Cheap and easy seed starting
Many plants – especially edibles and annual flowers – are easy to start from seed. And you don’t need a greenhouse, an $800 multi-tiered lighting unit or even special “grow lights” to do it. Ordinary fluorescent workshop lights, a bag of seed-starting mix and a few recycled materials scavenged from around the house are the main ingredients needed. Seed-starting not only saves money but gives you the plants you want exactly when you want them. Interested in white tomatoes or Israeli melons? You’ll have access to just about anything you can imagine in one seed catalog or another.
Here’s the process:
- Determine when to start what. Pick the date you want to set your transplants in the garden, then count backward. Some plants are more cold-tolerant than others and so can be started sooner (cabbage, broccoli, parsley, lettuce).
Look on the seed packs for sprouting and growing times of each variety. Add the time to sprout (generally 5 to 20 days), time to grow to transplantable size (6 to 10 weeks) and time to gradually get transplants used to the outside before planting (7 to 10 days). Subtract that total from the desired planting date to come up with your inside start date.
- Gather some margarine tubs, cut-off milk containers, yogurt cups or similar kitchen discards to serve as seed-starting containers. Wash them and drill 6 or 8 holes in the bottom for drainage.
Fill each container two-thirds full with seed-starting mix or vermiculite from the garden center. Scatter the seeds and lightly cover with more seed-starting mix or vermiculite. The seed packets will tell you ideal planting depths. (Note: Some seeds sprout best when pressed into the surface – not covered at all.)
- Set the containers on a $2 plastic seedling tray from the garden center or on cleaned, recycled foam trays from store-bought meat. Gently sprinkle the seeded containers with water until the seed medium is saturated and water drains out the bottom.
- Cover the containers with plastic wrap (recycled is fine) to make an improvised mini-greenhouse. Set the trays on top of the refrigerator or near a sunny window. Seed packets again will tell you ideal sprouting temperatures for each variety.
- Rewet the medium by adding water to the trays if the containers start to dry before the seeds are up. Once the first set of leaves have opened, use a pencil or other pointy object to lift each seedling out and into individual pots.
Recycled cell packs or plastic pots from past purchases are good options, so long as you’ve washed them well and soaked them in a 10-percent bleach solution for 15 minutes to kill off any diseases. Use high-quality and slightly pre-moistened potting mix in these pots. Don’t scrimp on cheap, heavy potting soil that too often leads to rot. Label each pot and set them in plastic seedling trays.
Alternative: Some seed-starters go with a one-step approach and start their seeds right in the cell packs and pots where they’ll grow. If you go that route, use scissors to snip off extra seedlings that pop up.
- Set the trays under fluorescent workshop lights. You don’t need high-powered plant lights for young seedlings that are going outside in a matter of weeks. Hang the lights from chains and hooks so you can adjust the height as the seedlings grow. For best results, keep the lights 2 or 3 inches above the plants. Build your own seed-starting “tower” out of scrap lumber and plywood, if you’d like.
- Add water with quarter- to half-strength fertilizer to the trays. A balanced fertilizer, such as 20-20-20, is fine. The soil will soak up the solution. This “bottom watering” is better than dumping water over top of tender seedlings. When the tray goes dry and becomes noticeably lighter, add more water with quarter-strength fertilizer to the tray.
- Run the lights for 14 to 16 hours per day. Save work by investing in an ordinary light timer ($10 or less). Ideally, use one cool-white and one warm-white tube in each fixture. Seedlings grow stockiest at temperatures around 50 degrees – close to what you might find in an unheated basement.
- When the seedlings hit transplant size, take them outside to “harden off.” This means gradually giving them more and more light and outdoor time each day over a 7- to 10-day period. At that point, you’re ready to plant.
Some of the easiest plants to start from seed inside:
Vegetables/herbs: Basil, broccoli, cabbage, cantaloupe, cauliflower, cucumber, eggplant, leek, lettuce, onion, pepper, Swiss chard, tomato, watermelon.
Annual flowers: Ageratum, alyssum, celosia, cleome, cornflower, cosmos, dahlia, gloriosa daisy, hollyhock, impatiens, marigold, nicotiana, petunia, phlox, salvia, snapdragon, vinca, zinnia.