grow, marvel, eat, laugh, persevere

Friday, February 11, 2011

On Indoor Seed Starting 2011

I have a decent seed starting set up in the basement.  I use one of those 4 foot wide 18 inch deep metal shelving units and cheap 4 foot shop lights, two lights per shelf, each fixture having 2 fluorescent bulbs (4 bulbs total per shelf).  The shop lights hang effortlessly from thin Ikea hooks and the chains that came with the lights.  The lights are on 14-16 hours per day and shut off automatically thanks to the cheap timers they're plugged in to.  I could lament about my love for the metal shelves an entire post.  They have worked so well for my seed starting set up that I now have one in the kitchen injecting a modern industrial feel to an otherwise traditional, boring room.  If you are looking to set up your own indoor seed starting operation, I highly recommend them.

I hadn't been in that room of the basement since we took the FEMA guy there to inspect flood damage from the bad storm back in July 2010.  We had over a foot of seepage water before the storm finished but I don't feel right complaining about it since many of my friend's basements were flooded with sewage water.  Three feet in one case, cat liter boxes floating along the top like small house boats.  One person in the community described what it was like to watch feces floating amongst her children's toys.  We were lucky.

My seed starting materials are confined to a corner back room of the basement where I have the seed shelf with lights and a solidly built albeit too shallow work table constructed and bolted down by some former owner.  The rest of the room is storage space. A mattress set shoved against the wall.  A china cabinet.  My old Onkyo stereo system with its double cassette players and giant black speakers.  God! I was so excited when I bought that thing a million years ago.  

When I finally mustered up the motivated to clean the room so I could get some seeds started, just walking in there took me back to the flood.  The unopened hedge trimmer I won in some essay contest nearly 4 years ago laying the middle of the floor still wrapped in plastic, the box warped and discolored. Both of my already confirmed-dead cordless drills still there because I couldn't bring myself to get rid of them, yet.  The rusted drill bits.  Gallon water jugs cut for winter sowing sitting in the middle of the room where they'd floated off the bottom shelf of the metal seed rack eventually settling there when the water finally drained.  And the new $800 water heater we bought after the flood ruined ours leaving us hot water-less for days.  Still, once I got started, it was just like being in the garden. Getting into a zone.  Losing yourself then suddenly realizing you're finished as a sense of accomplishment washes over you.  

Even though I've been starting some of my own plants from seed over the past few years, I never get the timing right.  I'm late with everything. Sometimes so late that the seedlings don't grow large enough to be transplanted into the ground by summer and end up in the compost pile.  This year is liable to be the same but I am happy to report I'm off to a better start than usual.  

In zone 5, now is the time to start onions and leeks.  Onions take a long time to grow from seed.  In fact, they need nearly 12 weeks before they're ready to transplant.  This year I am growing Flat of Italy and Jaune Paille Des Vertus onions, both from several year old seeds.  I sowed about 3 seeds per pellet in hopes I'll get at least one in every pellet to germinate.  

More than anything else in gardening, seed starting brings out my insecurities.  As meticulously as I can, I drop the seeds down into what is supposed to be the hole in the rehydrated pellet but the seeds, usually some shade of brown, blend in with the stringy granules of choir the pellets are filled with and I'm never really sure I actually got them in the hole.  Or if they're laying on top of the choir. Or if the seeds even hit the pellet at all.  Still, I assume they are there then take the end of a pen, gently pressing down in the center of the pellets, worrying the seeds might be sticking to the pen and I'm actually shoving multiple types of seed into one pellet.  What I'm saying is there's a good chance that I'll have Painted Daisy, Thyme and Stevia all fighting for space in the same pellet.  Then I'll be faced with the moral dilemma of which gets sacrificed.  What I need is a fancy instrument to inject single seeds, no matter how tiny they are.  

It's cold down in the basement.  The seed tray covers will keep the seeds a little warmer but I still have to fight the urge to plug up a space heater.  Then I envision the space heater resulting in a $500 electric bill, or worse, starting a fire that'll burn our house down.  And there's the fear that nothing will germinate.  That somehow I have contaminated every single pellet.  Or that nature just stopped working.  The failure of seeds to germinate can be pretty traumatic for a gardener.  For now I'm hoping that seeds are where they need to be, properly hydrated, not contaminated and warm, enough.  


  1. Do you have a Menards near you? They sell a seed starting kit for $25 that includes a heat mat. You can put it on a timer with your lights to get a better germination rate.

  2. Good luck with your seeds. I can totally relate to your common seed trials and tribulations. I sowed my first onions as well and hope they germinate soon. Looks like you have a good setup.

  3. I am curious to find out how your seeds do this spring. I also have an unheated basement space which would be the only possible place I could set up a full scale seed starting shelf. I was thinking it would be too cold down there to work, but maybe I should give it a try.

    P.S. I love your blog.

  4. Kim - somebody else mentioned that I should check Menards, too! For some reason I've never been able to justify heat mats for my seeds even though I'm sure they'd be great, especially for the peppers! I'll check it out. Thanks for the suggestion.

    TBG - no sign of my onions, yet. What kind do you normally grow?

    Elizabeth - thanks for visiting my blog and the kind comments. I think you should really give the basement a try! I have been starting seeds down there for a couple of years and they've done OK. The peppers are definitely not very happy about it, but in my experience, it has been good enough. Let me know if you try it!

  5. Brining back the memories of those 1-hour three-inch storms in Chicago! Love your seed-starting stories (I love seed=starting most of all since the little ones are close to eye height and the drama happens every day. Good luck and I'll be sure to check in more.

    Meanwhile, I can only say two words: sump pump. Worth the price, even if just to avoid cleanup, let alone the privledge of not having to deal with the flotsam/jetsam of a storm aftermath.

  6. I always get my seeds timing wrong too. I missed the onions timing this year and I have planted 2 full trays with evrything under this world about 3 weeks ago - I only have 4 sprouts (3 arugulas and 1 tomato). I have my trays in my sun room - they get heat, sun and I cover them with the plastic thing but nothing. :(

    I love your shelf idea - I think i will build myself oneof those for next year.

    I also like what you have done with your yard - I started vegetable gardening 2 seasons ago and I do want to plant more and more every year - In fact I want to do a neighbourhood garden - do you have any tips on how to do that?

    Here is my blog - you can see there all the plantings I am doing this year:


  7. I am trying out some seeds this year, don't laugh but on my painted daisies I cannot figure out which is the proper end to plant on these seeds...HELP

    Thanks for any feedback you have to offer