Inevitably, the time will arrive when many gardeners will consider starting their own seeds indoors.  Perhaps it is the threat of being faced, once again, with only two tomato varieties at the big box retailers, and the shock at paying premium prices for the much greater selection available at a nursery.  Perhaps it is the beautiful pictures of rare tomato varieties in the January catalogs.

But perhaps it is as simple as pursuing the magical childlike joy of bringing a plant to life from scratch.  Thankfully, there is no magic involved, although I have had a childlike temper or two over the years.

For whatever reason you have come to this place, if seed starting is your goal this year – Hoorah!  Congratulations on taking the next step as a gardener.  Now is the time to think and plan – for many seeds could need as much as a twelve-week period before being set outside (although most need less time than that).

Let There Be Light

At its core, propagating plants from seeds is as easy as soil, warmth, light and of course, a viable seed.  Many of us have done enough bean seed experiments with our children to know this.  But there are many ways of providing these essentials, and how you do it will determine the health of the plants you wish to grow – not to mention your own mental health.

As each of these factors can be discussed ad nauseum, I’d like to deal with what I consider to be the variable in this plant equation whose importance is often underestimated – light.  Most gardeners recognize the importance of watering; some understand the need for warmth and humidity; and still others worry about the sterility of soil and the benefits of a soil-less mix.  But often a “sunny windowsill” is considered adequate for raising healthy, happy plants.


Can’t take more clutter in the windowsills even if they were sunny enough for seedlings.

My opinion? If you want to raise strong, bushy seedlings with a lust for life, get a grow light – or a greenhouse.  And trust me, a grow light is considerably cheaper.

Now don’t let your eyes glaze over.  This isn’t rocket science.  My two grow lights are four foot fluorescent shop light fixtures, to which I have added high spectrum grow bulbs – available at all the big box retailers.  Shop lights come in much smaller sizes, I just wanted the most bang for my gardening buck.   With a strong source of light positioned just a few inches above your seedlings, they will sport compact, sturdy growth – and have one up on their long lanky windowsill cousins, trying to follow the sun as it tracks through the winter sky.

New LED growing set-ups are even more efficient, but they are more expensive.  As much as middle-aged Marianne would like to say, “buy the best and have it for years,” she is still very aware of “struggling-to-make-ends-meet-with-kids-and-student-loans-Marianne,” who never appreciated that kind of obliviousness in profligate garden writers. Let’s leave it at “Buy the best you can afford.”

One little caveat to this statement.  Too-cheap lights can short out and cause fires. This is a real concern, and has happened to me (well, the smoke before the fire at any rate). The cheap lights of 20 years ago are not the same quality as the cheap lights of today.  So, buy with that in mind, and if you have concerns, consider starting seeds outdoors in a cold frame or milk jug (see below).

You don’t have to have the perfect place for seedlings

Now comes the difficulty – finding space.  If you are lucky, there is a part of your house that is currently unused.  If you are normal, there is not.  It’s time to get creative.  The first propagating experiment I ever did took place in my bedroom (and I am not talking about my children).  I hung the lights from tiny hooks screwed into the ceiling above the tops of two bookcases.  Voila!  Instant light-stand, minus the $179 price tag.

My current favorite spot is on top of the fridge.  It gives a nice steady warmth, the seeds are out of the way, and, come spring, I remove the lights, leaving four tiny unobtrusive hooks in the ceiling ready for next February’s propagation.

seeds on washing machine

Seeds on top of the washing machine.

An unfinished basement will work just as well, but you might need an electric mat for warmth (available in nursery catalogs or pet stores) – and a reminder note on the fridge to water (out of sight, out of mind).   Those mats heat up fast and dry soil even faster.

Bottom line: Think outside the box when it comes to location, and who knows where those seeds will end up.

Now for the small print

And I’m not going to lie to you.  From late February to late April, my house doubles as the venue for a psychological study in high-level tolerance.  I don’t like extra clutter in my home.  When I feel like every square inch of my house is filthy and covered in dog hair, it doesn’t soothe the savage beast to see a square yard of soil sitting on top of my major appliances.  When these feelings threaten to overwhelm me, I take a minute to run my hands over the little tomato and basil seedlings and breathe deeply of the promise of summer.

This does seem to have a calming effect on tendencies toward manic housekeeping.  But believe me; as soon as it looks as though those untidy little pots might be able to brave the temperatures of a hastily rigged cold-frame, they’re given their coats and asked to leave.

When I don’t want to cope with the dirt or the disarray, I also use the milk-jug method or use cold frames outdoors,  which you can read about in detail in my book Big Dreams, Small Garden, or in a broader way, here.  It allows the seeds to get the light they need, and as the winter lets go, the warmth.

milk jug seedlings

A little investment, a whole lot of joy

Raising all or part of your garden from seed is not only less expensive, it’s extremely satisfying.  Once you’ve raised a six-pack or two of those heirloom tomatoes you always wanted to grow, or that specialty basil you’ve lusted after in the nurseries, you may find yourself scanning the catalogs next year for seeds instead of plants.

One last thing. A new interest in gardening over the last two years means that seed companies have limited supplies.  If you’re thinking about it this year, don’t wait one second longer to open a catalog or pull up a website and put in an order for a whole lot of spring satisfaction.