A New Leaf


I never was a seed starter.  There was a nursery near me that for a long time had a fantastic selection of vegetable seedlings. 

But then the lovely people who owned it sold their house, moved to the South, and only returned in the spring and early summer to run their business.  The number of varieties they offered seemed to shrink.  So I began starting my favorite varieties of tomatoes and peppers on the windowsill, as well as a few vegetables hard to find started in nurseries, such as celeriac and leeks.  The tomatoes and peppers never seemed to get enough light there.  And the celeriac represented a different kind of frustration: months of babysitting and then chomped by groundhogs within minutes.  All in all, not a very satisfying experience.

Then a few years ago, I decided to plug in an old shop light left behind by the previous owner in the basement and grow my tomatoes and leeks there.  Guess what?  They looked much better.

Last year, I splurged and bought another shop light.  I posted about my set-up here.  For the first time, my pepper seedlings rivalled those in the nurseries.  Of course, there were still frustrations: my onion seedlings all disappeared to cut-worms as soon as I planted them in the garden.  But on the whole, babysitting those trays of tiny plants was worthwhile.

This year, I retired the old shop light with the frayed cord and bought 5 new ones to join the one from last year.  I even turned on a drill for the first time in my life in order to screw in hooks to hang them from.

I used to feel constrained by my seedlings, their neediness, their Goldilocks-style fussiness, their intolerance of neglect.  But now that I have my cheap shop lights and a timer, I feel freed by them.  I can have any variety of tomato or pepper I want!  I can experiment with growing potatoes from seed!  I can have as many alpine strawberry plants as I want, even though they are impossible to find in local nurseries!

Somebody please stop me before I start growing flowering perennials from seed.


  1. Starting your own perennials from seed (those which will start from seeds) is really the smart way to go. Those suckers can be expensive, so you’ll save $$$. Also, because they’re perennials, you can start them after your annual vegetables have grown up and moved outside — so you get more use out of that relatively limited space under your lights – although if you have 5, your space isn’t as limited.

  2. Not going to stop you……..I germinated habaneros and Thai chiles in 7 days with super rooters and a hydrofarm hot house.
    Bottom heat is the key…………
    Careful with shop lights if your grow room runs warm they will stretch like a politicians promise

    The TROLL

  3. Oh, I’ve grown flowering perennials from seed and can report that for the most part, they don’t flower for at least 3 years. That patient, I’m not.

  4. Success with seed starting can lead to related obsessions. You may soon find yourself setting up a misting bed that makes rooting cuttings much easier. Then you will want a greenhouse to be able to do this stuff over a longer time period. And on it goes!

  5. Most of the really cool perennials that I can’t find except from seed require so many weird cold stratifications and whatnot that I just chuck ’em in the garden and pray. Grow lights are one thing, but I’m not willing to refrigerate, unrefrigerate, re-refrigerate, dance around with a cowhide on my head, etc.

  6. I’ve been addicted to starting seeds for over 25 years, and every year there are more…and yes it includes perennials, including natives…it would not feel like I was gardening if I didn’t start them myself.

    Try starting the perennials first – then move them to a sheltered place like a 3-season porch when it’s time for maters and peppers (which is now, come to think of it!)

  7. Rachelle,

    I struggled with the stratifications too — until this year when I decided I was nuts to try to create an artificial winter when there was all the natural winter I could possible want right outside my door. So I set up a dozen seedling pots, crumbled some coneflower seeds gathered from a neighbor’s bed into them, covered them with a row cover to keep out weeds and left them outside from November 1 until early February when I brought them in and stuck them on my heating mats. They’re all up and growing strong — moved them onto the sunporch to give space for the tomaters and peppers (as UrsulaV says.) Maybe I just got lucky – but this was easy.

  8. Funny I was just drilling holes in my ceiling last night to set up a shop light over my seedlings (I have used a drill before though. They come in handy for garden projects). And I mostly grow flowering plants from seed. Do it! Once you get hooked it is very rewarding getting something to bloom for the first time from a tiny little seed.

  9. Reading this ust makes me giggle! I am also starting everything from seeds but we live in southern california so luckily there are no shop lights involved. I always have fun watching them sprout and my kids feel so proud. This year we added chickens, 2 day old chicks lol. Thanks for this post!

  10. Too late! A couple of vegetable seeds and the unsuspecting gardener is hooked. It’s only a matter of time before it escalates to perennials. Grow lights with timers are the gateway drug. It’s only a matter of time before you start experimenting with soil blocking tools. It happens to the best of us. There’s no turning back.

  11. can you tell me what a shop light is? i’d like to start seeds as well, but was under the impression you had to use expensive grow lights.


  12. Shop lights are flourescent light fixtures you can find at Home Depot for about 25-30 a fixture. I used them years ago in our basement to start seeds and had some success, but it was too chilly and I couldn’t afford heat pads. This year I’ve splurged (invested?)$300 in an inexpensive small (6×8) plastic greenhouse because I have been obsessed with extending the season growing with greens. Now I can start more seeds too! I’m excited. Grow lights are great if you have the warm indoor space but if you don’t it might be better to go for a mini-greenhouse.

  13. Oh, now I am having seedling envy. I made a deal with myself that I would only plant straight to soil this year and now, after reading your post, I am regretting it. Sigh. I just might have to clear off some space this weekend.

    (Side note: Over on my blog, I am having a gardener’s gathering every Tuesday to show off progress and pitfalls, starting the 27th. I would love it if you would join us! http://www.mental-chew.com/2012/03/how-does-your-garden-grow.html )

  14. Michele,

    I want to try this. How far in advance do you start seeds indoors? I usually plant in early May. Do they require a warm room or can the basement be cool? I guess they start outside in rather cool temps.

  15. Ah Michelle , The bottom shelf under the lights are the beginnings of my seeds to perennials experiment. It’s working under the lights…we’ll see what happens in the garden this summer!!

  16. I just forwarded the post to my spouse as evidence that I am not nearly as garden-obsessed as she accuses me of being. I don’t start seeds with flourescent lights in the basement, mainly because I have to do a lot of business travel in the February through May period. On the other hand, it sounds awfully tempting … maybe she would water the seedlings for me on the days I’m away from home?

  17. I’ve been growing veggies from seeds for years and I have yet to start perennials from seed. As several others pointed out, 3 years until blooming is just too long to wait.

    The hardest part, in my opinion, is culling or “thinning out” the seedlings. I often end up with too many plants because I simply can’t kill them.

  18. GREAT article and such funny posts, Having morning coffee and smiling while I read your daily postings here at Garden Rant with bright sunshine here in Michigan. Thank You for such an informative and funny website !!!!!!

  19. Jason, my husband and daughter just discussed at breakfast about how carried away I get starting seedlings. And tropaeolum, I always have trouble thinning too. I solve that by giving away the “excess” to coworkers to plant in their gardens, or in pots if they don’t have gardens. I start most things in flats, transplant to 6-packs (or larger pots) when they get a leaf or two. (Plastic pots and 6 packs are reused until they fall apart…) I use an overpriced light stand because it sits in my dining room year round; the old one we built from PVC is now my outdoor hardening-off platform. But shop lights, egg cartons, paper pots all work great, it doesn’t have to cost a fortune.

  20. Some perennials do take a long time from seed to bloom. Only the patient should go with those. For the rest of us – there’s plenty to start from seed that will show results the same year or the following year. I promise.

    Ursula, I’ll have you know those cowhides can be darned attractive if you get the right colors. 🙂

  21. Seed sowing is completely addictive. Seed sowing season has just started here. Nothing can beat the sight of a little green plant appearing in a pot or seed tray. I get so excited every time.

  22. I have been started seeds in the basement for years – this way I get the varieties I want. I have started perennials and lots of pretty annuals. This year, I started winter sowing, which leaves me more room in the basement for the tender annuals. It is addictive. I usually have more plants than I have room for but my friends are happy.

  23. I’m still pre-lighting fixtures for my seed starting, just floor to ceiling windows in the south-facing living room (and our apartment building’s heat comes through the floor, so automatic heating pad, score!). My tomatoes are already a little leggy, but I’m sure when I give them a transplant and bury the seed leaves, they’ll be fine. I’m also trying to grow quince fruit from seed, I did the cold-stratification (much easier than expected) and now the seedings are 3 inches high, but I doubt they’ll be giving me blossoms for another three years.

  24. Juliana, my shop lights cost a whopping $10 each at Lowe’s. They are just super-cheap metal fixtures into which you insert cool spectrum fluorescent bulbs. If you follow the link in the piece, you’ll find a post from last year about my set-up.

    Re, when to start things: experience has taught me not to fret, but just to start the whole shebang about 10 weeks before the last potential frost date. I used to start earlier with leeks and onions, but decided last year that I started too early–and they were beginning to atrophy in their tray.

    I don’t, however, start cucurbits in the house. Those you would only want to start about 2 weeks before planting, because you DON’T want them vining out in the pot.

  25. Good golly almighty, how nice to read someone else growing their obsession. I think one of the reasons I got laid off from my job was because I started seeds in my sunny south facing windows-50 seedlings that obliging grew under my loving care. That care wasn’t something under my job description, but that’s how I started my tomatoes and peppers last year. Didn’t mind leaving the job, either. No sense of humor or how important growing organic vegies is.

    This year, I got a 25 year old two tray grow light stand on Craigs List, and you’re right, the tomatoes, peppers and eggplant look great.

  26. I know there are a lot of things (especially the allium family) that are quite happy to be moved out to a cool porch or coldframe even this early. I did an experiment where I direct seeded vs transplanted leeks and shallots, and it did not make a huge difference – a little. But I just gotta have my “fix” in late winter, and start them anyway. I found tomatoes and such get awfully leggey, especially in a late spring like we have had lately, so they just got started.

  27. lol great post 🙂

    I personally find it rewarding to grow something from start to finish, and have a very similar setup to yours. Next step is to harvest my own seeds and go full circle.

  28. I’ve been starting veggies from seed for years, but always salivated at the stocky starts at our local big box store. How do they get the tomato stems so beefy and keep the seedlings from getting leggy? Well, I went to a few seminars and the trick is to grow with shop lights no more than 4-6 inches above seedlings, in front of your sunniest window to maximize light, while running a fan on the seedlings to simulate wind and make them stockier. Now my seedlings can run with the bulls.

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