Which Seed Starting Supplies Are Worth It? And Which Aren’t?

As a gardener, there is no end to what you could spend your money on. Take seed starting – what do you really need? Are those peat pellet kits really worth it? Can you start your seeds in yogurt tubs, or is that somehow not….correct?

Here’s my opinionated opinion on what should get your money and what shouldn’t.

Worth Spending Your Money On

Quality Seeds
It should go without saying, but I’ll pound the point home anyway: better seeds make better seedlings. Good seeds needn’t be super expensive. In general, OP seeds cost less than hybrid seeds. I feel hybrid seeds offer an advantage for cauliflower and brussels sprouts, and in cool areas like the NW if you aren’t seed saving, you might opt for hybrids for the warm season crops like eggplant, peppers, and melons (because we need all the help we can get for those crops). Otherwise, less expensive open pollinated varieties are a fine choice. For more info, or if seed selection is overwhelming you, check out my post on How to Pick Your Vegetable Seeds Without Going Crazy.

Quality Lighting
Start your early seeds on the kitchen windowsill? Maybe in the Southwest. Here in Rainyside, grow lights will give a far superior result. See last year’s comparison between window-grown starts and grow-light starts for proof. We have T12 florescent grow lights. This size light is basically now old, inefficient and obsolete, so if you are just investing in grow lights, investigate T8s (good) T5s (better) and maybe even LED lighting (maybe best?) options and see what’s right for you based on your space available and budget. Don’t forget that with lights there is an upfront budget and an operating budget, and in the long run it pays to get a more energy efficient setup.

Mechanical Timer
Because if you are going to put lights on your seedlings, you want a little robot who will turn your lights on at 5 am and off at 10 pm without you having to remember. Make sure you get one with a grounded plug. You’re going to be spraying water around this thing, after all.

Propagation Trays
I love solid, heavy-duty plastic propagation trays. You do NOT need the inserts. Although the inserts are space efficient and I use them, almost any container can be modified into a seed starting container. Anything that can hold a bit of soil and a seed can be used as a pot, including newspaper, toilet paper tubes or old yogurt containers. However, it is good practice to bottom water your seedlings, and I love the heavy duty solid trays for this. If you can find a bunch of old metal sheetpans with a sturdy, high lip all the way around, or have some plastic shoeboxes that will hold water, those all work well too. If you buy prop trays, try to get them locally so you can inspect their sturdiness. It is worth paying a bit more for a really heavy duty tray that will last.

Liquid Fertilizer
Fish Emulsion. Here, let me say it again: fish emulsion. This is the perfect liquid fertilizer for seed starting. I dilute to ¼ the recommended strength and bottom water seedlings with it every week or two, depending on the crop. Once your crops are up and growing outside, if something looks like it needs help – dilute fish emulsion. If your spinach looks at you funny – dilute fish emulsion. Cilantro going to seed to fast? Dilute fish emulsion. Basically, fish emulsion is like lemon ginger tea: it might not be the exact perfect cure, but it won’t hurt, and it’ll probably make your plant feel better. When in doubt, dilute fish emulsion.

A Small Fan
If you are starting your seeds in an out of the way area, I highly encourage you to introduce some constant airflow around your seedlings. This does two very important things. First, it reduces the possibility of soil fungus and whitefly buildup around your seedlings. Second, constant light air movement forces seedlings to grow stronger and tougher, and put a bit more energy into growing a nice sturdy stem. It is important that your seedling’s first exposure to airflow isn’t a 45 mph wind gust just after your transplant them outside. I have a little soft bladed fan like this:

Seed Warming Mat
Not essential, but very nice to have if you are starting tomatoes, peppers or (especially) eggplant from seed in the Maritime Northwest. Obviously not needed if you live someplace where you put pepper seeds in the ground and they grow. Warmer soil means a faster germination and less chance your heat-lovin’ seeds are going to up and rot on you. I’ve had a pair of Hydrofarm seed mats like the one below for seven years, I use them every year, treat them like crap, and they’ve both held up very well. They are the same size as the propagation trays, so everything plays together really well on my seed-rack.

Not Worth Spending Your Money On

Ok, remember this is just my opinionated opinion. If you disagree, please feel free to (respectfully) make your case in the comments. Maybe you’ll change my mind!

Specialty Seed Starting Mix
Particularly the overpriced kind sold the small little bags from high-end nurseries in upscale malls. Grrrrr…..that kind of thing makes me cray-zay. If you only want to start five or six transplants, honestly you are probably better off just buying well-grown transplants from a good nursery. Once you get to the point where you start a lot of seeds indoors, you have to look at ways to make your seed starting medium more economical.

In the past I’ve used massive bags of standard Miracle Gro, Black Gold or E.B. Stone soilless potting mix and I’ve had great results with all of them. If your ethics allow it, the Miracle Gro is pretty excellent for seed starting. These days, although I still used bagged potting blends, my preferred potting soil is home made screened vermicompost mixed with peat moss or coconut coir.

My problem with dedicated seed starting mix in general is that I think it is too light and I don’t like the total lack of background nutrition. My goal isn’t just to get the maximum possible germination and growth from my seeds, as it might be for a commercial grower. My goal is to grow seedlings that will do well outside without forcing me to spend every waking minute babying my transplants. A slightly heavier mix that holds more moisture, a slightly larger pot, and added background nutrition in the mix means my transplants can go a day or several without me fussing over them. I do still believe that a sterile mix is a probably a good idea for seed starting, though I have not seen any problems using my not-sterile vermicompost.

Super Expensive Grow Lights…Not Worth It, Yet
LED grow lamps and metal halide-type lamps are generally very expensive and are probably overkill for getting a little broccoli up and going. Both these types of lamps are mostly designed for professionals who want to take a crop through it’s full life cycle indoors or in a greenhouse with precise levels of supplemental light – a much more demanding lighting task than growing stocky, well-rooted transplants for outdoor growing. There is one crop whose value probably justifies the expense of these kind of lights (::cough::pot::cough::) and I don’t grow it. Homebrew Husband and I are closely watching LED grow light technology. We think in a couple years the startup cost of this technology and the diversity of options for hobbyist set-ups will be where it needs to be for us to make the leap from our old, crappy fluorescents.

Don’t get me wrong…I want this light, I just don’t want to spend $2000 on it:

Peat Pellets
I hate, hate hate those pop-up, peat/coir, seed-starting pucks. Some people love them. If you look on the Amazon reviews, apparently most people love them. Count me as not among those people. First, they are typically too small for all but the smallest transplants (like lettuce or chard). The mesh that surrounds the peat may, in some theoretical sense, be biodegradable but it certainly doesn’t break down quickly – I was finding those mesh liners in my raised beds for three years after I swore off the peat pellets forever. What peat pellets are really good for is air pruning roots to encourage a well-branched root system at transplant. Soil blocks give you the same advantage without the mesh, and are less expensive in the long run, or recycle old newspapers into really biodegradable seed starting pots.

Propagation Dome Lids
Propagation domes are the clear plastic lids you put over your seed propagation tray to keep humidity and moisture in and stop the potting mix from drying out while seeds are germinating. You know what works just as well? A plastic bag or a sheet of plastic wrap. I have used propagation domes, and I find them flimsy unitaskers, for the most part. As soon as seeds start popping up, take any covering off your seeds or risk mold and damping-off disease in your seedlings. Exception: if you are rooting cuttings, prop lids might be great for you.

 

What do you think – what are your favorite seed starting tools and toys? What’s worth it to you, and what isn’t?

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Comments

  1. I too am gearing up to start seeds, though up here in central NY, not for another month or so. I’ve been using a 2 bulb fluorescent fixture – I imagine T12, since I’ve had it for a number of years. I’ve been wanting to upgrade to something better, so was glad to read about the T8s and T5s.

    It appears that “T” refers to the bulb diameter and/or pins for inserting into a fixture. To change from T12 to one of the others therefore probably means buying a new fixture to house the bulbs. At least that looks to be the case from poking around Lowe’s and Home Depot on line. It seems that T5 bulbs are available individually as replacement bulbs, mostly in shorter lengths. But I don’t think they’ll fit into existing shop light housings. T8 seems to be much more readily available than T5. But if T5 is most efficient, that’s what I want.

    I did find this: ViaVolt 4 ft. 4-Bulb T5 High Output Copper Fluorescent Grow Light Fixture on both the Home Depot and Amazon websites. Comes complete with 4 bulbs and the fixture. Plugs in, no hard-wiring needed. Reviews are favorable on both sites. It’s $127 on Amazon (and doesn’t appear to be eligible for free Super Saver shipping), and $138 on Home Depot online. There’s also a 2 ft. unit available, but the 4 ft. looks like a better deal – twice the light for only a little more money. Hope this helps others who may be in the market for a similar upgrade. Has anyone tried one of these?

    • Drat! I just realized the images in your post are clickable to items on Amazon. Silly me. The T5 featured you’ve featured is cheaper than the one I found and looks to have favorable reviews as well.

    • We’re adding on to our grow lights this year. I found a bunch of inexpensive 4ft shop light fixtures at Wally World for under $12. They’re for T8′s, but Lowe’s only had T12 full spectrum bulbs. We took a chance, and sure enough…the T12′s fit right into the T8 fixtures. Since the bulb diameter on a 12 is larger than an 8, I would imagine if you have T12 fixtures, the T8 bulbs should fit, if you don’t want to immediately put out the expense to replace bulbs and fixtures all at once. (We’re working with a few dozen 4ft fixtures, so replacing everything at once could get pricey.)

      • The ballast on the fixture should indicate which types of bulbs are compatible. Some fixture will take a variety of T-sizes while other only take one. It will also list the max wattage allowed. You may need to remove a cover (with the fixture unplugged!) to see the ballast.

  2. I love your blog! What type of miricle grow mix have you used? Soiless? Thanks for all your info!

  3. I just wanted to mention that starting seeds in the window sill isn’t necessarily such a grand idea here in The Southwest either. A lot of the windows here are dual or triple pane and have all sorts of light blocking technology to keep the house from heating up like an oven. Good news for your AC bills. Bad news for seeds.

  4. I’m getting ready to start the aliums — onions, bunching onions, shallots, and leeks — this week. I had absolutely rubbish luck with staring aliums last years; they just wouldn’t sprout. I ended up having to buy transplants, which was frustrating. I’ve purchased onion and leek seeds from multiple vendors this year to see whether it was a seed quality issue. I’m also trying different methods of seed starting. I used soil blocks almost exclusively last year, but wasn’t impressed with them. They kept falling apart when I watered. I’m trying different types of seedling trays, traditional flats, soil blocks, and individual containers this year, in an attempt to throw everything at the problem and see what works.

    I am curious — for people who mix their own seed starting mix, what proportions of what components do you use? And does anyone have a sure-fire method of sprouting onions that they’d like to share?

    • I, too, used & abused my well-loved heat mat for seed starting. When it finally bit the dust two years ago, I bought some heat cables and Sweetie made a little sand box for them in our mini-greenhouse. They work great!
      As for the alliums, Bess, I’ve heard that the seed needs to be quite fresh for best results. I’ve started my own for years and never had problems. I sow them generously in a tray or recycled plastic box with holes poked in the bottom (no individual cells). When it’s time to transplant, they are easy to remove and separate from one another.

    • We’re using soil blocks this year and so far, we’ve found that making sure the mix is wet enough seems to be the trick to keeping them from breaking apart. (That, and bottom watering regularly so the blocks never get a chance to dry out.)

      As for starting mix, getting a good mix that’s economical is key for us. (We have a market garden, so we start nearly 1,000 seedlings for each type of planting.) We’ve had the best luck with coconut coir, sterile garden soil, vermiculite, worm castings/compost, lime, and a little clay. Our mixing isn’t scientific.

      1 large block of coir (not the little bricks – the BIG blocks from Amazon),
      1 bag of garden soil (like the ones at Lowes/WalMart)
      1 small bag of vermiculite (the biggest bag they sell at Lowes)
      1 bag of compost/worm castings (10lbs, give or take),
      half a coffee can of clay,
      and 5-6 handfuls of lime.

      Throw it all in a large capacity wheelbarrow to mix. Then I take a 1 gallon plastic planting pot, dump 5 healthy pots full in a rubbermaid tub, add 3/4 of a gallon to a gallon of water, mix & make my blocks. You can use the same mix, minus all the water, for more conventional seed pots/seedling trays.

    • one part vermiculite
      one part permlite
      3 parts peat moss or coir.
      I used this last year with great results. And way cheaper than the pre-mixed stuff.

  5. Because we start massive amounts of plants I also don’t use the “seed starting mix” soil because it’s too expensive and I’d need to buy a pallet of those tiny bags every year. Just think of the plastic waste from that alone! Instead I use rose planting mix for most of my seeds and have had fabulous luck. Peppers, however, I get fancy with and use orchid soil mix because it doesn’t have peat in it (for some reason peppers don’t like peat).

  6. victoria carleton says:

    first…love your blog…lots of ideas…our gardens feed us alot of the year so we are pretty serious about it…there is a new light called sunblasters which is one of the t5 types and for a not too expensive outlay will last 10,000 hours or more and stuff grows like crazy…we are still using our very old fluorescent fixtures but will gradually replace them..i have tried making my own soil mix as well…we used it raw, we baked it in the oven, and always had problems with bugs or disease…not to mention mess and everyone complaining of the dirt smell in the oven..so i began using the sunshine mix #2 or #4 and it does well but i do have to water every time with a very dilute fish emulsion or seaweed mix…well i hvae to get some greens planted as we got the light rack up yesterday…happy planting…

  7. I know I am a heretic, but I use garden soil with some seed starting mix to lighten it up. 1. Do folks really think that seed starters from yore used anything other than soil? I think it is one more thing we are being conditioned by big business to spend our money on. 2. I want seedlings that can take the bacteria at transplant time, not princess transplants that fall over at the first sign of the cold cruel garden. If they are raised with the same soil they are transplanted into, there are fewer problems in my experience. 3. People who live in places where they can direct seed most or all of their crops do it straight into their soil, so why should people who start them in the house use special, expensive soil. 4. When I used to use purchased soil, I had two years where nothing came up. Nothing. In a hurry and out of cash, I used garden soil and have never looked back.

    For the person with problems starting leek and onion seeds—I soak mine in warm water for about 2 hours before planting and have had fewer problems.

  8. Loved this post! The only thing I would add to the ‘save your money’ category is a temperature regulator for the heat mat (the one they recommended buying on Amazon… you know the, “people who bought that also bought this” section). We used it for two years and it made absolutely NO difference in propagating rates, save your money.

    • Homebrew Husband says:

      Agreed…we’ve never used a temperature regulator or thermostat with our heater mats and have never had any issues. That said, though, these are pretty low-powered ones so their happy equilibrium temperature, even plugged in and left on 24×7 ,isn’t going to be that much above ambient. It might be different with one of the bigger, more powerful and industrial grade mats out there.

  9. Rosemary Edgar says:

    I am getting ready to start my aliums, parsley and celery. I have a staged set-up on 8 ft x 2 ft shelves with hanging fluorescent lights at 2 – heights close (for germination) and higher (8 inches or so) when it’s time to start the next flats. I have some great 48 in x 18 in (I think) heating mats that I’ve been using for years, under the close lights. I’ve had great success making my own potting mix (I start at least 70 flats per season) consisting of 3 (5 gal) buckets peat, 1 bucket perlite, 1 bucket vermiculite, 1 bucket compost (I use composted cow manure) and 1/2 C each of kelp meal, greensand, rock phosphate, and gypsum. Mix thoroughly and moisten. It’s messy, but I like knowing what goes into my potting mix.

  10. There are extensive plans out there for soil presses, which let you pack a small amount of soil, similar to peat pellets except that you decide what goes into them, you can make a press that forms the soil pellet in a cup of news paper or other material to make moving them easier. obviously one designed to make 6+ pellets at once would be ideal. email me if you would like me to send you links.

  11. we absolutely LOVE our sunblaster grow lights (http://sunblasterlighting.com/), I really didnt find them that expensive, I think they were $ 27 each, we have 5 but we start A LOT of transplants and we dont get enough sun through the windows so to us it was worth the investment. We also get some Vit D from them, which is a huge bonus in the grey mountains here where we dont get sun for weeks sometimes. I find they are great for the heat loving tomatoes, peppers etc, as we dont have heat mats.

  12. That was a GREAT post!
    I’m sending it to my daughters, and they don’t even garden!

  13. Cat Rennolds says:

    I’m using egg cartons and cat litter trays on my front porch in one of those inexpensive greenhouses. With homemade dirt, part clay, part sand and part compost. Sometimes I sterilize it and sometimes I just sprinkle the surface with Italian seasoning (most of which is antifungal;) or cinnamon. I DO like plastic lids of one type or another, because I just don’t have the knack for cling film, but I find cake domes and the like work just fine. I think I am gonna have just a few too many leeks this year….

    • I’ve used egg cartons for the past several years as well, and had good luck with them. When my seedlings get too large for the cartons (which is about the time the carton is ready to bite the dust), I either plant them in the ground or move them into another indoor container (plastic salad green containers work well). I haven’t yet experimented with grow lights as I don’t really have a good place to set one up where it wouldn’t be in the way, but I do move my seedling trays outside for some sunshine as they get older and the weather warms up.

      As for soil, I use soil from my garden and mix in some peat moss (straight-up, no chemicals added peat moss that I also use as bedding for my education salamander) to give the soil some air spaces. My garden soil is pretty pathetic, but between the peat moss and fish emulsion fertilizer, my seeds did pretty well last year. And they came through being planted in the garden rather well too.

  14. I wanted to share my cheap, though try at your own risk tip- I use a yard-sale find electric blanket covered with thick plastic to warm my plants. I’ve never had any issues and it works great for larger quantities of seedling flats. There’s a thermostat you can set and everything. Works great!

    • I would be a bit cautious about using an old electric blanket. The wires and thermostat are not designed for 24/7 use and could fail and potentially start a fire. I would use it outside in a temporary greenhouse where damage would be minimal but never inside my home.

  15. I love love love my heat mats! Baby seedlings love them to!

  16. I agree with all your ideas. I use them all and have great success. the only thing i would add is the soil square maker from johnnys seeds. it only costs around 20 and makes transplanting a breeze. I also do custom soil mixes out of Eliot Colemans book, but it may only be dirt therapy. (there is nothing like hand mixing dirt!)

  17. The first year I started seeds in a serious way, I went around in circles about whether to invest in grow lights; we just don’t have a good spot for an indoor starting set-up. Then I went to a session at my local nursery where they start all the veggie starts they sell. They have large unheated greenhouses (I’m in the PNW too), and counters with heat cables in sand. We have a little greenhouse on our property, so I decided to follow their lead. I can’t start seeds in January (not enough light outside), but once February rolls around, I’m good to go.

    I’m a convert to soil blocks (don’t bother with the micros, just use the 2″ blocks, they’re less fussy) on the heavy duty seed trays for bottom-watering, cover with the domes (I just use the low ones, they’re cheap and last forever and as I’m starting seeds most weeks, they are always in use) and place on the heat tray/mats until germination. Remove the domes, water regularly, and transplant when ready. Low tech, low energy use, and little waste.

    For healthy soil blocks, I wanted the simplest recipe possible. I use 4 parts soil potting mix (big cheap bag–if I was market gardening I’d make my own, but can’t be bothered for just the large homestead garden. I’d rather eliminate a step) to one part worm castings. Add a few handfuls of a basic organic fertilizer (I usually make a big batch of Steve Solomon’s COG: 4 parts alfalfa meal, 1/2 part each of lime, kelp meal, and either bone meal or rock phosphate), and I don’t usually need to fertilize until transplanting, unless I’m holding onto them longer (like for tomatoes or when I’m waiting for space in a garden bed!). The blocks do need to be pretty muddy (damp fudge?) to hold together well, and then I usually don’t need to water them for several days at first. Ignore the advice to “mist”–they won’t get enough moisture unless you do that constantly (although sometimes I mist during germination if the tops dry out a little or germination is uneven).

  18. YES to the fish emulsion, especially for seedlings but also for other fertilizing needs all season long. I go through several containers of that stuff every year. The only bummer is the blast of nastiness that happens when you open the door to a warm and humid greenhouse that reeks of fish guts just after applying the diluted emulsion to seedlings-that’s hard to stomach.

  19. Oh, excellent post!
    I am so with you on those nasty little peat popup things! I have never had great luck with them. I’ve also switched to good-quality bagged soil mix, preferably one of the organic ones for seed-starting. I think the extra nutrients really help the “babies” get off to a good start. I do dose the mixes with chamomile tea to prevent damping off and have had good success with that.
    I like using cowpots. They hold together well enough, but roots can grow right through them. I use them for squashes, cukes, and melons particularly as they are so sensitive to their roots being disturbed. That way they can get a little extra growing start with the cold spring we PNW’ers have been putting up with recently.

    I’ll also sometimes just fill a whole propagation tray (after disinfecting with vinegar) with mix and start a full tray of lettuce greens and then just peel off chunks of them to replant. A bit messy, but it seems to work OK.

  20. I live just north of the Washington border in B.C. I have a greenhouse (not double walled) and heat mats. I started all my squashes, tomatoes etc in the house 2 weeks ago and want to move them out to the greenhouse now that they have second leaves. Is there enough light and warmth (with only heat mats) to do this without shocking them terribly?

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