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Passive seed-starting

 
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Hi everyone!

This will be my third year starting my own seeds (it's addictive), and I've come to realize that most of the information I can find about seed-starting (even from permaculturists) involve using shop lights to get their seedlings established. The question is, I can't seem to find out the why of doing things this way. Does anyone have any info/tips on getting good germination and happy plants without blasting them with fluorescent lights? Or can you tell me why that's the most popular way?

Thanks!
 
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I can tell you why I do it, it's to get them started before they would naturally manage. for example volanteer tomatoes outside here germinate late may to early June. but my tomatoes are sown in April to be planted out in late may/early June when the outdoor ones are just germinating. This means I actually get ripe tomatoes. Now of course I could germinate my tomatoes on a windowledge and grow them there, but I have very limited window space and I start 1000's of plants every year inside. so I have to use lights. If I want ripe chillis or to grow onions from seed I need to start the seeds in January there's only 5 hours of light at that point so no matter what I would have to use additional lighting. I so also start hardy crops under lights like lettuce, this I could perfectly well do in a greenhouse but I don't have a permanent greenhouse.
If you have a longer season or are willing to heat a greenhouse you can start everything in the greenhouse under natural light. or for those of you will long summers just sow everything direct.

A side bonus of the lights is heat, it keeps my potting area around 25C whereas the house is only 18C and that really helps with germinating certain seeds, keeping all the seedlings in what is in effect a large box also helps with moisture and stopping them drying out and the biggest bonus of them all is it keeps the cats out of them!
 
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Hayley Stewart wrote:This will be my third year starting my own seeds (it's addictive), and I've come to realize that most of the information I can find about seed-starting (even from permaculturists) involve using shop lights to get their seedlings established. The question is, I can't seem to find out the why of doing things this way. Does anyone have any info/tips on getting good germination and happy plants without blasting them with fluorescent lights? Or can you tell me why that's the most popular way?



It's because not everyone has large south-facing windows that get plenty of sunlight that they can or want to dedicate to seed starting. And even if they did, that's still a limited amount of space to grow seeds.

If you had a sunroom, hoophouse, or greenhouse, that'd be a different matter.

For me, to produce tomatoes in my area, I have to start them *eight weeks* before the last frost. Which means they can't survive outside, so I have to grow them indoors. This is because of the growing season and weather in my area. Others only need to start them 4 weeks or 2 weeks or zero weeks before their local last frost. It depends on your area.

I don't yet have a hoop house, and the only available space I had to put them was a dimly lit pantry, so I have to use fluorescent lights. Seeds need alot of light to start germinating (you're trying to mimic sunlight), so even a brightly lit room isn't good enough - you need a bright bulb fairly close to the soil. People use fluorescent bulbs because they happen to be long - 4 feet or so. This is convenient for covering alot of seed pots with a close strong light.

I don't buy special bulbs or anything (I already had some generic ones on-hand - but would get a different light spectrum if I was buying new ones), but seeds do need alot of light, so I rigged up 4 fluorescent bulbs (that I already had) on a 36" wide 16" deep chrome wire shelving (that I already had), with 4 lightswitches and a timer to control the lights (like $20 total expenditure). I've been using that for three or four years now successfully, but I just a few days ago ordered a cheap incandescent rope light long enough to weave throughout the shelving, to provide additional warmth for the seeds, so they germinate and grow faster. It hasn't arrived yet, but the incandescent rope lighting was $22 for 50 ft, which will allow me to weave it through all four shelves of the entire shelving unit. This is far cheaper than $12 x 4 = $48 worth of seed warming mats that wouldn't even cover the shelves. It'd be more like $70 to cover the shelves entirely with seed warming mats - but again, seed warming mats aren't necessary for me, as the pantry is just-barely warm enough, but I think it'd likely be enough of a benefit to be worth investing $22.

 
pollinator
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Hayley, looking at the locations of the folks commenting there is a pretty a wide range of climate. I'm in southern Indiana about 38 degrees N. I don't use any kind of artificial light and actually just direct plant most of my stuff. I think using such artificial things is a tad anti-permaculture but I imagine if I lived far north where winter is long and sunlight is in short supply I'm sure I would change my mind on that, ya gotta do what ya gotta do.

I also do have nice south facing windows and on  occasion do start something there, mostly though it's just a convenient place to do germination tests.  Anything like tomatoes that I might want to start a little sooner than could be done just by direct planting I do in an unheated cold frame.
 
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I'm struggling to get into this this myself.
A low impact way of starting warm season crops is winter sowing.
Winter sowing is basically sowing into plastic bottles of soil.
The bottles are left outside and act as tiny greenhouses/cold frames.
The plant growth self regulates according to what the microclimate of the bottle dictates.
The bottle is basically a harden cloche with a bottom, important for protecting against rodents and slugs.
Cold season plants can be started in the dead of winter this way, others like tomatoes and peppers need to be started in April or so, but its not clear this method will  give enough of a head start for those with short growing seasons.

Corn doesn't seem to work with winter sowing.

 
Hayley Stewart
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William Bronson wrote: I'm struggling to get into this this myself.
A low impact way of starting warm season crops is winter sowing.
Winter sowing is basically sowing into plastic bottles of soil.
The bottles are left outside and act as tiny greenhouses/cold frames.
The plant growth self regulates according to what the microclimate of the bottle dictates.
The bottle is basically a harden cloche with a bottom, important for protecting against rodents and slugs.
Cold season plants can be started in the dead of winter this way, others like tomatoes and peppers need to be started in April or so, but its not clear this method will  give enough of a head start for those with short growing seasons.

Corn doesn't seem to work with winter sowing.



William, I would love to try this out. I have some garlic that seems to REALLY want to be planted but the ground is frozen out here. Do you think it would work with the bottle cloches? I do plan on looking into this a little bit more today. Thanks for the tip.

The reason I ask about passive seed starting is because 1) yay passive everything and 2) the place I just moved to has a greenhouse built onto the side of a barn but the landlord doesn't want us using any kind of power in there. This is fine by me, but I do worry about how cold it can get at night without any kind of supplemental heat. I'll probably just start my hot-weather seeds in the sunny windows of the house and then begin starting other plants in the greenhouse when it warms up a bit. I'm not growing a lot this year (it's the year I'm supposed to be quietly observing and not biting off too much) so the greenhouse seems like a bit of overkill right now.

 
William Bronson
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I think they could do great under bottle cloches alliums are pretty darn hardy anyway, and the bottles could soften the soil.

Its is often said that each layer of cover shifts the growing conditions one zone warmer, so consider using bottles, under a layer of plastic, inside the green house!
The Canadian YouTube channel One Yard Revolution does this to good effect.

I also wonder if you could use a propane lantern or heater, but you may want to avoid that cost and environmental impact.



I am a compulsive tinkerer, so I just finished making some portable cold frames for seed starting.
Each is built to fit the glass from  a refrigerator shelf, so they are not very big.
They are made of pallet wood, so they are not very deep, but I'm building them to stack, to accommodate seedling growth.
They actually look pretty nice, so I took a set to my mom and she's gonna start greens under the glass.
I may switch up and do mine like the Maritime Gardening guy does in this video:

The use of plastic film is suboptimal, but it would let me standardize my frame size.

I'm also wondering if bottles of muck could be good things to add to these spaces.
Why "muck?"
Well, thermal mass and dark color for light adsorption.
Also, if we leave the top off, would the evaporation and condensation process prolong times between watering?
I think old beer tinted with biochar could be the ideal muck, if there is such a thing.

 
Hayley Stewart
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William Bronson wrote:I think they could do great under bottle cloches alliums are pretty darn hardy anyway, and the bottles could soften the soil.

Its is often said that each layer of cover shifts the growing conditions one zone warmer, so consider using bottles, under a layer of plastic, inside the green house!
The Canadian YouTube channel One Yard Revolution does this to good effect.

I also wonder if you could use a propane lantern or heater, but you may want to avoid that cost and environmental impact.



I am a compulsive tinkerer, so I just finished making some portable cold frames for seed starting.
Each is built to fit the glass from  a refrigerator shelf, so they are not very big.
They are made of pallet wood, so they are not very deep, but I'm building them to stack, to accommodate seedling growth.
They actually look pretty nice, so I took a set to my mom and she's gonna start greens under the glass.
I may switch up and do mine like the Maritime Gardening guy does in this video:


The use of plastic film is suboptimal, but it would let me standardize my frame size.

I'm also wondering if bottles of muck could be good things to add to these spaces.
Why "muck?"
Well, thermal mass and dark color for light adsorption.
Also, if we leave the top off, would the evaporation and condensation process prolong times between watering?
I think old beer tinted with biochar could be the ideal muck, if there is such a thing.



Oh my goodness there are so many great ideas packed into one reply! I'm now realizing there are lots of things on the property here that could be used for building cold frames - it seems like anytime they replaced a window here they just hung onto it, so there are tons of old windows and boards that have been hanging out in barns. Not to mention the glass from an old freezer here that we couldn't find a way to repair (yet). That little greenhouse dome is a great idea, there's even bamboo growing here that I could harvest for the project.
Re: thermal mass and dark colour, I wonder if it's worth conducting some experiments starting some cloches out on the old abandoned tennis court...
 
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Another method if you have space outside is to build a hotbed. Charles Dowding youtube channel and website is a mine of information.

https://www.permaculture.co.uk/videos/benefits-hotbed
 
William Bronson
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Hayley,windows are awesome, but be careful, some might have flaking lead paint.
Since they are already there I might use them , but only if I painted over the old paint with newer  paint known to be lead free.
Alternatively, ditch the frames and use the glass.
That tennis court idea seems worth looking into.
Are there fences around the court?
If so, they could support simple lean-to structures.
 
Hayley Stewart
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Based on the great ideas in this thread, I have started my passive seed starting experiments by winter sowing!

There have been multiple snowstorms here and even with a bit of melting the snow still is approaching knee-height, so I haven't been able to physically get into the greenhouse where a bunch of old lights and seed starting trays are. I'm sure I will be able to get in by April, when I really need the equipment for some TPS I'm trying to grow this year (although now I'm wondering if I should try winter sowing some TPS since they love the sun so much). So for now, everything will be winter sown or direct sown.

Turns out my parents go through a LOT of distilled water with their CPAP machines and humidifier so they came and delivered a giant stash of bottles perfect for winter sowing tomatoes and other big ol' hot weather plants. But in the meantime, I've been saving and using old plastic food storage containers that got cracks in the bottom (volunteer drainage holes), old clear produce boxes (some with bottoms doubled up to make larger greenhouses, yogurt cups with windows cut into the lids using plastic produce bags (the kind with holes already in them), and whatever else that can be made greenhouse-y. Labels were done with some oil-based markers that were gifted to me and cuts sealed up with some gaffer tape. Holes were drilled or, if the plastic was more finicky, a hooked sharp knife worked perfectly for making holes or 'x's.

I also took Dr. Redhawk's suggestion of reactivating some old potting soil that was left on the property with a mushroom slurry and homegrown Lactobacillus for the planting. Mushrooms were collected from some punky firewood and some leftovers from the fridge, the milk used was from making a quiche.

So far seed starting materials this year has cost me $0 (except for a couple new packets of seeds.... I couldn't resist). Sharing photos below of my winter sowing adventure, I'll continue to update my passive seed starting journey as I go along.
Wintersowing_Jan28_1.jpeg
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Wintersowing_Jan28_2.jpeg
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Wintersowing_postsnowstorm.jpeg
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Wintersow_onions.jpeg
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For those who plan to transplant, I saw this video today and thought it was nice for sharing: making your own paper seed starter pots
 
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Hayley, your winter sowing setup looks amazing! We don't have snow anymore around here but I still have some seeds outdoors (the seeds started in the unheated greenhouse have already sprouted).

Mark, thanks a lot for that video! I might try this method as I have little space and love efficiency. I have used the normal round newspaper pots (quite quick) and I could give the square ones a try.

As there is no other seed starting thread active at the moment, I can show you what I used last year.
An assortment of little biodegradable pots (including toilet paper rolls and egg cartons) - honestly some of those did not work well as I always get mold and stunted growth for plants that stay there longer. For quickies like broad beans it is ok.

For my tomatoes, I use the 1 litre tetrapak milk cartons we use here in Germany. I try to avoid them but whenever we run out of fresh milk (in returnable glass bottles) we open one of those, and I collect and reuse them over the years. I start lots of tomatoes (considering my small garden) and used to sell and gift some. This year with the new allotment garden I might not have the space to grow additional plants for others as I need much more starts myself.
The milk cartons have a decent size so I can use them until May when we can finally plant tomatoes outdoors. My husband built little wooden crates to easily transport them (from the house to the unheated greenhouse and vice versa on cold nights).

DSC_3981.JPG
Different seedling pots
Different seedling pots
DSC_3983.JPG
Tomatoes in milk cartons
Tomatoes in milk cartons
 
Hayley Stewart
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Mark, I have a roll of craft paper sitting upstairs... seems like a great option for sizing things up on the cheap! I have tons of tiny seed starting plugs but not a lot of options for potting up transplants, so I'll definitely give it a go. Thanks for sharing.

Anita, I love your setup! For the tomatoes in milk cartons, did you just plant them in the cartons to begin with, or size them up one or more times before they got to go in the cartons?

I also found egg cartons to be cute in theory but in practice, they were a bit too shallow, very mold-prone and also dried out quickly... A lot of the starts I planted out in those struggled. Good tip on making sure it's for quick-sprouting plants. I think I tried sowing Korean Mint in one egg cartion, which can take 2 weeks to germinate. Pretty hard to keep it evenly moist for that long! (Surprise, not one came up)

 
Anita Martin
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Hayley Stewart wrote:
Anita, I love your setup! For the tomatoes in milk cartons, did you just plant them in the cartons to begin with, or size them up one or more times before they got to go in the cartons?


I start the tomato seedlings in those black plastic seedling trays (like the one where the basil is planted in the picture above). They have either six or twelve compartments, and three of those in a row fit into a little indoor greenhouse that is narrow enough for my windowsills.
I try to avoid plastic, but these work so well and I keep reusing them for years until they literally fall apart. I transplant only once (to the milk cartons) before they go into their final destination, and I try to do this rather later because of space. Sometimes I put some compost in the bottom of the seed trays so that the young plants get enough "food" while in the confined space.

Since last year I am also using quick pot trays. I bought two to try out and was so convinced that I was lucky to get some more for cheap over classified ads. I use them in the greenhouse as they are too broad for my windowsills.
(Charles Dowding has some videos on them, IIRC).
cime_di_rape.jpg
just after transplant
just after transplant
 
Anita Martin
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Here is a picture taken some minutes ago of my Physalis (ground cherries).
The plants in both containers were transplanted the same day.
On the right you can see my old and broken plastic tray, on the left an egg carton. In theory there is still enough room for the roots, but the conditions as a whole do not favour the little seedlings so I will transplant them.
IMG_20210304_180011.jpg
Physalis seedlings
Physalis seedlings
 
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