Seed Starting 101 – The Set-Up

For our family, gardening has many purposes.  It’s a hobby that we enjoy and therefore a great stress reliever.  It is also a way to ensure that the food we eat is high quality and free from potentially toxic chemicals.   But another reason gardening is important to us – it saves us money.

If you really want to make gardening inexpensive, you should start your own seeds.  A pack of 30 heirloom/organic tomato seeds from a reliable seed catalog will run you about $3.  If you buy the seeds from Walmart or a home improvement store, it will be even less.  If you were to purchase 30 tomato transplants from those same stores, it would probably run you $60-90.  In addition to the financial savings, starting your own seeds gives you access to a wider selection of plant varieties that aren’t typically available as transplants at the store.

The one issue with that impressive seed to transplant cost comparison above is the initial investment required to obtain all your seed starting equipment.  In this post we want to show you our current low-cost seed starting set-up.  I’ve numbered the items in each photo and provided a brief description, as well as the cost and a link to where you can purchase online if applicable.

Our seed starting area is located in the laundry room of our basement.  Because our home is a split level the basement has windows, one of which faces south.  As you can see below it gets a fair amount of natural light.  However, relying on natural light alone can lead to leggy seedlings, so we are using artificial lights as well.  Our basement can get cold, so we use a space heater in this room when if it gets to cold to make sure we maintain a 60-70 degree room temperature.

Ikea Shelf, Walmart Lights, Amazon Timer, Walmart Seed Tray, Aldi Heating Pad

1.  Ikea Gorm Shelf – $40     We bought one 31w x 22d x 68h shelf unit and then cut the vertical posts in half.  This gives us 2 shelves which are 62 inches long.  The longer shelf length is necessary to accommodate the shop lights.

2.  Walmart Shop Light – $10 with 2 Daylight T8 bulbs – $10   For the lights, we used basic 4′ long shop lights from Walmart.  These have a good size reflector and hold 2 bulbs, which provides a lot of light to the seedlings.  It’s not necessary to buy plant/aquarium bulbs which are more expensive.  So far it seems that the daylight bulbs are providing enough quality light for our seedlings. Although you see 3 lights here, you only need 2 – I address this more below.

3.  2 Outlet Indoor Mechanical Timer – $10  We bought this timer on Amazon to plug the lights into.  This way we don’t have to worry about turning them on and off each day.  We have them set to be on for 14 hours a day.

4.  Walmart Jiffy 72 Cell Seed Starting Tray with Greenhouse – $3  This is one of the only containers we purchased this year to start seeds in.  It’s important to get the one with the greenhouse.  The greenhouse helps keep the seeds moist for germination.  While the seeds are germinating, we keep them on the deep freeze out of the light.  Once we have a few sprouts, we remove the greenhouse and put the tray under the lights.

5.  Aldi Heating Pad – $15  Certain seeds need warmer soil for germination – like tomatoes, peppers and eggplant.  We picked this heating pad up when we randomly saw it on sale at Aldi.  The one we got has 3 settings as well as an automatic shut off.  You don’t want to use an old one you find in your parent’s basement – it will probably be too hot and can be a fire hazard if you leave it on all day.  Alternatively, there are many seed heating mats available on Amazon for about $30.  We have been reluctant to spend the money on one, but I think we will have to soon.

6.  Home Depot Shop Light with Plant/Aquarium Bulbs – $35  We purchased this light before we found option 2 at Walmart.  The Home Depot light has a smaller reflector, providing less light, and was more expensive.  For this one we bought the more expensive Plant/Aquarium bulbs, but it seems like the Daylight ones are working fine.

7.  Home Depot Chain – $3  The lights came with hanging chains, but they weren’t long enough to hang the lights only a few inches above the plants.  So we bought an extra 3′ to hang them lower.

Aluminum Tray, Recycled Chinese Container, Popsicle Sticks

8.  Dollar Store Aluminum Cookie Sheet – 2/$1  Because there are holes in the bottoms of all the containers to help prevent over-watering, it’s important to have a tray underneath so we don’t end up with water all over the shelves and floor!  These have worked out great for us – the size and price are just right.

9.  Recycled Chinese Takeout Container – Free!  We reuse a lot of the plastic containers that are destined for the recycling bin for seed starting containers.  We prefer to use something with a clear plastic lid – which can serve as the greenhouse during seed germination.  Drill a few holes in the bottom of each container to allow for drainage of excess water.

10.  Craft Popsicle Sticks – $3 for 75  These would have been cheaper at the Dollar Store, but I picked them up at Micheal’s when I was getting other art supplies.  We mark the seed variety in permanent marker and place in each container.  In the past, we have had trouble keeping track of what variety each seedling is.  Many garden store will sell actual plant labels, but they are typically more expensive and seem to funtion much the same way.  One note – if you can get tongue depressors instead, they are sterile which is helpful if you are worried about any fungal issues.

Reused Burpee Seed Tray, Recycled Yogurt Container, Recycled Cheese Container

11.  Reused Burpee Seed Tray – Free  Technically this wasn’t free – we bought it last year.  But as we are reusing it this year, I’m counting it as free.  The plastic is fairly thin, so it won’t last forever. But I anticipate at least 2 more years out of it.

12.  Recycled Yogurt Container – Free  This is another plastic container that was bound for the recycling bin.  The size is perfect if your seedling need to be transplanted into a larger container before setting out.  Or you can use it for planting a grouping of onions as we have here.  This is our first year starting onions, we we are trying a few recommended techniques.

13.  Recycled Cheese Container – Free  A clear plastic square container (such as this or a plastic lettuce box) works great for holding seed pellets.  I’m not a big fan of seed pellets however.  In my experience they keep their form when transplanted, not allowing the roots to easily break free.  I think this defeats the purpose.  When cultivating our raised beds this spring I found an intact one that had survived since last year.

Recycled Lego Advent Calendar Insert, Recycled Chinese Container with Seed Starting Pellets

14.  Recycled Lego Advent Calendar Insert – Free  When we were taking apart our Lego Advent Calendar this year to recycle, we noticed that the insert was the perfect size for seeds starting!  We also have a clear plastic egg carton set aside, but haven’t used it yet.  Once we got into saving containers for seed starting, we began to see “perfect” containers everywhere!

15.  Recycled Chinese Container with Seed Starting Pellets – Free & $3  This is another Chinese container like number 9, however for this one we used it for the seed starting pellets.  I believe these pellets were from Walmart.

Biodegradable Pots, Dollar Store Pots

16.  2″ Peat Pots – $?  I think we got these at Walmart, but I can’t remember how much we spent on them.  From our experience, we won’t be buying them again.  The peat itself seems to suck all the moisture out of the soil, meaning we are constantly having to water them.  Personally, I wouldn’t recommend them.

17.  Dollar Store 2″ Pots – 12/$1  Now these I would recommend!  The cost is great, and I anticipate being able to use them for a few years.  They are the perfect size for transplanting your seedlings to a larger pot if they are outgrowing their original container, but it’s too soon to plant them outside.  Originally we thought we would use yogurt tubs for this, but changed our mind because these are so inexpensive and already having the holes drilled in the bottom.

Whew!  That ended up being a lot longer than I had anticipated.  And that’s really just the beginning.  Once you get all the supplies, it’s time to actually start your seeds.  Hopefully when we start our tomatoes this weekend, we can get some photos of it!


About Emily

Mom to my amazing 3 year old daughter. Partner to my loving husband. Full time working architect by day. Gardner, Cook, Sewer, Crafter, Knitter, DIYer by night.
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2 Responses to Seed Starting 101 – The Set-Up

  1. sarah says:

    What type of veggies did you plant in the larger containers vs. the smaller seedling starters (jiffy containers)?

    • Emily says:

      The larger containers which have multiple seedlings in one container (like #9 & #12) have leek and onion seedlings in them. We read some different suggestions on how to start these seeds. Since this was our first year planting onions or leeks from seed, we decided to try both methods. In #11 we planted one seed per section of the Burpee container, just like we would most other seeds. But in #9 & #12 we sprinkled a handful of seeds across the whole container and then sprinkled some addition seed starting medium on top. When we go to plant them outside we will separate each seedling and plant them at the correct spacing. So far we have transplanted a few of the onions which we started individually and they come right out of the seed starting medium very easily. So I don’t think separating them will be too much of a problem.

      Is that what you were asking? I can name all the other seedlings too if you’re interested!

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