18 March 2013

Seed Starting Indoors

Years ago I dreamed of having a greenhouse to start my garden veggies in, but our available land does not allow room for one. If we had a green house, even a small one, it would subtract from the available growing space, which is a step backwards. For a short period of time I had a small potting shed where I attempted to start seedlings, but since it was unheated, I could only start cool tolerant crops in it. I limped along with the potting shed, starting cabbages, lettuce and other cool weather crops in the fall and spring and in late spring, and I bought my tomatoes and other warm weather seedlings from the garden center, I hated to buy nursery seedlings since I know they aren't grown organically, but at the time it was a necessary evil. Over the years as the gardens grew in scale and the stomachs I had to feed demanded  that we grow more food, I needed the space where the potting shed stood, so we had to take it down.

I decided to figure out a way to start my seedlings indoors. I had read about several possible options in Organic Gardening Magazine and Mother Earth News, back in the day before the internet, (yes...I am a dinosaur...), but they took up so much room. My space being at a premium, since we live in a small cottage, and we home schooled, (which takes up a surprising amount of room), I needed a space efficient way to start a lot of seedlings. I found a nice looking wire shelf at Sam's and purchased some shop lights and florescent tube "grow lights". I could fit one shop light per shelf and I  two trays would sit end to end on a shelf. That gave me room to start 6 flats of seedlings at a time. Which was great, but there were a few problems... with just one light per shelf there was a lot of fall off of light along the outside of the seed flats. The seedlings around the edges were a little spindly and leaned inward towards the center where the light was stronger. The other problem was that the "grow light" tubes were really expensive, only kept adequate strength for a short period of time, (a season or two), and were difficult to find locally. But still I was able to start many of or veggies from seed and once the spindly, bent starts were out in the ground they seemed to bounce back pretty quickly.

 I used this system for years, until I read something in a Rodale publication that said to grow seedlings, you can use a regular daylight florescent light, in combination with a "sunshine" florescent tube and that would give you a "full spectrum" of light. Since these were readily available at places like Lowe's or Home Depot, and were a fraction of the cost, I jumped at the possibility and bought some to replace the expensive grow bulbs I had been using. I still had the light fall off problem, so I searched for a shop light that would allow for two lights to be hung side by side. During the years since I had purchased my original shop lights the design had been changed to a much lower profile and narrower casing on shop lights, so I was able to replace my clunky, large shop lights and get two trim new lights per shelf. Thus eliminating the light fall off. So now I had an affordable way to grow sturdy straight seedlings for my garden.
This growing system has served us well for many years and I have grown comfortable with it being in our regular living space. It may seem a little odd at first to have seedlings growing next to the  the kitchen table, but I enjoy getting to watch the plants grow and they create a fresh buoyant atmosphere, it is also easier to care for them since they are in plain sight and I can see when they are getting dry or need a height adjustment.

The next problem I encountered was that seedlings grow, but the lights were difficult to adjust in height, without having to take the whole thing apart whenever the plants grew too close to the lights.  So I set the light at the maximum height of the shelf and brought the seed flats up to meet them with an array of different plastic tubs , stacks of egg cartons etc.
Lights at a fixed height

When the plants got too close to the bulbs I would adjust the stacks of tubs and egg cartons to allow more room for the plants to grow. This was an adequate system and has worked for many years, although it is not that attractive.
A configuration of shoe box sized plastic boxes and egg cartons used to adjust the height to varying degrees

 Recently, my son told me about a place that he had found that had adjustable light hangers and a lot of other wonderful goodies for growing plants indoors. The name of the store was HTG Supply, (High Tech Garden Supply). They have an online store as well as several brick and mortar locations throughout the USA. We are fortunate enough to have a store in Charlotte, so my son and I went there to look at what they have available. I was like a kid in a candy store! Oh-h-h... they have special grow lights for starting seedlings, lights for growing veggies to maturity inside, hydroponics, grow tents and a vast array of other wonderful goodies as well like specially formulated organic fertilizers and self watering propagating buckets for growing  roots on plant cuttings. But for now I am just going to talk about the adjustable light hangers. I purchased enough hangers to do all the shelves. They were $15 a pair, but since I will use them year round for many years to come, and simplifies taking care of my seedlings,  I felt is was well worth the cash outlay.
The Agromax light pulley
My lights are now adjustable in small increments. without having to remove everything and juggle shoe boxes and egg cartons!
Pull up to raise the lights
To lower,  hold the cord, push the button and slowly lower to desired height, then release button and tug gently to set in place.
The complete set up
The new hangers at their lowest position to provide closeup light for seeds that have just sprouted.
Top view of the seedlings under lights.

Newly emerging Tatsoi Bokchoy and Perpetual Spinach

Here is a list of things you will need to set up your own seed starting light stand:
One adjustable wire shelf unit, (I have recently found one at Walmart for about $40, it is slightly smaller than mine but would probably still be OK, I got my shelves at Sam's years ago for about $75, I think the price has probably come down since they are not a "new item" anymore.
Two low profile shop lights per shelf (Lowe's Home Improvement Store and Home Depot both have them).
One regular daylight florescent tube and one "Sunshine" tube per shop light, (also available at Lowe's< I am not sure about Home Depot since I bought mine at Lowe's).
Four Agromax  Adjustable light pulleys per shelf (One on each end of the two lights) **available at 
HTG Supply or www.htgsupply.com
To attach: Count four shelf wires in from the side edge of each light, clip D Clip over the fourth wire. Attach other D clip to the S hook hanger that comes with the light, making sure that the D clip with the knotted end  closest to the pulley is attached to the shelf and that the adjustable end  with the length of cord is attached to the light.. Adjust the light to desired height.  See close up view in photo titled "Agromax Light Pulley".

6-8 inch lengths of chain, 12 2" pieces of plastic tubing to keep chain from slipping or damaging shelf paint.
To attach: Slip the chain through the tubing, count four shelf wires in from the side edge for each light and place the tubing to span from the 3rd to the 4th wire,( look at close up photo captioned "Light at a fixed height"). Take loose ends and place them over the s hook  hanger that comes with the light. Do this on both ends, for both lights on each shelf.
 You will also need Plastic shoe boxes , eggs cartons, recycled plastic lettuce containers (I ask people who buy lettuce from Sam's if they will save their empties for me) or whatever you have on hand that is water proof and can be used to raise the seed flats up to the lights.

Solid bottomed seed flats and growing cells I get mine from a local Feed and Seed for about $1 per tray and $1 for 36 seed cells. Sometimes I can find them at Lowe's but the price is higher unless I catch them at the end of the season on sale. I reuse the solid bottom seed flat trays over and over, and if the seed cells are still in good shape when I pop the seedlings out I wash them in a grapefruit seed oil solution to kill any fungus that might be lurking around and reuse them as well. I have never had a problem with fungus or disease from reuseing cells, but that is your call.

When I water the seed flats I take them out of from under the lights and use a plastic cement mixing tub (Lowe's for about $5), to set them in to water. This way I don't get water raining down on my lights. I raise the light to mist them once or twice a day, but I don't move them for that, I just raise the light to avoid getting cold water on the florescent tubes.

Seed starting mix I mix my own using equal parts of fine peat moss, and our home made compost and 1/2 same quantity of organic cow poo. You can also add perelite or vermiculite to the mix, but I don't usually find it necessary. I don't like the store bought seed starting mix, since it has wood chips in it that make the soil impervious to watering and are prone to mold. Also most of the Home Improvement store varieties these days have Miracle Grow or other chemicals in them , so I won't use them.

I hope that this information will equip you to set up your own indoor growing system. If you already have one of your own design, I would love for you to comment and tell me about yours! Please feel free to leave me a comment if you have any questions or comments. I always try to answer you comments. Also if you follow me and leave a blog address, I will come and check out your blog and let you know I came for a visit. Hope to see you around! Elle

Blog Hops that I have linked this post to:
Clever Chick Blog Hop #26
Hearthfelt Hope #2
Monday's Homestead Barn Hop#103 
Busy Bee's 9th Thursday Blog Hop 
Farm Girl Blog Fest #25
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