Starting Seeds Indoors: Early Season Starts

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February 2020 kohlrabi sprouts under the grow-lights.

As the days grow longer in mid-winter and the last freeze is still months away it is seed starting time! In early February, I get my seed-starting equipment out from storage and dust it off: shelving, heat mats, plant flats, starter pots, grow lights, timers, and power strips. This time of year, I am mainly focused on giving a head start to cool-season veggies: onions, leeks, celeriac, endive, pak choi, radicchio, broccoli, rapini, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, and kohlrabi. These seedlings will be transplanted in mid-April with some season-extending cloches or greenhouse plastic draped over my daughters' building fort kit.

I also cannot resist giving my tomatoes, tomatillos, and peppers a head start, so we just might be able to enjoy them sooner. Planting them in February offers the opportunity to re-pot them several times before mid-May, tucking their stems below the potting soil each time so they develop a more robust root system before moving outdoors.  This year I have started only bush tomatoes and one indeterminate cherry tomato variety due to not having the space yet to stake huge tomato plants.

Modular Approach to Seed Starting Shelving System

In the past decade, I have taken a modular approach to my grow lights and shelving, meaning I have pieced together this system over time with what I had in the budget for any given year. There are many systems one can spend quite a bit on initially that can last for a long time; however, as our family does our best to save and not overspend, I haven't had a large amount of money set aside for the garden in any one season, especially for seed starting. Honestly, seed starting is where I count on saving money each year in order to set aside additional money for purchasing trees, maintaining trees, or more permanent installations of garden beds and planters. 

By the time we left Golden, I had accumulated 10 LED grow lights which I attached to this small shelf for transport. This many lights for one plant flat is overkill, but this was an easy way to move them over our four moves last year.

Stainless steel utility shelves are the base I have used to set up grow shelves. My first 24 x 36 three-tiered shelf came from the local goodwill for $10.00. I like these shelving units because they can be purchased to fit almost any sized space; they are easy to assemble; they are easy to attach power strips and lights to, and; they are the exact width of a heat mat and plant flat. In our previous home, I had a 78 x 48 x 18-inch stainless steel shelf. This could hold 10 plant flats and was more than enough to grow all of my starts for the large garden I had in Golden. When we moved, I sold this shelf not knowing what new space we'd move into, keeping the smaller 22 x 30-inch shelf pictured above.


This utility shelf is a new purchase this year as I now know my space and this 36 x 36 x 14 unit fits perfectly under my large south facing window.


I also like the LED grow lights I have purchased over time, as they come with great clips that attach directly to the utility shelves; they do not produce too much heat, and; they don't use as much energy as fluorescents. I purchased these incrementally as I needed more lights to add to my collection and Amazon was happy to warehouse them for me until I needed more ;-). I have not had trouble finding them again and purchasing more over time though they have gone up in price from $26.99 to over $30 ea. This year they offered full-spectrum lights in addition to the blue/red-spectrum lights I had previously purchased, so I have added these to the mix as well.

Full-spectrum and red/blue-spectrum grow lights attached by clips that came with the lights to the utility shelf.

Once all of these grow lights and heat mats are fastened down and plugged into the power strip, I set a timer to ensure the seeds are tricked into thinking it is spring by the temperature and the access to light for eleven hours per day. After the grow shelves are complete it is time for the reward, planting seeds! I have my trusty plant flats that I purchased six years ago that were pretty pricy at the time but I imagine they will last me another 20 years without cracking, so worth the investment. This year I am trying to phase out all non-reusable plastics and plastic plant cells do have a somewhat limited lifetime no matter how careful I am. This year I am using the recycled paper plant cells pictured below to start seeds. I am not sure if they will hold up to watering over the next three months, so the experiment begins.

I chose starter pots made from natural biodegradable recycled fibers to fill my sturdy plant flats and house my cool-season starter plants. 

We were gifted a beautiful President's day and I spent the day in the sunshine recharging my vitamin D stores. I made myself a comfortable place to sit and filled all of the plant cells with organic potting soil and then got to work! I was able to plant a mixed flat of radicchio, purple pak choi, zinnias, and marigolds and a second flat of tomatoes: Supremo Romas, Marglobes, Siletz, Ace 55, and Isis Candy Cherry Tomatoes. The sun went down before I could plant the other flats, so I brought them inside to finish planting throughout the week.

This concert/camping chair, purchased many years ago, is my favorite to drag around the yard when I need to sit for a minute for a garden chore. I will be terribly sad if it gives out on me!
 I ran out of plant labels but blue painters tape works in a pinch. At least I can read it!

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