Head Start

One of my earliest gardening memories is sitting at the kitchen table, helping my dad start seeds.  I remember the excitement of opening the box of seeds when it arrived in the mail, and the trips to Farmer Seed and Nursery in Faribault to pick up some of the seeds locally.  My favorite part was carefully spacing out the peat pellets and then watching with fascination as they would swell when water was added to the tray (and subsequently being told to stop poking them).  My dad would plant the seeds and move tray after tray to the counter in the laundry room, underneath the grow lights he had hung from the cabinets, where we would watch them grow until it was time to move them outside.

When I started to contemplate starting a few seeds for this year's garden, I kept coming back to those memories.  At first it was: I'll have so many more varieties to choose from! It will be so much fun to have a tray of seedlings to watch! and I won't have to wait until May to start gardening!  But there were also some doubts: Do we have the space? How much are grow lights going to cost? and Isn't it just easier to pay two bucks for a tomato plant?  

So I did what any good former 4-H'er would do, and I turned to the University of Minnesota Extension Service's Gardening Information to do a little research (this section has become my seed-starting bible). And then I turned to Pinterest for a little DIY inspiration.  It turns out, it doesn't have to be nearly as complicated or resource intensive you might think it would be.  

Here's the low down on how I am starting seeds for less than $10 and without too much fuss: 

Instead of purchasing peat pellets or pots, or a special segmented plastic tray, I made my starter pots out of newspaper using a can of tomato paste from my pantry (there are tons of other no-cost options you could try as well: reuse plastic pots from previous year's purchases, egg cartons, toilet paper rolls, egg shells, and re-purposed plastic milk jugs).

I purchased a plain tray, a dome, and a bag of starter mix (a lighter formula than regular potting soil) and started preparing the pots for seeding. It's important to water the pots well before seeding, because the starter mix is really light and it will settle down significantly (just keep adding the mix and watering until it's settled to the right level).   I covered the tray with a clear plastic dome and let them sit for a couple of days just beneath our south-facing kitchen window, to allow the sun to warm up the soil and to ensure that the pots were thoroughly moist before seeding. 

Once the seeds started to sprout, I moved them to the basement, where I had set up a light over the old wash basin.  Contrary to what you might think, you do not need a special grow light (which are usually more expensive just because they are labeled "grow lights").  Any standard fluorescent light fixture with two "cool white" bulbs will provide enough light.  We happened to already have one of these lights hanging in the little basement room we use for storage.  I took it down and re-positioned it over the seeds with a couple of bungee cords looped over an overhead pipe, and secured the bungee cord hooks to the existing chain on the light fixture, which will allow me to adjust the height as the plants grow.  It's not super pretty, but it's free and functional.  

The other concern that needed addressing was heat.  We keep our house at 60 degrees when we're home, and 55 at night and when we're not home (which is most of the day), so the basement is slightly cooler than that.  It's great for keeping the heating bill low, but not so great for germinating tomato and pepper seeds, which need warm soil.  I could have purchased a fancy-pants heat mat for around $60, but instead I improvised with materials that I just had to scavenge from our basement and garage.

I was expecting to have to purchase a section of rope light for this project, but as luck would have it, this one was recently left behind by the former tenants at my parents' rental property (it's as if the universe wanted me to start seeds this year!).  All of the wood came from our scrap pile in the garage.  It took a couple of cuts with the hand saw to trim the side boards to the same length as as the bottom board, a few nails to secure the side boards to the bottom (so the tray will sit just above the lights), and a few more nails to secure and space the rope light coil underneath the tray.  I was a little skeptical at first, but it does warm up the tray quite nicely!

All in all, I figure I spent about 2-3 hours setting this up over the course of several days.  And all I have to do on a daily basis is add a little water to the bottom of the tray.

Here's the actual cost breakdown: 
Recycled newspaper starter pots:       No cost        
Plain black seedling tray:                     $1.11
Clear tray dome:                                   $0.89
Bag of starter mix:                                $2.99
Light set up:                                           No cost 
Heat set up:                                           No cost
Total:                                                     $4.99

Of course there is also the cost of the seeds (I'll be covering that in a future post) and the additional electricity used by having the lights on for about 16 hours a day (I'm using the timer from our outdoor Christmas lights, so I don't have to remember to turn it on and off), but those costs are pretty minimal.  By my estimates, the total cost of the actual set up comes in under $10, which for me is a reasonable trade off for having more options than what is usually available at the local garden center.  Plus, it's fun.  I'm really loving watching my little broccoli sprouts grow and I can't wait to plant some peppers and tomatoes this month!

Labels: ,