The very first step on your seed starting adventure is to equip yourself for success! Will buying the right equipment guarantee your success? Definitely not. You still need to know how to use this equipment properly. What is certain though, is that it’s next to impossible to achieve good results without any of the right equipment. If you would rather save a few bucks by starting seeds in a 1000 paper pots that you rolled up yourself and try to get your seedlings to grow with a couple of extra light bulbs you found in your basement, then best wishes. The advice I share here is going to take you on the high road. That's the road that might cost a bit more upfront, but everything works. I am going to encourage you to invest in a few key components and if you use them properly, your vegetable transplants will be better than anything you could buy.
You obviously won't get far without good seeds! Look for reputable seed suppliers rather than the pop-up display at your local hardware store. When you buy from a company that produces and or trials the seed themselves, you will get higher quality seed that passed germination tests, and the company will usually be able to offer you more detailed information about the preferred growing conditions of each seed variety you choose. Here is a PDF file showing our 2023 seed selection with links to the suppliers we use.
Your growing medium has to provide the air, moisture, and nutrients that your plants need to thrive. We make this mix ourselves to make sure our plants get the best start possible. Click here to see a recent Instagram post I shared about how we make our own potting mix.
Various types of trays and pots can serve this purpose. You'll need a collection with several different sizes varying from around 1 inch to at least 4 inches in diameter. After years of using plastic pots in my own garden and with my school students, I was eager to find an alternative to the constant shuffle and sorting and waste that goes along with the use of plastic containers. Once I discovered soil blocks and their many benefits, I never looked back.
It was a pleasure to give away all of my old seed starting four packs, six packs, and whatever else packs! Today, we've replaced all of those plastic containers with a few soil block makers and durable wooden trays.
The wooden seed starting trays that I make have one missing side wall on purpose to make it easier to pull out the blocks in the garden when it's time for transplanting. No, my trays are not this clean anymore! These were just a few new trays that I built as a gift. If you'd like to get into soil blocks but you're not quite ready to make your own trays, it is possible to use soil blocks with plastic trays. Just make sure you invest in something stronger than the average plastic trays. I'd start with something like this from Bootstrap Farmer.
The right temperature is critical to achieve the optimum germination percentage and speed with your seed starting tasks. A heat mat will allow you to control this accurately. As long as you've got access to electricity, you can turn any cool space into an effective germination space. Our basement can be as cool as 15ºC at times, but I can easily germinate tomatoes and peppers at 25ºC any time I want thanks to this simple heat mat setup. The heat mat and temperature controller we use are shown below and you can find links to both of these items on the Tool Shed page.
Plants can't perform photosynthesis without light so this is one area you really can’t skip. Our top choices for lighting are full spectrum high intensity T5 fluorescent or LED strip lights. These lights are capable of giving our plants the quantity and quality of light they need, and their low profile allows me to organize my seedlings with shelving to help use my seed starting space most efficiently. You can find a link to the lights we use on the Tool Shed page. If you want a much deeper understanding of the light plants need and how to make sure you are giving your seedlings enough of that high quality light, then check out my in-depth grow light study.
The subject of water application is usually an afterthought, so I think it's worth mentioning as an essential element. It was a challenge to water our seedlings effectively indoors without making a mess at first. I tried hand held spray bottles, compressible tanks, bottom watering trays, and nothing worked flawlessly. Then I finally until I put together this custom micro sprayer wand. It sprays a focussed fine mist over our soil blocks so the water can be absorbed quickly instead of running onto the shelving or floor. The 15 psi pressure regulator was a key addition to lower the pressure from our household supply which is closer to 80 psi.
I hook up this assembly to a utility sink in our seed starting area during the seed starting season, so watering our seedlings is as simple as turning on the faucet and giving them a quick spray. You can find a few links to the components you'll need to make your own wand like this on our Tool Shed page.
Lastly, you will need to designate some space in your home that you can use for seed starting. Where can you make a mess? Where do you have easy access to water? Where can you leave your plant trays setup for an extended period? Remember that this space doesn't need to be available all year round, so maybe your seed starting station is something you set up in the spring and take down for the rest of the year. Our seed starting shelves double as storage space for winter squash, garlic, and grain in the winter months so we leave the set up all the time.
The photo below shows how our seed starting space looks today. Our basement renovations are still a work in progress, but I think our seed starting equipment is in its final resting place now.
Once the weather warms up, I start moving our seedlings to our outdoor nursery greenhouse. I built this pretty early on to help expand our seed starting space and to make it much easier to harden off our plants. You can see a few more photos of this project in this nursery greenhouse project in this post.
After taking a look at this list of essential seed starting equipment, consider if seed starting is a part of vegetable growing that you want to commit to. It will require an upfront investment, more of your time, and additional space in your home, and I know it's not for everyone. However, it does come with many advantages and benefits that are next to impossible to experience any other way. Overall, we have found it satisfying to start our own seeds and I would consider it necessary if you want the best results in your garden. If you do decide to get into seed starting in a serious way, just promise me that you'll do it well. This is one factor in gardening that you have total control over so take advantage of this brief opportunity you have to give your plants everything they need to thrive. If you do things right, your seedlings will be of a higher quality than anything you can buy at a garden centre.