slideshow: vegetable seed-starting how-to

seed starting 2INDOOR SEED-STARTING TIME IS UNDER WAY, so what better time for a simple how-to slideshow, with all the details? Ready for some how-to tips? 

seed starting 6First I had to solve a technical problem: How could I show you the step-by-step for seed-starting all by myself? Wash my hands between every step to avoid filling my Nikon with peat and perlite? And even at that, I only have two hands, so whose would be in the demo?

Aha! Enter Andrew Beckman, then-garden editor at my former employer Martha Stewart Living, who was also my weekend neighbor and gardening buddy until he moved West to become editor of garden book publisher Timber Press.

Normally, I don’t start tomatoes until April 15 here in Zone 5B, but the year we shot these photos, we were trying something new, which required a little headstart. The slides show Phase 1–starting the seeds–of our grafted-tomato experiment (aimed, as you may recall if you read my wintertime post about grafting, at giving heirloom types more vigor and better yields). But you can use the same how-to for starting most any seed; it’s a great basic step-by-step, logical and simple.

One difference: You won’t need the size-XL pots we used for sowing our tomato-grafting rootstock; 2-inch cells or even smaller for some crops like salad (traditional 6-packs, for instance) are fine. Again: the process is the same for sowing other vegetable crops, even if the pot size isn’t.

Adjustable T-5 grow-light hood and stand
I had other help, too (being useless with most carpentry tools). My neighbor, Tom Foley, built my new crazy seed-starting rig (above) in about five minutes, with a matching one for his wife, a gardening friend. The key to a good light stand is being able to adjust the lights upward as your seedlings grow; at any time, you only want them a couple of inches away from the babies. When I asked Tom, “How’d you get the rope you strung the hood from to be adjustable?” he started talking carpenter, and I glazed over. And then he translated:

“It’s like the ‘keeper’ on the hem of your ski jacket, that keeps the wind out,” he said, and then I got it right away. Wow. Smart. If the “buttons” with which I adjust the ropes are beyond your carpentry skills, use hook eyes and S hooks and chain, as I explain in my old seed-starting rig post. Or you can just buy a pre-made adjustable stand (see the product recommendations at the bottom of the page.)

If you need lights, as I did, consider the newer, more efficient ones. I got T-5 tubes and an aluminum hood from a hydroponic supply place online (again: see below). The approximately 13-by-27-inch hood, which was $118, delivers twice the lumens of regular fluorescent hoods, and is extremely lightweight. Using the APS system of flats and cells, I can get about 60 2-by-2-wide seedlings beneath it at any given time. The only part you don’t see: a simple timer, to automatically turn the lights on 14 hours a day (and then off).

More seed-starting help:

To start the slideshow, click on the first thumbnail, then move from slide to slide using the arrows next to each caption. Enjoy!

seed-starting gear i use for best results

SUNBLASTER LED STRIP LIGHTS: I use T5-HO fluorescent lights or as those units need replacing, newer and more efficient LEDs such as the strip lights by Sunblaster (available in different lengths).
SOLO 2-LITER ONE-HAND PRESSURE SPRAYER: I mostly bottom-water seedlings, but during germination and when seedlings are tiny I mist them with this handy sprayer.
10-GALLON TRUG FOR SOIL MIXING: A 10-gallon trug or larger plastic bin is a great vessel for slightly moistening germinating mix before filling flats.
SURGE PROTECTOR TIMER: No more one timer per growlight! With 8 outlets, program multiple lights to turn on and off for the required hours per day.
JOHNNY'S 512 MIX: I've ordered this for germinating purposes for years. Has organic nutrients (fishmeal, not chemicals) added. Works for soil-blocking, too.
SEEDLING GERMINATING MAT: I use single tray-sized mats (approx. 8.5x18.5"), but mats also come in double-wide or double-long (for 2 trays), and up to 5-foot-long pro versions.
LADBROOKE SOIL BLOCKERS: Many experts swear by soil blocking (as opposed to sowing in cells or open flats without blocks). The tools for making blocks, in various sizes. Note: The mix you use must be rated for blocking.
NITRILE-COATED GARDEN GLOVES: I like mine black, and by Atlas or Bellingham. I eventually poke through the right hand middle finger from digging with my hands...but other than that they'd last a long time.
PULLEY HARDWARE FOR GROWLIGHT: To hang and adjust your hood, you'll need to rig S-hooks and chain, or even easier pulley with store-bought hardware. (Shown: Vivosun brand.)
  1. Naseer says:

    Margaret, that is a pretty cool rig. I might try to build an adjustable setup like that next year for each of our lamps. Also, I’d be interested in seeing how well your plants grow with the T-5 bulbs since they claim to output so much more light. Does that hood reflect the light back down?

  2. Jane says:

    Thanks for this topic. My old seed starting light method can use this update information and I’ll put it to good use. The slideshow is helpful. Loved how you described Tom “talking carpenter”. People who can build things do that to me all the time, hehe.

    1. Margaret says:

      @Naseer: Yes, they are shiny aluminum inside so they really gleam when on and the light reflects back. What is most astonishing is that they weigh so little, so they are easy to support on a very lightweight frame. Love that.

      @Jane: Glad to help. I promise not to “talk carpenter” unless I am quoting Tom. :)

  3. Naseer says:

    Thanks! One more thing. Do you mind me asking which WordPress plugin you use to display photo slideshows? I haven’t found one that is as clean as yours so far, and I’m looking for ways to display project photos in a more meaningful way than to embed them 1-by-1 throughout the text.

    As for the “talking carpenting,”, I think I’m prone to doing that as well, and may need to work on doing it less :)

    1. Margaret says:

      @Naseer: I use NextGEN Gallery by Alex Rabe. He’s the genius of slideshows/galleries, I think, and his plug-in is amazing. Go for it. Settings are so detailed it was a little much for me at first, but not for a geek like yourself. :) You will catch on right away. I have used it for 1.5 years and through many enhancements. A great piece of open-source code. Enjoy!

  4. Melissa says:

    Thanks for posting the slideshow, I spent a few hours starting seeds today myself. That hose attachment looks just like what I’ve been looking for. Any idea where I can order one?

    1. Margaret says:

      @Melissa: Yes, search on Google for Dramm Lemonhead (whatever source I offer could be sold out by the time you click it, so that search will give you the most choices).

  5. MichelleB says:

    Hi Margaret,

    Not sure if this is the right spot, but I tried grafting tomatoes Sunday and so far everything is still alive! I take the dark cover off tomorrow and start allowing indirect light…we’ll see what happens. I ended up using Celebrity, Legend and Juliette as rootstocks and Roma, Prudens Purple and Opalka as scions. If you want more details, let me know

    1. Margaret says:

      @MichelleB: You go! I am so excited about this experiment, and to gain first-hand experience. So is my friend, Andrew. So we will all keep one another posted as it evolves. Fingers crossed!

  6. MichelleB says:

    Hi Margaret,
    That may have been premature excitement. I lost 2 seedlings because I used wooden skewers that I didn’t bleach well enough and with the high humidity major mold developed. Plastic straws might work better. This was to support the weight of the clip. 3 remained. I took off the dark cover yesterday and kept the white garbage bag cover in place under my desk where it got Very indirect light. Today I moved it to the top of my desk and left the bag loosely closed and I may have reduced the humidity too quickly. We’ll see if they are still alive tomorrow. Another thing I realized, I was in too much of hurry to start. If you are using the clips, you need to be sure that the lenght of the stem between the seed leaves and true leaves is long enough to fit inside the clip. Also it helps to have someone hold the plant and someone place the clip. I slipped the clip on and took my chances getting the graft to meet.
    Oh, my chamber was a water tight tray. I bent 2 clotheshangers into an arch and duct taped that to that tray. They recommend and arch over a hoop so the water doesn’t drop on the plants. I added some distilled water to the tray. Covered it with a white trash bag and a black one. I set the whole thing on a heat mat.

    Good luck!

  7. kathleen says:

    a) gee, I guess not many of u guys ( commentors) grew up watching This Old House- I love to learn new terms and love carpentry talk. This country was built by hands lest we fergit that bit of hysterical information Scion a Tom talk word that is a Toyota car division- they also have a corolla model ( the outer envelope of a flower as per AHD) ( American HERitage Dictionary) is this not another flower term?? answered my own question there folks–anyway KEEP the Carpentry Talk we just might learn something — anyway —-I wanted to tell you about the news item I heard on the radio– about — Strawberries talking —communicating to i think they said other parts of the plant.!!!! something about a caterpillar eating a leaf which sends signals ( the leaf that is ) to produce chemicals which make the plant leaf tougher and less tasty Talking strawberries that got my attention!!! Margret do you know of an other plants that respond to stimuli ???? sure there is a Venus fly trap –I remember a plant from my Botany class (a 7 a.m. Botany class yes it was in the dark ages of Community College LOL dark ages 7 a.m. ) that “wilts” to sound or touch as a defense mechanism have you ??

  8. David says:

    my paste tomatoes, sicillian roma’s and regular roma’s are about 4″ tall so far. Grown under t-5’s with two different spectrum bulbs. In light of the snow on the ground today, it may be a month more before they actually get outside, but I am far ahead of waiting on the tomatoes from the local farmers market….

  9. Kate says:

    Margaret et al- I’m starting to get some green mossy growth on top of my seed starting mix (in California so my seeds were started a few weeks ago). Is this bad? Too much water? I am using the APS system. Thanks!

    1. Margaret says:

      Hi, Kate. Yes, sounds like too much water or not enough air circulation (sometimes a fan on low helps). Let them dry between waterings, so maybe don’t fill the reservoir until they need it again? Tricky thing is that every place we do this has different temp.humidity/light/etc. — so no two spots are the same even with the same APS system. Do you have a fan you can run in the area (not right next to the plants but to move the air nearby), and can you allow them to dry a moment between drinks? Might help.

  10. elizabeth says:

    I like your simple seed starting rig, I hope my husband will build one. I don’t know much about lights, but am looking into buying, is there a reason you chose a fixture with 4 T5 bulbs, instead of the same size fixture with only 2 bulbs.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Elizabeth. It has the maximum light you can pack into a hood, basically — plus the inner surface is reflective. The bulbs are slimmer but really light up the entire space, rather than the gap between in a conventional shop hood.

  11. candy says:

    I have used T5 lights for a few years for my house plants. they are great except mine broke this year so I have to have a new one and my house plants look it I like your growing station I am making myself one this year. I like the way you move the light up and down. thank you for the idea I may recycle some parts to use instead. Have you ever ordered from pine tree ? Happy planting.

  12. Jon says:

    Hello Margaret, lovely site! I’m trying to start my own small landscape business here in Michigan as well as working on my own website and your passion, great attention to detail, and gracious method of sharing your information is very helpful to me and much appreciated!

  13. New Reader says:


    If someone does not have a carpenter friend, are there some light fixtures you would suggest/recommend? I have been to several stores (chains) selling seeds, seed starting pots/flats, and seed starting soil. None have had light fixtures (2 had some bulbs). I’m thinking of either 1) something to put on a table (perhaps 2-4 long) or 2) something with several shelves that stands on floor. (Would depend on price)

    Any suggestions for non-carpenters?

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, New Reader. I have two hoods with T-5 lights (both made by Hydrofarm, I believe). I can only do two or three flats at a time, but I stagger things and it works. A single-tube one like this is about the cheapest solution; this one has multiple bulbs so much stronger light (and accommodates one typical long flat at a time). I take my seedlings outdoors on every fair day, which is all explained in this newer story.

  14. gracie says:

    wow tom is quit the carpenter! i wouldnt have even thought to adjust the light like that. i also made my grow light adjustable on its stand but used some rope hangers like these…

    great article and nice pictures!

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