Seed Starting Equipment

This is the first in a series on gardening tips for success. 

by Linda Belles

For many years I dabbled with seed starting but never had any success. Dreams of robust, healthy seedlings sadly never materialized because I didn’t have the right equipment. My attempts resulted in sad, leggy plants that didn’t survive in the garden. In this post, I cover the equipment required for seed-starting success.

Tip #1 - High Quality LED Grow Lights

Author's hydroponic lettuce and kale growing under a Happy Leaf light

A grow light is required because the light coming in the window is not strong enough and will cause the plants to stretch and lean toward the window. The results are leggy, weak plants that look nothing like the seedlings at the nursery. The first lights I bought at a big box hardware store were only so-so at best. They didn’t have the sufficient intensity of light to make my plants grow healthy and strong. Thankfully, LED lights have come down in price. Greentown Grows recommends Happy Leaf LED lights made right here in Illinois. Check out these YouTube videos to understand more about grow lights and what to look for in quality lighting.

Side note: With high-quality lights, you can grow gorgeous microgreens and tomatoes indoors. Yes, you read that right. Ripe red tomatoes grown indoors! We will have more on this in the fall.

Tip #2 - Heat Mats

If peppers or tomatoes are on your grow list, then germination mats are required. For example, peppers need constant, 80-90 degree F soil to achieve ideal germination. Heat mats are widely available on the internet. Be sure to purchase a thermostat with your mat; otherwise, you risk baking your precious seedlings. No one wants hot, dead seedlings. Here is one example.

Tip #3 - Seed Starting Media

Pepper seedlings started in coconut coir netted pellets

There are a few different types of soil or starting media, each with pros and cons. Whichever one you choose, it should have fine texture (no chunky bits) and excellent water-holding abilities. The staff at Greentown Grows use a starting mix or coconut coir. Regular potting mixture can be too coarse, so look for bags in the store marked “starting mix,” preferably marked OMRI, which is suitable for organic farming. Coconut coir is an excellent choice because it has great water-holding capacity, is a readily available renewable product, and comes in various sizes. Companies offer seed starting kits with pressed coconut coir “pucks” that spring up once soaked in water. Here are some examples.

Eco-co Coir Seed Starting Mix

Minute Soil Coconut Coir Netted Starting Pellets

Espoma Organic Seed Starter Soil Mix

Tip #4 - Trays, Pots, and Germination Domes

You’ll need something to hold the soil and keep the humidity high. There are a variety of tray/pot systems out there for every size imaginable. Some use biodegradable pots. In the picture above, the pepper seedlings are in a 10″ x 10″ plastic tray made to hold netted coconut pellets purchased at Menards. These links here and here will get you started. Big box stores sell them too. Plastic food containers can be repurposed for growing if holes are punched in the bottom for drainage. To ensure better germination, you’ll need something to keep the humidity high. Clear plastic domes are available anywhere seed starting supplies are sold.

Tip #5 - Healthy Seeds

Seeds are everywhere, at the grocery store, hardware store, and garden centers. Even feed and farming stores have them. The staff at Greentown Grows enjoy shopping online at Territorial Seeds, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, Seed Savers Exchange, and Baker Creek. 

I want to give a special shout out to Contemporary Farmer, Inc., a Chicago area urban farming company. They sell locally grown, heirloom seeds not found in stores, and much more. Check them out!

Maybe you have seeds left over from last year? Are they viable? Try this easy sprouting method on paper towels or coffee filters to see if they will germinate.

To make your seeds last longer, store them in an airtight container in the freezer or refrigerator.

With the right equipment, you’ll be ready for next month’s post continuing the discussion on seed starting. We’ll dive into which vegetables to start in March and common pitfalls to avoid.

Happy shopping!