Welcome to the second post of the "Cheap Gardening Series". This post is hoping to cover the cheap/free options for those seeds that need to be started indoors before the season kicks off. There are many different options out there but we are going to focus on the low-cost option way of doing it. Of course, you if you buy the small plants, then this shouldn't be an issue. It is cheaper to buy the seeds, even if they take a little more work.
Not all seeds need to be started indoors before the season and most seeds can are meant to be planted directly into the ground after your "last frost date". There is no need to panic if you don't now what that date is, a simple online search can help you out. While you are at it, do a search for your Hardiness Zone to see what plants are able to grow in your area. The more basic veggies and fruits can grow in most regions and this should not be an issue.
Once you figure out your last frost date, you just need to count back how far those seeds need to be started indoors. Times range from 4 to 8 weeks back and may require a few other materials. The seed packets themselves have a lot of information and should be read thoroughly. Living in Southern California and not really having a frost date is of course a huge help but I still start my seeds indoors. By starting my seeds early it helps guarantee that I have enough plants for my garden and I have something to fall back on if need be.
I start my seeds in the conventional trays that are found in most big box stores but I am learning new things all the time. Peat pots, disposable foil roasting pans and egg cartons are just the beginning and you are only limited by your imagination. Pretty much anything that resembles a tray of sorts can be used but it must be food safe. This simply means that is has either held food or is meant to hold food and is the safest way to go. We don't want to start with something that can harm us and common sense should be used when choosing a container.
Next comes our growing medium. There are many different schools of thought on the subject but I simply use a seed starting mix. It is a soil-less mix and it helps the plant create a more complex root system. There should be at least a couple of different options at each store for these mixes. They usually come in a small bag and the are usually less than $5. (depending on your area). I have only seen them in small packages and assume they come this way since you really don't need that much.
Of course, there are those companies that want to make it easier for us but sometimes not necessarily the cheapest. The more common option is to just buy the trays that come with the little pellets. These come in an large array of options. They start off at basic options and end up somewhere near self-watering, mini greenhouses but also with a heavier price tag. These options may be nice for somebody that may forget to water the seedlings but not necessary for everybody.
Now we need a place to put all of these started seeds and this is where we may get pricey. Grow lights, racks and greenhouses are just the beginning but I am lucky enough to have a shelf above my kitchen sink. This shelf gets sunlight from 2 different directions and this usually is more than enough for me. The cheaper version of course is to just put the trays near a window that gets at least 6-8 hours of sunlight.
If you are not able to find that magical spot near a window. You may need to add some grow lights in order to help them along. There are many options and vary in price but an LED Growbox can be built pretty economically. An online search will bring up many different options for racks and everything that goes along with it but you can start over at my now favorite website, Gardenweb. There is a whole forum dedicated to seed starting and provides a plethora of information.
Caring for the seedlings is can be simple or as hard as you want to make it. Once my seedlings are too big for their cells in the tray, they get potted up and moved outside to my home-made greenhouse. I am able to leave them out there without the fear of them dying off or having issues but they must be hardened off slowly. Hardening off is a complex way of saying that seedlings need to be accustomed to the outdoor conditions. Start off by leaving the seedlings outdoors for only a few hours a day and keep adding time until they have been outside all day. After about a week, they should be strong enough to be left out at all times. I really don't do it because the small "greenhouse" has protection from the wind and the temperatures are not a big issue for me. I can only do this because of my location. For most of the country, this may not be possible halfway through January. Most people don't even start seeds indoors until at least March or later. It all depends on your region.
Now that the seedlings are accustomed to the outdoors, we will be able to move them to bigger containers and into the garden but we will leave that until the next post in the series.
Disclaimer: I do not claim to be the absolute and final word on any information about gardening. I highly recommend doing more research on your own and come to your own conclusions.
1. Frost Date by Zip Code - Find your approximate frost dates via Dave's Garden.
2. Hardiness Zone by Zip Code - Find what zone you are in.
3. Gardenweb.com - A great resource for all things gardening and it includes many forums to find answers to almost all questions.
4. Garden Guides - Like the name states, guides for almost all gardening questions.
5. My Home-Made Greenhouse - A quick guide on how I made my greenhouse.
6. Egg Carton Gardening - A quick guide on how to start seeds in egg cartons.
7. The Cheap Vegetable Gardener - A wonderful blog that has money saving ideas.