Getting an early start on the growing season is important, especially when you face a short growing season like we do here in the sub-arctic region of Fairbanks, Alaska. For us, and the scale that we do gardening, it’s simply more cost effective for us to raise our own vegetable starts from seed. This year, we estimate that starting our plants from seed is saving us well over $2,000 just in plant costs alone.
We invested into an indoor germination setup when we were living in Montana and moved our setup to Alaska when we moved. We leverage some of the techniques that commercial greenhouses use while at the same time having to meet extremely compact goals. We need to be able to raise 400+ vegetable starts in a 12 square foot growing space!
Our germination setup basically involves a single 4-foot, 8 bulb CFL lamp, a table, 10×20 growing trays with inserts and large humidity domes for these trays. We operate the light on 12 hour on / 12 hour off cycle, but there is no harm with providing more light hours if you want to foot the electricity bill. This year, we intend to use six trays total and inserts that will hold 72 starts per tray. We are attempting to time our seed planting and growth such that we can go from tray to transplant as much as possible. We also have a couple clip on fans that help circulate airflow when the plants get more mature.
We built a light hanger out of PVC this year, simply because we didn’t have the room for our dual-light stacked setup that we’ve used in years past. Our previous dual-light setups generated a fair bit more heat, which we wanted to avoid, so we’re doing with less this time. It’s a fairly simple PVC light hanger with a couple feet as well as vertical and horizontal stretches that we use to suspend the light with adjustable light hangers. It cost about $30 to build and has been working well for us.
We’re packing our starts in dense! As you can see above, we’re attempting to fit six trays under a single light. We don’t get “perfect” light distribution in this configuration, so rotation of the trays will be important as we move onto later growth phases. At the time of this writing, we have three trays active with one dedicated to flowers and two handling our vegetable starts. To save on electricity costs, we only use a few bulbs in the early seedlilng stages on our light.
We are growing everything in multiples of six, really just to make labeling our grow trays easier. It’s critical to label things properly as plants and varieties can look very similar in their early stages and we like to know what we’re planting! We planted our long-growth stuff (leeks, rosemary, etc.) towards the end of March and have been adding to things every weekend since. Again, our goal is to go straight from these trays to the ground, whenever possible.
Some things will do well by transplanting from these trays into 4″ pots. Things like our tomato crop, thai chili peppers and possibly others will find themselves transplanted when the time is right. We intend to build a small PVC cold frame outside our house this year with the hope we can use it for transplanting and hardening off sometime in May.
One of the most important aspects of indoor germination is the use of humdity domes, which effectively operate as mini-greenhouses. We skip the small/short domes in favor of the large domes which make it easier for us to label our starts. A humid, warm environment is ideal for most germination efforts and these easily get in the 75+ degree range, allowing us to enjoy very high levels of germination rates.
Watering is done by a spray bottle in the very early seed and seedling stages, which allows minimal disturbance of the seedling soil. Once a full tray has substantially rooted, we will usually take the trays into our bath tub and use a traditional watering can so as to soak the roots more thoroughly. We try to water once or twice a day, depending on whether the soil has dried out. When growing indoors, it’s important to manage the soil which can easily get all over the place if you’re not careful.
As mentioned previously, we spent a fair bit of time planning out our 2016 garden, even multiple versions of it. We know how many starts we need of each plant and variety, which we figured out in early March. We found we had to make some sacrifices due to our space constraints this year, particularly sacrificing doing starts for things that can be direct sowed and reducing our total starts of particular varieties very close to what we intend to grow.
Currently, we have germination on a few of our leeks and petunias, both of which were planted in late March. It’s so rewarding to see your efforts of planting a seed take fruition as an actual plant.
So this is our basic germination setup and how we intend to accomplish the bold goal of 432 starts in 12 square foot of space!