Spring is Coming...
It’s almost time to get back in the garden! The temperature is climbing into the 40s, and the snow is slowly peeling away from the landscape to reveal the brown grass beneath. Up here in North Dakota it’s time to start thinking about our spring gardens and starting seeds!
This is my first spring on our farmstead, so it will be my first time planting a garden on this patch of ground and really seeing what I have to work with. I knew I wanted a BIG garden, full of enough produce to make spaghetti sauce, eat fresh salads all season, and can up veggies to enjoy all winter.
Unfortunately, the shorter growing season in USDA Zone 4 forces many northern gardeners like me to purchase heat loving, slow to mature plants like tomatoes and peppers from the nursery, otherwise they’ll never give us their full harvest if we wait to direct sow seeds until the last threat of frost has passed. Purchasing seedlings from the nursery can quickly become expensive, especially when you want a large garden!
To avoid spending a small fortune this spring, I decided to start my own seeds indoors. Even though I am most certainly saving money by starting my own seeds (they average about $2.50 for a packet of 25-50 seeds), it can still be a little pricey to obtain the necessary equipment. A dedicated seed starting rack on many online vendors can cost well over $200. Let me share my tips for creating your own seed starting station for relatively little money!
Seed Starting Necessities
If you visit any website dedicated to gardening, you will most certainly find a plethora of fancy equipment developed for the excited seed starter…if you’re filthy rich or have recently won the lottery. I was astounded by the amount of money they wanted for a simple grow light! You absolutely can go all out and purchase this equipment if you have the budget (soo jealous right now), but I’m guessing those people aren’t reading this article!
Anyways, here are the items that you’ll need in order to start your own seeds:
- Seed starting medium
- Containers/seed trays
- A cover for the seed trays to retain moisture and warmth
- Grow lights (you can get away with a sunny window, but we’ll discuss why you should probably have grow lights below)
- Shelves to hold the lights and the seedlings
Not too extensive a list, right? Let’s discuss these items further!
Seed Starting Medium
If you really want to go low cost here, you can go find some soil outside, but it is highly recommended that you do not! Soil outside can contain pathogens that could potentially infect your seedling before it has a chance to get started. Also, potting soil IS NOT the same as a seed starting medium. The key difference is that seed starting mixes are sterile. There are no diseases hiding in the soil. They are also typically made of coconut coir fiber, peat moss, vermiculite, or perlite.
I chose to use Burpee Natural & Organic Seed Starting Mix, which was under $6 for a 12 qt. bag. I chose it because it’s readily available to me at almost any store that carries gardening supplies in my area, and I read on gardening forum that coconut coir is one of the best seed starting mediums because it’s light and fluffy, and it has incredible moisture retention abilities. So far, I am happy with my results!
Containers & Seed Trays
You can drop a bundle of cash on commercial containers for your seedlings, but I prefer to make my own. The only thing I actually purchased in the way of containers was the Carrot Design Newspaper Pot Maker. It’s a tool that helps you make biodegradable pots from common paper products like newspapers or paper grocery bags. You basically cut paper into strips, wrap it around the cylindrical part of the tool, and then mash it into the base to create the bottom of your pot. Super simple, super easy, and super cheap! You can even use a can or bottle to make your pots if you don’t want to purchase the Carrot.
I also used aluminum roasting pans and paper plates I found in the back of my pantry as “trays” for my paper pots. The aluminum pans can be washed and reused next season, and the paper plates can be shredded and composted after I’m done using them. If you have seedlings that don’t really like to be transplanted, like cucumbers, you can even plant the entire pot in the ground because it will degrade.
Moisture & Humidity Retaining Cover
It’s easier to encourage seeds to germinate when they remain moist and their environment is humid! Don’t worry, you don’t need a special room or any special equipment for this. I used plastic wrap draped over the top of my paper pots. You can purchase special “humidity domes,” but it is absolutely not necessary.
Remember, once your seedlings emerge and begin to push against the plastic wrap, remove the plastic wrap. They no longer need it, and allowing them good airflow will discourage mold. Keeping the plastic wrap on the seedlings might also cause them to “dampen off”, a condition where they wilt and fail to thrive.
Like I mentioned previously, you don’t need grow lights, but most seedlings won’t get enough light from your sunny picture window, unfortunately. They will stretch and bend toward the light, and this results in tall, leggy seedlings. Your goal should be short, stout seedlings with strong stems and root systems. They can grow as tall as they want outside!
As you can see in the above picture, these broccoli and cauliflower seedlings went a bit too long in my picture window before my lights showed up in the mail. They are a bit leggier than they should be, and they continue to look okay….but not as healthy as a couple of seeds I started later and promptly placed under the lights as soon as they emerged.
You don’t need to spend a fortune on grow lights. A simple shop light will do the trick. I purchased these Smart Electrician lights in a 2-pack from Menards for around $22. They have a number of other options for less than $15, as well. Suspend the lights about 2-3 inches above your seedlings and keep raising them as your seedlings grow.
Shelves & Racks
You’re going to need something for your seedlings to rest on! Seed starting racks can be as much as $200, but we’re not going to spend anywhere near that! I purchased two 24 inch plastic shelves from Menards that were under $14 apiece, then connected them to make a 48″ shelf, which matched the length of my shop lights. The shelves are not super sturdy, but for a bunch of plants they’re just fine! They were really easy to put together, as well.
Menards also offered wire shelving units in the 48″ length I wanted, but the prices started at around $60, which is more than I wanted to spend. Whichever shelving unit you choose, make sure it has a way for you to hang the shop lights. If you don’t have an unfinished spare bedroom in your basement like me, you might also want to consider how easy it is to dismantle and store the shelving unit when it is not in use.
Not so hard, right? You don’t have to have a huge budget to start seeds! You probably have most of the necessary items in your house. Maybe your spouse even has a shelving unit filled with useless junk in your garage you can use!
Products to Make Your Garden Life Easier
Although you don’t need these additional products I’m going to mention, they certainly made my life easier, which makes it more likely that my seedlings are going to survive! Check out my list below:
Light Timer: Seedlings should be under their grow lights about 16 hours per day. I don’t know about you, but I would be forgetting to turn the lights on and off all of the time, especially since my seedlings are in the basement. A simple programmable light timer solved this issue. You can get a timer for as little as $8 at almost any store, or you can splurge on a timer you can control from your phone!
Heat Mat/Germination Mat: Some plants really enjoy heat, and warm soil aids in their germination. I purchased an inexpensive heat mat from Amazon and placed heat loving crops like tomatoes and peppers on it. Most of those plants came up within two days they liked the temperature so much. Some people report difficulty encouraging heat-loving plants to germinate, so either place them on top of your fridge where they might get a little warmer, or purchase a heat mat.
Once the seeds have germinated, you can remove them from the heat mat. Most seedlings will do fine without, although they may grow a bit slower than they would in their preferred temperature. Once they are transplanted outdoors and can drink up the sun’s heat, they’ll take off again.
Plant Labels: You will want to know what you’re growing! I just used scraps of the paper grocery bags I used to make the pots because I have a lot of one thing, but you may want to consider more durable plastic plant labels if you have trays filled with numerous types of plants.
Where Do You Buy Seeds?
I can’t make a seed starting post without telling you where I buy my seeds! These are my favorites:
Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds
This site is probably my all-time favorite site to purchase seeds from. They have hundreds of varieties of heirloom seeds, the kind our ancestors used to grow! They have so many great plants that are not only tasty to eat, but they are not plants you see in the grocery store, or even the average garden. If you want a delicious food garden that is beautiful to look at and starts conversations with your neighbors, take a look at Baker Creek’s selection!
Also note, heirloom seeds mean that you can save the seeds from your harvest, and next year you will get the exact same plant you grew the year before. HUGE money saver, yet again. Saving seeds year after year means you can plant a garden at very low cost, or for free!
They do offer a limited selection of old-timey flower seeds, as well, but their main attraction is definitely their vegetables. Make sure to sign up for their catalog when you visit their website!
I don’t typically purchase vegetable seeds from Burpee because they are a bit more expensive than Baker Creek and I like Baker Creek’s selection more, but Burpee is my go-to for flowers, and even live plants! They have everything you could possibly dream of, and you can easily filter each category by grow zone or light requirement.
They also have a wide selection of fruiting trees and bushes. This year I purchased raspberry canes, and I can’t wait for them to show up sometime after April 27th!
**Due to COVID-19, many seed companies are experiencing unprecedented orders, so they are temporarily shutting down their websites so they can catch up at the time of this post.**
No matter what is going on in the world, I would recommend ordering your seeds in January to ensure you receive them quickly and are able to purchase exactly what you want. Some popular seeds are always out of stock by March. I’m so glad I did, because it seems like it’s now incredibly difficult to get ahold of any of the more popular varieties that I enjoy!
Do you have any tips for the thrifty, seed starting gardener? Drop them in the comments below!