Starting Seeds on A Budget

Whether you’ve already started gardening, or are freshly inspired to begin, starting seeds indoors quickly becomes important. As gardeners, we grow our own food at home for multiple reasons. It gives us a certain piece of mind knowing exactly what inputs go into cultivating your food crops, and the bottom line is that the food we grow for ourselves is fresher, and likely more delicious than the grocery store equivalent. But, there are often other reasons that one decides to venture into the realm of at home cultivation. A large source of encouragement for the modern gardener is the increasingly high price of fresh foods, and the strain it can have on the normal family budget.

Starting Seeds: Trays Reduce Potting Mix Waste

When executed properly, the act of gardening lets us take personal nutrition into our own hands in a budget-friendly way, and one of the things we can do to save even more money is to start our own garden plants from seed before the season begins. This is a relatively easy thing to accomplish, as long as you have the right tools and supplies. The trick, however, is doing so in a budget-friendly way.

Let’s start with the containers for starting seeds. The first thing you will need is a starter or propagation tray with a plastic dome lid. The standard tray is 10 inches wide by 21 inches long (24 cm wide by 37 cm long), and is capable of housing over 100 seedlings.

You can start seeds by simply filling the tray with growing medium and planting the seeds, but this may require transplanting some of the seedlings into individual containers in order for the seedlings to grow big enough to eventually be planted in an outdoor garden.

You can use plastic cups with holes punched in the bottom to allow for adequate water drainage, or individual plastic seed starting cells that fit comfortably into the propagation tray. These allow the grower to have one plant in each cell, and to grow it until they reach the desired size. The tray, individual planting cells, and the humidity dome can usually all be purchased for about $9 (£7).

Best Seed Starting Results: Grow Light, Not Windowsill

Adequate lighting is a must for raising healthy seedling indoors. A two foot, four bulb T5 fluorescent light fixture is easy to mount, low in energy usage, and provides excellent light coverage for one standard propagation tray. It will also help supply the heat that seeds need to germinate. Proper lighting is important for seedlings as they begin the process of photosynthesis, and developing both vegetative and root growth.

Raising seedlings in a sunny window will result in plants that are “leggy” from stretching to receive light, and have only modest root growth. The light fixture and bulbs will be the most cost intensive part of this project, but it is an invaluable asset when starting seeds indoors. Depending of the brand, a decent light will cost around $110-$125 (£66 – £99). Remember to look in the clearance section at your local indoor grow shop first for the best deals.

Next you need a potting mix for starting seeds. There are many mediums to choose from for germinating seeds, but the most cost effective and reliable is likely an organic soilless growing mix. There are many kinds of mixes intended for seed starting on the market today, and the prices will vary, but generally a 50 liter bag will cost less than $18 (£14).

Of course, you will also need some seeds. Most growers receive several seed catalogs every year, and most of us have a favorite. When ordering seeds, it’s a good idea to purchase them all from the same company with the hopes of receiving free shipping on the order. Seeds are also widely available at garden centers or grow shops, and you can purchase them in bulk, or in smaller packages. Depending on the variety, seeds are usually very reasonably priced, and the amount per packet will often last more than one season – when properly stored.

Starting Seeds: Cost Effective Methods = Better Plants

On average, purchasing these much-needed tools for success will typically set you back about $165 (£132) – but that is an initial investment, and you should look at the cost with some perspective. Buying enough plants from a nursery or greenhouse to fill a large garden can easily cost a grower upwards of a hundred dollars, and the larger the garden, the higher the price. But, the quality of plant seedlings is not assured to be the highest.

An important point to keep in mind is that this really is an initial investment. Most of these things are reusable in the following years. The planting tray, any leftover growing medium, and properly stored seeds will still be good to use. This is especially true of the light. The bulbs should give you several years of service before any need replacing, and the fixture will last much longer.

So, the initial investment of around $165 (£132) can actually become an avenue for a grower to save even more money in consecutive years. It can also give you the peace of mind that comes with knowing exactly where your food came from, all the way back to the seed.

Inline images courtesy of Dwight Sipler,  Cristina Santivo, and Mark Levisay (respectively).

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Kyle L. Ladenburger is a freelance garden writer who has worked in the gardening/hydroponics industry for over a decade. As an avid indoor and outdoor gardener, he is well versed in nearly all types of growing methods with an overall focus on sustainability and maintaining healthy soils. He holds a strong conviction that growing one’s own food is a powerful way to change our lives and our world for the better.