You CAN start seeds at home! (Part 1)
Part 1: What Equipment do I need?
Have you been thinking about starting seeds at home but just aren’t sure where to start? Well read on, because we’ve got the run-down on everything you need to start your favorite veggies at home.
It is possible to start seeds at home with very little equipment but without the proper set-up you are severely limited in what seeds are likely to be successful. Here we’ll first talk about must haves (soil, containers, seeds) and then we’ll talk about best/nice to haves (lights, timer, heat mat).
First is soil. The best bet on soil is to buy a mix specifically for starting seeds - it is lighter and contains ingredients that hold moisture. If you’re in a pinch, you can use regular potting soil if that’s all you have on hand. The key is that you want something that will hold a lot of moisture and oxygen.
Next is containers. There are a lot of good choices here. A traditional set-up (pictured below) has a tray of plastic growing “cells” that sits inside a larger plastic tray. You pour water into the bottom tray and the cells are watered from below so that the seeds, and eventually the tiny roots, aren’t disturbed.
But if you are looking to cut back on spending or to reduce your plastic use there are lots of other options. Using a soil blocker is a great way to start seeds and reduce plastic. It can also reduce the stress on the plant once it’s time to transfer it to the garden. There are also a wide variety of pulp or paper pots that can be set in trays that work very well. A favorite is a pot made from newspaper! Here is an easy to follow video tutorial on how to make your own at home.
And of course, you need seeds! Some seeds are actually best started outside. They don’t need the extra growing time of being indoors or they just don’t transplant well. Plants that are best to start outside include root vegetables, onions, salad greens, peas, beans, and summer squash.
**One quick note here, you definitely can start many of these plants inside if you want to get your season started sooner, but they grow quickly and best outside so we’d advocate for waiting if possible**
Plants that are a good idea to start indoors are those that need a longer growing season like tomatoes and peppers. Other plants that are great to start inside include all of the brassicas (broccoli, brussels sprouts, kale, cabbage etc.), eggplant, pumpkin, swiss chard, basil and other herbs.
Now let’s talk lighting. For seeds starting success, we HIGHLY recommend you have lights. There are lights designed specifically for starting seeds and those are nice. But you can also use any cool fluorescent and have good results. A long shop-style fixture like the one below is a good bet. But you can also buy smaller lights that will fit into lamps you already have at home. They just won’t cover as much area.
Get some heat on those seeds! A heat mat will vastly improve your germination rates (the number of seeds that actually sprout) and the types of seeds that are successful in a home seed starting operation. Mats are not very expensive and will raise the soil temp a few degrees. This is most important for plants like tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant that won’t germinate unless the soil is warm enough.
Last, let’s talk about timers. While not strictly necessary, timers are great for home seed starting operations. Seedlings will do best with about 14-16 hours of light each day. Setting a timer up means that you won’t have to remember to turn the lights on and off and risk forgetting.
Can you start seeds at home without lights (or heat, or a timer)?. Definitely, many people do! But if you won’t be working with those additional items know that you will have limitations on your success. Seedlings do best with a LOT of light. You can put them in a warm south facing window and have some success, but they will be weaker plants that take longer to get going once moved outside. You can also expect lower germination rates. If you don’t plan to invest in lights this year I’d recommend starting kale, broccoli, and your favorite herbs. These plants are often more sturdy and their seeds have less specific temperature and light requirement.
Check out Part 2: Let’s start some seeds!
For further reading check out this Farmer’s Almanac Guide.