The time has come. Whether or not the snow has melted and your thoughts have moved towards spring, it’s time to get in gear. Planting season is fully upon us and in gardens that annually get blanketed in snow, starting plants indoors can make or break your season. In the Last Frontier, our short summer window doesn’t allow for many false steps. If you don’t do it now, you can forget about even dreaming of homemade salsa until this time next year when that brief window opens up again.
Planting indoors is a tricky game of Tetris for gardeners and farmers alike. Sure, at first it is a ton of fun. You plant out your tomatoes, peppers, and culinary herbs… perhaps you’re even trying sweet corn this year… but as those plants grow and the snow refuses to melt, your home quickly turns from a functional living space into a post-apocalyptic tomato wasteland with nowhere to walk and no windows to gaze out of, not to mention the regular beheading that occurs when these delicate plants get moved from one place to the next.
In order to start your plants from seed (and stay sane), a proper germination set-up is critical. There are many ways to do this well if you have extra space in your home. Unfortunately, we presently live in a 450 square foot yurt and don’t have a greenhouse built yet. Efficiency is key.
Here’s how to create a simple DIY Germination Set-Up
- (1) 48″ W x 72″ H x 18″ D Metal Bakers Rack
- (4) 48″ W Hanging Florescent Shop Lights (4 bulb)
- (16) 48″ T8 Daylight Florescent Light Bulbs (6500K)
- (16) 10″ x 20″ Germination Trays Without Holes
- (1) Light Timer (optional)
- Old Yogurt Container
- Permanent Marker
- Potting Soil
Set up your Bakers Rack. These usually don’t require any tools, just some plastic wedges that snap into place and the shelves wedge on top of them. Make sure your shelves are level and place them with at least 12″ in between. You may choose to have some up to 24″ apart for larger plants depending on how many racks you are setting up and what plants you will be growing.
Put together your shop lights. This set-up works best with shop lights that have hanging chains, no cover over the light bulbs, and a regular plug rather than hard wiring. Determine the length of your chains and use pliers to take off any excess links. Be sure to leave enough chain to start out hanging the lights 2″ above your soil. Bend the chain so it is secure around the light and there is a hook at the end for hanging.
Attach your light bulbs by sliding the pegs into the slots on both ends and twisting to secure. There are many options for the type of light bulb you use but after a bit of research, we have chosen to go with Daylight 6500K bulbs. Without going into great detail, the basic idea is that plants need a spectrum of light to grow. When you are germinating plants that will then be moved outside, you don’t want them to flower–just to encourage strong stem and leaf growth which requires predominantly blue light. These simple run-of-the-mill T8 Daylight bulbs will do the trick.
You are now ready to hang your lights on your rack. This will take some adjusting to secure the chains and make sure they are level. You will raise these as your plants grow and keep them 1-2″ above the plants at all times. One thing I like about the recent lights we purchased is that they plug into one another. This leaves just one cord at the bottom to be plugged in, keeping everything tidy. You don’t need to keep all the lights on even if they are plugged into one another, there is a separate cord to turn off each.
It is your preference whether or not your lights will stay on all the time or if you would like to turn them on and off each day. Plants need 12-16 hours of light for healthy growth. A simple analog timer like this one will run you about $10 and can do the work for you.
Finally, it’s time to pot up your plants. Depending on the plant, you can place your soil directly in your tray, in pots, or as soil blocks. We choose to use trays without holes to cut down on the mess of watering and to bottom water our more fussy plants like tomatoes. They prefer not to get their leaves wet and this can help cut down on damping off.
Cut up your yogurt container into strips to label each plant. Even if all the plants in a tray are the same, I highly recommend labeling each pot or putting several labels in each tray. It is amazing what the mind can forget when the busyness of the season takes hold. Last but not least, place your trays on your rack. Considering that many of your plants will need to be up-potted before they make it outside, it’s best to not fill your entire rack at once. This will leave room for bigger pots later on and keep everything nice and tidy on its rack. If you don’t want to look at florescent lights, you can wrap the rack with a space blanket or fabric.
A few last notes
We have chosen not to invest in LED or T-5 lights due to their cost at this time and have had great success with this set-up. Depending on how many plants you need to start, local energy prices, and access to stores that sell these materials, the total initial cost to set up a germination space can vary greatly. Here is an approximate price breakdown to set up the infrastructure for this rack:
$120 Metal Bakers Rack
$200 (4) Shop Lights
$50 (16) T8 Light Bulbs
$30 (16) Germination Trays
≈$400 One Time Investment
Depending on how long you are using them, florescent bulbs can last upwards of 24,000 hours before needing replacement. At 24 hours of light for 3 months of annual use, you are looking at replacing your bulbs every 10 years. That being said, technology is amazing and by the time you need to replace those bulbs, you’ll likely have found a more efficient option that is equally affordable. It is very easy to get pots and sometimes even germination trays for free through local garden clubs and these can be reused annually if they are taken good care of. Better yet, make soil blocks and forgo the pots all together.
Your annual costs are going to be potting soil, seeds, and electricity. Potting soil and seed cost can decrease substantially if you make the mix yourself using homemade compost and are participating in local seed swaps and saving your own seeds. Electricity is going to depend greatly on where you live. All in all, your annual input costs should be very low and have the potential to be free with homemade potting soil, homegrown seeds, and solar panels. Ah, dreams… But at least you can start saving money with some good homegrown food in the mean time.