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Scaling up our seed-starting system | CoMo Homestead
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Pretty red beetsPretty red beets
Beets and leeks in the backgroundBeets and leeks in the background
Spinach, Lacinato kale, Swiss chard, leeksSpinach, Lacinato kale, Swiss chard, leeks
Carrot seedlingCarrot seedling
Beet seedlings just after sproutingBeet seedlings just after sprouting
It's a fairly thick materialIt's a fairly thick material
They're basically big rolls of white feltThey're basically big rolls of white felt
Hello, capillary mats!Hello, capillary mats!
Our seedling grow op, before installing the additional lights and tableOur seedling grow op, before installing the additional lights and table
  • Pretty red beets
  • Beets and leeks in the background
  • Spinach, Lacinato kale, Swiss chard, leeks
  • Carrot seedling
  • Beet seedlings just after sprouting
  • It's a fairly thick material
  • They're basically big rolls of white felt
  • Hello, capillary mats!
  • Our seedling grow op, before installing the additional lights and table

Last year was the first time I’d really attempted starting seeds. I think I can consider it an overall successful attempt in that I didn’t buy a single seedling or start the entire growing season. Everything we grew came from seed or our own starts, including garlic  and sweet potatoes.

This year I’m trying to learn from last year’s successes and failures and improve the efficiency of our growing system. For me this includes getting things started much earlier, using more heat mats to help the seedlings grow faster and stronger, and in general just starting more seeds, instead of direct sowing.

I threw a ton of carrot and beet seeds out into the garden last year, and because I didn’t do a very good job of making sure the surface of the soil stayed moist (the one thing our soaker hose watering system isn’t good at), relatively few came up. So this year I’m starting almost everything inside.

I’ve invested in a few new pieces of infrastructure this year to make this scaling-up possible.

1. A new, bigger heat mat. Last year I only had one heat mat, and it was only large enough for a single flat. So far this year I have 12 flats planted already, so clearly one mat isn’t going to cut it.

I invested in a larger heat mat that fits 4 flats. Between the big one and the small one I still don’t have enough mat space for all my flats, but because of the expense of the mats I decided to just get the one big mat. I searched around quite a bit and found the cheapest price for a new Hydrofarm 4-flat heat mat on eBay.

We house our grow op in our basement, which is cool but not freezing (especially not this winter). These mats raise the ambient temperature by 10-20 degrees, which is just fine for my purposes. There are fancier systems with temperature control dials, but the simple on/off mats work fine for me right now.

To make the best use of space, I rotate flats on and off the mats and preferentially give some plants that especially need the heat (like tomatoes) permanent real estate.

2. Capillary mats. I just learned about capillary mats a few weeks ago, and after reading the rave reviews I decided to jump in.

Capillary mats are essentially a big piece of fabric that wicks moisture along the length of the mat. You stick one end of the mat in a bucket of water, set your mesh-bottomed flats on the mat and the mat absorbs the water and feeds it to the seedlings. This avoids over- and under-watering seedlings by keeping them evenly moist (and allows you to be lazy and forget about them).

I ordered 6 yards from Gardener’s Supply. When it arrived I was somewhat surprised to find that it looked like a big roll of white felt. It took some experimentation to figure out how to make it work, but after a week or two of tweaking, I think we have it figured out. More on that soon.

3. More lights. Our “grow lights” are cheap shop lights from Lowe’s (about $10 for a 48″ fixture that holds two bulbs). We suspend them from the rafters in our basement with chains so I can move the lights up and down based on the height of the seedlings.

To avoid the confusion of trying to combine bulbs with different portions of the light spectrum, I just bought full spectrum bulbs. We bought them in a bulk box and they came out to around $3 a piece. This means that you can put together a perfectly sufficient grow light with two bulbs for around $16, rather than the hundreds of dollars grow light systems online would like you to pay.

This year we bought two more sets of lights and the chains and fixtures to go with them. This allows me to have 12 flats (up to 576 seedlings in 2″ seed blocks) under lights at one time.

4. Another table. Our seeds and mats live on top of plastic folding tables. I guess we could theoretically just put them on the floor, but we’d have to have really long chains for the lights, the floor would become a mess from the water and soil, and the floor would be colder. Having them on tables makes them easier to work with.

To accommodate our increased number of flats and lights, we needed to also get another table to put them on. These aren’t cheap, but they’re sturdy and not bothered by the constant moisture that seed-starting requires.

So that’s the scoop. I have about 500 seedlings started already, and they are looking really good. I’ll probably need to start only one more flat of seeds (mostly cucurbits: summer squash, winter squash, cantaloupe and watermelon) before summer. And then of course it will be time to start seeds for fall and winter growing. But for now, 2012 is off to a good start!

12 Responses to “Scaling up our seed-starting system”


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