If you have never started tomatoes and peppers from seed because you think it will be too difficult, this how-to guide is for you.  Read how easy it is to get professional results by starting your peppers and tomatoes from seed yourself.

Why Start Peppers And Tomatoes From Seed?

I love to start peppers and tomatoes myself from seed.  For me, there are a few primary reasons to do it.

  • Goodbye Winter - I live in a place with a real Winter.  Starting seeds indoors several weeks before my last frost date is a great way for me to start my garden before I can really go outside.  You could say I keep up my sanity this way, and in some years with especially long Winters this can be particularly important.
  • Variety, Variety - When I start my own peppers and tomatoes from seed I get to pick from literally hundreds of varieties.  In fact, my first point is enhanced here, because I start shopping for my seeds in January after the new year has passed.  I don't mind telling you that shopping for seed in catalogs and on the internet is as much fun as planting them.
  • Heirloom Varieties - When I buy my seed I can not only get anything I want, I have an extensive choice of heirloom varieties that I can pick from.  Heirloom means open pollinated.  And if that didn't help, open pollinated means the seeds have not been messed with in a lab.  They are pure, old strains of the plants, that will produce seeds to reproduce themselves.  Most of what you buy at the nursery are hybrid, which means that they were bred in the lab for various reasons.  It also means they won't produce a seed that will produce another copy of the plant.  Most importantly of all, in my opinion, heirloom varieties just taste better.
  • Save Money - Well, maybe we're splitting hairs here, but it depends on how you shop.  When I start my own peppers and tomatoes from seed I can choose to grow 2 of everything and save the seeds for next year.  This year I am growing 2 each of 8 different varieties of peppers and 1 each of 8 different varieties of heirloom tomato.  I have a small garden but I want variety.  If I go to the nursery I will have to buy at least a 6 pack of plants which is a waste for me.  That pack of plants will cost more than my packet of seeds which will serve me for a few years.

Supplies You Will Need

Before I list the supplies I want you to know that I want you to be successful here.  If you follow my advice I think you will have success.  You can try to grow these near a window but you will be much happier if you have a light.  Trust me.

Here are the supplies that you need to get professional results.

  • Hanging Shop Light - This is just your standard flourescent shop light.  I use a brand that is slightly wider than normal.  Don't get the narrowest one.  You want to be able to put a flat of plants under it sideways and have light hit the outside plants so they grow straight.
  • T8 bulbs - Get 32 watt T8 bulbs at 6500 kelvin.  Look for this number specifically, 6500 kelvin.  That is the brightness of the light the bulb produces.  Manufacturers will call this all sorts of cute things but just get the standard, inexpensive 6500 kelvin bulbs and you'll be fine.  You most likely need 2 for each shop light you bought.
  • Electric Timer - This is the thing that plugs into an electrical socket and can turn something like a lamp on and off automatically at night.  We'll use it for our plants to simulate day from night.  You can do without it but I wouldn't.  I'm a die-hard seed starter and even I forget to flip the lights on and off sometimes.  This timer will make it foolproof.
  • Planting Flats - These are the plastic, usually black, trays that you can put individual planting cells into.  They are very inexpensive at your garden center.  Get enough to span the length of your flourescent light plus one.  For me, I can fit 3 under my lights so I need 4.  
  • Planting Pots - Get as many 2.5 inch pots as you need to plant what you are about to plant.  I buy these by the hundred but I do wash them and use them year after year, so I don't buy more every year.  Get the deeper ones.  Mine are 3 1/2 inches tall.  That height is important so we ca avoid transplanting the plants.
  • Vermiculite - Grab a big bag of vermiculite.  Don't worry if you can only find a big one.  It lasts forever and you'll use it again next year.
  • Peat Moss - Grab a big bag of peat moss, the same amount as your vermiculite.  Again, you can store it until next year.
  • Seeds - I guess we'll need these.  You may have a great local option in the Winter where you live for but most people this will mean a catalog or the internet.  Shop around, read reviews, and place your order.
  • Mist Sprayer - Get a squirt bottle that can spray a mist.  You can find these in garden centers or even near the hair supply section.  This is an invaluable tool early in the life of a seed.
  • Heat Mat - I'll call this optional, but it's a great option.  These are a little spendy so maybe you just want to grab one every year until you have a few.  These will speed germination and make your young peppers especially happy in their first few weeks.

Set Up Your Growing Area

Now that you have you supplies and are ready to sow some seed, let's first get your growing area ready.  Find a spot in your house that is not too cold and let's get your light set up.

Your shop light should have come with chains to hang it.  I won't go into detail how to do that since you'll have instructions based on your model but I will say this.  If you don't have a good place to hang it consider grabbing a few 2x4s and building a rudimentary light holder.  I made a quick frame out of 2x4 with a board about 2 feet over the bottom.  On that I screwed in a couple of hooks so that I could hang the chain on it.

Install your lights in your fixture, hang your fixture, plug it into the timer, and plug the timer into your outlet. 

Next, set your timer so that it will turn on your shop light for at least 14 hours per day.  I turn mine on from about 6AM to 8PM.  Once you have done this, you are ready to plant.

tomatoes on vine

Step By Step Process To Start Peppers And Tomatoes From Seed

Before you read on, know that I am trying to keep this simple.  You could start earlier and re-pot your tomatoes once or twice and they will not mind.  I just don't want to go to the trouble.  I may have to wait another week or two for tomatoes but I prefer it to keep my workload down.  I don't like fighting really big tomatoes in my basement.

Another thing you want to know here is how soon to plant your seeds.  If you, like me, don't want to have these plants get too big before you can plant the outside I recommend this timing.

  • Peppers - 8 weeks before your last frost date
  • Tomatoes - 6 weeks before your last frost date

Here is the process to use.

  1. Mix The Soil - Get a big mixing bowl, add equal parts vermiculite and peat, and mix well.
  2. Dampen The Soil - Add water and mix your soil until it is damp.  It should not be wet, just damp.  When you touch it you should be able to tell there is water in it but not be able to really squeeze water out of it.
  3. Fill The Pots - Read this whole section before you fill.  Fill your pots with soil, leaving enough room for the 1/8 to 1/4 inch of soil that you'll need to put on top of your seeds.  The trick here is to fill the bottom half first and pack it in moderately.  You want the soil to be pressed right to the bottom because we want to water these plant from the bottom and we don't want big air pockets down there.  Then, fill the rest of the way without packing tightly. 
  4. Plant The Seeds - Put 2-3 seeds in each pot.  Spray a light mist of water on them now.  Put a little dirt on top according to the seed packet.  Usually 1/4 inch is good.
  5. Set Pots Under The Light - Put the pots in the flats.  Put the clear tops of the flats or clear plastic wrap if you don't have tops over the pots so they won't loose moisture quickly.  Put the flats on top of the heat mat (if you have one) under the light.
  6. Adjust The Light - Adjust the light so that it is about 2 inches over the pots.
  7. Mist Now And Then - Every day, check the soil surface.  If it seems to be drying out at all, go ahead and mist it but never water your plants from the top with a watering can.  Never.  In fact, put your watering can away.  We don't need it.
  8. Remove The Top - Once the seeds have appeared and you think most are out, remove the top.  You can probably be done misting the surface now.
  9. Water - Read this whole section first.  Water the pots when they a pretty much dried out.  Don't water a wet pot.  It is far better to let them get fairly dry between watering.  Here's how you water these pots.  Fill the spare flat with water.  Then, set the pots into that flat so that they drink the water from the bottom.  Never water the top of your seedlings.  Give it 15-20 minutes until you can tell that they are much heavier when you lift them up (which means they have taken a good drink) and move them back to their own flat.  You should not leave them in the tray long enough for the surface to look wet.
  10. Remove Heat - Once tomato seedlings have been up for a week or two they won't really care about the heat and, in fact, might prefer that it stop.  Your peppers may like it a bit longer but to keep it simple I'd say just remove the heat after 2 weeks.
  11. Fertilize - Once you have gotten into a cycle of watering from the bottom only when they have gotten fairly dry you can add fertilizer to this routine.  You should be watering only about once per week, so you can add fertilizer to the water bath every 2-3 weeks.  You'll know when they want it at first because they will sprout and grow but then start to lack a rich green color.  That's when you fertilize first and you'll see the difference a week later.  I just use Miracle Grow for tomatoes for both tomatoes and peppers and mix it as I would for a watering can.
  12. Agitate - I don't mean make them mad.  I mean use your hand to lightly brush them.  Start this after they have start to put out their first set of true leaves and keep doing it as often as every day.  Just brush your hand along the top back and forth.  This will cause your seedlings to grow a much stronger stem system as it will simulate natural wind.  If you skip this step, expect your plants to be a bit weaker. 
  13. Plant - You can plant any time after your last frost date.  Tomatoes can go out after your last frost date but I'd check the 10 day forecast first.  For peppers, they will appreciate being inside for a couple more weeks.  They like it hot.  Plant your peppers at the level they were in the pot or just a bit deeper.  Plant your tomatoes deep.  By that I mean, feel free to bury the first set or two of leaves.  Tomatoes will root out all along the buried stem and will be stronger for it, so heed this advice.

Good luck!  I hope you will have great success and find that your Spring starts in January like mine from now on.