Saturday, 10 January 2009

Indoor Seed Starting doesn't have to be complicated or expensive!

Posted by Marc from Garden Desk

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!


Susan said...

Thank you for this post! My husband and I were going to try to set one of these up this weekend, so this information is so useful.

jimmycrackedcorn said...

Yes, I wholeheartedly agree with you. I had my first successful seed-starting season indoors using almost exactly the same advice you give in this post. After reading what you wrote, I now plan to replace all my bulbs for year two. Thanks for the tip!

Susan said...

I also have a question, do you water the seedlings with anything other than water ( diluted fertilizer, fish emulsion, etc) while under the grow lights?

Hot Belly Mama said...

This is a GREAT and well-written post! Unfortunately, it is still pretty complicated for me. I have 4cats that can't keep their criminal paws out of potting soil.


Marc and Renee said...

Thanks for the nice comments!

"Susan", I don't typically put any kind of fertilizer in the water for the seedlings because they are usually small and only indoors for 4 to 6 weeks. When I grow lettuce for harvesting indoors I add a liquid compost if the leaves color starts looking dull.

I understand about cats "Hot belly Mama". I now also have cats that disturb (and sometimes eat) the seedlings. This year's pictures will display a netting wrapped around my double-decker table to keep them out. Cats make this more difficult to be sure - but we love them right?

Beth said...

Thanks for this post. Do you think I could put the pots for seedlings right on top of my dryer and hang a light above it?

Do you purchase seed starting mix each season from a garden supply store?

Maureen said...

Just received my copy of 'Seed to Seed' so this is very timely...and VERY informative. I always thought it would be just too much work and expertise to start my own seedlings...but you have inspired me to do this! Now I just need to find some place to put it all :)

denise said...

That is how we do ours too. I also have mini bulbs under our kitchen counter and grow a tray of micro greens and herbs there all winter long. Use the basement for the full seed-starting trays though. Great photos!

Jen said...

Hot Belly Mama - We have 2 cats as well that would love to not only get their paws in the dirt, but to have a nice snack of the seedlings.

To solve the issue, I bought some chicken wire and some 2x2's. Cut the board into lengths the height of the chicken wire and used a stapling gun to attach the wire. Last year, my 1st year growing seeds, I just did a make shift 2 sides. The seedlings were on a table in the corner, and I could just hook the wood on 2 edges of the light and would just fold back the wire to have access to the plants. Since the wire had been in a roll it was springy and would just roll/fold back easily. This year, I'm going to make something more permanent, as I want to start more seeds and I'm going to build a shelf to fit my light.

Anonymous said...

What a good post! If we had electricity I too would try this way - however, we don't have electricity and where I live I have to start almost ALL our garden seeds and flowers - we have large south and east facing windows and we put up shelving units for my trays of seedlings. While it is not as nice as using the lights it works! We've been doing it for 17 years now and have had good success. Thanks for the post.

Carolyn said...

A great post and good timing too.

We have started our own seeds for the garden the last two years. I could never find the plants I wanted at the garden stores so we did our own. It's not hard at all, except for resisting the temptation to plant them outside too early!

All we do is put the seeds in soil (in leftover planter trays) and put them on a bench in the basement, in front of our sliding glass doors. That's it; we don't use grow lights. Last year our plant trays were on a piece of plywood on top of saw horses. We check every day for watering and to see what has sprouted, but that's about it.

Last year we grew tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, squash, butternut squash, pumpkins, and several herbs using this method. As long as your plants are in front of a south or west facing window you should be able to do with out the lights, or at least we have been able to.

Carolyn in Pennsylvania

Wife to 1, Mom to 5 said...

I'm curious to know how you mark the plants so you know what is what. When they are tiny, they all look the same to me and even when bigger, tomatoes look the same to me. Also, do you put one seed in each pot, or do you use several and thin them out? Thanks for this post! I'm taking a seed starting class today and I think I can skip it now! :)

Sara said...

Thank you for this post. We are going to start putting together our new indoor growing area within the next couple of weeks. We have the perfect shelves, just need to install the lighting. Ours is also in the basement, so this post gave me a lot of ideas. Thanks.

Chiot's Run said...

I have a small seeds starting area in my kitchen. I hung the light under the counter instead of keeping it as a bar area. I'm thinking of moving it to the basement though.

I have also found that in the summer when you want to start lettuce seeds for fall eating, placing the flats in the basement on the floor until they germinate is great. Since they like colder temps to germinate this works like a charm during those hot months.

Elliott Coleman has a great seed starting recipe in his book "Four Season Harvet" for anyone wanting to mix up their own.

Stephanie said...

Thanks! I have plans to start seeds this year. This gives me some more ideas!

Jandra said...

To Wife to 1, Mom to 5: I always use the tips of the strips from venetian blinds. Just cut them off with hobby scizzors diagonally at the size you like your labels and scribble on them with pencil or permanent marker.
For tomatoes I prefer sowing 2 seeds to each small pot (labeling each pot) and then either pinching out the smallest seedling, or transferring the seedlings each to their separate pots. Tomatoes LOVE to be transpanted two or three times before being planted out, it encourages them to grow new roots. Plant them a bit deeper each time. You'll ge tthe nicest, compactest plants.

Good luck, Jandra

Sadge said...

A couple more tips: I make my seed labeling stakes by cutting up a bleach bottle and writing on them with a Sharpie pen. I water the seeds in with a strong chamomile tea to prevent damping off, and then bottom-water after that. And I harden my seedlings off, by putting them outside a bit longer each day, before setting them out in the garden. Please dispose of your old light tubes responsibly.

PiLibrarian said...

Oh, now I'm inspired to start seedlings again! Back in the olden days (before children) I built a nifty stand out of PVC pipe, from a magazine (Organic Gardening, or similar). It held 4 trays of seedlings and 2 4 ft shoplights. That stand got dismantled to become a Halloween skeleton man :-) but surely it could be resurrected without too much trouble.

julie said...

wow...if you only knew how i had been searching for a well written and concise piece on this very subject! thanks! your post was just great! thank you!

Annette said...

An excellant article - I am looking for shop lights (used preferably) as I type. =)

Sue said...

Another option is winter sowing - haven't tried it myself (but will this year). No lights required and emphasis is on reusing materials. Here are a couple helpful links

P~ said...

Marc, Great post!
I'm actually in the process of designing a seed starting table that I'll be able to disassemble and store when I don't need it. I have a question for you. Any particlar preference in the Flourenscent bulbs? do you buy the plant gro bulbs, full sprectrum, or different types and match them up to complete the light spectrum?
Again, great post. Timely and very informative!

Chris said...

Thanks for the great post (informative and illustrative).

You got me wondering: can we start our seeds in an unheated shed?

We're in South Louisiana and our days are generally in the 50s-60s this time of year with infrequent and short-term nighttime freezes. Temps would never drop below freezing in the shed. (It's large, on a slab and facing south.)

Whadda think?

Marc and Renee said...

Thanks again for the comments. I will try to answer some of the questions.

Beth - I do purchase or make new seed starting mix each season. I don't want to risk soil borne disease by reusing existing soil. Using the top of your dryer with a light above it would work as long as you can get the light to hang low enough without getting in your way. Also, be careful not to put too much weight an the top of your dryer or it can rub against the drum and damage your dryer.

Wife to 1, Mom to 5 - I mark the pots with whatever I can recycle. Popsicle sticks work well for me. Plastic strips or vertical blinds is a good idea. When I reuse the plastic cell packs I put all of the same thing in each cell and mark it with masking tape across the cell pack. I do like to sow to or three seeds in each cell or pot like Jandra said. I then thin to the best plant. I thin by cutting the plants down with scissors instead of pulling them up to reduce stress to the roots.

Sadge is right - hardening off is important and I didn't address that in this post. You can not take your seedlings directly from the protected indoors and immediately plant them outside. They need to gradually get used to the outdoors first.

Alsakawife - Wow, no electricity - that is very admirable! She and Carolyn are right - windows can do the trick. I can't use my windows because they are small and drafty.

Sue - is a great site - very informative. I will be doing some of that with my new hoop house.

Paul - I'm sure all of the fancy bulbs are great. I'm not against them since we are mimicking the sun. I just haven't needed them and can't afford them. I have great success with simple new 40 watt bulbs. I put as much light on the plants as possible though. One light fixture is not enough for 3 or 4 seed trays like I see people try to do. When I have space enough for 2 rows of standard seed flats I will have 3 fixtures (6 bulbs) hung over them. I think that is why I don't need the full spectrum bulbs.

Chris - I think you could use your shed but I would worry about the nights getting too cold. It would probably be fine for cold tolerant plants but I'm not sure about things like tomatoes and peppers. You would want to germinate in the house first. You might also want to look into the heating mats that go under your pots. The temperature of the air is not as important as the soil temp. Also, if it is dark in there in the daytime, you could possibly reverse the light schedule so the lights would generate heat at night. I'm just brainstorming. If you try it, keep records as to what works and let us know. That would make for some good blog posts.

- Marc

Jenny Izirba said...

We have a 100-gallon empty aquarium that we were thinking of using to hold our seedlings once we get them started, as it already has a good light set up. Do you think that this might get too humid or have other gas exchange problems for the seedlings?

JessTrev said...

Thank you! I would not have realized the lights need to be able to move (duh) until it was too late! Shop light with a chain, here I come...

Anonymous said...

I was wondering if you could use a heat lamp for baby chicks? You have the light but would it possibly be too much heat coming from it? Any ideas?

Erin said...

HI Marc,
It's me, Erin who originally requested this post, and this is the weekend I'm finally making use of it. I just wanted to say thank you sooooo very much - I feel so grateful to have been able to put this question out there and gotten such a generous, informative answer. Many thanks for all you offer. Off to buy bulbs!

AK said...

Have you ever tried 'grafting' tomoato plants? I'm thinking of give that a try this year.

hank said...

For anyone needing a "cheap" heating pad for germination, I use a 15' link of tube lights ($9.00 at any Target stores), they are used for Christmas lights on banisters and such, and 2 bags of kitty litter for "sand". My growing tubs are about 15" x 24"
and 4-5" deep. Wrap the tube lights back and forth on the bottom of your growing tub and cover the lights with "sand".
This will maintain a 65-70F temp.

Heather Holm said...

Very nice ideas! I have a question about starting seeds indoors. I have them in an egg shell carton and covered with saran wrap. Should I put a light on them right away, or let them germinate first? Thanks!

rhonda jean said...

Hi Heather, you only need good light once the seed germinates and grows its first leaves. To germinate, the seed needs moisture and warmth.
Good luck.