Planting a vegetable garden is an immensely rewarding activity, and starting your own plants from seed makes it that much better. With seed starting, you can control what goes into your soil, while commercial seedlings can bring diseases and other harmful substances into you garden. Growing from seed also gives you access to a much greater and tastier variety of vegetables -- older, heirloom varieties, as well as unique and interesting produce that is known to work especially well in your zone and specific climate.
For most of us, frost, snow and cold temperatures prevent us from starting seeds outside in time for lots of spring and summer veggies. So, build your own easy and affordable seed starting rig and begin your seedlings inside. Then, transplant them in your garden to grow and produce all those tasty fruits and veggies.
Tools and Materials
- Containers for growing your seedlings (see Step 1)
- Two 4' T8 fluorescent shop light fixtures from the hardware store
- Four T8 fluorescent tubes bulbs - full spectrum or two warm and two cool (see step 4)
- Chain and hardware (screw hooks)
- Light timer
- Potting mix
- Plant labels (you can make your own from craft sticks or recycled plastic)
1. Begin by selecting your containers to grow your seeds. You can use egg cartons, DIY seed starting cups made from newspaper, which will decompose into the soil, or buy specialty trays from the garden center. Here, we're using seed starting trays that we given to me from a local farm. Whatever you use, just make sure the cells or cups have proper drainage -- poke holes in the bottom with a nail, awl, or small drill bit.
2. Fill your containers with soil, and shake or press down lightly to flatten. Then, follow the directions on your seed packet to determine the right planting depth; create a small divot and place two to three seeds in each; and cover with soil.
3. Mark your seeds so you can remember what you've planted! Here, we're using some old clothespins, but you could make yours from anything that can get a little wet, like popsicle sticks, plastic knives, or balsa wood.
4. In order to mimic the sun, your grow lights need to have a full spectrum of light, that is, all the color temperatures that the sun produces naturally, from about 2000 to 7000 Kelvin. You can buy specialty grow bulbs, but your hardware store or home center likely sells full spectrum bulbs with the regular fluorescent tubes. If you can't find them, buy one two-pack each of warm (red) and cool (blue) 40-watt tubes, and place one of each in each shop light.
5. Hang your light fixtures from some sturdy surface. If you have a basement, hang them from the floor joists. You could also hang them inside a book shelf, under a table, or you could build an inexpensive rig from PVC or galvanized pipe fittings, which can be disassembled for storage. You want to hang the lights around 2-3 inches from the soil at first, and then move them up the chain (or re-tie the rope) to keep the same distance as the plants grow.
6. You should try to give your grow lights a natural day, which means 16 hours of light, and eight hours of darkness. Using a lighting timer guarantees that the lights will be on and off as necessary. To care for your plants, water them regularly but sparingly. Use a spray bottle and give them a little mist in the morning. Make sure the soil is damp but still fluffy and light. Overwatering compacts the soil, making it very difficult for the young roots to push through. If your lighting setup doesn't light each cell evenly, regular rotation and moving of the seed trays will help give even light.
7. You can keep your seedlings under your grow lights for as long as necessary, until you transplant them in the garden bed, letting the real sun work it's magic. Happy gardening.