Here’s the jist of my seed starting (and grow bench).
1. A lot of people start seeds in something small like peat pellets and then “pot up” later. I tend to believe this is a waste of time (and resources). I start my seeds in a container suitable to the size of the finished plant right before planting out (at least I attempt to). True, I may have a few more issues with “dampening off” than others, but all in all, I lose pretty few plants to it.
2. I’m lazy. Being lazy requires some forethought (unless of course failure is acceptable and expected). Seed starting can involve planting, watering, fertilizing, potting up, turning lights on and off, etc. I automate everything as much as possible. Lights are on a digital timer, plants are self watering to the point that I only need to check/add water 1-2 times a week. Potting up I avoided as explained in #1. Details to follow.
3. I use the large Popsicle sticks for labels. This is not an optimal solution, but I’ve not found a better one yet. They’re cheap enough I can throw out, and easy to mark on. They’re also safe for my soil so I don’t have to make sure I have them all picked up at the end of the year. The drawbacks are that they break down a little faster than I would like, and, being a wood product, they can introduce organisms into the soil that increase the probability of issues like dampening off. I’d like a better solution, but simply haven’t found one I’m happy with so far. This works “good enough” for now
4. I use florescent shop lamps that take the T-12 bulbs for lighting. The government can whine all they want about how inefficient these lights are, but I purchased them for exactly two reasons: A. Light and B. Cheap. The T8 bulbs aren’t as bright, and I’m less concerned with saving electric and more concerned with making sure my plants get enough light. I use the 40 watt bulbs (this is about light, remember?) and bulbs with a color temperature of 4100K. It’s possible that different color temperatures may work better, but I did just enough reading to make sure I had something “in the neighborhood” and then went with what was available (and cheap). The lights and bulbs I get from Home Depot. The lights run about $10 each, and the bulbs I believe are going for about $20 for a box of 10. If you use the bulbs only for starting seeds you might consider reusing bulbs between years, but remember that florescent lights get dimmer with use.
5. I get custom lengths of chain to go on the lights. Raising and lowering the lights will be critical to successfully starting seed inside unless you’re planning to spend big bucks (and electric) on some high powered lighting. The idea is to keep the lights as close to the plants as possible because the strength of the light will drop off rapidly with distance. The exact lengths of chain you need will depend on your setup and the height of the plants you’re growing. 4ft is generally more than enough for my purposes.
6. You’re going to have to build a frame to support the lights. The frame can be made out of about anything. I used scraps of stuff I already had on hand. Had I been building new, I probably would have done it differently. I have found though that whatever your design, if possible, you want to have a smooth rounded surface where the chains from the lights wrap around as this will make it easier to raise and lower the lights. If you try some block of wood with edges, the chain will catch on the edges and be more difficult to manage. How pressed you are for space will also have a lot of bearing on your design. I utilized and existing wood bench that was a tad shorter than what I really needed. The result is that my lights butt together too closely at the ends and are spaced a bit more than I might otherwise allow. This gave me a prebuilt frame under the bench though and having two levels of lights allow me to maintain two different growing temperatures (more on this in a minute).
7. In general, seeds need no light to germinate – you can start them in the dark if you wish. However, the second they pop out of the ground, if they’re not getting sufficient light, you’re going to have a problem – a long leggy plant that is ill formed and likey to simply break off on you and die.
8. Seeds do tend to need heat to germinate, and some are VERY picky about their heat – enough so that germination will be very low (or not at all) without enough heat. Tomatoes and peppers in particular like it around 85F if they can get it. They’ll definitely germinate with less, but they’ll take longer and germination will be lower. You should make a digital thermometer part of your setup so you know what’s going on. I prefer one with indoor and outdoor settings (and hence a probe for outdoor) and I’ll put the probe in the water as with my setup, the water temperature will pretty much be the same as the temperature at the root zone and plants care a lot more about the temperature of their roots than they do the temperature of their leaves. How warm it is also tends to have a pretty heavy impact on how quickly your plants grow. The warmer it is, the faster they grow (you don’t want it warmer than whatever may be appropriate for the particular plant you’re growing though). If you’re going to grow in a colder area (basement or garage?), then you should start your seeds earlier than recommended so that they have time to grow to sufficient size.
8. I tend to use a good potting soil for my growing – something with built in fertilizer so the plants get a good start and I don’t have to worry about adding fertilizer until later. I’ve found that despite how long the bag claims the fertilizer will last, it doesn’t – possibly due to how I water. As a result, I watch the plants and when the growth seems to be lagging or the color is a bit bleached (can also happen if the plants aren’t getting enough light), I’ll add some liquid fertilizer to the water the plants get. I try to use a balanced low powered fertilizer, and I typically use less than whatever the recommended amount was. Growing your plants too quickly with large amounts of nitrogen isn’t good for them. It impacts the plant’s ability to take up other nutrients it needs, and even without the impact, other nutrients may not be available in sufficient quantities for balanced growth. High nitrogen plant growth is more attractive to aphids, leads to a weaker plant, and can lead to blossom end rot in peppers, tomatoes, and other plants (Yes, blossom end rot is a calcium deficiency, but there is almost ALWAYS enough calcium in the soil – the excess nitrogen is simply making that calcium unavailable to the plant in sufficient quantities. You don’t fix the problem by adding calcium, you fix it by cutting back on the fertilizer and/or leaching out what you already used).
9. Watering – the big trick. When watering, your plants can never have to much water. They can have a lack of oxygen at the root zone which is what really causes the issues people blame on to much water. I’m not trying to make my plants live in water though, so I don’t need to watch my dissolved oxygen levels in the water. To water the plants, I use 18 ounce plastic drinking cups. I take a stick pin and poke holes in the bottom edge of the cup (not the bottom – the holes are on the side), all the way around the cup. I fill the cup with soil, and then place the cups in a plastic bin/tray/tote/whatever that is capable of holding water. I’ll then gently (so as not to compact the soil any more than I have to) pour water in the cups to start the wicking action. From there I’ll pour water in the container holding the cups until I have around an inch or so of water. You’ll generally want to do this at least 24 hours in advance of when you want to plant. Leave it all sit and check the next day to make sure the soil at the top of the cups is just slightly moist (the soil will draw the water up through the cup – and it draws up the perfect amount. Not to much, not to little). If the soil at the top is dry, then either you need to let it sit longer, you didn’t pour enough water down through the cup to get the wicking started, or you forgot to poke holes in the cup (or possibly didn’t poke enough). When adding the soil to the cups, do try to make sure you don’t have “lumps” as large air spaces in your growing medium will interfere with the wicking and your plant roots won’t appreciate it. Once the soil at the top is appropriately damp, you’re good to plant. Just make sure the water level in the container with the cups never drops down lower than the holes in the cups. If it does, and your cup has gone dry (and the plant isn’t dead), you’ll want to pour more water IN the cup as well as the container holding the cups to insure the wicking action with the water starts up properly again. When you need to fertilize, you can pour liquid fertilizer directly in the container holding the cups. Just stir the water up some to make sure it’s dispersed well, and don’t use very much – you can always add more later, but if you use too much, things may be dead before you can fix your mistake. If you do use to much (and things aren’t dead), do a complete water change in the container holding the cups, and then flush the cups themselves with water as water is good at leaching away nitrogen.
10. Heat – I grow in a cold area (my basement) and I’m cheap so I like to get all of the bang for my buck that I can out of my lights. I use a a few layers of a thick black plastic (also purchased from Home Depot over in the painting section) to completely cover the upper section of my grow table. Because it’s black, light hitting the plastic is converted to heat. Because it’s covered, the heat tends to stay inside the plastic (heat rises). Because it’s layered, it’s more effective as I’ have air trapped between the layers which help with the insulating effect. This also captures heat given off by the lights because they’re not 100% efficient in converting electricity to light. In addition, since this is the upper section of the table, some of the heat generated by the lights below the table will rise up through the table to provide additional heat. With no heating other than the lights themselves, I can often maintain a 20 degree F temperature difference between the temperature inside and outside the plastic – so if it’s 55F in my basement, it’s 75F where the plants are – not bad. Due to this, I’m also prone to check on my plants by sticking my head under the plastic instead of raising it up which lets a lot of the heat out. This has one drawback. It’s not a problem for me, but may be a problem for you depending on where you do it. Due to the temperature difference, and the humidity under the plastic (remember all of that water in the plant trays?), you’re going to have a lot of condensation forming on the plastic and running off. The floor is going to get a bit wet sometimes.
11. Growth – as my plants get older (and taller), I tend to move them to the lights under my grow bench. This gives me room up above for new things I need to start, and it exposes the plants to colder air. This helps to slow their growth so they don’t get to big before I plant them out (you don’t want them root bound), and it also helps start the hardening process (you’ll still need to harden them off outside in the sun/shade).
12. Strength – if you live in an area that is sometimes prone to high winds, you’re going to want to try and make sure your plants get some wind (preferably from different directions) before planting out. Wind (gentle) will cause the plants to form stronger stems than they otherwise would so that hopefully the winds outside won’t just snap off the tops of your plants on you. An oscillating fan seems to work best for this. It’s not something you have to do, and you don’t need to do it the entire time you’re growing if you do (I tend to just do it towards the end), but it does help. Also remember, if your plants aren’t getting enough light, they’re naturally going to get leggy, and that tall growth is _NOT_ good growth I don’t care how tall it is. It’s a good way to kill your plant. You’ll want to keep the lights as close to the plants as you can, but the closer they are, the more often you’ll need to check them. These bulbs are cool enough that they won’t burn your plants (or you) like the high powered bulbs do – however, if your plants get to close, they’ll grow up around the bulbs in some weird growth you don’t want and you may have to take the bulbs out of the light to extract the plant.
Here are some photos:
With 05110016.JPG in particular, that shows seedlings that didn’t get enough light. The ones towards the front aren’t too bad (notice the darker color), but the fact they’re leaning like they are is a clear indication they’re trying to reach a brighter light source elsewhere. The ones in front might be decently saved. The ones in back are already too far gone to make it worth the risk of attempting to save them (assuming you still have time to start new ones). I don’t advocate attempting to use a window for light. While I suppose someone somewhere may have a window with enough light (and I’m positive it’s south facing if they do (assuming they’re in the northern hemisphere)), I have yet to find one.
Those images were resized because it seems no one really cares for or is equipped to handle high resolution photos. I can provide them in their original resolution if that’s of value to you.
If you have questions, feel free to ask, I’m happy to answer.