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Five Tips for Starting Vegetable Seedlings Indoors More Cheaply

Feb 01, 2011

There are a variety of reasons why gardeners start their vegetable plants inside. Many do it to save money on the high price of organic seedlings at the garden center. The truth is starting seeds indoors can be even more costly than buying plants. So if saving money is your goal, you need to be careful to keep costs down.

But saving money isn’t the only reason to start plants early. In the northern U.S., vegetable gardeners start their plants indoors to get a jump on the short growing season. If you’re growing plants early in hoop houses, for example, commercial seed starts probably won’t be ready in time. Others like to make sure seedlings are grown organically under the best possible growing conditions. Still others can’t buy the varieties they want at the garden center.

If you are starting seeds inside, as so many on KGI will, here are five tips for keeping costs down.

1. Build your own seedling starting unit. Retail seedling starting units with grow lights are expensive. One with enough space for a reasonable-sized garden will cost about $350. At that price, it will take forever to make your money back by starting seedlings. But even a “handyman challenged” person such as myself can make one for half or even one-third the price. See this video post  Build an Indoor Seedling Starting Unit for an inexpensive, easy-to-build unit. Those with more skill with tools could probably save even more.

2. Get rare heirloom seeds free. Many people start seeds indoors to save money, yet empty their pockets buying seeds. That’s okay if searching through seed catalogs is what you enjoy, but with a little more work, you can get rare varieties for free.  See how I got three unusual heirloom tomatoes from the USDA Agricultural Research Service at Rare Vegetable Seeds from U.S. Government. I didn’t even pay postage and the USDA would have sent me more seeds if I had asked.

3. Compare Seed Prices Easily with Google for Seeds. If you’re still planning on buying pricey rare seeds, you can still shop around for the best prices easily. Use this Google search tool from Mother Earth News at Find Exactly the Varieties You Want to locate the best deals from the seed catalogs.

4. Make seedling pots from newspaper. Peat pots and trays add to the cost of your garden and some of us question if peat is environmentally sustainable. I also wonder if peat contributes to dampening off of seedlings, the most common seedling starting problem. On the other hand, cow manure pots cost a fortune. Soil block makers can be difficult to use because it’s hard to get the right formula for the soil media. But paper pots are easy to make and don’t cost a cent. See this video showing you how to Make Paper Pots from Dave’s Garden.

5. Mix your own organic seed starting mix. If you start a lot of seedlings, you may want to mix your own seed starting mix. But in most cases, it’s cheaper to buy it off the shelf. I don’t advise sterilizing your own mix in your kitchen oven. I’ve never tried it, but too many people tell me it really smells up the house. Here’s My Plan for Seed Starting Mix.

I’m sure you know about other ways to reduce the cost of starting seeds indoors. That’s the real beauty of this forum. Please let me know how you do it in the comment section below so everyone can take advantage of your great ideas.

Comments

Congratulations! It seems you found your way to post your interesting blog with pictures on this site. I'm always searching for new or different ways to make my life easier (more enjoyable) and save money when possible. I'll check out the links you included in this post, especially the free seeds from the U.S. Govt. Looking forward to hearing more from you. Stay natural, David
Thanks for visiting the post and for your encouragement. I hope members add their tips so I can learn to save even more before I start my seedlings in the coming weeks.
A friend from tomatoville.com suggests using a mylar sheet (I use a 99c store car window reflector cut in half) on the sides (perpendicular to the shelf) to reflect more light back to the plants. I made a similar shelf, but my shelving unit is plastic. I have just enough room to put 2 of those 2-lamp fluorescent fixtures in. If you have a spare desk or box fan, running it on low a few hours a day can help keep the air flowing, the top of the soil less moist (ie less possibility of fungal issues), and help make stockier plants. Then turn it on medium for a few hours in the days before you start hardening off the plants- lets them get used to breezes so they dont suffer as much. Ive not had luck with newspaper pots but only tried once. I prefer to reuse plastic 4" pots (my neighbor has 1000s of them). Keep on growin!
Thanks for stopping by. I really like your idea of using a car window reflector to reflect the light back at the seedlings. It's inexpensive and absolutely can't do any harm to the plants. Do you have a photo that shows exactly how you set it up? It would be great if you could post it to show everyone. I have forced hot air in the plant room so I have a breeze already moving across my plants. Maybe that's why I don't have much trouble with fungal dampening off. But a lot of people use a fan to dry the soil tops and strengthen the plants. Are the plastic pots new? Or do you clean them with some kind of bleach solution every year? I don't reuse pots, but if I did, I'd clean them with a 10% bleach solution to cut back on any pathogens. One last question: What varieties of tomatoes do you like best?
Grow Good Grub author Gayla Trail has put together an industrial strength lighting system for her seedlings and indoor plants. She kept costs low and made sure that you could get all the components home without a truck. You can see her set up at http://www.yougrowgirl.com/2011/02/03/build-a-d-i-y-lighting-system/
These are all really good ideas. I don't use newspaper pots, but re use my yogurt, sour cream, and other appropriately sized containers as pots by washing them after use and then making 3-4 small holes in the bottom for drainage. When they wear out, they go into the "trash recycling" but I figure this way they get a lot more mileage first. -Johanna
Thanks for sharing this idea. A lot of people will prefer solid yogurt cups over paper pots. It's much to easy to damage the plant when using paper. Both methods are cost effective and help us make better use of existing materials. On the other hand, some people like to water their seedlings from the ground up, rather than top down. Paper makes this possible. There are all kinds of opinions on this and I'd like to know what people think. If you are using a peat based seed starting mix and plan to water top down, my suggestion is to wet the peat before putting seeds in because otherwise they may float around when you put water on top. Peat repels water until it is moist.
These are great ideas. A tip I've found useful is to pre-germinate all my seeds except the very smallest in a sealed margarine tub filled with damp perlite or vermiculite. I set it in a warm place (75o-85oF) and the seeds - if they're viable at all - will germinate in around seven days. Even parsley and coriander! That way, every germinated seed you plant will grow (well, almost every seed) and you don't waste time and compost in patiently sowing seeds that are dead.
John -- Pre-sprouting seeds is a great idea for saving seed starter mix. How difficult is it to move the smaller seeds from the margarine tub to the mix? I've heard of people doing this with larger seeds, but assumed it was too difficult with smaller seeds.
It's actually very simple to transfer the sprouted seeds from the perlite (etc). Don't even think about picking them out at this stage! You'll wreck the stems. Just toss the lot gently, perlite and seedlings, onto a piece of newspaper. Then you can pick the scattered stems up by the first seed leaves and drop them into a hole, drilled with a pencil, in a pot of compost. Even tiny seedlings like parsley can be handled this way, with minimal damage.
Excellent! I'm going to try it.
Hi Bill, I enjoyed your post on starting seeds, it's one of my favorite parts of gardening. It's especially fun for land-challenged urban "farmers" I think, to see dozens of little plants emerging and developing under lights in your basement, garage or spare room. Years ago I built a similar propagation unit for my sister. It basically looks like a small bookshelf. I built it with inexpensive pine so it has two shelves with installed shop-light fixtures that are on a timer. I sealed the wood with varathane to prevent moisture damage. This simple design is easily built, inexpensive and requires just a few tools. Could also be improved with the addition of some bottom-heat germination mats. It has made a big difference in her gardening efforts, she enjoys growing veggies that are unusual and starting them herself. Unfortunately since she is away at work all day and has to keep most of her blinds drawn, her seedlings would suffer in a poorly-lit window and end up leggy... now they are fantastic. Your discussion on the mylar... I used an old mylar space-blanket for this purpose years ago, the kind runners use after a marathon to stay warm. It is very thin and reflective, and can be easily draped to fit the space.
A do-it-yourself shelving unit would bring down the cost significantly of a seed starting unit. It's the major cost component of the unit. A mylar blanket is also a good idea. I'll have to check next time I'm in a department store.
Our seed starting regimen has gone through several iterations. Our first garden, we just bought plants at the farmer's market - a few tomatoes, zucchini, and one pepper and one eggplant. The next year, we started seeds in old planting pots, the packs from the farmer's market, yogurt cups, and the like, all on the kitchen windowsill (the only suitable south-facing window in our house). It worked okay, but they were pretty leggy. We bought a few more plants at the market, and direct-seeded some, too. The next year, we took some halogen under-cabinet lights that we had, and bought one cheap florescent bulb, and started making soil blocks. That worked much better, but the plants under the florescent were leggy, and we had to double up the halogens to get enough light. Last year, we finally stepped up and bought some T5 2-bulb fixtures and hung them from chains from the rafters in the basement. This allows us to lower the lights for seedlings and raise them for almost-time-to-plant tomatoes. We already had a plywood bench along one wall in the basement, set up by the previous owners. We found it a little bit low as a work surface, so we took some more plywood and made risers about 7 inches above the original surface. This gives us shelves below the plants to store empty flats, seed boxes, and other things. We also recently installed a sheet of mylar on the wall behind the seedlings, a scavenged item from the Newport marathon last fall. It really does seem to increase the amount of light. It will be interesting to see whether the seedlings on that side bend over to the lights less than the ones on the open side. Planting in soil blocks is a little bit more work up front than using plastic cell flats or yogurt cups, but the method is completely waste-free, and planting time is easy and un-fussy, and you don't lose plants trying to get them from the pot. Plants also don't get pot-bound, as the roots simply air-prune when they get to the edge of the block. Unless they go into the block next to it, but that only happens in a big way if you're not paying attention :) The blocking mix is a combination of peat, garden soil, compost, sand/vermiculite and a few amendments. I would like to get away from the peat, but haven't found coir fiber in large blocks yet - that's the only thing I think that might substitute for its airy moisture retention properties. http://www.johnnyseeds.com/t-video_soilblocking.aspx?source=Videos
Hi Meredith Interesting video. I like the look of those four block makers. I will have to see if they are available over here. Glenn
- of the founders of our local Sustainability Center. They now use mostly the medium size. They introduce them at all gardening classes - which are starting this week with snow on the ground but temperatures rising.
They should be available in the UK, since that's where they're made. I found out about them from Eliot Coleman's books. He's my hero! I love that you can fit exactly 50 in a standard flat, though you need to find some kind of pair of paddles to remove the first few since they're in so tightly. They now sell open mesh flats for them, but I've been using waterproof flats so I don't have to worry about soaking the plywood. If I had some kind of greenhouse setup, I would go to mesh bottoms so that roots will air-prune in that dimension, too. With the solid bottoms, the roots will run along the bottom, requiring a little bit of extra care when removing them and planting. But not too much. I'll probably post some pictures soon of my basement setup.
I'm also a big fan of Eliot Coleman. Don't you find it difficult to get the right fomulation for the seed starter mix with a soil blocker? I'd be afraid that the block would fall apart. What recipe do you use? Do you use the one that Eliot suggested?
Yes, we pretty much use his recipe, though we've had trouble finding vermiculite, so we've been using sand and had to cut it to a little less than half what he reccomends. This year, for the first planting of greens for the cold frame (spinach, pac choi, lettuce), I dragged out a bucket of soil that I thought I had prepared with mix last fall and left outside to freeze. I'm not sure what that was, but it certainly wasn't soil block mix. My best guess is dirt from the potato bags. The blocks were super muddy and eventually acquired the consistency of soaked concrete - but the plants didn't seem to mind. They're drying out faster, without the peat, and are more brittle, but the seeds germinated, and the roots are going through them, so it seems to be working. I'm glad they're all the short-term plantings, rather than the ones that sit in the blocks longer, like tomatoes... We mixed up a fresh batch yesterday, and put in too much water, so the actual block-making process was soggier, but they're firming up now, just as they do with the right amount. It's really surprising how well they stay together, but I've found the recipes to be somewhat forgiving :)
Thanks for the info. It's good to know that you don't have to have the perfect mix to use soil blocks. I'll have to try it next year. Good luck with your seedlings.
When using soil blocks I liked solid flats - because I could flood the flat to water quickly - especially after the seedlings had a canopy of leaves to deflect top-watering. With mesh flats you could set the whole flat in a flat of water or later fertilizer-water.
When using soil blocks I liked solid flats - because I could flood the flat to water quickly - especially after the seedlings had a canopy of leaves to deflect top-watering. With mesh flats you could set the whole flat in a flat of water or later fertilizer-water.
When using soil blocks I liked solid flats - because I could flood the flat to water quickly - especially after the seedlings had a canopy of leaves to deflect top-watering. With mesh flats you could set the whole flat in a flat of water or later fertilizer-water.
I've gone through about the same evolution as you. I'm using 2 different T5 fixtures; one 8 bulb HO, and one 4 bulb HO with grow bulbs. They are suspended, by chains for height ajustment, from home made frames on tables. This set up served as my indoor salad garden during the winter. Lately I've used John Yoeman's method of germinating seeds before planting in blocks. I dearly love the soil blocks. I've posted prior experiences with seed starting in several groups and other blogs. There is a tremendous amount of overlapping information on this site; all good. Sprouts transferred to soil blocks: Germination tray:
- at the nursery next time you buy something. "Do you have any extras?" :-) Our local nurseries are very kind to enthusiastic gardeners.
Good idea. It can't hurt to ask.
Mesh flat inserts will probably be my next purchase :) I've found that I need to double up the flats anyway to have enough strength to move the soggy blocks around without breaking them, especially when I'm taking them outside to plant, and I think the mesh flats inside would do well. I've been known to use the flood mechanism to get them through a day when I'm not going to be able to water them later. It's not something I like to do regularly, but it doesn't seem to hurt if I let them dry back to normal after a day or two.
Newspaper pots work, but I prefer an even simplier method... toilet paper rolls! Instead of discarding the cardboard roll, I collect them all year. I cut them in half, fill them with seed starter mix, prop them up in a a tray... and then plant away. You can also use papertowel rolls but those I cut into 4. Less work and this way I can use my newspaper for a weed barrier in the garden instead.
By the way the definition of "NEW" should be... Never Ever Waste Recycle/ Re-purpose when ever you can!
Toilet paper and paper towel rolls are a great idea I have spent the last week rolling newspaper pots and it's starting to get boring. I also have a T5 light fixture which is the most expensive thing we have bought for starting our garden. We now use this light as the only light source for the room we set our plants up in and it has actually cut the electric bill significantly, and saved also of our house plants during the winter months when they don't usually get enough light. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.
You are right that paper pots can take a lot of time to make. Some people prefer soil block makers for this and other reasons. Of course, you have to buy a soil block maker.
There are so many good ideas. As a beginning school gardner, these ideas will improve our harvest from last year. I also hope to benefit from mini izing the dead seeds. Thank you
I suppose it's time to give an update on the mylar - it made a huge difference on that side. The seedlings on the edges of the flats against the wall with the mylar did not turn towards the light, while the seedlings on the edge open to the room did. I played with hanging some ducting material from the front edge - being less reflective than the mylar, it made less of a difference, and made watering a pain. It was easier just to rotate the flats every few days when the seedlings' lean got too much.
Thanks for all the suggestions. This is my first growing season so I really need all the help I can get. Is anyone using coconut fiber instead of peat?
Thanks for the info! Richard www.naturehills.com
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