds
Now for the fun part: Picking what to plant. When you’re only growing indoors, McCallister suggests sticking to herbs and vegetables—flowers tend to fare better outside. Growing a whole tomato plant from a seed might be more of a challenge, but smaller vegetables like lettuce, small carrots, radishes, peppers, and onions are great options for beginners.
Herbs are divided into two categories: soft herbs (anything with an edible stem, like basil, parsley, dill, and cilantro) and woody herbs (anything with a branch-like stem, like rosemary). Soft herbs are the easiest to start from seeds, while woody herbs require a bit more work (with the exception of thyme, which is slow but unfussy).
Leave the dirt in your yard or local park alone—to grow from seeds, you’ll need potting soil, which is light enough for the tiny seedlings to push through. If you can get seed-starting soil, which is even finer, that’s better but not absolutely necessary.
Different seeds require different amounts of coverage, but one thing is true for all: Spacing is key. “Most people tend to plant more than they should,” says McCallister. For vegetables, it’s helpful to think about what the plant looks like when it’s fully grown, then space out seeds accordingly. One seed yields one crop—a whole head of lettuce, a carrot, an onion—so you don’t need to use your entire seed packet.
For herbs, you can use a few more seeds. McCallister recommends spacing them out, but sprinkling them in small clusters of about five seeds, like you’d sprinkle salt on food. “You can always plant a few extras—after you see what sprouts and what doesn’t, you can pull out any excess,” he says.
If you’ve planted your seeds in smaller containers, let them grow a few more weeks before the seedlings are sturdy enough to transplant into bigger pots—just scoop them out with a spoon or pop them out of their container to place them in a larger one.
Every plant has its own watering preference, and every plant parent has their own personality, but most fall into two categories: “Some people forget and never water their plants, and others water them every five minutes,” says McCallister. The latter is actually worse—it’s hard (often impossible) to revive an overwatered plant. The key is practicing patience and paying attention to what your plant really needs. “Pretend they’re a baby,” adds McCallister. “And just watch them grow.”
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