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Seed Starting on the Cheap

Updated on January 30, 2013
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Seed Starting Tips

I love to garden. I am also a tightwad, a cheapskate, or more nicely said, a frugal person. I hate spending money. Starting vegetables from seed gives me rich pleasure because not only do I get to garden, but I get to do so on the cheap. If I spent $1.85 on a package of sweet corn seeds, my plot yields 30 ears of corn. Even when corn is at its cheapest price in July, you can only get a handful of ears for $1. I've still got frozen sweet corn in my freezer, waiting for its dunk in a pot of boiling water. Nothing beats a flash frozen ear of organic sweet corn eaten in the dead of winter.

Some vegetables must be started indoors to get a head start. Tomatoes, for example, are typically started indoors from seeds about 8 to 12 weeds before the last frost date in your area. Here in my tiny town in Virginia, that date can vary a bit because we stand in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and the weather patterns can vary a bit from year to year. But generally speaking, I plan to set my vegetable plants outside in the garden around May 1, give or take. And that means now's the time to start seeds.

I love to grow seeds indoors, but in order to grow all the flower and vegetable varieties I crave, I need indoor lights. I started shopping among the many gardening catalogs and was appalled at the prices. Three hundred, four hundred, five hundred or more dollars for a multiple shelf indoor light fixture! Just because something is meant for gardeners doesn't mean you need to slap a high price tag on it.

Scanning the pictures one day and realizing that my tightwad little heart would never justify the expense for an indoor light fixture, I asked my long-suffering husband if he could rig something up for me. He said, "Sure" so off we went to Lowe's for lumber and fluorescent light fixtures. But before we made it to the lumber aisle, he spotted the home shelving aisle. "This is it!" he cried.

And it sure was. Because for about $150, I now have a wonderful five tiered lighting system that can grow up to 10 flats of seeds! Better than seed starting kits, grow lights, fancy indoor lighting systems, here's how this gal creates seed starting on the cheap with her homemade light fixture.

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Make Your Own Seed Starting Lights

Here's how we made our own seed starting system. 

We purchased:

  • A five-tier utility shelf. This is a plastic shelving system that clips together. The shelves have holes in them, which made it easier to hang the lights. In January, Lowe's often runs sales on "home organization" items, and this shelf was on sale for approximately $39. It took us one hour to assemble.
  • Fluorescent light fixtures. We purchased four, which hang underneath each shelf. Each comes with a chain. Using the chain, you simply run the ends of the chain up and under the perforated shelves, through the holes, and connect the chain with a clip. Voila! Lights are hung up!
  • Light bulbs: a box of 12 gave us enough for all of the fixtures (2 in each) plus some extras.
  • Timer: I keep my seed starting lights on a timer so I don't have to remember to go down to the basement every day to turn the lights on and off.
  • Extension cord: I use a power strip that we had around the house so we can plug multiple lights into it.

Total cost? About $150.00.  Assembly time? About two hours, give or take.


Now if I had purchased that fancy light starting  system in the catalog, it would have cost me $399 plus oversized shipping and assembly time....so we got just as much space to start our vegetable seeds, yet paid less than half.

That's enough to warm this cheapskate gardener's heart!

Other Money Saving Gardening Ideas

Because I'm always looking to save a buck, here's a compilation of my other money-saving seed starting ideas. See which ones appeal to you so you can save money on your gardening this winter and spring!

  • Seed starting trays: If you save the plastic trays from the garden center in which you buy annual flowers in the spring, you can wash them with water and a mild bleach solution (to kill any microbes), rinse, and fill with soil. Instant seed starting trays.
  • Instead of the clear plastic domes that come with trays, use a clear plastic produce bag, loosely fitted around the seed starting tray, to mimic the greenhouse kits.
  • Plant labels: You've probably made plant sticks or labels from popsickle sticks, but how about from cake frosting cans? Take a frosting can and use that yummy frosting. Then wash the can with soap and water and get any frosting residue out. Use the water to rinse off the label. Now with sharp scissors, very carefully cut into the can, making a cut from the open end to the circular bottom. Do this at quarter inch intervals all around the can, then cut the sticks away from the bottom. Use a permanent marker and you have instant plant labels!
  • Seeds: I buy seeds from the dollar store. Each spring they have a variety for 4 for $1 or sometimes even 10 for $1. I get many flower seeds this way. I save marigold and zinnia seeds. I even trade seeds with my neighbors!

If growing flower gardens and vegetables are your passion but money is tight, I hope these tips helps. Last year, I coaxed 30 ears of corn, 20 pounds of carrots, 20 pounds of beets, and approximately 20 pounds of turnips and onions out of my garden, along with pounds and pounds of peppers, tomatoes, watermelon, cantaloupe and strawberries. To buy this much organic produce at the market would cost a fortune, but thanks to a few packets of seeds, I was able to feed my family well for many months. You can, too!

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