Small-Space Seed Starting

The Most Reliable Method for Indoor Seed Starting With Limited Space, On a Budget

It’s fabulous to see so many people starting their own seeds this year. Some are seasoned gardeners who’ve just never grown their own transplants before, and others are brand new to the whole gardening game. One thing many have in common, though, is the need to start those seedlings with space and budget restrictions. And now, there’s a book for that!

All of the small-space seed starting posts from this blog, along with additional information, are now compiled into an easy-reference book, complete with pictures and supply checklists.

This is a great little reference to have on hand from year to year.

You won’t need to search for seed starting or affordable grow light information ever again–it’s all inside!

Order Small Space Seed Starting on Amazon

Available now in both paperback or for Kindle or Kindle e-reader apps, you’re just minutes away from this handy guide. It’s the very same method I’ve relied upon for years for strong, happy, healthy starts. In fact, it was the first and only method that ever really worked for me, coming on the heels of many, many previous failed attempts.

Get yours, and GET GARDENING!

Find it here, or click the image below.

A Cheap And Easy Grow Light Setup For Garden Seedlings

How to Make Cheap Grow Lights for Growing Plants and Seedlings Indoors

Inexpensive Grow Light Setup

The following is excerpted from the upcoming book, Small Space Seed Starting by Mary Ellen Ward. Subscribe to this blog or follow Mary on Amazon for an announcement when it is published (will be available on Amazon).

Whether you are growing vegetables, flowers, or even houseplants, plant grow lights do NOT have to cost a lot. Following is the cheapest grow light setup for seedlings–and what’s even better, all of the supplies can be had with a single trip to your neighborhood hardware store.

Of course, shopping online is an option, too, but in my personal experience the best prices on these grow light supplies has been through Lowe’s (which is the closest supplier to me, but Home Depot and Walmart are close seconds). That said, depending on the size of your setup, Amazon and other online retailers have some good prices, too.


How to Make Cheap Grow Lights:
You will need:
>> Plug-in workshop lights — standard 2-tube fluorescent units (available at any Lowe’s, Home Depot, Wal Mart, Hardware store, or online)
>> 1 Cool spectrum bulb (fluorescent tube)
>> 1 Warm spectrum bulb (tube)
>> Small S hooks (2 per light unit — chains are usually included with the light unit)
>> Optional: power strip and/or timer


What Is The Cheapest Grow light Setup for Seedlings?

Specialized grow light units are convenient and reliable, but they also tend to be quite expensive and more difficult to locate locally (which also means that if you need to replace a bulb or a unit on short notice, acquiring one quickly could be a problem).

Alternatively, and less expensively, you can create your own grow light setup with simple, inexpensive supplies that you can buy at nearly any local hardware or department store.

Dual-bulb plug-in fluorescent workshop lights are easy to install, inexpensive, and accessible. (A similar setup with LED lights is workable, too, as long as the bulbs have the full spectrum of light or you can locate bulbs to achieve a full spectrum ranging from cool to warm light.)

Forty-eight-inch shop light units are widely available and fit a four-foot-long shelving unit well. You can plug them into any household three-prong outlet or power strip. Power strips make it easy to turn all the light units on and off together.

The Right Type of Bulbs to Buy for Cheap and Easy Grow Lights

warm and cool spectrum lightbulbs

The way to achieve full-spectrum plant lighting with inexpensive shop bulbs is to use one “cool” spectrum bulb and one “warm” spectrum bulb.

These are not specialty bulbs — you will find them in the regular lighting aisle with all the other bulbs. They are usually sold two to a pack, so if you are setting up two grow lights, just buy one pack of each. 

Place one of each type of bulb in each shop light fixture.

Typical fluorescent bulbs of this type usually cost around $5 per bulb as of the time of publication (as opposed to around $25+ for grow lightbulbs of the same size). Each type of bulb (warm and cool) delivers light at different points of the spectrum, but together they achieve the full spectrum your plants will require.

Note that, although some fairly specific units and supplies are detailed here, any size or version of this setup that fits your needs and your space will give you the light you need — again, as long as you take care to use light bulbs that will provide a full spectrum of light for your plants; it’s all about the bulbs that give you the full spectrum of light.

How To Make A Space-Saving Grow Light Shelf

Though you can use a tabletop setup, the idea with small-space seed starting is to minimize and maximize your space at the same time. Do this by using a simple shelving unit to create tiers of lighted space so that you can keep many plants in the same footprint of floor space.

Depending on how much space you need for plant flats, you could even put a small two- or three-level shelf on the top of a table or workspace—as long as you can sacrifice that space for the next two to three months.

As for the shelf itself, there are many options online or at your local hardware, farm, or garden store. Your shelf certainly does not need to be one specifically designed for use as a plant shelf. Metal shelves that are used for kitchen, bath, or dry storage are ideal and come in sizes that work well with standard shop lights.

household storage shelf used for growing seedlings

Inexpensive home “greenhouse” units work, too, (these often have a plastic covering that you will want to remove to allow good air circulation and to keep the plastic away from the lights’ heat). Rubbermaid™-type or heavy-duty plastic storage shelves are other good options. Even some cheap wooden-slatted bookcases can work.

To create your lighted growing shelf, use S hooks on the bottom of one shelf to hang above the shelf below.

Shop light, S hooks, chains for hanging on plant shelf.

Using the chains that come with your light units, hang them from the S hooks.

Do not pinch the hooks closed–you want them open so that you can easily adjust your grow lights and move them up as your seedling grow.

How Far Away Should You Space Grow Lights From Seedlings?

Grow lights 2 inches above seedlings

Your lights should always be kept about two inches above your growing plants–close enough to provide strong light without causing the seedlings to become leggy and stretched, resulting in weak stems.

Also note that LED lights tend to run hotter than fluorescent bulbs and therefore may need to be distanced farther than fluorescent tubes. Some people find it difficult to find a balance between being far enough away not to burn the seedlings, but close enough to prevent leggy stem growth.



Grow Light Management Tips
>> If your plants develop tall, thin, weak stems, move your light closer, about an inch above the tops.
>> Be sure plants are not touching the lights. Fluorescent lights run fairly cool, but if they are too close lights could cause burning and over-drying of your seedlings.
>> LED lights run hotter than fluorescent tubes and may need to be spaced farther from plant tops (but some people say it is difficult to keep the plants close enough for strong stem growth without burning plant tops).
>> Continue to move lights up by adjusting the units on the chains, always keeping them within one to three inches of the plants.
>> Adding a fan to your setup and/or brushing your hand lightly over the tops of your seedlings daily helps to mimic wind and helps seedlings develop stronger stems.


How Much Time Do Indoor Garden Plants Need Under Grow Lights?

The recommended amount of time that you should provide light to your indoor seedlings, flowers, and vegetables is set at between 12 and 16 hours per day. This mimics early spring outdoor light and also adds some time (at the higher 16-hour range) to accommodate for lighting conditions that are less powerful than the sun’s natural light. If you provide consistent light in this time range you will give your plants a strong enough start to get them to transplant stage.

If You’ve Got Good Light, Do You Need A Grow Light Setup?

If you have a south-facing bay window or something similar, there is a slim chance you’ll have enough natural light to grow your seedlings, but the fact of the matter is that most of us do not.

Even with a good light source from a glass door or window, days are simply not long enough to provide enough hours of direct sunlight for your seedlings to grow properly, especially in the earlier weeks of growing before the days naturally lengthen. 

Also, most modern windows are designed to block out the sun’s ultraviolet rays as a level of skin protection and protection for household goods and fabrics. The amount of UV light being blocked by your windows and doors may vary depending on factors like type, age, and brand of the window, but the bottom line is, there’s a good chance your plants won’t be able to get all the full-spectrum growing light they need through windows in your home. If you’ve ever tried starting seeds indoors before, and they came out looking pale with long, weak stems that couldn’t support the plant, this is why.

All of this taken together is why we provide supplemental light for strong plant starts.

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Five Super Seed Picks for Your Garden This Year

It’s 2021 at the time of this writing, but these seed varieties have been around for generations, so no matter when you find this article, these are time-tried and true plants that are always worth a look for your garden.

In This Article:
Five Super Seed Recommendations
Double-Duty Dual Purpose Vegetable Varieties
Simple Seed Saving for Starters

The time is right for planning your garden and ordering your seeds RIGHT NOW.

While in many parts of the country January seems like a pretty quiet and unlikely time to start thinking about garden planning and seed ordering, it’s actually the best time to get your order planned and purchased—and that is especially true this year.

Garden Seeds to Order

Seed companies are reporting five-fold increases in seed orders this year. Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds had already closed its website for a period of four days or so twice, and has said this week that it will likely have to do so again. On top of that, they are experiencing shipping delays and alerting customers to expect their orders to take up to two weeks before they leave their facility.

This is not, of course, to pick on Baker Creek. One of the reasons they are having such issues is their reputation for quality and dedication to accessible, sustainable gardening and growing. The demand and challenges they are facing are certainly not unique to them; many seed suppliers have similar tales to tell. They’re simply one example. In fact, Fedco Seed’s website is also currently on hiatus with known delays in shipping (at time of publication—do check their site via these links!).

The moral of the story is, plan early and order early. The planning is important—in a year like this it’s not nice to overbuy and hoard seed you don’t need. As Fedco Seed says in their catalog, they’re not gold and those hoarded seeds can’t last forever. So take what you need, share what you can, and be a friend to fellow gardeners and growers.

Five Varieties of Seed You Need in Your Garden This Year

These seeds aren’t new to me or to seed catalogs this year. In fact, they’ve been around a really long time. But they are seeds that can prove even more useful in a year like this, each for its various reasons. They’re favorites I’ve come to rely on, that I think you will, too.

1. Seasoning Celery (aka Cutting Celery, Amsterdam Seasoning Celery)

Why you want it:

Celery is a heavy feeder and can be tricky to grow. Some locations have an easier time of it than others. Seasoning celery, however, grows more like an herb—it’s often compared to parsley in its growing habit. It needs less time to start than stalk celery and can be started just six weeks before transplant time (or even in the ground depending on location).

This is a shorter, leafier plant than traditional celery that grows slimmer stalks but it’s easier to grow and can be cut throughout the season and it will keep coming back. It has a long harvest period from spring through summer and fall and is frost hardy. This gives you nice celery sprigs for those summer salads as well as plenty to preserve for winter soups and stews.

Because its thinner, both the stalks and the leaves dry easily just by hanging. You can simply chop it and freeze it in a bulk bag, too. If you’re looking for large stalks this isn’t your ideal celery, but if chopping and cooking is your primary celery use, you’ll love the ease and versatility of seasoning celery. And it’s an heirloom, too! (So saving is an option if you know how to do it.)

Who has it:

2. Rutgers Tomato

Why you want it:

Rutgers is often dubbed the “Campbell’s Soup Tomato” because the famous soup company developed it. It is now considered an heirloom and is open pollinated (seed saver!). The plants are more compact than a lot of garden tomato bushes, topping at just around three feet tall.

Rutgers is usually considered an indeterminate tomato (fruits continuously rather than all at once), though some strains are listed as determinate (fruits and ripens all together) or even semi-determinate. Check your seed supplier—their description will tell you which strain they carry. It is a fairly short season tomato, needing just 70 to 80 days to harvest.

The best reason to grow Rutgers is that, on top of its reputation for fabulous old-world flavor, it is a great dual-purpose tomato—so you can grow both slicers and sauce/paste tomatoes without having to buy multiple types of seed and without planting more than one variety. All your tomato seeds in one reliable, time-tested bush!

When seeds shortages are on, good dual-purpose varieties are an excellent way to go (and some that, no matter the seed supply, saves space and money).

Who has it:

3. Italian Sweet Peppers:

Why you want it:

Italian sweet peppersmature around 70 days, so they’re among the first to harvest, especially of the larger pepper varieties. These multi-purpose peppers can be harvested at any stage from young and green to yellow to red and mature.

Italian peppers are excellent fresh, good for freezing, and easy to dry because they are a thinner-walled pepper. They’re also known to be excellent roasting peppers (especially if harvested when red).

Eight inches long, they are quite sizable. In my garden they’ve proven to be a more reliable and less finicky pepper, often setting fruit and bearing well throughout a long season even when bell-types and other peppers struggle.

Heirloom and open pollinated, so easy to save for next year, too!

Who has it:

4. Flashy Trout Back lettuce (aka Forellenschluss, Flashy Trout’s Back, Flashy Troutback)

Why you want it:

Flashy Trout Back is a great all-purpose lettuce, something between a leaf and a head lettuce. Technically it’s considered a romaine lettuce, but in my experience it is easier to grow than what most people think of when they think “romaine”.

The hearts are a little looser which in my garden means I’m not waiting for that perfectly tight head that sometimes makes me miss the right harvest moment all together. It’s known for being a little less resistant to bolting in hot weather, too.

This lettuce offers flexibility in harvesting in that it can be grown and harvested as a baby lettuce, or you can pick leaves at any stage as a leaf lettuce (and when treated this way I’ve even had it come back as something of a cut-and-come again type), or you can treat it as a head lettuce and wait for a fuller head. Odds are that you’ll do a bit of all three (and be sure to use any thinnings for baby greens!).

What Flashy Troutback has over other leaf lettuces is that it is a substantial leaf (the romaine influence), heartier than a lot of leaf lettuces.

Flashy Troutback is an heirloom, open pollinated variety that is most often found as an organic, so there’s a win-win. It’s an easy seed to save, so let a few go and have your stock for next year, too!

Who has it:

5. Watermelon Radish:

Why you want it:

Watermelon radishes are large radishes best harvested around 50 days and at around 2 to 4 inches in diameter (but babies can certainly be picked and eaten earlier). They are milder and sweeter than many radish varieties.

What’s even better about watermelon radishes is that they keep extremely well for many months (some in my refrigerator right now are going on four months and still look great!).

Because they are larger, they are perfect for slicing for snacking, dipping, and cheese and charcuterie plates.

Their name comes from their color—white to green exterior with red interiors that not only taste great, but look beautiful in a spread, too.

Many varieties are heirloom or open pollinated, but not all are, so do read your supplier descriptions if seed saving matters to you. They do tend to bolt when conditions aren’t right, so planting early or late in the season is helpful for best yields.

Who has it: almost everyone!

A Year for Dual-Purpose and Seed Saving

Rutgers tomato plants in garden

You’ll notice a common theme prevalent amongst the five seeds featured here—open pollinated, heirloom, and dual-purpose.

In years such as this and the next few years to come, when seed supply and demand is tight, it’s a good idea to look at least a little bit toward the future.

Dual and multi-purpose varieties can help us save time, money, and seed for someone else to grow and harvest—because growing your own food is a right no person should be denied! Think about tomato types that can be both sliced and sauced; peppers to eat fresh, roast, sauce, can, dehydrate, or freeze; beans that can be both shelled and dried…

Seed saving is looking toward the future and helping to mitigate seed supply shortages, as well as establishing yourself as more independent, self-sufficient, and sustainable without 100% outside reliance for your ability to grow your own food. Some types of vegetables are difficult to save for beginners because cross-pollination makes things tricky, but things like tomatoes, peppers, peas, beans, and lettuce are easy to save; as long as you are selecting reliable, sustainable open pollinated and heirloom seeds to do it so that your seed breeds strong, true, and productive.

These are all things to keep in mind when buying and ordering your seeds this year. The companies linked to in this article are quality companies that take pains to include open pollinated varieties of seed and encourage seed saving.

With the changeable nature of this year it is helpful to have options. I’ve linked to these companies because I’ve used them and know them to be good seed providers, though they are not the only ones. Certainly if you have a worthwhile seed suggestion to share, or a quality seed company to recommend from experience, please share in the comments.  

Happy gardening, and best to you this growing year!