Our Sangria Seedlings At The Tender Age of 4 Weeks
Our Sangria seedlings at the tender age of 4 weeks.  The low hanging lights allow them to grow steady and strong.

I think one of the most rewarding experiences for a home gardener is starting their own seeds indoors. For one, it’s an incredibly satisfying feeling to make a tiny seed grow into a beautiful plant for you and your family to enjoy. It also can be a tremendous cash saver – plants can be expensive when purchasing them all at your local greenhouse. Especially if you want to grow specialty or heirloom seeds that are hard to find.

We use a low-cost, simple set up to grow our seedlings indoors.  It has allowed us to expand our garden and landscape without breaking the bank.

Let’s start with a few, money saving tips of what you won’t need: Heating Mats and Specialty Lights.

We start all of our ornamental pepper seeds indoors.
We start all of our ornamental pepper seeds indoors.

It’s not that heating mats don’t work – they do. They help warm the soil and help to germinate seeds.  But unless you live in a 40 degree barn…normal room temperatures will work. It make a take a day or two longer to germinate than if you use heating mats – but the seeds will grow just fine.

There is also no need to waste big money on high-priced “grow lights” or bulbs with a special light spectrum for raising seedlings. They do have a place for certain types of special growing applications – but if your goal is to start and raise seeds indoors – a couple of good old-fashioned inexpensive flourescent “shop lights” work incredibly well. Most of us have a few already around the house.  If not, they can be had at your local hardware store for about $10 to $15, and can be used year after year. I am a big believer in the lights.  Yes, it’s true that you can use a sunny window of your house – but it’s hard to get seedlings to grow straight using natural winter sunlight from a window.  You need to turn them constantly – and the seedlings tend to grow thin and skinny trying to reach up for the light.

What you will need to start up to 4 flats of seeds indoors:

A couple of inexpensive double shop lights -and we can raise 4 whole flats of seedlings.
A couple of inexpensive double shop lights are more than enough to grow 4 whole flats of seedlings.

One (1) 32 quart bag of potting soil or seed starter mix.  We make our own from equal parts of our compost, sand and soil, but if your starting out, you can buy a good bag for around $10.  It will be more than enough to fill four flats and have some left over for next year.

Two (2) inexpensive dual-bulb 4′ flourescent shop lights. (4 bulbs total)  You can pick them up at your local hardware store for about $10 – $15 – and most all of them even come with little hooks and a chain for hanging over your plants.

Plants ready to head for the garden and landscape!
Plants ready to head for the garden and landscape!

Four (4) empty flats with seed tray inserts.  (we like the 36 cell plant trays – the individual cells are big enough that you won’t need to transplant the seedling into anything else before they go into the ground)

A few blocks of scrap wood and two 5′ 2×4’s to hang your lights from.

Your seeds of choice.  Whatever seeds you use – make sure to label your flats with what you plant in them – it’s easy to get them mixed up as they grow into mature plants.  As for when to start your seeds – the back of each seed package will usually tell you the optimum time, however, a general rule of thumb is 6 to 8 weeks before planting outdoors.

The Process:

1. Fill your seed trays with soil mixture — pack lightly – you want the soil to be light and fluffy to allow room for root growth and water filtering through.   Moisten the soil –don’t drench.  You just want to have the soil wet to the touch – An empty spray bottle of water works great for the first few weeks of starting.

A young seedling emerges from the soil
A young seedling emerges from the soil

2. Plant your seeds at a rate of 2 per space – preferably not on top of each other, but in slightly different areas towards the center. Each seed packet will tell you the depth that the seeds should be planted — most are about 1/8″ to 1/4″ inch deep. Planting two seeds ensures that you can get at least one seed to germinate in every space. Yes, you will have to thin later – but better to have too many than none at all! After planting your seeds, lightly moisten the soil again and then cover with a clear plastic sheet or lid and keep out of direct sunlight.

The seedling emerges with two full leaves - now is the time to thin
The seedling emerges with two full leaves – now is the time to thin

3. I know it sounds strange to put them out of direct sunlight – but covering them allows moisture to build up and helps to achieve optimum conditions for the seeds to sprout. You will most likely not have to water during this time — just make sure the soil remains moist.

By using clear plastic you can see when the plants  actually come up without taking off the cover and disturbing the plants and releasing the moisture.

Young seedling growing into a nice plant
Young seedling growing into a nice plant

4. Once you see 1-2 seedlings sprouting out of the soil, remove the lid and place onto a table or flat surface.   You can now set up your shop lights.  You want the lights to hover down about 1 to 2″ from the top of the plants.  We do this by putting blocks of wood at each end and running a 5′ 2×4 over all of the flats of seedlings.  We then simply screw a little hook into the 2×4’s and hang them with a little hook.  (usually included in the shop light kits)  When we need to raise the lights as the plants grow – we just add another block of wood to each end.  You will want to give your plants about 12 to 14 hours of light each day.  (For how to build a cool indoor seed rack stand on the cheap – check out our latest article here : Indoor Plant Rack Stand – On The Cheap)

Plants need to be "hardened" off to adjust to real light and temperatures before planting outdoors
Plants need to be “hardened” off to adjust to real light and temperatures before planting outdoors

You will also need to water more frequently now — most likely once a day – and as the plants grow in the coming weeks – you will continue to adjust those two lights to keep them at 1 to 2″ above the top of the plants. You want the soil to stay moist but not water logged.  This is also the time to start thinning to allow for one seed per container. If you have an empty cell, you can replant extra sprouts into the empty cells.  We just use a flat head screwdriver to lift out the extra seedling and plant into the empty cell.

The shop lights at such close range keep the seeds growing straight up and at a slower, stronger rate. One of the problems with using just direct sunlight is that the plants will get leggy as they reach to the light source. With the shop lights at such a close range..they grow nice and slow and develop strong roots and leaf structure.

The Sangria Peppers we grew from seed in full bloomAfter about 6 to 8 weeks – your plants will be ready to go. As the weather begins to warm – we will take our plants out onto the back porch to get some regular sun and start adjusting to the temperature and light. One thing to avoid is to take your plants directly from the shop lights and plant them in the yard – you want to give them time to adjust to sunlight and temperature – a process called hardening off. Usually by the end of March – we start to keep them on the porch longer and longer – and near the end – only bring them in or cover them if there is a threat of frost to get them ready for the great outdoors!

– Jim and Mary  

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25 thoughts on “How To Easily Start Garden And Flower Seeds Indoors On The Cheap!

  • February 8, 2015 at 5:41 pm

    I enjoy and learn from your posts

  • March 16, 2014 at 8:10 am

    We are starting our seeds in the basement where it is cooler, around 60 degrees. Should we still put the plastic over the newly planted seeds and not turn on the lights? Or should we turn the lights on and leave the plastic off? Or put the plastic on with the lights? Thank you for any advice you can give us newbies! Love your site! We took your advice and planted rye as a cover crop in our garden last fall!

  • March 30, 2013 at 8:00 pm

    I usually get my plants via stem cutting or people giving up on their on their prize specimens when it start looking bad! Well, this past year I’ve built quite a collection wildflower seeds throughout Dallas so I guess I will make use of them.

  • February 17, 2013 at 1:52 pm

    How do you combat fungus gnats? I can’t seem to get rid of them!

    • December 4, 2013 at 11:27 am

      I had fungus gnats really bad last year and found an article that said if you sprinkle cinnamon into your soil at planting time it is a natural fungicide and will kill bacteria in the dirt that the babies eat and they will die. Another article said that the adults don’t like the smell of it and won’t land. I am going to indeed try it this year…..

  • February 17, 2013 at 1:50 pm

    I love starting seeds! Thanks for the advice! I need a lamp because sometimes I forget to rotate my little guys and the start looking like bananas! My biggest problem is fungus gnats. I don’t want to dry out to soil to much that it will affect my plants, but these little bugs are so annoying and kill a lots of my baby plants!

  • February 13, 2013 at 8:58 pm

    I use a heavy duty string and tie to both end of the light and lower the light onto the plants and raise them when I need to by pulling in the string and tying them off again. It works great.

  • January 24, 2013 at 11:18 am

    I found a GREAT way to get racks to use for storage and plant starting. I go to stores that are in my area and offer to remove their unwanted racks and shelving units. It costs them nothing and i will bring my sons to help me take them apart and remove them. The stores get rid of them without paying dump fees and I get store grade shelving for some sweat and gas for the vehicle.
    When stores “reset” their stock or remodel they often have shelf units left over that they need to get rid of. And they face shortages of space or fees from landfills or metal recyclers.
    When you work together with the retailers you can both win.

  • December 26, 2012 at 12:30 pm

    Hello! I’m stopping by from “I Gotta Try That” – I am looking forward to spring (already!) and starting our seeds. Thanks for the great tips!

  • December 23, 2012 at 11:10 pm

    Thank you for sharing at the hop, Merry Christmas xo

  • December 22, 2012 at 11:40 am

    My husband and I were just chatting this week about how to start more seeds indoors this year. We live in MT where the growing season is really short so we’re trying to figure out how to make it longer so we can grow more food for our family. This post was so helpful, thank you! I would love if you could share this at Simply Natural Saturdays http://www.montanasolarcreations.com/2012/12/simply-natural-saturdays-12-22-2012.html

  • December 20, 2012 at 1:19 am

    “Easy” and “Cheap”…you are talking my language there! Cheers for this great post that I will be sure to get something out of in the near future 🙂

  • December 18, 2012 at 9:05 pm

    Thanks. I’m making a binder notebook with notes from all over the web, just for me, a beginner gardner. This info above helps a lot. I know it’s mid Ded but I’m already practicing just to learn about seeds. Already I have seeds from my last tomato sandwich growing in my potting soil. They have 2 leaves already! I’m thrilled. At night I turn on the flourescent lights over them but I was keeping the lights way to far away. Thanks again! Joyce

    • December 18, 2012 at 9:55 pm

      Sounds like you really getting into it – that is fantastic! I know it seems close – but they really work well at that distance. Good luck on the tomato plants!!! Jim

  • December 18, 2012 at 8:10 pm

    Any suggestions as to why plants started essentially using your method of planting, covering, etc, but given natural light (and a lot of it) are “leggy,” fall over and never get big enough to plant? I started them in peat pots. Thanks in advance.

    • December 18, 2012 at 9:53 pm

      Madeline: My guess is that if they are leggy – its probably because they are growing up to the natural light – and not developing their full leaf structure. In our area – the sunlight – even in a bright area -just never seems to be enough in the winter to develop seedlings. I hope that helps – and thanks for stopping by!

  • December 18, 2012 at 11:34 am

    I love the section on ornamental peppers. I have been growing them for a couple years and have the multi colors. The question I have: as have been asked many times is ARE the peppers eatable or can they be made into a pepper sauce with foods?

    • December 18, 2012 at 11:48 am

      Hi Priscilla – We LOVE ornamental peppers! As for the edible question. Some are more edible than others. Our Sangria Peppers have very little taste and although not harmful – really add no flavor at all. Our Poinsettia Peppers however, are really tasty and have a nice hot flavor to them and can be used for spicing up anything. Same goes for the tangerine dream ornamental. Hope that helps and thanks for stopping by! Jim

  • December 18, 2012 at 11:23 am

    Great post! We used to start our own years ago before we had our kids because we had a spare room. I still start a few seeds on the windowsill and then transfer them outside to a makeshift cold frame made with a few old windows. It’s very primitive, but it works for the hardier vegetables. Thanks for sharing valuable information!

    • December 18, 2012 at 11:50 am

      It’s really neat to start your own – and you sound like us – we are always running out of room to put them now that our kids are bigger. Thanks so much for stopping by and for the compliment!

  • December 18, 2012 at 10:42 am

    Wonderful tutorial! I start my own seeds every year…it just wouldn’t seem like spring without shop lights shining on flats of baby plants 🙂

    I would love to have you share your seed starting post on Wildcrafting Wednesday! It won’t be up and running until tomorrow, but you can visit my blog anytime at:

    • December 18, 2012 at 11:50 am

      Starting seeds is certainly a great way to make it seem like Spring a little earlier!!!

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