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The Seed Starting Gear I would tell my first year seed starting self to buy. And what NOT to buy.

Updated: Nov 13, 2023



I have been starting seeds for ten years and if I could go back in time to the first year I tried my hand at starting seeds this is what I would tell myself to buy and do. I will touch on products you may want to purchase as you progress on your seed starting journey at the end.


Metal Shelving


I would tell myself to buy a metal shelf for my seed trays and lights. I prefer metal shelves because you can hang the lights from the underside of each shelf (and lights are a must in my book) and this allows you to adjust the lights easily. You can get any size metal rack, but remember that you will want lights that fit the shelf width so buy the shelf before the lights!! I have a shelf system that is four feet wide so I have four foot long LED lights for it.


Additionally, these racks no matter what size you get, come in handy for sheds and basements and laundry rooms so if you decide seed starting is not for you, you can repurpose the shelf. (I have three of the 4ft ones in my garage as we speak)


These days you can purchase lights in any shape and size to fit the shelf you choose so I recommend choosing a shelf system you like first and then purchasing lights to fit it. Here are some options including the one I own.


Target 5 shelf wide wire shelving (4 ft wide, the one I own)



Lights



Once you pick a metal wire shelving system you like, I recommend regular LED shop lights for your seedlings. Some people say a sunny window is adequate; I disagree and think the one thing that ruins seed starting for people is the lack of adequate and correctly placed lighting. You do NOT want leggy seedlings.


For years I have used fluorescent shop lights but those don't appear to be sold anymore and I have switched to LED shop lights when adding more to my set up. 2If you choose LED shop lights like me (I own the ones linked and pictured above), they need to be placed very close to the seedlings; like two inches close. If you choose more expensive and fancy "grow" lights, you need to read the instructions for height placement. Some "grow" lights are insanely strong and can burn your seedlings.


What I like about the lights I own:

-They come with the light bulbs

-They are reasonably priced (at the time of this article they cost $29 each)

-They link together (daisy chain) which means you need just one outlet to plug in several lights.


I hang two lights per shelf. You could start with just two lights and see how you like seed starting. If you decide it's not for you, these lights can be repurposed in a garage or shed or basement.


Seed Trays



Ok. This is where I may get some push back. I think some people might recommend

investing in quality seed starting trays is a must from the get go, however, I think that if you are new to seed starting, that these inexpensive Seed starting trays




that have clear inserts to let you see root development and individual humidity domes are a great way to get started in your seed starting journey. (they come in a pack of 10)


These trays allow you to start a smaller number of seeds per container as opposed to a giant 1020 tray. This is handy in that the timing of the humidity dome needing to come off will be correct for all the seedlings in this one small tray as opposed to a large 1020 tray with lots of types of seedlings in it that have different germination times.


I have had my set of these trays for years and I have learned that they don't do well left to bake in the sun, and you can't run over them with the car. (ask me how I know...) However, the ones that I have taken care of are still working great and I still use them occasionally despite owning more expensive/durable options.

Outlet Timer


I leave the lights on for my seedlings for 16 hours a day and remembering to turn them on and off is too much of a pain, so I purchased outlet timers. These are nothing fancy and I'm guessing you can find them at any home improvement or big box store.




Pulleys for Lights


These are called Rope Clip Hangers , and for years I told myself I did not need these, but after dropping my lights on my baby seedlings one too many times while trying to raise or lower them with the included chains, I finally bit the bullet, and I'm so glad I did. These are worth every penny in my opinion.


These pulleys attache to the underside of the metal shelf system and also to the lights. You are able to easily raise and lower your lights. In order to get more space, I remove the metal clips and attache the pulleys to the lights with reusable zip ties. You can do the same to attach the pulleys to the metal shelves.




Fertilizer


I would purchase a low NPK fertilizer that can dissolve in water for feeding my seedlings. Insect Frass and Fish and seaweed emulsion are good options. Fish and Seaweed Emulsion is a great product but it has a super strong, bad smell. So if you are starting your seeds indoors, you and your family will prefer insect frass. Insect frass also contains crushed up exoskeletons that the insects shed when they molt that will not dissolve, so straining it before bottom watering is a good idea. (then add the strained material to houseplant pots)


I use The Ever Hopeful Gardener's Kickass Frass Plant Food. Yes, I sell insect frass because I love it so much.





Bonus Tip


I would also tell my first year self to forego seed starting specific mix and just sift (with a dollar store colander) good organic potting mix. Companies charge you more for "seed starting" mix and it is basically just sifted potting mix. It's important to know if your mix has fertilizer in it or not. Seedlings don't need any fertilizer before their first set of true leaves. If your mix has fertilizer already in it, then you won't need to fertilizer till the second or even third set of true leaves.




Things I would not buy my first year but would purchase a few years into seed starting:


Heat Mats


I don't think heat mats are necessary the first year starting seeds. That being said,

Heat mats are especially helpful if you have your seed starting set up in an unheated garage, basement or shed. Heat loving vegetables like tomatoes and peppers love heat mats.


If your seed starting set up is somewhere that is cold, you may notice slow germination without heat mats. If however, you are starting seeds inside your heated house, I don't think they are necessary. I especially don't believe that the more expensive temperature controlled ones are worth it.


Heat mats can be wonderful to help aid and speed up germination. There are lots of different sizes and types of heat mats. I choose to have 1020 tray size heat mats that do not have temperature controls. I don't think this extra cost is necessary for the home gardener.




Bluetooth Hygrometer, Thermometer


If you are starting seeds in a cool spot like a basement or garage, it is nice to know just how cold it is getting where your seeds are growing. If the environment is too cold, your seedlings will be stunted. A battery powered bluetooth thermometer which also measures the humidity and keeps tracks of the 24 hour highs and lows is nice to have but not necessary to have.


High quality seed starting trays and humidity domes




Once I knew I loved starting my plants from seed, I decided to upgrade my seed trays to super durable ones. I have 1020 trays, both deep and shallow. I have 6 cell air pruning trays and 2.5 inch pots with 1020 inserts to keep them from falling over.









Soil Blocker


Another way to start seeds is to soil block. You could forego the pots, and purchase a soil blocker. A soil blocker packs the soil into perfect squares that maintain their shape and integrity without any type of container. Soil blocks have the added benefits of reducing plastic usage, no cleaning pots and trays, reduced transplant shock and air pruning of roots (basically, they create a very robust strong root system)


I have a Swiftblocker Mini 27 and love it. It creates 27 1.5" blocks. This is an investment in terms of price, however, it is a durable piece of gardening equipment that will last a lifetime.



Outlet Strip




Once you start having multiple things to plug in on your seed starting rack, I recommend an inexpensive outlet strip. I have three heat mats and still use some of my non-linking fluorescent lights so I require more than just one outlet. I plug the outlet strip into my outlet timer and the lights and heat mats all turn on and turn off at the same time.




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