There’s no way around it: this winter has been a doozy. I’ve kind of lost track of all of the stats that have been thrown around over the course of the last month, but I’m pretty sure that somewhere along the line I heard that this is officially the coldest winter of my entire life. If ever a statement called for a good old fashioned Minnesota “Uff da,” this is it.
Luckily, seed staring season is just around the corner, and at this point I can think of no better way to start thinking spring than to get my fingers in a little soil and plant the first seeds of the year. I have another week or two before I will begin planting, which means it’s time to get serious about ordering my seeds, rounding up supplies, and getting my seed starting set up ready!
I get a lot of questions about seed starting this time of year, so I’ve organized the most common questions into a week’s worth of seed starting posts, which I hope you will find helpful in your own seed starting preparations in the coming weeks and months (and if you have a burning seed starting question, hit me up and I’ll do my best to add it on!). Together, we’ll be ready for seed starting in no time! Up first: the all important question of what supplies are needed for seed starting. I’ll break down the list of essential supplies (as well as a few optional, but helpful supplies) and give you a run down of where to find what you’ll need. Whenever possible, I’ve included low and no-cost alternatives as well.
The best seedlings come from seed that is viable, disease-free, and saved from healthy and vigorous plant stock. Seeds are available for order from a wide variety of reputable seed companies, or you can pick up seed packets locally from your garden center of choice, and just about every co-op, hardware, big box, or grocery store this time of year. With seed companies, you’ll find a wider selection than most stores, but with a careful eye and little shopping around, you can definitely score some unique varieties, heirlooms, and organic seed from these in-store seed displays as well. Determining which one is right for you comes down to what is on your grow list, and how particular you are about getting your hands on specific varieties or organic seed. Personally, I do a little of both, ordering more unique heirloom varieties online, and picking up the more commonly available varieties locally. Finding a seed company that produces its seed as close to your geographical region as possible can also be helpful to ensure the seeds are well-adapted for your particular growing conditions.
Another great option for finding seed is to join a seed swap. Keep an eye out for local events hosted by garden clubs, Master Gardeners, or community garden organizations, or join an online seed swap group. You do assume a little bit of risk in seed swaps, as not all seed savers are as meticulous about ensuring seed purity, viability, and disease-prevention, as you might like, but that is usually the exception, and not the rule. In general seed swappers are a very well-informed group of people who take a lot of care in saving seed, because they also grow the seed they save. If in doubt, don’t be afraid to ask questions prior to swapping.
The “dirt” you’ll need for starting seeds is not really soil at all, but usually a blend of different components that are well suited for growing delicate seedlings. These starter mixes are specifically for seed starting and are light, fine-textured, and ideally, contain slow-release nutrients. Avoid heavy and coarse-textured potting soils and anything that appears to have mold or fungus present. Garden centers, big box stores, and local hardware stores typically carry a small to moderate selection of organic and non-organic starter mixes. You can also purchase starter mix components individually and mix your own. For a wider variety of options, specialty mixes, or bulk quantities, you might have better luck with a reputable online source.
The most important things to look for in a container for seed starting are good drainage, appropriate size, and that the container is made of food-safe materials. Your local garden center or gardening section of the hardware store will carry a variety of seed starting containers. You’ll find plastic cells and plastic pots in a variety of sizes, as well as a variety of plantable starter pots made from peat, coconut coir, and even composted manure. Many gardeners opt to purchase an inexpensive package of paper or plastic cups from the dollar store to use for seed starting.
For a no-cost option, you can make your own starter pots from common household items, like newspaper or cardboard tubes, or reuse items that would otherwise end up in your recycling bin, like egg cartons and yogurt containers. It’s also worth hitting up garden centers at the big box home improvement stores at the end of the season. Local greenhouses will reuse their flats for the next season, but big box stores rarely send them back to the greenhouse, which means they have a large recycling pile somewhere nearby. If you ask, they’ll usually let you take whatever you can use.
There’s a lot more to say on the different options for starter pots, as well as their advantages and disadvantages, but I’m going to save that for this post!
Drip Trays + Germination Covers
No matter what you choose to use for seed starting containers, they will need to sit inside a drip tray of some sort. A good drip tray should obviously be waterproof, have a good lip to keep water from running out (but not such tall sides that it prevents the seedlings from receiving adequate light), and be sturdy enough that it can be picked up an moved around easily with the weight of the seedlings. Your local garden center or garden section of the hardware store will likely carry large, inexpensive plastic trays for this very purpose (get the sturdiest ones you can get your hands on). You can also improvise with dollar store finds, like aluminum baking pans, or any number of things you might already have in your home, like baking sheets, dish pans, and shallow storage bins or tubs.
When you’re browsing the seed starting section, you’ll also find clear plastic germination covers. They fit right over the drip trays, and help hold in heat and moisture to keep conditions inside the tray perfect for germination. Because they are only used until the seeds have germinated, you may decide that they are not worth the purchase, and that is just fine. Many people start seeds without them, or use one of these no- and low-cost alternatives: plastic wrap, a similarly-shaped plastic container from the produce section or bakery, or even a clear plastic cake pan cover. The most important thing to remember is to take the germination cover off as soon as the seedlings have emerged, to provide the air flow necessary to prevent damping off.
Unless you are fortunate enough to have a magnificently large south-facing window that gets at least 10-12 hours of direct sunlight a day, it is worth making an investment in lights for your seed starting set up. Seedlings need high intensity light, and the best way to get that intensity is to use florescent bulbs that can be placed about 2″ from the seedlings (incandescent lights will give off too much heat to be used in this same way). The most affordable option is to use “cool” white florescent bulbs, which definitely will provide adequate light for seed starting (experts agree on this). If you want to take it up a notch, you could opt for the more expensive full-spectrum bulbs, or even a combination of one cool and one (slightly more expensive) “warm” bulb (this middle ground is often called “fuller spectrum” light), both of which will give provide more red and blue wavelengths than the cool light. Ultimately, intensity is much more important than spectrum, so whichever bulbs you use, keep them close to your seedlings.
As you shop around, you’ll find that when it comes to grow lights, there is a wide variety of options in wide variety of price ranges. You’ll find the best selection and price at hardware and home improvement stores, but for specialty lights, you will likely have to look for an online seed or garden supply company. For the average gardener, pricey specialty grow lights are not worth it (don’t get me wrong, I’d LOVE to have one – and they probably are actually pretty fantastic, but unless you are growing greenhouse quantities, it doesn’t make sense to blow the budget when you can get good quality bulbs that will yield strong and healthy plants at a more reasonable price). Because the bulbs are what really matter, I would recommend finding the best price you can on quality bulbs, and then find the cheapest shop light fixture that will support the bulbs of your choice (you can also save a bit of money by buying your bulbs by the case, rather than individually or in pairs).
If you’re planning to start seeds, you need to think about where you’ll have space for them. Many homes already have a space that can double as a seed starting set up for a few months out of the year (a laundry room counter, a folding table in front of the patio door, a workbench in the basement). If you do not already have a suitable space for your seed starting set up, you might consider creating one. Seed starting racks can be found through most seed and garden supply companies, but there are also a variety of affordable shelving units that are perfect for seed starting (here’s a quick look at mine), or if you’re handy, you can build one with little more effort than rounding up some scrap wood and a handful of screws. The most important thing to remember when setting up for seed starting is to keep your seedlings away from strong drafts, which can make conditions too cold and cause problems with the seedlings’ ability to take up nutrients.
Plant Markers (optional, but worth it)
Unless you’re only starting one variety each of very easy to distinguish plants, it is enormously helpful to devise a plan to label your seedlings. This can be as simple as a quickly drawn map, or as involved as a creative DIY project. If you’re looking for something strictly utilitarian, you can find basic plastic plant markers wherever you find other seed starting supplies. You can also use craft popsicle sticks, plastic cutlery, or even simple printed labels that go on the outside of the pots or drip trays.
Timer (optional, but worth it)
While you can certainly start seeds without the use of a timer, it is definitely a tool that makes your job much, much easier. You don’t have to worry about remembering to turn the lights on early every morning, and off late each night. If you do not already have one packed away with the Christmas lights, you can find timers in the same aisle as the extension cords and power strips. If you’re planning ahead, the very best time of year to pick one up is the day after Christmas.
Heat Mat (optional, but worth it)
I was initially skeptical of the actual need for a heat mat, but after a few seasons of using one, I’m sold. Heat mats make a huge difference in those early days, especially if your house tends to be a little on cooler side. It used to be that it was difficult to find heat mats outside of the more expensive ones offered in seed catalogs, but I’ve noticed that they are starting to become more widely available (and more affordable, too). I picked up a couple of mats for around $20 each last spring at a home improvement store, and then came back later in the season when they started to close out the garden supplies and picked up another two for $10 each. The best no-cost alternative to a heat mat is actually to set your seed trays on top of the refrigerator or freezer.
Fan (optional, but helpful)
Aiming a low-running fan at your seedlings is a great way to strengthen the stems and prepare your seedlings to stand up to the wind when they move out to the garden. Again, this can easily be a double duty investment, using a fan you already have at home, but if you’re looking for a specific size or style that fits well in your seed starting set up, hit up your local home improvement store. If you don’t use a fan, you can simulate the same effect by regularly brushing your hand across the tops of your seedlings.
Watering Can + Spray Bottle (optional, but helpful)
Bottom watering is the very best way to water your seedlings, and you will be doing it often for the next several weeks, so rounding up a watering vessel that makes it easy to accomplish this is always a good idea. Depending on how your seed starting set up is configured, that might mean reusing the same basic water bottle or finding a cheap watering can for houseplants at your local dollar store. And speaking of dollar store finds, an inexpensive spray bottle is a great way to keep seeds from drying out (without the risk of washing away) until they germinate and take root.
Garden Journal (optional, but helpful)
Like marking your plants, you may think you’ll remember exactly when you started the seeds, or when the first true leaves set, but chances are it will gradually all blur together in your memory. If keeping track of these details is important to you, keep a garden journal or notepad near your seed starting set up where you can jot down notes on everything from days to germination and germination rates, to when you last rotated the seedlings under the lights or gave the seedlings a light feeding of fish emulsion.
Hand Tools (optional, but helpful)
And finally, here are a few hand tools that you might want to round up when you’re ready to start seeds: A scoop or old measuring cup is great for blending starter mix and filling starter pots; a pencil, chopstick, or skewer works great as a dibbler and to make sure that surface-sown seeds make good contact with the starting medium; and a scissors works great for thinning out seedlings without disturbing the roots of the plants you intend to keep.