Six on Saturday 3-10-18, Why and How to Start Your Own Garden Seeds

Basil seedling emerges from a well-soaked peat pot.

A couple of weeks ago, I was ruminating over starting my own seeds or just buying plants and then plopping them in the ground. Starting garden seeds is a time investment, and time is that commodity we are all careful about spending.

Inspired by a YouTube video on building a light apparatus, I went out and bought the PVC pipe, assembled the thing, and set up my seed starting. It’s probably been ten years since I’ve grown my own seedlings. I still had a heating coil attached to hardware cloth, a timer, and fluorescent light fixtures.

Grow light apparatus is made from PVC pipe.
The light fixture assembly is easy to assemble and disassemble.

The Best Starter Mix for Garden Seeds

At the local discount store, I stocked up on seed, starting trays, and garden seed starter mix (sphagnum and perlite, basically).

It took a few days to get myself motivated to actually plant. I really dislike the process of soaking the potting mix and scooping it into the trays. That’s kind of funny because I spend so much time digging in the dirt!

But, sphagnum is different. It tends to float on the air as you open the package and pour in the water. I usually end up breathing some in and getting it on my clothes and the floor. Sure, I work in the basement, but every spill means more cleanup time.

You may think, “Lady, just use regular potting mix for your garden seeds, and make your life easier.” If you’ve ever started your own garden seeds before, you know that this is a bad idea. The reason sphagnum is sold as a starter mix is because it has a great texture and breathability that promotes seedling health and vigorous root growth. The dreaded damping-off disease is kept at bay.

So, I finally bit the bullet last Sunday and moistened and mixed the seed starter, planted and labeled the seeds, and set the trays on the heating cable.

Garden seed starter mix is soaked in warm water before filling the planting trays.
Sphagnum comes dry from the bag, so you need to let it soak in water until it is completely moistened. I use a 20 gallon tub to mix the garden seed starter mix with warm water

After Sphagnum Starter Mix, a Heating Cable Is the Seed Starter’s Best Friend

Another investment that has paid itself off a hundred times over is my heating cable. It is attached to hardware cloth with wire, so that the cable stays flat and heats evenly beneath the starting trays. It keeps the garden seeds at a constant 70°F (21° C) to promote germination.

The warmth also discourages mold from growing, thus keeping the seedlings happy.

Heating cable wired to hardware cloth
A heating cable for garden seed starting can make the difference between success and failure.
A yogurt container is cut into small, long rectangles to use as plant markers.
Cut up plastic containers and lids to make plant markers.

Now, Wait for Germination

As I pushed the trays under the lighting apparatus and plugged in the cable, I felt a great sense of satisfaction. I expected to see some germination in a week or so.

Happily, I was mistaken. By Tuesday, (yes, Day 2!!) I was already seeing tiny alyssum (Lobularia maritima) seedlings. Unbelievable!

Next, the basil and cosmos (Cosmos bipinnatus) started popping up, and now the tomatoes have joined the party.

The light fixtures is turned on for about 12 hours a day. They are lowered to within a few inches of the seedling tops, to keep the plants strong. I wish someone had told me this the first few times a grew seedlings!

Lights are kept within a few inches of plant tops.
With the assistance of a heating cable, most of the seedlings have emerged in five days. The lights should be kept within a few inches of the plant tops.

The Satisfaction of Seed Starting

I am feeling good about my decision to start my own garden seeds. The benefits of choosing the varieties you like, avoiding the importation of weeds, pests and disease, and growing healthy plants far outweighs a little inconvenience and time investment.

Now, I will focus on keeping these little babes alive until it’s time to plant out. Wish us luck!

Basil seedling emerges from a well-soaked peat pot.
Basil seedlings began to emerge about five days after planting.

My Six on Saturday story is at its end for the week. To read posts from other gardeners around the world, visit The Propagator!

-Jo
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17 comments

  1. Wow – I’m from the UK and haven’t seen a seed growing set up like that before. Looks great and much better than my windowsill!

    1. I never had luck with the windowsill, we always seem to live somewhere surrounded by trees (not complaining!). Using florescent lights and PVC, the set up is actually economical. Also, we have a very short growing season, planting out around May 15 but tomato, cukes, parsley don’t get warm enough to germinate til mid June.

    2. If the windowsill worked for me, I’d definitely go that route!

  2. This is quite a set up. I must be the laziest gardener on the planet. Buy the cheapest multi-purpose compost, don’t necessarily bother with vermiculite, don’t worry too much about spritzing (use jug or mug or anything to hand) and stick them on the windowsill. But I do sow easy seeds. Whereabouts are you?

    1. We are near Cleveland, Ohio, I wish I could get a good start but the weather is unpredictable; frosts through April, scorching hot and dry in July

  3. Well done, you! A great setup and a clear and informative post. I look forward to seeing your seeds sprout, grow and thrive.

    1. Thanks! Fingers crossed

  4. Your seeds really are getting VIP treatment. I was a bit rough and ready with my first batch of seeds and only half have germinated so I need to pay a visit to the garden centre today to find some better seed solutions.

    1. The first time I tried to grow my own seedlings, they germinated great and looked beautiful. Then, a few days later I saw that they had all flopped over and died, though the soil was wet. Found out that this is called “damping off.” After that disappointment, I started using sphagnum and a heating cable.

  5. Lora Hughes says:

    My seed propagation is akin to Ali’s above, but I admit, I’ve been watching your set-up evolve over the last few weeks, & you make it look easy. Because you’ve broken down the equipment needs, I can see that even the initial floostering around is minimal & will last season after season. May have to explore my attic as a possible propagation centre.

    1. Yes, I almost feel embarrassed by the comments, because it really isn’t elaborate or difficult. I have been using the same equipment since 1988! Only new stuff is changing the light bulbs and hanging the chain from the PVC instead of the rafters. It’s easier for me to keep an eye on things indoors, especially in our climate and fauna-filled neighborhood!

    2. The attic would be a great option, especially for the warmth!

      1. Lora Hughes says:

        It’s tickled me that Fred the French Gardener kept his plants in his attic, but then when I learned my new house’d been a former grow house, it seemed like a really good idea.

  6. You are splendidly organised!Thank you for a most motivational post.

    1. Well, I may look organized…

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