Okay, so we’ve decided to start seeds indoors.  It’s time to design a place to grow them.

We could buy a fancy, specially-designed rack with built-in lighting and heat but that can be very expensive.  Also, a pre-fabricated unit might not fit our needs exactly and would probably not be easy to modify.  Furthermore, it wouldn’t fit in with our do-it-yourself mindset regarding the garden and its appurtenances.  Instead, we’ll put one together from items we can buy at the Home Depot.

Most of the rigs we’ve seen in catalogs are based on free-standing shelf units so that’s where we started.  Because we do not have a lot of room in our basement, the unit will have to be of modest size and more vertical than horizontal.  Also, because there will be water (probably everywhere), the shelves should not be metal (which could rust) or wood (which might rot or get moldy); plastic would be the ideal material.  Browsing the Home Depot website, I found an 18” x 36”, 4-shelf unit for less than $20.  It is made of plastic and is listed as heavy-duty which sounds ideal.

The next component of the seed growing apparatus is the lighting.  My first impulse was to do a search for “grow lights” to see what came up.  What I found was a bit shocking, pricewise.  At the low end there were fluorescent fixtures starting at $25 dollars for a single two-foot bulb and at the other end were LED grow lights starting at almost $200, again for a single bulb.  I need three 4-foot-long fixtures with at least two bulbs each making these alternatives much too expensive.

And from what I’ve read, ordinary fluorescent fixtures are just fine for bathing seeds and seedlings in cool, white light.Also, the fixtures do not need to be beautiful (even if they needn’t be ugly, either) so ornamental or otherwise decorative models are out.  Basic, utilitarian shop fixtures seem like a good choice and, sure enough, I was able to find a 4-foot, two-bulb unit for around $20.  This fixture is supported from two chains—spaced, fortuitously, at about three feet apart—which will allow us to adjust its height above the seedlings as they grow.  We’ll get three and at least six 32-watt T8 cool white bulbs (like batteries, they are seldom included).

We next turned our attention to the trays in which we will plant the seeds.  Again, there are a lot of designs available, many of them customized for the purpose.  For instance, some of the trays are compartmentalized to make transplanting easier.  The compartments come in different sizes as well with the smaller ones being better for sowing seeds.  The larger cells may be needed for potting up those seedlings that are not ready to go into the ground.

The compartmentalized trays seem like a good idea but I think they might be harder to fill with soil.  Instead, we will plan on simple, non-compartmentalized trays.  My search came up with a lightweight plastic model that is 11 inches by 22 inches in area and 2.5 inches in depth.  We can fit two per shelf and even though they will extend beyond the ends of the shelves, they will still be completely covered by the light fixtures.  We will need six trays.  If we need to pot up, we will look at possible alternatives at that time.

At least two companies sell trays with each compartment filled with a pellet of compressed seed starting mix; when moistened, the pellet expands to fill the compartment.  This is another good idea but it is much more expensive.  And eventually, we will need loose soil (for potting up) so why not start with it?  Our gardening books tell us that all we need is a balanced mixture of milled peat moss and fine vermiculite so we will buy some of each and mix it ourselves.  Or perhaps we’ll get lazy and buy something pre-mixed.

Some seed starting rigs include heating pads to keep the soil and seeds at the optimum temperature.  We could get one sized to fit our trays (8.5 inches by 20.5 inches); however, at $20 each, the cost for six ($120) would exceed the total cost of all of the other items combined.  To avoid this, we’ll locate the seedling rack in the warmest part of the basement, near the oil burner.  The thermostat is usually set at 55 degrees down there but adjacent to the furnace, it is easily 10 degrees warmer.

To help the soil retain its heat, we will get clear plastic bags in which to ensconce the trays.  The plastic will allow the light (and its warming radiation) to reach the soil surface while keeping in the heat (and moisture, for that matter).  To ensure that we are maintaining an appropriate temperature, we will also get a simple soil thermometer.  Speaking of moisture, we will get a spray bottle to gently water the soil and the seedlings when they emerge.

With potentially hundreds of seedlings—most of which will look nearly identical to each other—we will need to identify what we planted and where.  As a final component of our seed starting apparatus, we will buy row markers to keep everything straight.  Ideally, these will be something simple and cheap (e.g., popsicle sticks) and, preferably, re-useable (therefore, probably made of plastic).

We now have our shopping list.  Onwards to the Home Depot!  (Our local garden center does not open until March.)