By Julie Christensen
Whether you’re new to gardening or a seasoned pro, sooner or later, the seed starting bug will probably bite. Gardeners start seeds for a variety of reasons – to get a head start on a short growing season or to grow that obscure heirloom tomato they remember from grandma’s garden. Starting seeds yourself is also a great way to increase your plantings economically.
Among the most common plants started indoors are: annuals, including nasturtiums, petunias, marigolds, sunflowers and geraniums, as well as vegetables, like lettuce, cabbage, broccoli, tomatoes, pumpkins and cucumbers. Some vegetables and annuals, notably cucurbits, green beans, corn, peas and morning glories, don’t like to be transplanted. They should be sown outdoors after the last frost or grown in peat pots so you don’t disturb their roots.
Most seeds are pretty simple to start indoors, but they do require a little different care than those grown outdoors. First, they need light, soil-less potting mix. Garden soil is much too heavy and often contains pathogens. Most seeds need warmth to germinate, as well as moisture. Finally, young seedlings all need bright light to grow well. You’ll find – as with most gardening ventures – a huge market of commercially produced supplies for starting seeds. These products can save you time and increase your chances of success, but in many cases, you can find or make DIY alternatives. Below, we’ve rounded up a few of our favorites:
Many seeds germinate best at soil temperatures between 75 and 85 degrees. That’s pretty warm. You can buy commercial heating pads for plants that sit underneath plant trays. Here’s a better idea: Place a standard heating pad under the plant trays and set it to low. Run it for two or three hours each day. Or, store seed trays on top of your refrigerator or radiator. Both these places tend to stay nice and cozy. Spread a sheet of plastic wrap over the seed tray, which keeps in both warmth and moisture.
Soil-less Starting Mix
Growing mediums for starting seeds abound and you can certainly choose a commercial one. However, making your own mix at home allows you to custom-blend ingredients at a fraction of the cost. Here’s a recipe from Michigan State University Extension: Combine equal parts peat moss or coconut coir fiber, finely screened compost and vermiculite. Mix thoroughly to make a fine product and store in an air-tight container.
Commercially, the most common product for starting seeds is cell packets, which are plastic trays that contain small individual compartments for each seed. Peat moss pots are another popular option. Homemade versions can be as simple as clean yogurt cups or paper cups. Just make sure you make a few small holes in the bottoms of the cups for drainage.
If you’d like to experiment with biodegradable cups, try making them from newspaper. Another option is to make soil plugs. These little plugs of soil look like tiny round or square dirt brownies. Plant the seeds and then transplant the seedlings directly in the garden – no disturbing roots or peat pots to mess with. The frames for the soil plugs take the most time to make, but once you’ve got your system in place, you’ll have it for a lifetime.
The last thing you’ll need is some grow lights. In most cases, natural light just isn’t enough to get strong, vigorous growth. Many companies sell grow light systems for seed starting, but these systems run $150 or more. Make your own instead from materials you probably have around your home. Brown Thumb Mama offers directions for one made from PVC pipe and an old fish tank light. Here’s another one from Cornell University that calls for fluorescent tube lighting and PVC pipe. These lights are easy to put together and cost less than $30.
For more information about seed starting in general, visit the following links:
Starting Seeds Indoors from the University of Minnesota
Best Tips for Starting Seeds Indoors from Mother Earth News
Julie Christensen learned about gardening on her grandfather’s farm and mother’s vegetable garden in southern Idaho. Today, she lives and gardens on the high plains of Colorado. When she’s not digging in the dirt, Julie writes about food, education, parenting and gardening.