Glean creative ideas for real-world seed-starting setups, from soil blockers to mini-greenhouses, so you can grow your own vegetable seedlings at home this spring.
One gardener built this multilevel seed-starting cart on wheels to make it simple to move around his home.
Photo by Edward Hollmen
Growing your own seedlings indoors can save you big bucks, as well as open up a whole new world of crop variety options. When you start seeds at home, you aren’t limited to the, well, “garden variety” plants available at most garden centers. You can order seeds of anything you desire to try — such as disease-resistant, organically bred, regionally adapted or rare heirloom varieties — from the many mail-order seed companies across the United States, and then sprout them yourself.
The range of setups you can use to start your seeds is nearly as diverse as the plants you can grow. We reached out to our readers to find out what seed-starting setups work well for them, and this is a roundup of their ideas. As you get set up at home, keep in mind that using lights will usually work better than placing plants on windowsills, and certain lights are superior for this purpose. We recommend standard fluorescent T8 bulbs because two of them together produce about 3,000 lumens. Even though the glow looks bright to human eyes, 3,000 lumens is only a small fraction of the light a seedling would receive outdoors. Keeping your seedlings within only a couple of inches of these bright lights will make them sturdier and healthier.
Not all the advice here precisely follows the “best practices” for seed starting, but together the tips comprise practical ideas that have worked for resourceful gardeners. For more guidance, check out Best Tips for Starting Seeds Indoors.
I built my grow-light stand last year using ash wood from my backyard that I cut on my bandsaw mill. The stand has two levels, and it’s equipped with shop lights and bulbs I purchased at Home Depot. The bulbs are Phillips ALTO T8s, which put out about 2,750 lumens. I’m able to adjust the fixture height to keep the bulbs within a couple of inches of the plants for best results. This stand easily disassembles for storage, and I can also move it around because I built it on wheels. It works so well that I use it to grow lettuce indoors when I’m not starting seedlings. — Edward Hollmen
I start my seeds on a multipurpose unit that functions as a seed-starting stand and bookcase. The grow lights are a permanent fixture of the stand, affixed to the underside of each shelf. When I’m starting seeds, I stack a few books underneath the seed-starting trays to keep them close to the lights, and then adjust the height of the book stacks as the seedlings grow. To build such a unit, first purchase light fixtures, and then compile a lumber list based on the length of your lights and how many shelves high you want your bookcase to be. Find full plans for this structure online. — Cheryl Long
My seed-starting setup resides on top of a bookcase in my den, and it never fails to produce a full complement of seedlings. Except for some cups and compost, I scored all the components at a yard sale. The cost? Amazingly cheap:
• 4 plastic shoe boxes at 25 cents each: $1
• Fluorescent light fixture with 2 tubes: $3
• Timer: 25 cents
• Extension cord: 10 cents
• Package of foam cups: $2
• Ice pick/awl: 50 cents
• Homemade compost: free
• Total cost: $6.85
I heat the tip of the awl over one of my gas stove’s burners, and then use the awl to melt irrigation holes around the base of each foam cup, which I can reuse from year to year. I hung the fluorescent fixture beneath an overhead shelf. — John Grass
I’m a Master Gardener, but I’m also a mile-high, off-grid, limited-finance gardener. After hauling potting mix home on the back of my snowmobile, I fill up a couple dozen 2-inch peat pots and a couple dozen 3-inch pots, as well as some egg cartons and large yogurt containers. I start tomatoes, peppers, basil, cilantro and more. The yogurt containers work well for repotting seedlings after a couple of weeks, when the starts need larger containers. Recycling and reusing readily available items in my price range? Perfect!
I cover my seeds with damp newspapers and place them near the woodstove until they sprout (keeping them far enough away so that the plastic pots won’t melt). Then, they graduate to the lighted seed table, but we only run power for an hour or so at night; the rest of the time, they sit in the south and west windows. When the “babies” get bigger and the temperature rises above 45 degrees Fahrenheit, I move them into my cold frame on the porch during the day. My germination rate is about 90 percent. At the end of April, I plant my seedlings in raised beds that I cover with plastic hoops to provide extra protection.
Anyone can do this who has a warm corner, a bright window, and a fluorescent light or two. Just buy quality seeds and use a good seed-starting soil mix. Never let your soil dry out, but don’t drown the small plants either. Transplant the seedlings to a bigger pot when they get taller than the one you started them in. Place them in sunshine as much as you can. — Betsy Mehaffey
I start my seeds in soil blocks, which means I don’t need any small containers. I make my own seed-starting mix based on a recipe from Eliot Coleman’s book The New Organic Grower. I also place a heat mat underneath the trays to give the seeds bottom heat to help them sprout, and I mist the seeds with a spray bottle daily. After the seeds sprout, I unplug the heat mat.
When the sprouts develop their first true sets of leaves, I transfer them to six-packs (you can use larger soil blocks at this point to avoid plastic containers altogether). I place them in a south-facing window until it’s time to start hardening them off for planting in the garden. To harden seedlings off, place them outside in a relatively sheltered area for an hour or so per day at first, and then gradually increase the length of their outdoor time each day. — Dale T. Rodgers
I’m a horticultural technician, and I have a large country property in western Quebec. Our growing season is much shorter than most. In winter, our temperatures drop to minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit, so the soil doesn’t warm up enough to host tomatoes and other heat-loving, long-season crops until July. My seedlings need to be large, hardy and ready to produce within this short growing season.
Bell peppers and tomatoes require an eight- to 10-week jump-start in our region. To get them going, I place an electric blanket under my seed-starting trays. I put a piece of heavy-grade plastic over the blanket to keep it dry. I was able to purchase used electric blankets for less than $10 apiece. For plants that germinate best with a soil temperature of about 70 degrees, including tomatoes, we use the low setting on our electric blanket to maintain that range of heat under the trays. For plants that do best with soil temperatures of about 80 degrees, such as bell peppers, we use the blanket’s medium-high setting. Between bottom heat and overhead grow lights, my seedlings are large, vigorous and ready to produce abundant yields for my family to enjoy. — Christina Eckerlin
I’ve tried many types of containers for starting seeds, including paper cups and plastic trays. So far, 1-gallon, clear plastic milk and water jugs have worked best. To try this, remove the caps and cut small holes in the jugs’ bottoms for water drainage. Then, cut around three sides of each jug, about 3.5 inches from the bottom, to create a hinge that will keep the bottom of the jug (your seed bed) connected with the top of the jug (your seeds’ protective lid).
I fill the jugs with soil mix and place nine to 16 seeds in each jug, depending on plant size. In early spring, I keep the jugs inside in front of a southwest-facing window, and then move them outdoors when the weather starts to warm. When I transfer the seedlings to the garden, I simply scoop them out with a large serving spoon, taking care to bring as much soil with each plant as possible to limit root disturbance.
This idea originally came from one of your other contributors. Thanks to all who generously share their gardening ideas and experiences! — Lisa Facciponti
In the past 40 years, I’ve tried many ways to start seeds. For cold-hardy plants, such as onions and cabbage, I’ve found that the least messy and least fussy method is to sow seeds in large plastic containers with lids, and then set them outside. The containers double as simple cloches for frost protection.
You can use recycled lettuce clamshells, milk jugs cut in half — really, any container made of clear or opaque plastic. Fill each halfway with damp seed-starting mix, add a few seeds, and then lightly cover the seeds. When it’s time for the seeds to come up, they’ll come up! You won’t have to repot or harden off. I start my seeds in late winter, and I’ve found that they’ll sprout even when the cloches are covered with snow. When the weather warms and the baby plants begin pushing off the lid, I open it, give them a dose of fish emulsion, let them get stronger, and then transplant them to their new home. — Laura Johnson
To germinate my seeds, I’ve made a heated germination station out of an old, non-working upright freezer. It’s outfitted with a 40-watt bulb attached to a shop light fixture that I hung inside the freezer to provide warmth. The freezer is situated on an unheated porch, and its inner temperature averages 75 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit, even on subzero nights. This method has sped up my seeds’ germination time significantly. It’s my greatest low-tech repurposing achievement to date! Not bad for gardening on a shoestring budget. — Cris Canton
I do all of my seed starting in a 6-by-8-foot greenhouse. My seed-starting pots sit on built-in shelving that’s about chest-high, which makes for easy planting and repotting. I make sure to vent the greenhouse on sunny days so my seedlings don’t overheat. The greenhouse provides a warm, bright spot to get plants started, and I don’t have to take up any space inside my house for the process. — Vicki Slater Fugate
A friend named this my “Christmas tree light farm.” I’ve been using this setup to start my seeds for four years now. Grow lights hang from a wooden rack and strands of holiday lights rest below my seed-starting trays to heat the soil (not touching the trays, but nested right below them). I stick a thermometer in the soil to monitor its temperature. — JoAnn Hana
I use tall, simple, six-tier shelving units that I adjust as my plants grow. A fluorescent grow light hangs over each shelf. Each light plugs in to an outlet in the light above it, so that each overall unit has only one main plug that goes into a wall outlet.
This photo shows just the hot peppers I grew last year; I started more than 500 of them. Each year, I also start onions, sweet peppers, kale, cabbage, broccoli, edible flowers, microgreens and hundreds of leeks. As soon as nighttime temperatures rise a bit, I start even more seeds in my unheated greenhouse. — Joanne Tipler
Shelley Stonebrook is MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine’s main gardening editor. She’s passionate about growing healthy, sustainable food and also runs Stonegrass Farms Soap Co. in her spare time. Follow her on Twitter and Pinterest.
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