Thursday, November 5, 2015

A Better way to Start Seedlings

Patricia Vance

        I’ve heard all the excellent arguments for starting your own seedlings at home: better selection, control over timing, less risk of introducing microbes and other pests into your garden. And I tried for years to start seeds indoors with poor results: spindly, weak, sallow seedlings that did poorly even when properly hardened off.

        The reason, I knew, was that I couldn't provide them with enough light.  Even windows that face south simply filter too much sunlight. I’d seen the grow lights set-ups for sale in seed and gardening catalogs, but they run around $100 for a 2-foot light set-up. The less expensive models only have one bulb. I found that a  little too pricey for what you get. So I balked and bought young plants in the garden centers instead.

       With a little ingenuity, last year I came up with an inexpensive growing station that I installed in my basement.

This is what I used:
An existing workbench large enough to support my tray of seedlings
Seed starter tray with peat pellets
1 2-foot, 2-bulb T8 fluorescent shop light ($18)
2 T8 grow light bulbs ($10 apiece)
2 chain hangers ($4.50)
2 screw-in hooks (less than $1 apiece)
1 plug-in electric timer ($10)
1 basic extension cord (less than $5)

       I did pony up for the seedling mat because I was concerned about keeping the correct temperature. You can get heating pads from the drug store, but I was afraid of cooking my vegetables before they were big enough to put into the garden!

       Since I provide the light and heat, I set my system up in my basement on a worktable.  I placed the seedling tray on the bench and then screwed in the hooks directly above the ends of the tray. I hung the light up on the hooks using the chain holders (found in the same area of the hardware store as the shop lights).

       The lights must be within an inch or two of the tops of the seedlings. Using chain hangers, I can easily move the light up incrementally as the plants grow. I can even make one side higher than the other, to accommodate seedlings growing at different rates. I put all of my tall seedlings on the right and then allow the light to hang lower on the left. I plugged the shop light into an inexpensive timer, and set it to go on for 12 hours each day. However, I kept the warming mat on all the time

        I check on seedlings daily. It's also an opportunity to check water levels and make sure the seedlings are moist but not wet at all times. 

       My seedlings are now growing so well, that I am considering buying a free-standing metal 4-shelf unit for about $30. I can hang the hooks from the metal grids on an upper shelf and put my seedlings on the lower shelf. More shelves also means more seedlings. Just adding another light and another warming mat, and I can double my growing space. While this also increases the price, the total expenditure will always be significantly lower than purchasing a ready-made unit. And I also find that my set-up is sturdier than the frames available through catalogs.

       The ultimate proof is a tray of hardy, vigorous seedlings that thrive when I put them out in the garden.