The Co-op recently received a nice email from Erin who asked about starting seedlings indoors. She wrote, "I've gardened for many years, but have never had a set up to start my own seedlings. I'm curious about how to create a seed-starting setup without investing a ton of money." Well Erin, I absolutely love starting my own vegetable and annual seeds indoors and wouldn't miss an opportunity to write about it. Thanks for the question.
I have addressed this many times on my blog because there are many experienced gardeners who haven't ventured into starting their own seedlings. I think this is a shame because they are missing out on great joy. Starting your own seeds gives you total control over your plants and can give you a real jump on the season. There's not much else I'd rather be doing in late Winter/early Spring than tending my baby plants - an entire garden represented on one table!
So why do people shy away from starting their seeds indoors? Most of the time I think it is due to space restrictions and the belief that it is complicated and expensive. I am here to tell you that it can be very simple and inexpensive, and doesn't even have to take up much space.
There are many fancy and expensive light stands, hydroponic setups, special grow light bulbs, fixtures and assorted seed-starting products on the market these days. I'm sure that many of these work well, but you don't need any of them to have a successful setup. There are probably many ways to raise seedlings indoors. I have been raising virtually all of my vegetables from seed inside for many years. I have tried many things and made many mistakes over the years but have simplified my system to one that works well for me.
So what do you need to get started with a simple seed-starting setup? A simple cheap fluorescent shop-light fixture (or several) and somewhere to hang it (them). For many years I grew all of my seeds on an old table in the basement with light fixtures hanging from the ceiling like this:
When space was an issue, I hung a light above a small shelf in the laundry room:
With these set-ups, I took the lights down after the outdoor growing season was in full swing. Now, I dedicate one side of our basement to lights and keep them up all year long:
I built a double-decker table on one side from an old kitchen table and scrap wood.
This provides me with plenty of growing space... except when my extra-early tomatoes are just about ready to be moved outside. That's when it gets a bit crowded:
So I admit that my set-up has grown to be pretty large. I raise hundreds of plants with this system, but if you are new at this, you probably only need to find space for one or two lights. Let's go over your minimum requirements and some helpful tips to get you started.
I use standard cheap light fixtures with regular 40-watt fluorescent light bulbs. There is no need to worry about grow-bulbs or full-spectrum bulbs. I have found that there are three keys to making regular bulbs work as well as the expensive ones. First of all, you need to use new bulbs even if you have some old bulbs that are still working. Fluorescent bulbs get dimmer as they age. We don't notice this until they are about to burn out but the plants DO notice. We are substituting these bulbs for the sun so they have to be as bright as possible.
The second tip is to keep the lights very close to the plants. If you feel uncomfortable about how close the top leaves of your plants are to the lights, then you are doing well. I keep the lights as close to the plants as I can without touching them (actually it is even okay if some of the leaves do touch the bulbs from time to time).
This is why I like to hang the lights with chains. I move the light fixtures up a little at a time as the plants grow. I simply put toggle-bolt hooks in the ceiling above the lights to hang the chains on.
If you don't want to put hooks in the ceiling and you are handy, you could build a wood frame to hang the light from. I once hung the lights from under a table and put the seed trays on the floor.
The third tip about the lights is to leave them on for a long time each day but not continuously. 16 to 18 hours of light per day is not too much but they do need some amount of "night". I turn mine on when I wake up each morning and off when I go to bed. I do not recommend using an automatic timer to turn the lights on and off. I used to do that but my plants suffered greatly. The plants need to be watered regularly so I found that if I have to manually control the lights, that is two times per day that I am forced to visit my plants and notice when they need water.
Speaking of watering, this is another area where people sometimes have problems. I have found that it is best to bottom water. You should use something with holes in the bottom as pots and some sort of seed tray or pan with no holes to put the pots in. To water, simply pour water in the tray and let the plants roots and soil wick up the water. Re-usable plastic cell packs or homemade newspaper pots work well for this. The plants stay healthier if the leaves do not get wet.
Another good option to use for pots is not to use them at all - if you have a soil block maker that is. This eliminates the pot entirely but bottom watering is more difficult. I like to use soil blocks to start tender rooted vegetables like beans and corn.
The soil mix that I use for the blocks is the same as what I use in all of the pots - a peat based "soil-less" mix. This is the only real expense that I have each year. Plain potting soil is not porous enough for seed starting combined with bottom watering. If I don't have any of the bagged soil starting mix, I will combine equal parts potting soil and peat moss.
What about germination and timing?
Most seeds need warmth to germinate and I often start my seeds when the basement is still pretty cold. There are heat mats on the market that I'm sure would work well but I don't own any. If you don't want to buy anything like that you will need to help your seeds stay warm until germination. I use trays with the clear plastic lids that form a mini-greenhouse. If I am out of that type of tray, I put plastic wrap over the pots. Then I put my trays in the laundry room where the clothes dryer and the furnace keeps them nice and toasty. The top of the refrigerator or on top of a heated fish tank would work as well. You can be creative but you must provide your newly planted seeds some sort of steady heat. Keep watching for the seedlings to sprout so you can move them to the lights as soon as they emerge.
Also, be careful not to plant too early! This is usually the eager gardener's biggest mistake. Make sure you know when you plan to move the plants outdoors and the growth habit of each kind of plant you are raising. Research the recommended seed-to-transplant time for each vegetable or flower. For instance, tomatoes should only be under lights for 4 to 6 weeks before transplanting and you shouldn't transplant them outside until all danger of frost has passed. In my area, the average last frost is May 15th. That means that I should wait to sow main season tomatoes until mid-April. If you start too early, your plants will get spindly and root-bound. If you have to keep the plants inside longer than you planned, you may need to transplant them to larger pots which of course takes up more space.
Now, If you have never tried starting your own seeds indoors with florescent lights, I hope the length of this post doesn't make it look too complicated. I love managing the plants under lights. For me it is great fun. It is especially rewarding because I know that I can truly raise organic vegetables. I get to control the plants' environment from start to finish and have many more choices of heirloom varieties. It is also fun to grow seedlings because I get a chance to get my hands dirty when it is still too cold to dig in the outdoor garden.
I would recommend any gardener give seed-starting a try. What about you? If you already raise seedlings indoors, do you agree with me?
If you haven't done it before, does it sound interesting? Do you have questions that weren't covered in this post? Also, remember that even if your warm growing season is already in full swing, you could start more cool season veggies inside to transplant towards the end of the season. Wow, this gets me excited!
Happy gardening and keep growing!