A couple years ago we decided to begin starting our own vegetable plants rather than buying seedlings. We had a lot of fun going to farmers markets in the spring, and picking out our vegetable seedlings but ultimately the options were rather limited compared to those in the seed catalogues. We still love to go to the farmers market, but now the bulk of our plants come from our own basement!
After moving to Saint Paul we expanded our seed starting set-up to a mobile table build from wood scraps that holds 4 flats of seed starting trays. We have an array of sixteen 24 inch fluorescent lights, with four lights for each tray providing plenty of light to start strong healthy plants. We added heating mats with thermostat to keep the soil warm and at ideal growing temperatures. The set-up is in our basement where ambient temperatures fluctuate between 55 and 60 so the heating mats make a big impact. With a couple old computer fans we add air circulation to prevent damping off and to develop strong stems. The set-up is enclosed and the air from the fans is recalculated thereby helping to keep the the ambient temperatures around the plants higher than in the rest of the basement. Additionally, we add and automated watering with a garden sprinkler timer, some tubing, and a large rubbermaid container. Here is what the set-up looks like:
As you can see it's a little rough around the edges but it's only a prototype and we recycled as many materials to build it as we could!
The inside walls have reflective insulating material on them. This helps reflect stray light back onto the plants and adds a little more heat retention.
The air recirculation is accomplished with flexible tubing from and old dryer vent pipe. The blue cistern on top holds about 20 gallons of water and needs refilling every three weeks or so. We have a hose that runs from the laundry room sink to the cistern that makes refilling it very easy.
This year we added a second, less elaborate seed starting area that will also hold four flats of seedlings. To start all the plants for our garden, four flats (72 plants/flat) were not sufficient! The expanded set-up is also an experiment with LED grow lights. They are super-efficient converting over 90% of the energy use into light. The LED grow lights are also narrow spectrum set to the chlorophyl absorption peaks of most plants. Allegedly it will provide sufficient light to grow and ripen tomatoes indoors while consuming only 100 Watts!
Since the LED grow lights are so narrow spectrum we add supplemental full spectrum light with four 24 inch and four 48 inch fluorescent lights. The reasoning behind this is that while the LED light's spectrum is optimized for chlorophyl production, other spectrums also contribute to healthy plant growth.
It looks EERY with just the LED lights on! The LED lights are actually so bright that we wear sunglasses when they are on. How many people put sunglasses on to go into their basement? We started some tomatoes at the end of January in the primary seed starting area and moved the seedlings into the secondary set-up at the beginning of February as a test so see how plants would grow.
Under full spectrum lighting conditions you can see we have a heating mat under the seedling trays and two fans to keep air circulating. We also built walls and covered them with aluminum foil to reflect stray light back onto the plants.
We plan to start seeds in the other set-up and move the seedlings into this one as space demands. If all goes well we will be overflowing both set-ups with seedings by planting time!