Seed Starting Essentials

April 19, 2007

Now that you have fully embraced the benefits of seed starting and are ready to grow your own vegetable transplants…

Let’s take inventory of the seed starting supplies and equipment that will be required to get all or your garden seeds off to a great start.

Heirloom Seeds

Heading the list of seed starting supplies, are of course the seeds themselves. Sure, you could pick up a few packs of seed from the local garden center, but we’re going to make things more interesting by selecting heirloom and gourmet varieties.

As I mentioned yesterday, a big advantage of growing your own plants from seed is that it allows you to enjoy unique varieties of plants that aren’t typically offered by the commercial vegetable plant growers and seed companies.

There are suppliers like Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds that offer a wide selection of gourmet and heirloom seeds for backyard growers. There are also organizations such as Seed Savers that promote the saving and sharing of open pollinated seeds between gardeners all over the world.

Soil-less Seed Starting Mix

For the best results start your seeds in a soil-less growing medium that is weed free and pasteurized to provide sensitive seedlings with a light-weight and disease free growing medium.

You can create your own mix, but I usually purchase a bag of seed starting mix from a garden supply retailer. If you go this route shop around for the best buys and it’s probably easier and cheaper to purchase this item through local sources.

You’ll also come out ahead by purchasing in larger quantities. A home center in my area sells a small eight quart bag of seed starting mix for about eight dollars, while a nearby nursery prices a similar product at fifteen dollars for close to eighty quarts. That should be enough to last several seasons.

Seed Starting Containers

Almost anything that holds soil and provides good drainage can be used to grow your seedlings. But the commercial seedling trays and containers are more convenient as they are designed with seed starting in mind. Most are also very durable, so with care you won’t have to repeat this purchase anytime soon.

One of my favorite seed starting systems are the molded foam units that consist of a base, a tray containing cells to hold soil and seedlings, a reservoir that makes the unit self-watering, and a humidity dome to aid germination. These units are expensive, but very easy to use, will last for years, and the self-watering feature is terrific.

You can also improvise by recycling the flimsy plastic greenhouse containers or use items that you have around the house. I’ve seen growing containers made out of milk cartons, plastic jugs, and other ordinary household objects.

If you’re handy with tools you can even build wooden flats that will work great for raising seedlings. Whatever your container, just make sure that it’s deep enough to support the type of seedling that you are raising, and that it has sufficient drainage to avoid waterlogged plant roots.

Fluorescent Lights

I’ve never lived anywhere with sunny enough window exposure to grow healthy vegetable transplants, maybe you do, but more than likely you’re going to need a supplemental source of artificial light to promote healthy growth of your seedlings.

There are many options when it comes to lighting. The least expensive would be an ordinary shop light with fluorescent tubes that is suspended above your growing area. You can use regular fluorescent tubes or the ones designed for growing plants. If you use regular tubes combine a cool type along with a warm fluorescent tube.

The expense increases steeply to purchase plant light stands or the high intensity lighting used in hydroponics gardening. High intensity lighting is overkill for growing transplants, but light carts are nice and the option of multiple levels greatly increases the number of seedlings that you can grow in a small area. I use a three level light stand and it’s the next best thing to having your own greenhouse.

Organic Fertilizer for Seedlings

I start my seeds in a soil-less mix that doesn’t contain any added fertilizers. This is fine as the seeds contain all the nutrients that the seedlings need in order to germinate and begin growing. Once the seedlings are up and growing you will need a supply of fertilizer on hand to begin feeding your plants.

There are organic fertilizers formulated specifically for feeding young seedlings, or you can mix a weak solution of a good quality fertilizer. I like to use a very dilute solution of kelp/fish emulsion to feed my seedlings but beware that the odor may linger for a few days if you use it indoors.

We’ve covered the essentials for an indoor seed starting setup, but there are a couple of optional items that you may want to consider.

Germination Mats and Humidity Domes

Germination mats are plastic mats with electrical heating cables built in. They aren’t necessary but will help your seedlings get off to a fast start. Germination mats are placed under your seed starting containers to provide gentle bottom heat that will speed and improve seed germination.

Humidity Covers can take the form of the clear plastic domes that are used to cover commercial seedling trays, or a sheet of plastic draped over the containers. Humidity covers will help conserve moisture and increase humidity levels to aid seed germination.

Okay, that’s the complete list of seed starting supplies and equipment that will be needed to nurture your vegetable seedlings. In the next entry I’ll share the techniques that I use to successfully grow transplants from seed.

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  • Dena G

    I live in Colorado northeast of Denver, zone 5b. I am starting many types of veggie seeds. Should I invest in the heat mats? They are expensive. I’ve heard they are only good one season. Could I use an inexpensive heating pad like the ones in drug stores for muscle aches?
    Thanks for any help. Your site is very informative.

  • Kenny Point

    Hi Dena, you can start your vegetable seedlings just fine without a germination mat and they are more of a luxury than a need when it comes to seed starting. Commercial germination mats are expensive, but they should last you through many, many seasons of seed starting. The goal is to simply warm your soil-less growing mixture by a few degrees to speed germination. You can improvise by placing your seedling flats and tray in a warm location or on top of a source of gentle even heat until the seeds germinate. But for safety reasons I wouldn’t recommend using any electrical device that wasn’t designed for the purpose of starting seeds.

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