12 Easy DIY Seed Starting System Ideas – Mother Earth News (2024)

Check out these tips for starting seeds indoors. Readers give their best DIY seed starting system ideas so you can grow your own vegetable seedlings at home this spring.

Growing your own seedlings indoors can save you big bucks, as well as open up a whole new world of crop variety options. When you start seeds at home, you aren’t limited to the, well, “garden variety” plants available at most garden centers. You can order seeds of anything you desire to try — such as disease-resistant, organically bred, regionally adapted or rare heirloom varieties — from the many mail-order seed companies across the United States, and then sprout them yourself.

The range of setups you can use to start your seeds is nearly as diverse as the plants you can grow. We reached out to our readers to find out what seed-starting setups work well for them, and this is a roundup of their ideas. As you get set up at home, keep in mind that using lights will usually work better than placing plants on windowsills, and certain lights are superior for this purpose. We recommend standard fluorescent T8 bulbs because two of them together produce about 3,000 lumens. Even though the glow looks bright to human eyes, 3,000 lumens is only a small fraction of the light a seedling would receive outdoors. Keeping your seedlings within only a couple of inches of these bright lights will make them sturdier and healthier.

Not all the advice here precisely follows the “best practices” for seed starting, but together the tips comprise practical ideas that have worked for resourceful gardeners. For more guidance, check out Best Tips for Starting Seeds Indoors.

  1. Multilevel Seed-Starting Cart on Wheels
    I built my grow-light stand last year using ash wood from my backyard that I cut on my bandsaw mill. The stand has two levels, and it’s equipped with shop lights and bulbs I purchased at Home Depot. The bulbs are Phillips ALTO T8s, which put out about 2,750 lumens. I’m able to adjust the fixture height to keep the bulbs within a couple of inches of the plants for best results. This stand easily disassembles for storage, and I can also move it around because I built it on wheels. It works so well that I use it to grow lettuce indoors when I’m not starting seedlings. — Edward Hollmen

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  2. Multipurpose Grow-Light Bookcase
    I start my seeds on a multipurpose unit that functions as a seed-starting stand and bookcase. The grow lights are a permanent fixture of the stand, affixed to the underside of each shelf. When I’m starting seeds, I stack a few books underneath the seed-starting trays to keep them close to the lights, and then adjust the height of the book stacks as the seedlings grow. To build such a unit, first purchase light fixtures, and then compile a lumber list based on the length of your lights and how many shelves high you want your bookcase to be. Find full plans for this structure online. — Cheryl Long

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  3. Growing Seedlings with Yard Sale Finds
    My seed-starting setup resides on top of a bookcase in my den, and it never fails to produce a full complement of seedlings. Except for some cups and compost, I scored all the components at a yard sale. The cost? Amazingly cheap:
    4 plastic shoe boxes at 25 cents each: $1
    Fluorescent light fixture with 2 tubes: $3
    Timer: 25 cents
    Extension cord: 10 cents
    Package of foam cups: $2
    Ice pick/awl: 50 cents
    Homemade compost: free
    Total cost: $6.85
    I heat the tip of the awl over one of my gas stove’s burners, and then use the awl to melt irrigation holes around the base of each foam cup, which I can reuse from year to year. I hung the fluorescent fixture beneath an overhead shelf. — John Grass

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  4. Mile-High Seed Starting Tips
    I’m a Master Gardener, but I’m also a mile-high, off-grid, limited-finance gardener. After hauling potting mix home on the back of my snowmobile, I fill up a couple dozen 2-inch peat pots and a couple dozen 3-inch pots, as well as some egg cartons and large yogurt containers. I start tomatoes, peppers, basil, cilantro and more. The yogurt containers work well for repotting seedlings after a couple of weeks, when the starts need larger containers. Recycling and reusing readily available items in my price range? Perfect!
    I cover my seeds with damp newspapers and place them near the woodstove until they sprout (keeping them far enough away so that the plastic pots won’t melt). Then, they graduate to the lighted seed table, but we only run power for an hour or so at night; the rest of the time, they sit in the south and west windows. When the “babies” get bigger and the temperature rises above 45 degrees Fahrenheit, I move them into my cold frame on the porch during the day. My germination rate is about 90 percent. At the end of April, I plant my seedlings in raised beds that I cover with plastic hoops to provide extra protection.
    Anyone can do this who has a warm corner, a bright window, and a fluorescent light or two. Just buy quality seeds and use a good seed-starting soil mix. Never let your soil dry out, but don’t drown the small plants either. Transplant the seedlings to a bigger pot when they get taller than the one you started them in. Place them in sunshine as much as you can. — Betsy Mehaffey

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  5. Seed Starting with Soil Blockers
    I start my seeds in soil blocks, which means I don’t need any small containers. I make my own seed-starting mix based on a recipe from Eliot Coleman’s book The New Organic Grower. I also place a heat mat underneath the trays to give the seeds bottom heat to help them sprout, and I mist the seeds with a spray bottle daily. After the seeds sprout, I unplug the heat mat.
    When the sprouts develop their first true sets of leaves, I transfer them to six-packs (you can use larger soil blocks at this point to avoid plastic containers altogether). I place them in a south-facing window until it’s time to start hardening them off for planting in the garden. To harden seedlings off, place them outside in a relatively sheltered area for an hour or so per day at first, and then gradually increase the length of their outdoor time each day. — Dale T. Rodgers
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    Find soil blockers in the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store.

  6. Use Electric Blankets to Warm Seed-Starting Trays
    I’m a horticultural technician, and I have a large country property in western Quebec. Our growing season is much shorter than most. In winter, our temperatures drop to minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit, so the soil doesn’t warm up enough to host tomatoes and other heat-loving, long-season crops until July. My seedlings need to be large, hardy and ready to produce within this short growing season.
    Bell peppers and tomatoes require an eight- to 10-week jump-start in our region. To get them going, I place an electric blanket under my seed-starting trays. I put a piece of heavy-grade plastic over the blanket to keep it dry. I was able to purchase used electric blankets for less than $10 apiece. For plants that germinate best with a soil temperature of about 70 degrees, including tomatoes, we use the low setting on our electric blanket to maintain that range of heat under the trays. For plants that do best with soil temperatures of about 80 degrees, such as bell peppers, we use the blanket’s medium-high setting. Between bottom heat and overhead grow lights, my seedlings are large, vigorous and ready to produce abundant yields for my family to enjoy. — Christina Eckerlin
  7. Grow Vegetable Seedlings in Milk Jug Mini-Greenhouses
    I’ve tried many types of containers for starting seeds, including paper cups and plastic trays. So far, 1-gallon, clear plastic milk and water jugs have worked best. To try this, remove the caps and cut small holes in the jugs’ bottoms for water drainage. Then, cut around three sides of each jug, about 3.5 inches from the bottom, to create a hinge that will keep the bottom of the jug (your seed bed) connected with the top of the jug (your seeds’ protective lid).
    I fill the jugs with soil mix and place nine to 16 seeds in each jug, depending on plant size. In early spring, I keep the jugs inside in front of a southwest-facing window, and then move them outdoors when the weather starts to warm. When I transfer the seedlings to the garden, I simply scoop them out with a large serving spoon, taking care to bring as much soil with each plant as possible to limit root disturbance.
    This idea originally came from one of your other contributors. Thanks to all who generously share their gardening ideas and experiences! — Lisa Facciponti

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  8. Start Seeds without Grow Lights
    In the past 40 years, I’ve tried many ways to start seeds. For cold-hardy plants, such as onions and cabbage, I’ve found that the least messy and least fussy method is to sow seeds in large plastic containers with lids, and then set them outside. The containers double as simple cloches for frost protection.
    You can use recycled lettuce clamshells, milk jugs cut in half — really, any container made of clear or opaque plastic. Fill each halfway with damp seed-starting mix, add a few seeds, and then lightly cover the seeds. When it’s time for the seeds to come up, they’ll come up! You won’t have to repot or harden off. I start my seeds in late winter, and I’ve found that they’ll sprout even when the cloches are covered with snow. When the weather warms and the baby plants begin pushing off the lid, I open it, give them a dose of fish emulsion, let them get stronger, and then transplant them to their new home. — Laura Johnson
  9. Old Freezer Turned Germination Chamber
    To germinate my seeds, I’ve made a heated germination station out of an old, non-working upright freezer. It’s outfitted with a 40-watt bulb attached to a shop light fixture that I hung inside the freezer to provide warmth. The freezer is situated on an unheated porch, and its inner temperature averages 75 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit, even on subzero nights. This method has sped up my seeds’ germination time significantly. It’s my greatest low-tech repurposing achievement to date! Not bad for gardening on a shoestring budget. — Cris Canton
  10. Start Seeds in a Small Greenhouse
    I do all of my seed starting in a 6-by-8-foot greenhouse. My seed-starting pots sit on built-in shelving that’s about chest-high, which makes for easy planting and repotting. I make sure to vent the greenhouse on sunny days so my seedlings don’t overheat. The greenhouse provides a warm, bright spot to get plants started, and I don’t have to take up any space inside my house for the process. — Vicki Slater Fugate
  11. Holiday Lights for Warming Seed Trays
    A friend named this my “Christmas tree light farm.” I’ve been using this setup to start my seeds for four years now. Grow lights hang from a wooden rack and strands of holiday lights rest below my seed-starting trays to heat the soil (not touching the trays, but nested right below them). I stick a thermometer in the soil to monitor its temperature. — JoAnn Hana

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  12. 6-Layer Seed-Starting Racks
    I use tall, simple, six-tier shelving units that I adjust as my plants grow. A fluorescent grow light hangs over each shelf. Each light plugs in to an outlet in the light above it, so that each overall unit has only one main plug that goes into a wall outlet.
    The grow tower with six-tiers shows just the hot peppers I grew last year; I started more than 500 of them. Each year, I also start onions, sweet peppers, kale, cabbage, broccoli, edible flowers, microgreens and hundreds of leeks. As soon as nighttime temperatures rise a bit, I start even more seeds in my unheated greenhouse. — Joanne Tipler

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Shelley Stonebrookis MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine’s main gardening editor. She’s passionate about growing healthy, sustainable food and also runs Stonegrass Farms Soap Co. in her spare time.

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    12 Easy DIY Seed Starting System Ideas – Mother Earth News (2024)


    What household items can I use to start a seed? ›

    While there are plenty of containers you can purchase made specifically for starting seeds, you can save a little cash by making your own out of items that are likely already in your recycling bin. Newspaper, paper towel rolls, small boxes, and shredded paper can all be easily transformed into biodegradable seed pots.

    Can you start seeds in toilet paper rolls? ›

    Cardboard toilet paper rolls make perfect biodegradable seed planters for starting delicate sprouts indoors.

    What is the best container to start seeds indoors? ›

    Seed Starting with Plastic Cups, Styrofoam Cups, and Small Reusable Pots. You can poke holes in the bottom of just about any cup and use it to start your seeds. Be sure to place them on a surface or tray that can catch runoff when you water them (like my baking sheet in my original setup).

    What is a seed starting formula? ›

    2 parts coconut coir (purpose: provide light, but well-draining growth medium for seedling roots | you can buy coconut coir here) 1 part vermiculite (purpose: increase water & nutrient retention | you can buy vermiculite here) 1 part perlite (purpose: increase soil aeration & good drainage | you can buy perlite here)

    How do you start seeds cheaply? ›

    10 Tips for Seed Starting on a Budget
    1. Buy Seeds for Less. Some seed vendors have great prices and great seeds! ...
    2. Know What to Grow When. ...
    3. Reuse and Recycle. ...
    4. Choose Cheap Stakes and Labels. ...
    5. Soil and Fertilizer. ...
    6. Water for Success. ...
    7. Use Natural Light. ...
    8. Always Harden Seedlings Off.

    How do you start seeds with egg cartons? ›

    Add soil into each egg cup and place the seeds inside. Place your cartons on a tray or in a shallow pan to catch draining water. Place the cartons in a sunny window and be sure to water daily. The soil should always be moist.

    What are 3 things needed to activate a seed to germinate? ›

    Seeds remain dormant or inactive until conditions are right for germination. All seeds need water, oxygen, and proper temperature in order to germinate.

    Is it better to start seeds in paper towels or soil? ›

    The paper towel method creates prime conditions for seeds to germinate in less time. Depending on the type of seed, the controlled moisture and heat conditions within the bag can enable seeds to germinate in a few days. You'll have a home or garden filled with bright new leaves in no time!

    What seeds can you start in paper towels? ›

    You can also germinate tomato seeds in paper towels or coffee filters, as well as cucumber, squash, muskmelon, and watermelon seeds. Can you germinate kale, cabbage, broccoli, onion, or turnip seeds with the baggie method? Sure you can.

    Can you use Styrofoam egg cartons to start seeds? ›

    Cardboard egg cartons work much the same way and are easy to use for germinating and growing seeds. Styrofoam egg cartons can also be used; however, remove the plant from the styrofoam carton before transplanting because it does not break down in the soil.

    What can I use instead of seed trays? ›

    Egg boxes are a great DIY biodegradable seed option, offering both a mini seed tray and modules for the seedlings. I'm also using oven trays to hold the egg boxes and other cardboard seed trays. This means I can move a number of them quickly if I need to, but it also allows for the bottom watering of some seeds.

    What month is best to start seeds indoors? ›

    Mid-March is the best time to start many vegetables and annual flowers indoors for transplanting outside once the threat of frost has passed.

    What is the best potting mixture for seeds? ›

    “Seed starting soil may include several items including moisture-retentive organic matter like peat moss, coco coir, fine compost, composted tree bark, or leaf mold and porous material to assist with good drainage, such as perlite, vermiculite, or sand,” Clausen says.

    How to make the best seed raising mix? ›

    2 parts coco coir or peat moss. 1 part vermiculite or perlite (you can use both if you can get both) 1 part river sand. ½ part worm casting & ½ part finely sifted compost (if you can't find worm casting, then double up the compost amount)

    What is the DIY seed starting mix for soil blocks? ›

    1. 3 buckets brown peat (standard peat moss).
    2. ½ cup lime. Mix ingredients together thoroughly.
    3. 2 buckets coarse sand or perlite.
    4. 3 cups base fertilizer (equal parts blood meal, colloidal phosphate, and greensand). Mix thoroughly.
    5. 1 bucket garden soil.
    6. 2 buckets well-decomposed compost.

    Can I use regular potting soil to start seeds? ›

    The coarser texture of the potting soil or the garden soil may inhibit growth by not providing the correct amount of continuous moisture. However, after the tomato plants grow into healthy young plants, say in a seed starting soilless mix, you can then start transplanting your seeds into your choice of potting soils.


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