Indoor Seed Starting

A few people have asked me about seed starting indoors and now is the time to do it. ┬áMy setup is quite large and allows me to have 32 seed flats under lights at one time. It’s composed of two stainless steel shelving units, 16 shop lights and 32 bulbs. Remember I have 10,000 square feet of vegetables, herbs and flowers to grow. I certainly didn’t buy all of this at one time either, instead I started with just a shelf and two shop lights and slowly grew it as the need arose. For your average small garden space of one or two hundred square feet, then a single shelf and two to four seed trays may be more than sufficient for vegetables, herbs and some extra flowers for the front yard.

My first year at gardening I quickly realized that purchasing plant starts can rapidly get out of hand, particularly if you kill your tomatoes like I did. I haven’t purchased a seedling since. The store’s vegetable starts are also frequently problematic with poor nutrition, chemical fertilizers, poisonous pesticide and fungicides, reduced or missing biological life and nearly always a poor root mass. Even the ones growing in those peat pots can struggle particularly if the biology isn’t functioning. Besides, growing from seed is far more satisfying and the variety of plants you can grow is exponentially more. And, if you’re like me and want high quality nutrient dense food a biologically dead soil isn’t going to do it for you. Additionally, depending upon how many starts you were going to buy, the cost of your indoor setup at least will pay for itself on your first year. My setup has probably paid for itself ten times over by now. As for the electric bill, it hardly budged, the lamp in your living room consumes more energy then a whole shop light.

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My lights are setup in a previously unused space in the basement were the temperatures are usually about 65 or 70 f. This is optimal germination temperature for just about all seeds. However, for seeds that need more warmth like peppers, tomatoes and celery, I use a seedling heating mat until they germinate, then remove the mat as the extra warmth is only needed to induce germination not plant growth. My wife would like me to find a couple of lemon trees so perhaps next winter I will buy a high powered grow light for the trees if I have enough money. Be aware that my description here is for standard fluorescent bulbs, not expensive high power grow lights that would burn your plants at the two inch distance I recommend here.

What about growing in the window sill? It certainly does work, but plant stress can significantly effect your outcome. At least in my area, most winter and spring weather means clouds more often than not and I don’t even have a suitable south facing window to use, or 32 of them, that isn’t at least partially obscured by trees. Outdoor greenhouse growing can work well too but you have to me much more careful about temperature swings, heating when its too cold and ventilation when its too hot.

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Here is a detailed description of my setup. There are certainly many ways to accomplish this but I have had a lot of success with this one:

  1. Shelving. I use a stainless steel shelving unit picked up from a big box store. It’s four foot wide and deep enough that I can place four seed flats width-wise per shelf. It contains 5 total shelves, I use only the bottom four for the lights and the top for storage.
  2. Four foot long T5 shop light with a reflective back cover and holds at least two bulbs. One shop light is sufficient for two flats per shelf, but two shop lights will allow you to have four flats per shelf.
  3. Two s-hooks to hang each light from their short chains to the shelf above it. You can then easily adjust the height of the lights using the links of the chain.
  4. Two standard 32 W 5000K sunshine fluorescent bulbs for each shop light. I compared these to similar specially designed (marketed) grow lights and the only difference I could identify was these are 1/4 the cost.
  5. Electrical timer. I set this to run for 16 hours, turning on at 6:00 AM and off at 10:00 PM.
  6. Once your seed trays are in place, adjust the height of each light so it is about two inches above your plants. As the plants grow slowly raise the lights so they are always a little above them.

Now bask in the glow of your growing accomplishments.

~Sean

Soil Blocks: the Building Blocks of Life

Within the first few days of seed germination the maximum yield for your vegetable plant has already been determined. From that point on any and all types of stress that the plant sustains has a direct impact upon your harvest, be it from the weather, nutrients, water, chickens, children, insects, cloudy days, etc. Thus any effort you make to increase your yield in reality is an effort made to decrease your loss of yield. As garden manager, your role then is to identify ways to reduce plant stress at every possible stage to ensure a bounteous crop of nutrient rich food.

blockerThe place to start your plant stress reduction strategies is during seeding, actually it starts with seed selection but that’s for another time. I quickly learned during my first year of indoor seed starting that there was a trick to accomplishing this successfully. First, it didn’t take me long to realized that I was going to have to replace all my black plastic seedling flats every single year, they sure make those things cheap. It also just pains me to have to buy the same thing over and over again year after year, but what other options were available? A little bit of online research revealed to me another method and no more plastic cells and pots. Instead, the pot can be made of the soil itself, soil blocks!

With soil blocks, my young plants grew more vigorously and were highly resistant to the stress of transplant shock. Also, the seedling roots no longer spiraled out of control at the bottom of the cell or pot, but instead upon hitting the outside air the roots will check their own growth and then shoot off again after transplanting. Additionally, losses due to transplant shock were very rare with almost 100% transplant success. There are however a few new concerns. First, you have to be more careful with watering, the extra soil surface area dry’s out a little faster, but that’s easily managed. The other thing is that it’s more time consuming to build the blocks, but this is one area you can have a big impact on plant stress and its worth the extra time, besides its still winter and it gives me something enjoyable to do.

If you want to try soil blocks here is my method, there are many variations so don’t think this is the only way:

  1. soilblocksPick up the soil blocker of your choice off the internet, you can even find directions for making your own. I purchased a 4-cell two inch block maker and it will last me a lifetime of use.
  2. Pick up several higher quality leak proof seedling flats, still black plastic but reusable every year. Naturally they cost a little more, but the price makes up for itself after only one year. Whatever trays you use its important that they do not leak. All the trays I bought from the big box store’s were junk.
  3. Pick up an equal number of black plastic flats that are perforated, or just melt some extra holes into the ones you were going to throw away from last year. The flats I found at my local seed store were exactly that.
  4. Insert the perforated flat into the leek proof flat. When you want to water your blocks gently pull the top tray out, add water to the bottom tray and reinsert the top tray. Always bottom water your soil blocks.
  5. Make your block mixture. There is a trick to this, if you use the wrong materials, not enough water, or too much water then your blocks may not work out. I use about 80% soil less seed starting mixture, 10% high quality worm castings, 5% rock dust, 5% kelp meal and a bacteria/fungal biological inoculation. Mix with water to the right consistency and start making your blocks.
  6. Space the blocks on your trays so there is at least a 1/2 inch of space between them.
  7. Drop your seed of choice into the small hole at the top. Then for most seeds I take a pinch of the soil less mixture and cover the seed, followed with a squirt from the spray bottle to dampen it.
  8. Cover with a clear plastic dome to create a moist environment and wait for germination.
  9. Drink a nice glass of wine to celebrate your hard work and reduce your own stress.

~Sean