How to start your own seeds

January 17, 2009|By ROBERT KESSLER

We are now entering the dreary time for gardeners. We have (or should have) cleaned up everything from last year's garden, and we can't do much outdoors now but wait till spring.

However, if you start now, you can build yourself a seed-starting system that you can use to start your own vegetables and flowers. This has the advantage of letting you pick plants you want but can't find already started at the garden centers. And putting together a seed-starting area can be fairly simple.

Many people will try to start seeds on their window sills. This has two problems. First, the plants are slow to start because conditions are cool by the window. Second, the plants get tall and spindly because of low light quality.

To solve this problem, you will need to purchase seed-starting mats, which are heating pads for plants. This heat helps your seeds get off to a good start.


The other things you need are good quality fluorescent lights. These can be better quality shop lights or ceiling light fixtures. The better quality lights will last longer and put out a better quality light, but if you want to lower initial costs, shop lights will work well, too.

The other item you need is the bench or seed-starting chamber you will put your trays of newly planted seeds in. This can be something you buy, but some are fairly expensive, so you might want to rig up your own.

One suggestion I saw was to use the heavy duty plastic shelf units made for garages and basements. They are heavy duty shelf units and are separated enough to hang lights from the upper shelf over the shelf below.

Place a heating mat on the shelf and put your pots and trays in. You can hook your lights up with "S" hooks and light chains and keep your lights just inches from your trays and then as the plants start to grow, keep moving the lights up so they are about two inches from the top of the plants.

Sanitation is important when starting seeds, so you want to use sterile seed-starting mix. If you are going to reuse plastic pots or trays, they should be washed with soap and water and rinsed with a chlorine mix using bleach and water. Make a 10-percent solution by mixing one pint of bleach with 10 pints of water. If you need less solution, then one cup of bleach and 10 cups of water will still give you the 10-percent solution. Soak your pots and trays for 10 to 15 minutes, then rinse them in clean water and let them air dry.

Now when your seed catalogs start to show up, you can order your seeds, put together your seed-starting frame or shelf unit and, at the appropriate time, start your seeds. In most cases, you will start your seeds about six weeks before you would transplant them outside. Your cold-weather crops would be started first since they can be put out early in the spring.

Your tender plants like tomatoes, peppers, etc., would be started later in the spring since they are not placed in the garden until the danger of frost is past. Vine crops would be started three to four weeks before they are to be placed in the garden.

Bob Kessler specializes in consumer horticulture and energy for Penn State University. He can be reached weekdays at 717-263-9226 or by e-mail at

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