Starting Seeds Indoors Without Grow Lights

Pass it along!

You CAN start your own seeds! And do it in a simple and inexpensive way. We’ll teach you the in’s and out’s of starting seeds indoors without grow lights.

One of the simple joys of gardening for us is putting a tiny seed in soil, watching it sprout, take root, grow, and produce delicious food all season long. There’s nothing complex about it. You’re just letting nature do it’s thing, and enjoying the beauty and bounty along the way!

How our simple seed starting method began.

On our farmstead, we like to keep things basic. The less tools and equipment we need the less cluttered our life will be and the more we’ll be engaged with each other and the work of our hands. Whenever we attempt something new, we try to find the most frugal and simplified way to go about it.

So, when it came to attempting to start our own seeds for our garden several years ago, we were quickly turned off by all that might be entailed. Grow lights, greenhouses, heat pads. Just continuing to buy seedlings was seeming more and more appealing.

At one point we did get a small plastic greenhouse as a gift. That spring we set it up and attempted to start seeds in it. Temperatures were difficult to regulate. Pair that with a questionable seed starting mix purchase that seemed like a bargain and we had literally ZERO success starting any seeds that year.

After a farmer friend bailed us out with some extra seedlings that spring, we regrouped and thought that there has to be an easier way. The south facing windows in our home drew in a lot of natural sunlight – could this be enough to start seeds with? The following year we set up our seed trays in the sunniest window spot we could find, planted seeds, watered, and waited.

The seeds sprouted. The plants grew. And we used our own seedlings for our garden that year!

starting seeds indoors in trays and pots

Finding the right window to start your seeds with.

Finding the right window to start your seeds in is the first and most crucial step in the process. Your home naturally maintains the heat needed for seeds to germinate when given the right growing medium. The issue will be getting enough sunlight to your plants. 

You will want to find a south facing window location that brings in as much sunlight as possible. Find the window area that seems like the best candidate and observe the light coming through it in the morning, throughout the day, and at night. Are there trees shading where your seedlings would sit? Does anything else impede the sunlight from hitting the plants directly. You will want to make sure your plants are soaking in that sunlight for the bulk of the day.

Most homes will have a south facing window situation with enough sunlight. If you don’t, you can either get creative with rotating your seed trays to windows that are bringing in sunlight throughout the day, or consider other options like grow lights.

spraying seed trays with water

What do I need for starting seeds indoors without grow lights?

The great news is you don’t need much!

Seed Trays – We typically use 72-cell seed trays to start seeds in. Trays can come with more or less cells, but we’ve found the 72-cell trays to be the most universal for different plant types. You can find seed trays at most garden centers. We buy ours from Johnny’s and have found them to be durable and hold up better than the ones most stores carry.

In addition to the seed tray, you will want a fully enclosed bottom tray along with a clear top cover or dome. The seed tray will sit inside the bottom tray and keep water and soil contained to not make a mess inside. The dome is used early on for germination to trap extra heat and moisture.

Seed Starting Mix – You can either buy a premade mix in the store, or it’s really easy and cost effective you make your own seed starting mix. We show you how in our DIY Seed Starting Mix post.

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Watering Can and Spray Bottle – You will want both a watering can and spray bottle to cover your bases. I use the watering can for a deeper watering to make sure water is penetrating the entire depth of the cell. The spray bottle will help you keep things moist without over suturing your seed starting mix.

Dibble – A dibble is a super handy gardening tool that is basically a pointed metal finger that breaks up soil. I like to use it to poke my holes for planting seeds in, which keeps my hands clean. Handling tiny seeds is hard enough and having clean hands makes it SO much easier. A dibble is also great to assist in the garden with pulling out weeds or harvesting root vegetables.

Seeds – You can find vegetable seeds at many locations. We try to buy organic seeds when possible and Seed Savers Exchange has been our seed supplier of choice. Johnny’s, High Mowing, and Baker Creek are also very good options.


Don’t forget to keep detailed records!

Believe me, in a months’ time you won’t be able to tell the difference between the three different varieties of tomato plants you are growing! Have a plan before you plant a single seed and write it down. This will make the planting process go so much smoother and also help you keep track of what seeds you planted where for each tray.

keeping record or seed trays

Step by step guide to starting seeds indoors without grow lights

Step 1 – Find the best south facing window location in your home.

Step 2 – Add seed starting mix to your seed trays. We do this outdoors in a wheelbarrow to not make a mess inside. This post will show you how we do this and make our own seed starting mix.

Step 3 – Going one row at a time, plant your seeds. First read the planting instructions of the packet of the seeds you are planting. This will specify the depth at which the seed should be planted. Use your dibble to poke holes in the seed starting mix in the middle of each cell for the row of seeds you are planting. Place two seeds per whole to assure at least one will germinate. Cover seeds back up with seed starting mix, being sure not to compress it.

Step 4 – Water as needed. Seed starting mix should be moist but not saturated.

Step 5 – Place dome on top of your tray.

planting seeds indoors with kids

Other tips and care instructions

  • You should check your trays daily, if not multiple times a day. Check the moisture content and add water as needed. 
  • Remove the dome once seeds are germinated. Occasionally, I will leave the dome off for a period of time during the day even prior to germination for air circulation. Be sure to not leave the dome on too long or mildew or mold may result.
  • Consider rotating your trays every week or few days. I’ve found the rows closest to the window can get more sunlight than those further away. Rotating trays regularly helps each plant get maximum sunlight.
  • Add a couple tablespoons of apple cider vinegar to your spray bottle. This can aid both seed germination and plant growth.

seedlings planted indoors

What if more than one seed germinates per cell?

This will require a process called thinning. A week or two after seeds germinate, select the healthiest looking seedling from each cell and snip the other seedlings in that cell with scissors to eliminate it. The reason being that each cell is really only made to support one plant. Plus, multiple plants per cell will make transplanting a nightmare down the road after their root structures are intertwined.

If the thinning process makes you sad or seems wasteful, you are not alone. One option is to only plant one seed per cell initially. Then you run the risk of empty cells from seeds not germinating. 

As another option, I have occasionally had luck very delicately pulling out extra young seedlings I would otherwise snip and transplanting them to another cell or pot. It doesn’t always work, but I’ve been able to give many seedlings a second life this way.

seedlings popping up in seed trays

How do I prepare my seedlings for transplanting outdoors?

This will require a process called hardening off. Hardening off is the process of bringing your seedlings outdoors to get them used to wind, heat, and other elements.

7-10 days prior to transplanting, bring your seedlings outdoors. Day one of hardening off, only keep them outside for one hour, then bring them back inside. Add in 30-60 minute increments each day. If plants are thriving, increase with more time. If plants are wilty or having difficulty adjusting, increase with less time. Start in a sunny spot, but switching to a partially sunny spot may be necessary. 

After a week or so of hardening off, your seedlings will be ready to transplant outdoors!

young cabbage plants just transplanted

Are there downsides to starting your seeds indoors?

The method we have laid out for starting seeds indoors can save you a lot of upfront investment in equipment and provide a really easy and accessible approach for starting your own seeds. But are there downsides?

If you are used to buying robust seedlings from a farmer or the store, the seedlings you grow using this method may not match up. The main stem of the plant may not be quite as thick and the root system may not be as fully developed.

That said, we have still had lots of success transplanting our seedlings into our garden using this method. You may need to take a bit more delicate of an approach during transplanting to protect the plant. But our seedlings have most always taken root and grown up to be healthy and productive plants.

For us, the simplicity of this system offsets the extra care taken during transplant. That said, we do often plant a couple extra seeds from each variety than we may need in the chance of a plant not making it.

homestead vegetable garden

Time to get that garden going!

And we forgot to mention the number one rule with gardening – have fun! It is so rewarding having your seedlings indoors and being able to see their progress day by day, or ever hour by hour. They bring so much life to your living space each spring after seeing very little green all winter.

Plus, if you have kids this is such a great way to get the whole family involved in the garden and excited to grow their own food. You should have heard the shouts of joy as our daughter announced the first seedlings popping up this week. Hand off the spray bottle to the littles in your life and they’ll want to continue nurturing those plants and enjoy their fruits all through the growing season.

starting seeds in seed trays

If you take anything away from this post, let it be that you CAN garden and it doesn’t have to be complex. What methods have you tried for starting seeds? Or what questions do you have? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below!

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    1. Most of the root vegetables we plant straight into the soil – carrots, beets, potatoes, etc. We also plant lettuce and corn directly outside. The rest we pretty well plant indoors – tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, celery. Most herbs we’ll also start indoors. Basil is one we’ve done both ways and it’s grown well either way. We’ve also done kales and chard both indoors and outdoors, but try to start them indoors if we can. Hope that helps!

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