Before I started this simple project, my larder was a mess: two shelves of canned goods and empty jars jumbled every which-way. The lower shelf, I decided, could hold all the canned goods if I put the empty jars in boxes and stored them out of the way (actually on the very highest shelf where I’d stored several dozen empty jars I’d bought on sale at the close of 2009’s canning season). Once cleared, the upper shelf would become my seed-starting station.
I’m ready to start seeds for my small kitchen garden! I recently posted about my epiphany that I could clear a shelf in my larder and use it to start seeds. Today, I did the heavy lifting: I consolidated the canned goods onto one shelf, packed the empty jars into boxes, and cleared the way for seed planters.
I’m showing the setup to encourage you: you don’t need anything particularly fancy to start your own seeds prior to planting outdoors. I was lucky to have a shelving unit that I could repurpose, but last year I’d used a ping-pong table. There are only three critical issues you must address:
Seedlings Need Plenty of Light
Standard incandescent or fluorescent light sources aren’t adequate unless you can get them very close to your seedlings. Last season I planted tomato seeds in a table-top greenhouse, and positioned fluorescent lights about eight inches above them. The seeds sprouted in only two days (I’d expected it to take a week or more), and almost immediately grew too tall and slender reaching toward the light.
The lower shelf holds seven gallons of applesauce, five quarts of squash, a quart of red pepper relish, a gallon of salsa, two gallons of tomato sauce, two quarts of halved tomatoes, about three gallons of assorted jams and jellies, a quart of black raspberry syrup, and about two quarts of pickles. When I took the photo, I’d already hung a shop light above the upper shelf. The four-foot by one-and-a-half-foot space will be plenty for the number of seeds I plan to start indoors this winter.
When seedlings emerge, the light should be within three inches of them… and as the seedlings grow taller, you need to maintain the light source just a few inches from the leaf-tops.
If you want to grow large seedlings… or even grow plants that are flowering by the time they can move outdoors… a single light source above the leaves may not be adequate. While the top layer of leaves may get enough light, lower leaves won’t, and the plant could have weak stems, withered leaves, and other growth problems.
For typical seedlings started four-to-six weeks before your area’s last frost, lights a few inches above the plants will be adequate.
Seeds and Seedlings Need Warmth
With one light fixture mounted, my seed-starting shelf could already accommodate three starter trays holding more than 200 seeds. I hung two light fixtures so one can illuminate the shortest seedlings while the other handles taller plants.
This is less intuitive than the light issue, but it’s more important at least until your seeds sprout. Some seeds will sprout when the soil temperature is above 40F degrees while others wait until the temperature is 70F degrees or higher. A tomato seed that takes seven-to-ten days to sprout at 70F degrees may sprout in two days at 85F degrees.
After sprouting, seedlings may not grow robust if the temperature is low. Tomatoes and peppers, for example, originate from warm climates and do best in summer heat. Chances are you don’t keep your house anywhere near as warm as these plants would like; it’s important to compensate on your plants’ behalf.
Last year, I’d used picture-hanging wire to dangle one shop light from the suspended ceiling in the kids’ play room, and twine to hang a second shop light. It took a few minutes to tie those lights to the frame of one of my larder’s shelves. It will be short work to raise or lower the lights to optimal heights above the seedlings that emerge in March.
Last season, I pushed the ping-pong table against a wall above a baseboard radiator. Warm air from the heater kept my seed planters warm. This year I’ll probably put a heating pad on my seed-starting shelf; I keep my office about 62F degrees, and I don’t want my seedlings to have to meet the world with cold feet.
Seeds and Seedlings Need Moisture
Of course you need to keep the soil moist as a seed puts out roots and then a seedling. It’s also a good idea to keep the air around the seedling moist. The tiny peat pellets or starter pots people typically use to start seeds can dry out very quickly. By keeping them in a moist environment, you reduce your need to water.
I may wrap my seed-starting shelf with plastic to trap in heat from the lights and moisture evaporating from the seedlings. By erecting a tent around the plants and lights, I’ll create a greenhouse environment that should make young seedlings very happy indeed.
With both shop lights mounted, the first four residents of my seed-starting station moved in. A few weeks ago, I decided to test the tomato seeds I harvested last season. I planted four in a single peat pellet and all of them sprouted. I’m determined to keep them alive until I can move them outside… in April or May. The plants are already stressed from being crowded, so I’ll be transplanting them into pots later today or tomorrow.