I’m shakin’ in my boots to bust out some seeds soon! If you’re not sure when to start your seeds or which seeds to start indoors, you’ll find Part 1 of this Guide to Seed Starting series helpful. Here, for Part 2, I give a simple run-down of all the things you will need to start your seeds indoors.
Talk about options – you’ll find plastic packs, biodegradable peat containers, and equipment for making your own soil blocks, plus everything in between! The truth is that seeds want to grow. The container you put them in won’t make or break your seed-starting success.
You can gather some common containers from around your house – yogurt containers (poke some drainage holes in the bottom), milk jugs with the top cut off, or I’ve even seen toilet paper rolls used.
So far in my seed starting endeavor, I’ve been most happy with a set up like this. It is inexpensive, albeit more than a yogurt container. The better drainage, space efficiency, ease of use, and re-usability (going on six years with the same trays) are worth it to me.
How this set-up works: the bottom tray has no holes, while the six-cell inserts do. This way, you’re plants get adequate drainage while your shelf remains dry. With this set-up, you can also water from the bottom up by simply pouring water into the large drainage tray. The soil will absorb the water from the bottom up, encouraging deeper root development.
Larger Containers for Transplanting Into
Some plants might stay in cells like the ones in the photo above until they go in the ground. For heat-loving plants that are indoors for quite a while and can get quite large (e.g. tomatoes), I like to transplant them to larger containers to prevent them getting root-bound. There are larger cell inserts or a few inch square pots you can purchase to put in the drainage tray, but my homemade containers using the bottom of half-gallon milk jugs have been doing the job for years.
Before you even add your seeds, begin with a moist soil medium. After planting your seeds, I recommend simply watering the soil surface with a spray bottle of water. This method is the least disruptive to those tiny seeds. Also I highly recommend using a humidity dome during this phase until germination. You can see an example of this in the containers photo above. The humidity dome works by catching the water that evaporates from the soil. Some people choose to use a heat mat for germination, causing even more evaporation, making the humidity dome almost necessary. Be careful if you use a heating element without a humidity dome – you will likely need to water daily, or more.
Once we have plants growing, we switch from the spray bottle to filling the bottom tray with water for a bottom-up watering system. A classic watering jug is an option, I just find it to be messier and more difficult once the plants are growing towards the lights.
For a beginner, I would suggest making your life easy and buying a bag of seed-starting mix. You don’t need to invest in a ton of fertilizer options. Seedlings really do not need anything fancy. Since I start lots of seeds, I save myself quite a bit of money by mixing my own medium for seed-starting.
Here’s the recipe:
2 parts vermiculite
2 parts peat moss (or coconut coir)
1 part worm castings
Add all of these into a large bin such as a wheel barrow, garbage can, or storage bin. The first two ingredients can be quite dry and soak up a lot of water, so I follow them with a good hose soaking. They will be easier to mix together when wet, and the medium should be moist before planting seeds anyway.
You should be able to find all of these items in bulk at a garden or home-improvement store. Compost can be subbed for worm castings if you need to, though I’d like to make a plug right now for keeping a worm composting bin in your own home! Despite having a large compost pile outdoors, I still keep a worm bin in my basement; seed starting in winter is one of the main reasons why.
As far as people go, I’m known by many to be extremely frugal, and tend toward all things au naturel, but despite that, I’m a big advocate for using at least a basic grow light. I will say that it is possible to start your plants in a bright, south-facing window, but they are sure to be “leggier” and consequently weaker with that method. For me, they are also sure to be torn off the table by a grabby one year old, or bumped into by the many children who come running through here.
Grow lights are fairly inexpensive. You don’t need anything fancy (trust me, fancy is out there), just a regular shop light will do. Since we start many trays of seeds, we have a few lights. Each light hangs from the underside of the scrap shelving we have set up on a very basic, adjustable metal shelving unit.
I recommend hanging your light with small chain attached to S-hooks so they can be adjusted in height. For optimal plant health, it’s important to keep the light close to the soil and raise the light as the plants get taller.
The soil temperature will affect the success and speed of your attempt to germinate seeds. Each seed type has it’s own ideal soil temperature, which I’ll discuss more in Part 3 of this series. We chose to add a germination heat mat to our set-up for a few reasons: 1. Our basement hosts the seed starting operation. It maintains an air temperature of about 60 F; pretty chilly for our prized peppers, tomatoes and eggplant. 2. We could not risk a poor germination rate. 3. We could use the heat mat for other purposes throughout the entire year. It works like a charm in our drafty winter home for making yogurt and rising bread dough. There are a couple sizes; this one fits two germination flats. To avoid overheating all of the above items, we plug into this temperature control.
The good old popsicle stick was my first attempt at labeling. I hadn’t anticipated the popsicle stick absorbing a ton of moisture and all my ink running with it, though! Since that fiasco, I’ve stuck with using permanent marker on plastic cards I made from cutting up an old folder. You can also buy plastic popsicle sticks or plant labels. You’ll want something quite small that you can stick in the cell of the seed-starting flat and fit under your humidity dome. It can get a little messy if you only have a couple cells of one variety, so I make sure to follow a certain direction (up to down, or left to right) and place a label in the first cell for a new plant type or variety. I’ve been able to keep a good record of how many I have of each type, and where in the tray they are located with Tended’s garden mapping and tracking abilities, too. Don’t forget to transfer the label if you transplant to larger containers!
Last, but certainly not least, nab yourself some fun seeds, some practical seeds, some beautiful seeds and some productive seeds. For all your seed drooling, check out Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds and High Mowing Organic Seeds. If they don’t have it, Johnny’s has everything.
Do please comment here with your seed-starting tips or methods!