Friday, February 12, 2010

Starting seeds for mere peanuts

February can be a trying month for gardeners. The spring seed catalogs are starting to roll in, but most days are too cold, windy, wet and/or overcast to facilitate much outdoor work. Even on the rare sunny day, temperatures are still too cold for planting heat-loving crops. While lettuce and carrots will germinate at temps as low as 45°F, tomatoes need a minimum of 70°F.
Spring seed catalogs

Several garden bloggers have been posting about starting seeds indoors--a great way to get ahead of the spring gardening game. I've turned spring green with gardener's envy at some of the elaborate set-ups I've seen: triple-tier metal stands with T-5 grow lights and heat mats and what not. Looking at these systems, I see why the scotch bonnet seeds I tried to start in the garage last winter didn't work well -- no light and no heat! The few seeds that did sprout quickly turned gangly and flopped over before any true leaves formed.

Alas, top notch seed starting systems with grow lights can be very pricey, anywhere from a couple of hundred bucks up to over $600! So tonight, buoyed by posts on The Greenest Dollar and the Simple Green Frugal Co-op, I started thinking about what I had around the house that I could cobble together to make a DIY seed starting system, and this is what I came up with. It's sitting in the corner of my living room (the only spot I have for it!).
DIY Seed Starting System
OK, so it ain't pretty, but I'm thinking it just might work. The "grow light" is a Coralife aquarium light that a friend gave me last year. It's 24 inches long and puts out 130 watts of light (two-65 watt double compact fluorescent lamps). If it's suitable for growing live aquarium plants, I figure it'll sprout some seeds. (I did spend some coin to swap its actinic blue light out for a 10,000K full spectrum light.) The "heat mat" is an old three-setting heating pad that has no auto shut-off. And the cinder blocks supporting the light fixture are, well, cinder blocks. As the plants get taller, I figure I can up-end the blocks to raise the fixture.

Whaddya think? Would it work? Why not? "What could possibly go wrong?" I'm all ears. Until I hear back from you, I'm off to dig the toilet paper rolls out of the recycling bin to make seed starting pots!

Words and photos © 2009-2010 Caroline Homer for "The Shovel-Ready Garden". Unauthorized reproduction is prohibited.

13 comments:

  1. Hah - I think we think along the same frugal lines! I read somewhere that you can use an ordinary shop light with one warm and one cool bulb for a full spectrum. I did spring for warming mats - they are nice, and waterproof. Everything's in the basement laundry room,attached to timers, and it ain't pretty, but it works! Great post.

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  2. I love it...I use an old piano light for mine on the kitchen table!

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  3. Caroline,
    That looks fabulous. I use ordinary shop lights with ordinary bulbs for my set up and it works great.

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  4. Aren't you smart. That is a much better idea than spending 600 dollars on the equipment.

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  5. Well, I don't know -- the $600 setup looks much nicer and has three levels of lights. I just don't have the money or the room for it!

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  6. Hi Caroline!

    I like your system. I'm a sucker for spending money (I like gear) and though I've tried lots of different systems, my favorite method is similar to yours. My heating pad works just fine. I have a melamine (I think) tray from IKEA that fits perfectly over the heating pad. I'm really paranoid about containing moisture so I don't spark something and burn the house down. So on top of that, I used those black rectangular carry out containers. They fit 6 little peat pots perfectly. I keep a container with a turkey baster to quickly and gently water all my seedlings. I should post photos of my system. Pretty ghetto, but works really well for me.

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  7. I like Wendy's suggestions. You need to make sure that the seeds don't get too much heat as otherwise they will cook and moisture needs to be kept away from the pad. I have a similar set up in my greenhouse. I have two little tables with slat tops and I position my greenhouse heater so that it puts the heat under the tables. It is amazing how quickly some seeds germinate. Good luck with your seeds.

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  8. Looks like it'll work to me, Caroline! I spent about $70 on my "system" which is basically two shop lights suspended by chains from the ceiling. I've got two fixtures that hold 2 48-inch bulbs each. The total lumens produced by the set of shop lights is around 12,000. I had found this before regarding how many lumens you should have per square foot in order to support growth:

    "Current theory hold that the minimum amount of lighting needed to sustain growth is around 2,000 lumens per square foot. Mid range is around 5,000 per square foot. Optimal is 7,000 to 7,500 or higher lumens per square foot ... 50 watts per square foot is optimal."

    You factor the square footage of the area by multiplying depth and width. I have a two foot wide by one foot space I want to illuminate, so 2 square feet. I would need 10,000-15,000 lumens.

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  9. Interesting! I wonder how many lumens this fixture puts out? It has one 10000K bulb and one 6500K bulb. Both bulbs are 65 watts. I don't see anything on the 10000K bulb box about lumens.

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  10. The 10000K high-intensity bulb offers quite a bit all by itself. Not quite sure, but I would guess excess of 7,000 lumens. Does that bulb get hot?

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  11. No, the bulb doesn't get hot - it's a compact fluorescent variety for freshwater aquarium plants.

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  12. I am a big fan of starting plants from seed, the miracle of it gets me every time. Last weekend I sowed seeds for tons of greens and herbs, as well as ornamentals like Pride of Barbados and oriental poppies.

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  13. Interesting! I was just thinking about replacing my old fluorescent fixture in my seed-starting setup with a T5 aquarium light. I think they're basically the same as what's sold in garden catalogs, but cheaper. I wondered if the actinic bulb would provide valuable additional wavelengths of light, or conversely, just not be bright enough for plant growth.

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