Here in Zone 8b, backyard gardeners often get the itch to grow vegetables as early as late January. Our average date of last frost is mid-March, and our garden centers offer seeds, peat pellets, and starting trays year-round!
From apartment dweller to full-fledged suburban homesteader, by late February, windowsills are brimming with plastic seed-starting trays. Before long, tiny green sprouts peek through, and start stretching for light. Then, if you are like me, they keep going and going like the battery bunny, and soon the stems are six inches long, feeble, and falling over, in a failed quest for adequate sunshine. Anticipation leads to disappointment, and we head to the nursery center to buy plants.
Along with great soil and consistent watering, light and warmth are vital to successful seed germination. Very few zip codes have an abundance of those elements in February, so the eager backyard gardener must find artificial sources, such as pricey grow lights and heat mats, to get a head start on the season.
The frugal gardener always keeps cost in mind. A “good price” for a grow light setup might be $50. A grow bulb, which is used in an existing fixture, averages about $10. Heat mats are sold by size, starting around $20.
Thus, a basic system of heat and light for seedlings might cost $70. That is not at all unreasonable, unless $70 is your food budget and there is no money to spare.
I think we can do better by thinking creatively. Lets figure out what we need.
To keep seedlings from becoming leggy, and thus not surviving transplant, the light source should ideally be 1-2 inches above the foliage, and no more than six.
The optimal germination temperature is 75 degrees during the day, and 65 at night. I keep my household thermostat at 60 in the winter, and turn the heat off when daytime highs are in the 50’s. Thus, my seedlings not only need light, they require heat as well!
Here is how I give them both.
This year’s seedlings are already in the ground, so I set this up for demonstration purposes.
This is my Shoestring Sprouting System! It consists of two vinyl-coated cabinet organizers and Christmas lights! Very high tech!!!
The “design” is versatile. In this configuration, with the lights wrapped around one organizer and a second one atop it, one tray of seedlings can be lit and heated on the counter top, while a second one on top has its roots warmed, but is protected from direct contact with the bulbs by the second shelf. Ideally, another set of lights is strung under the overhead cabinets.
When in peak production, several organizers are lined up on the counter, forming a tunnel of light and heat for multiple full-sized sprouting trays. My thermometer showed a consistent temperature of 74 degrees, nearly 15 degrees warmer than the household air. This year, I planted 144 cells and only four did not germinate.
So, how much money do we save with this method? New, the coated wire cabinet organizers (16x10x5) are less than $10 each. A similar size with two levels is twice that. I got mine at a garage sale many years ago for 25 cents each. You could also simply elevate a wire rack using cans or Mason jars!
New, the Christmas lights run $5 to $8. I purchased these at an after-Christmas sale for $2. Of course, you could grab a string out of your holiday storage for free!
As a frugal person, I was concerned about the cost of the electricity to run the lights, and carefully examined my electric bill. I ran the lights 24/7 for six weeks and the bill rose perhaps a dollar or two. It was not a significant difference.
Providing light and warmth to your seedlings doesn’t have to be an expensive proposition. You can nurture sturdy, vigorous plants right on your kitchen counter, with a bit of determination and some creative Shoestring thinking!