I've been at this seed-starting thing for a good many years now, and am always
on the lookout for materials and gadgets that make things just a littler
better, easier, or more efficient. On this page, I list a few of the things
I've tried, along with the sources for some of my supplies.
Since I germinate most of my seeds in baggies, that's where I'll
start. For me, the 3" tall by 2" wide ziplock baggies work best. That way,
my folded filter paper fits right in. You can buy these baggies for about a
buck per hundred at Walmart, for the kind which are just plain clear
plastic. Those work fine, but they require a sharpie marker for writing
species name, dates of stratification, etc on the baggy, and the writing
rubs off easily. Not a big problem, but I somewhat prefer baggies with
white writing strips, which can be marked with a regular ballpoint pen.
These aren't quite as easy to find (i.e., Walmart doesn't reliably stock
them), but you can find them readily from many mail-order sources. I
got a shipment of 1000 of them from
Papermart, for less than a penny per
baggy, so I won't be needing any more anytime soon.
Then there's the filters. I'm not picky - I get the cheapest pleated
round coffee filters I can get. A large bag of them lasts forever. I only
use one half of a filter per seed variety.
Gibberellic acid GA-3. This plant growth regulation hormone has been
researched quite a bit, and can increase germination success in certain
hard-to-germinate species. I purchased a small supply of the stuff from JL
Hudson once and dabbled with it, but not enough to have definitive results.
Still, JLH is a reasonable source if you'd like to try yourself.
Gel starter kits. There are a few outfits on the market that sell kits
where you germinate your seeds suspended in a gelatinous clear liquid. I
tried them a few times, and found that easy-to-germinate seeds did just fine
in the gel, whereas more difficult ones rotted before they had a chance to
germinate. I gave up on this approach, since it was more time-consuming,
took more space, and didn't have any clear benefits. But it was cool to see
the little guys growing in the clear gel.
For starting seeds directly into pots, and for potting the newly germinated
seedlings from baggies, I use only potting mixture specifically labeled for
seed-starting or similar duty. I tried some of the expensive small bags
from Scott's, Jiffy, and such. I also tried mixing my own from milled peat
moss, perlite, and vermiculite. But for my money, by far the best solution
has been PRO-MIX PGX,
a product based on finely milled peat moss and vermiculite. I have very
few mold problems with this mix (although algae will grow on top if it's
left moist for too many days at a stretch), and it's real easy to work with.
The only problem is - I've found no local retail source for this. Worse yet, my
erstwhile mail-order source, Mellingers, has gone out of business. So I finally
broke down, and armed with my brand new nursery license (Pennsylvania made me
get one when they learned about my annual plant sale) I opened an account with
a distributor of Pro-Mix products. The rub: the minimum order was $300, so I
had a rather larger stash of the stuff than I really needed. Luckily, I found
several like-minded gardeners over the next six months, and was able to share
the wealth. I'm down to my last bale now, so I may do the same thing this fall.
If I do, I will once again be happy to part with a bale or two at close to
my cost. In which case I'll post an update here.
For potting established seedlings into larger containers, I use a cheaper
potting soil. Those seedlings are sturdy enough to handle a few mold
spores, but I still shy away from real cheap potting soil. I often use
PRO-MIX BX, which, unlike the PGX, I can sometimes find locally. Since it
comes in a big bag, it's relatively economical. If I can't find the PRO-MIX
I'll settle for one of the other name brands offered at my local DIY store.
Those are usually pricier, and come with fertilizer mixed in, which is fine
for seedlings at that stage.
Procedures for seeds started in pots often call for grit - a granular material
offering good drainage, used as a top-dressing. Although I've not had much
use for it so far, I did track down local sources for grit, and secured some
for myself. The easiest is to go to your local supermarket's pet aisle, and
buy some in the bird section. It's not the cheapest that way, but if you use
only a little, what the heck. I needed more (as a soil amendment for a rock
garden I was putting together), and pulled my hair out trying to find a good source
until I finally found an agricultural feed store in a rural part of my area.
Around here, these places don't advertise in any channels non-agricultural folks
are likely to read, so I just happened upon it. You may have to ask around to
find the equivalent place around your area.
Amendments - I hardly ever mix anything else into my soil. At one time, I
had fairly good success mixing in some drywall spackle dust into a mix I used
for growing on dianthus seedlings (since they like slightly more alkaline
conditions), but I don't know if my amendment had anything to do with it. Forget
I even mentioned it...
And where shall we house these green things while they're waiting for garden
Nearly all of my baggy-started seedlings first meet soil in the cell of a
small six-cell-pack. Twelve of these packs fit into a standard
11x22 flat. I reuse these packs extensively, but when I need new ones,
they're easy to find; most of the larger mail-order seed companies carry them,
as well as replacement trays. The trays do develop leaks after a
while (especially if they get used outside for a while for hardening off
duty), so I keep a stash of replacements on hand.
Some seedlings grow so slowly, they never outgrow their tiny cells. But
most of them will need a bigger home before it's time to set them out in the
garden. I have a few different approaches to this:
- Bigger cell-packs. These are what you commonly buy annual
and vegetable starts in at garden centers, but I found they were surprisingly
hard to find for purchase. I finally tracked down a good resource for
various sizes of these larger packs: Novosel, a mail-order outfit.
They were extremely helpful in getting me just what I needed, and I highly
recommend them. Reasonable prices, too. I use two sizes:
Click here for pictures of the various sixpacks
- "Slim jims", which are the same length, only slightly wider,
and a good bit taller than the small cellpacks, meaning about double the
root volume for hardly any more area under my lights. They are meant to be
used in their own 8x22 flats, but I found that creative arranging in a
standard flat works just about as well.
- "Market packs" are larger,
and therefore take up more space. I use them when I think a seedling really
needs to spread out. Eight of these fit in a standard tray.
- Deep square pots. I really like these little pots. They are only
2½ inch square, but 3½ inch tall. That means a LOT more root
space, but still an acceptable footprint that doesn't hog all the space
under my lights. They can be reused many times, which means that my current
supply, from various orders placed at Mellinger's, is only slowly dwindling.
But now that Mellingers is gone, I'll have to hunt for a different source.
- 3" square cut-pots. These inexpensive pots come 18 to a sheet,
and must be carefully teased apart to prevent the flimsy plastic from
tearing. Or, if you have a stack of sheets, you can break a whole bunch of
pots off in one go, with no danger of ripping (much easier!). They make
fine all-purpose containers, and I reuse them extensively. All
of the seeds I start directly in pots go into these containers. That
includes pots that get set outside in the winter for stratification in
place, pots that get a warm stratification before being set outside, and
seeds that are so fine that directly sowing works better than the baggy
method. In all cases, the pot will wind up with several or many seedlings,
which will have to be transplanted to (smaller) pots or directly into the
garden nursery bed at some point.
What about plug trays? These are sturdy, heavy plastic
construction multi-cell contraptions. In most cases, each cell is quite a
bit smaller than the cells in the small 6-packs described above. They are
meant only for germinating seedlings, which are then potted up. I own two
of such trays, and used them a few years - but they just weren't right for
me. They are best for starting a lot of seeds of the same variety, while my
modus operandi is to start a few seedlings of many many varieties.
Also, their longer, narrower size didn't fit in well with my other trays.
But lots of people swear by them, so this is just a reflection of my
personal experience. If you stop in at my plant
sale, I'd be happy to sell 'm to you at a good price.
Recycling pots and packs
I'm a stingy Dutchman, and a closet environmentalist to boot - so I don't
like to waste resources. Most of my plasticwares (cellpacks, pots, etc.)
find their way back into the cycle after they've served me for a season. As
a matter of fact, I cajole others into recycling their leftovers to
me by offering a discount at my plant sale. For just about any established
plant, containers can be reused without any significant cleaning - so pots
one quart and up just get stacked in my shed, and reused as needed. Smaller
pots often house seedlings, which can be a little finnickier. So cellpacks
and pots smaller than 4 inch get a little wash job. Most tips on
seed-starting will tell you that to reuse containers, you should wash them
in a dilute bleach solution, to kill all the disease organisms. Well - with
many hundreds of containers to wash, I can't deal with the bleach thing. My
alternative method is as follows: throughout spring, I collect all
containers, and set them aside. Then, on a hot and sunny day in summer, I
get them all out to my back yard. I also grab my wheelbarrow (and give it a
cursory cleaning if it's filthy) and my hose-end triggered spray nozzle.
Now all of the containers get dunked in the water-filled wheelbarrow; as I
clean them, I add more, so that I've always got a good batch soaking. One
by one, I take out the containers, give them a quick spritz inside and out
with the nozzle, and then toss them as far as I can into the yard. The act
of tossing flings off most of the water, and the hot sun on the
black-plastic containers finishes off the drying process. I like to think
that this method is fairly effective in dispensing with disease carriers,
but I'm not going to pretend the containers come out squeaky clean. So for
the seed varieties that I expect, by notoriety or personal experience, to be
especially prone to fungal attack, I just use newly acquired containers -
even with the recycling, I always have to restock to make up for
broken/crushed containers, or those that left during my plant sale or with
plants donated to the HPS/MAG sale.
Max loves to help with the cleaning operation
Let there be light
Perhaps the most essential ingredient to plant life that's missing from the
natural state of my basement is light (the natural state of my basement
contains plenty of water - long live sump pumps!). Most seed-starting gurus
agree that special growlights are not necessary for growing healthy
seedlings - regular fluorescent light contains all the wavelengths needed to
support the little ones. Cheap shoplights available from places like
Walmart or Home Depot do the trick. A few spins on this strategy are
- Supercharging shoplights as a way to get more light output from a
standard 40W fluorescent bulb.
- Mixing cool and warm spectrum fluorescent bulbs (one of each in a
fixture) to get a broader slice of the light spectrum.
- Replacing bulbs every year to maintain maximum light output.
All of these sound reasonable. I don't heed any of them (call me a rebel).
I use whatever bulbs come in cheap packs, wouldn't dare mess with shoplight
circuitry, and use bulbs for as long as they shine light on my seedlings (or
at least until their flickering becomes unbearable). I don't claim to
provide perfect conditions for my greenlings, but my results aren't shabby,
and I'm known to stick to my ways...
I arrange my shoplights in two parallel rows, suspended along the lengths
of my seedling tables. Flats go in perpendicular to the lights, so that the
front half of each flat gets light from one fixture, and the back from the
other fixture. Four flats fit side by side underneath two fixtures
(confused? look at some photos). I used to
have another row of fixtures in between, but my basement circuit breaker
started glowing one day after I added yet another set of lights, so I
removed the middle ones, and the seedlings still grow.
Visitors to this page have left the following comments
|Gail Burr||Mar 26, 2006||Rob,
Thank you for a most informative and helpful web site. I'm looking for tray insert and you mentioned that you get yours from Mellingers. Would you be willing to share the address? I reuse mine extensively but it's time I purchased a some new. Thanks for any help you can give me.
Mellingers is out of business. Jung seeds has a decent assortment of seedstarting supplies as well. And http://www.novoselenterprises.com/ has been able to fill some specialized requests for me.
|Kate Holliday||May 26, 2006||Referred to your website while researching hypericum "Albury purple". I must say, this has been an informative venture! Re: Albury purple: I am located east of Seattle, WA, and had two of these as 3 yr old shrubs. Mine succumbed to the worst case of rust - so they do get it. However, this holds true for many other plants in this area, most commonly roses and hollyhocks. Too much rain & perfect temperatures for fungal-spores...
In any case, I truly enjoyed your method for cleaning the used pots, specifically, the flinging part! My method is similar - sans flinging: not enough reliable sun for proper heat build-up, with the exception of a couple weeks in August. (and that's if we're lucky...) Take care - nice site! Kate|
|Chris Bennett||Jun 28, 2006||Thanks for the idea of using shop lights. I went to Canadian tire and found them to be only $18 Canadian each (they hold two bulbs). I got some GE Ecolux 48" daylight 40 watt fluorescent bulbs. They have a color temperature of 6,500 K with a light output of 3050 lumens. They were about $4 each.
I then set up some shelves in my basement using 48" by 12" boards. One shelf holds the plant trays and I hang the shop lights from the shelf above it. The lights came with an adjustable chain, so I can adjust the hight very easily.
This way, I can have 3 shelves of plants without taking up much room.
I can adjust the lights from about 4" above the seed tray to about 13" above the tray using the two chains that came with the lights. I expect that should be good enought.
|Nancy||Jan 29, 2007||This was hilarious to read, as I too, don't follow all the 'complicated' rules for germinating my seeds. I have a similar setup in my basement, which also leaks water, but my dehumidifier keeps running to soak it up. Just hope it doesn't dry out my seedlings. I just moved my operation from upstairs to the dingy basement to save space. Thanks for the informative and honest site. |
To be even more honest, I'd have to mention fungus gnats. One of these days...
|Sebestiana||Feb 04, 2007||I found this while searching for a supplier, in Nashville,TN for Promix BX. Great fun to read the site and learned a few new tricks...still looking for some place here to buy my Promix from. Mizeonline had the best price ($21.53 each for 3.8cu.ft.bale, I need two) but, the shipping was more than the bales. So,Rob, how much to ship a bale of your Promix BX to Nashville, TN? That is if you still have any left to part with? Hey,I figure it's worth checking. Thanks for the good info. |
I'm afraid I couldn't do better than that - shipping is going to prohibitive wherever you get it from, except for locally. BX should be much less problematic than PGX - I would try local greenhouses.
|ava grego||Mar 04, 2007||I'm a rhodie grower.
Enjoyed your article.|
|J.V.||Mar 04, 2007||Rob, as a novice but enthusiastic gardener, I really appreciate the information you provided. Sharing your experiences let folks like me become successful more far more quickly than going it alone. Your efforts are very much appreciated!|
|Susan||Mar 27, 2007||Enjoyed reading your site, even learned a few new tricks. I ended at the site while looking for a source for sturdy plant starting trays, as my years old ones are failing dramatically! Loved the wheelbarrow cleaning since I do the same thing--the only problem is I wait till it's cold in the late fall, snow in the forecast (I live in northeast MT.) and now my kids are too old to be conned into doing the job for me!! Thanks for the info!|
|Connie||Apr 01, 2007||Oooh, Rob, you play some old tapes for me! I've graduated from my basement to a small (6' X 12') greenhouse with VERY expensive electric baseboard heat, but - what the heck, the $$$ come out of my entertainment account. One thing I learned the hard way: provide motion to your seedlings & young plants to help prevent damping off & other fungal problems. I run an oscillating fan 24/7 during my seed-start to planting in the garden. P.S. I also have good luck with plain old shop lights!|
Good advice, Connie. I should follow it myself more consistently...
|Renate Mellinger||Aug 03, 2007||I found myself chuckling several times reading the germination page. I can relate to the flourescent light thing and the pot cleaning. Last year, I went to Goodwill and bought all the plastic ice cube trays they had ...CHEAP...and drilled a small hole in the bottom of each section. Filled with potting mix, they fit into plant trays, kitchen trays, and various unused pyrex baking pans. Yes, it's a hodgepodge under the grow lights, but it works! Whatever works...that's my philosophy. The ice trays have worked equally well for seed germination on a grow mat...or on top of the VCR which always puts out a little warmth...or for baggie started seeds. They are easily removed to a larger put undamaged with a teaspoon, as the bottoms of the cells are rounded.Love this website. Still looking for chocolate nicotiana and morning glory seeds. Have TONS of stuff to trade.
|kuutiere michael||Nov 23, 2007||I want to know the meaning of warm and cold stratification and how they are being used in dressing seed|
If after reading my seed-starting page you still have questions, please ask there.
|Veronica Perry||Dec 04, 2007||Thank you for your article and all the information! I'm just starting to learn how to propagate! |
|steven75647||Feb 17, 2008||Talk about broke now I don't fill so bad, and my oldest call me a tight wad ha ha ha he needs to read this...I love it.|
|Darlene||Feb 26, 2008||I like your cleaning method as I have picked up several cellpacks also and did not feel I had the time to bleach all of them. Most got a good rinsing.|
|sherry||Feb 27, 2008||lol loved your page, i do all the stuff you guys do too... recycle,shoplight, and pro mix..
i am in fenton michigan and if your in this area yard-n-garden carrys it..
i got the pro mix bx mycorise pro 2.8 cu loose fill for $21.97 this year..
good luck everyone, happy growing:-)|
|Danny||Mar 04, 2009||This is my first time sprouting my garden plants from seeds in my 28th floor apt in Chicago. I've scoured the web for advice from the sages and yours is the best overall source I've found. Thank you sincerely for taking the time to share your knowledge and experience with me!|
|Nick||Jul 26, 2009||People, be careful with Jiffy Mix, I got less then a 50% Germination Rate this year with this stuff. Unless you sterilize and make your own, Pro Mix in my opinion is still the best for starting seeds.|
|Cherlyn Bynum||Jan 26, 2010||Hello Rob,
I having a difficult time finding premier pro-mix pgx for seed starting mix.
Yes, I have the same trouble. I may resort to placing a wholesale order again this fall - local retailers just don't carry it.
|Gloria Ohmer||Mar 19, 2010||I did so enjoy your web page - we live in Alaska and many things are difficult to find here - but necessity being the mother of invention - we do pretty well
My question is - how do you "germinate in baggies"? I am picturing a very simple method that I wonder how it could work. I'd love to know!!|
Just peek around the corner at my baggy page and read all about it.
|Carla||Feb 06, 2011||Your article has a lot of great information. I want to start growing my own plants from seed for my raised bed gardens. However after reading your article I am wondering if you use a seed starter heat mat? I too will be growing my plants in my basement and will use a shop light and a tray with a greenhouse style lid. What do you suggest?|
That depends on a few things, most importantly the temperature of your basement and the types of seeds you want to start. If your basement is near room temperature (65-70F), you don't need a heat mat for most seeds, except for heat-loving plants, such as peppers, tomatoes, and some annuals/tropicals. In the seed-starting records at the bottom of my plant pages, I sometimes specify a temperature of 75F - that means I used some extra heat (in my case, by placing my seed baggies on top of my growlights) to get them to germinate.
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March 24, 2010