Getting Ready for Fall

I am a bit in denial about this whole midsummer thing. But lately, I've been working in the basement on getting my seed-starting setup ready for fall and winter seed starting.

I have not been able to start seeds for years because I have a cat who eats seedlings, and there has not been a place where she cannot go and where the dog(s) will not romp the poor seedlings to death. But now I can have some seedlings going in the basement, so I can start a lot of plants I would otherwise pay $5 each for at Annie's. A considerable savings, given the theme for next year of "swaths of plants."

This item is at the center of my plans: a shelving unit from Costco, like the others in the basement, fitted up with shoplights ($8 each at Home Depot). I'll also drape it with plastic, so the heat from the lights stays inside, because the basement can get very cold in the winter, and I'm way too cheap to spring for enough heating mats to cover this thing.

Seed rack

A bunch of nursery flats and some light bulbs (I'm planning to just use plain fluourescents; the plants will not be staying in the basement permanently), and I'm in business. Then I need to fence off a place in the garden for hardening off. Or get that hoop house built.

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posted by ayse on 08/17/06


You might need to find an alternate heat source since flourescent bulbs stay pretty cool. Will you put the lights on a timer or manually turn them off/on?

Fluourescents stay cool compared to incandescents, but they still put out a fair amount of heat, especially the ones with cheap ballasts. The whole shelf is going to be draped in plastic to hold heat in, and anyway, I don't need to keep it hot in there. I want to keep it about 10 degrees above the ambient temperature (we don't get very cold here in the winter; maybe a few frosts). If I have trouble maintaining a bare minimum 55F, I figure I can use a couple of incandescents as heaters (they're better at that than lighting, after all).

At first I figured I would just leave the lights on all the time, but I may go with a timer if I end up starting any seeds that need a dark period. If I do that, I'm going to swap night and day so the lights are on in the coldest hours of the day. But the temperature in the basement, while colder than the rest of the house, is pretty stable, so that may not be necessary.

It sucks that we can't grow tulips because we don't get enough chill, but there are some benefits to a mild climate.

The only time I tried this (with the special grow bulbs), I had these sad little weak seedlings that were pale, pale green (not enough sunlight?) I nursed them along, and then finally moved them outside after the last frost danger had passed, and they all promptly died (too big of a shock?). The only thing that made it was the morning glory, because you really can't kill that. I was so sad at how the whole thing went that I haven't tried seeds since. Do you have any suggestions as to what I did wrong?

My guess would be that you started them inside too early, kept them inside too long, and didn't harden them off properly. Well, I know you didn't harden them off, because that's what that shock from moving outdoors is all about.

You may also not have had enough light (weak, spindly seedlings are usually light deprived). I've had that happen, too, so I doubled up on the light fixtures this time. Also, my plan is to start the seeds indoors, get them to a first pair of real leaves, then move them outside (carefully) so they can grow with the sunlight.

You should try again with the seeds: a lot of it is just picking up and going on when you have mass die-off (I lost every plant I started one year to damping-off, because I was too lazy to bleach my nursery trays -- spent the rest of the season kicking myself for that one). Sometimes things work, sometimes they don't.

You're probably right about the timing. We had an unusually long winter that year (ice storms and snow through April, so seedlings couldn't come out until May). They were watered carefully and did have plenty of light (4 fluorescent grow bulbs in the laundry room for two trays of seeds- two bulbs per rack).
We've moved since this experiment (to the Nightmare) and there is no room for this setup now, so I won't be trying it again.

Those late springs will do you in every time.

Have you ever looked into winter sowing? I was just reading on the GardenWeb forums about it, and it sounds interesting, although of course our winters are essential torrential downpours and not terribly welcoming for tiny little seedlings. Also, I want to try out my seed shelf.

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