As a gardener, there is no end to what you could spend your money on. Take seed starting – what do you really need? Are those peat pellet kits really worth it? Can you start your seeds in yogurt tubs, or is that somehow not….correct?
Here’s my opinionated opinion on what should get your money and what shouldn’t.
Worth Spending Your Money On
It should go without saying, but I’ll pound the point home anyway: better seeds make better seedlings. Good seeds needn’t be super expensive. In general, OP seeds cost less than hybrid seeds. I feel hybrid seeds offer an advantage for cauliflower and brussels sprouts, and in cool areas like the NW if you aren’t seed saving, you might opt for hybrids for the warm season crops like eggplant, peppers, and melons (because we need all the help we can get for those crops).
Otherwise, less expensive open pollinated varieties are a fine choice. For more info, or if seed selection is overwhelming you, check out my post on How to Pick Your Vegetable Seeds Without Going Crazy.
Start your early seeds on the kitchen windowsill? Maybe in the Southwest.
Here in Rainyside, grow lights will give a far superior result. See last year’s comparison between window-grown starts and grow-light starts for proof.
We have T12 florescent grow lights. We upgraded to these T5 fluorescent grow grow lights in 2014 – they are a dream – and are currently (2018) trialing LED lighting options to see if it finally makes financial sense for the home gardener to switch to LED grow lights .
Make your grow light decision based on what it right for you based on your space available, energy cost, and budget. Don’t forget that with lights there is an upfront budget and an operating budget, and in the long run it pays to get a more energy efficient setup.
If you are going to put lights on your seedlings, you want a little robot who will turn your lights on at 5 am and off at 10 pm without you having to remember. Make sure you get one with a grounded plug. You’re going to be spraying water around this thing, after all.
I love solid, heavy-duty plastic propagation trays. You do NOT need the inserts. Although the inserts are space efficient and I use them, almost any container can be modified into a seed starting container. Anything that can hold a bit of soil and a seed can be used as a pot, including newspaper, toilet paper tubes or old yogurt containers.
However, it is good practice to bottom water your seedlings, and I love the heavy duty solid trays for this. If you can find a bunch of old metal sheetpans with a sturdy, high lip all the way around, or have some plastic shoeboxes that will hold water, those all work well too. If you buy propagation trays, try to get them locally so you can inspect their sturdiness. It is worth paying a bit more for a really heavy duty tray that will last.
Fish Emulsion. Here, let me say it again: fish emulsion. This is the perfect liquid fertilizer for seed starting. I dilute to ¼ the recommended strength and bottom water seedlings with it every week or two, depending on the crop.
Once your crops are up and growing outside, if something looks like it needs help – dilute fish emulsion. If your spinach looks at you funny – dilute fish emulsion. Cilantro going to seed to fast? Dilute fish emulsion. Basically, fish emulsion is like lemon ginger tea: it might not be the exact perfect cure, but it won’t hurt, and it’ll probably make your plant feel better. When in doubt, dilute fish emulsion.
A Small Fan
If you are starting your seeds in an out of the way area, I highly encourage you to introduce some constant airflow around your seedlings.
This does two very important things. First, it reduces the possibility of soil fungus and whitefly buildup around your seedlings. Second, constant light air movement forces seedlings to grow stronger and tougher, and put a bit more energy into growing a nice sturdy stem. It is important that your seedling’s first exposure to airflow isn’t a 45 mph wind gust just after your transplant them outside. I have a little soft bladed fan like this:
Seed Warming Mat
Not essential, but a seed heating mat is very nice to have if you are starting tomatoes, peppers or (especially) eggplant from seed in the Maritime Northwest. Obviously not needed if you live someplace where you put pepper seeds in the ground and they grow.
Warmer soil means a faster germination and less chance your heat-lovin’ seeds are going to up and rot on you. I’ve had a pair of Hydrofarm seed mats like the one below for seven years, I use them every year, treat them like crap, and they’ve both held up very well. They are the same size as the propagation trays, so everything plays together really well on my seed-rack.
Not Worth Spending Your Money On
Ok, remember this is just my opinionated opinion. If you disagree, please feel free to (respectfully) make your case in the comments. Maybe you’ll change my mind!
Specialty Seed Starting Mix
Particularly the overpriced kind sold the small little bags from high-end nurseries in upscale malls. Grrrrr…..that kind of thing makes me cray-zay. If you only want to start five or six transplants, honestly you are probably better off just buying well-grown transplants from a good nursery. Once you get to the point where you start a lot of seeds indoors, you have to look at ways to make your seed starting medium more economical.
In the past I’ve used massive bags of standard Miracle Gro, Black Gold or E.B. Stone soilless potting mix and I’ve had great results with all of them. If your ethics allow it, the Miracle Gro is fine for seed starting. These days, my preferred potting soil is this DIY homemade mix.
My problem with dedicated seed starting mix in general is that I think it is too light and I don’t like the total lack of background nutrition. My goal isn’t just to get the maximum possible germination and growth from my seeds, as it might be for a commercial grower. My goal is to grow seedlings that will do well outside without forcing me to spend every waking minute babying my transplants.
A slightly heavier mix that holds more moisture, a slightly larger pot, and added background nutrition in the mix means my transplants can go a day or several without me fussing over them. I do still believe that a sterile mix is a probably a good idea for seed starting, though I have not seen any problems when using not-sterile vermicompost.
Super Expensive Grow Lights…Not Worth It, Yet
LED grow lamps are generally very expensive and are probably overkill for getting a little broccoli up and going. Both these types of lamps are mostly designed for professionals who want to take a crop through it’s full life cycle indoors or in a greenhouse with precise levels of supplemental light – a much more demanding lighting task than growing stocky, well-rooted transplants for outdoor growing. There is one cash crop whose value probably justifies the expense of these kind of lights (::cough::pot::cough::) and I don’t grow it. Homebrew Husband and I are closely watching LED grow light technology. We think in a couple years the startup cost of this technology and the diversity of options for hobbyist set-ups will be where it needs to be for us to make the leap from our old, crappy fluorescents.
2018 Update: LED lights have come down in price radically since I first published this post, and have always held the advantage in long-term operating costs. We are trialing value-priced LED lighting this spring to see if the performance and durability matches our T5 fluorescents. If it is, my recommendation will be for gardeners to start their seedlings under LED grow lights.
I hate, hate hate those pop-up, peat/coir, seed-starting pucks. Some people love them. If you look on the Amazon reviews, apparently most people love them. Count me as not among those people.
First, they are typically too small for all but the smallest transplants (like lettuce or chard). The mesh that surrounds the peat may, in some theoretical sense, be biodegradable but it certainly doesn’t break down quickly – I was finding those mesh liners in my raised beds for three years after I swore off the peat pellets forever.
What peat pellets are really good for is air pruning roots to encourage a well-branched root system at transplant. Soil blocks give you the same advantage without the mesh, and are less expensive in the long run. Or, recycle old newspapers into really biodegradable seed starting pots.
Propagation Dome Lids
Propagation domes are the clear plastic lids you put over your seed propagation tray to keep humidity and moisture in and stop the potting mix from drying out while seeds are germinating. You know what works just as well? A plastic bag or a sheet of plastic wrap.
I have used propagation domes, and I find them flimsy unitaskers, for the most part. As soon as seeds start popping up, take any covering off your seeds or risk mold and damping-off disease in your seedlings. Exception: if you are rooting cuttings, prop lids might be great for you.
What do you think – what are your favorite seed starting tools and toys? What’s worth it to you, and what isn’t?31