Growing Your Own Vegetable Garden Starts Indoors In Cold Climates

Brady GlacierIt didn’t take long for us to figure out we were spending a ton of money on acquiring plants to grow.  It’s easy to spend hundreds of dollars on plants for even a moderate sized garden.

Seeds, however, are considerably cheaper compared to garden starts from a nursery.  That said, there can be a considerable investment involved when growing your own seeds.  It’s a little bit more complex than “just add light.”

The reality of cold climate gardening is if you want to grow your own garden starts, you’re going to need to do so indoors.  While some may have fully heated greenhouses that can operate any time of year, that’s not the reality for most people.

Our systems have evolved over the years, based on what we’ve learned and the needs of our garden.  It has also grown because we want to get better at our craft.  The truth is, there are dozens of ways to go about growing your own seeds, so these are our methods and techniques.

Growing Your Own Starts Is A Matter Of Pride

We’ll start by saying that growing your own garden starts from seed is not the easiest way to go about gardening.

For us, the primary driver for growing our garden from seed is cost related.  If we did some “very rough” math and assumed every plant cost $1, we’d easily be spending well over $500 a year to have a garden.

That said, the equipment to grow your own garden starts is not exactly cheap either.  The right equipment, to do a good job, is also hundreds of dollars.  The only difference is our “kit” can be used year after year, which significantly reduces our annual operating cost.

What we really like about growing our own is being able to select interesting genetics.  Want a candy cane striped beet?  No problem.  Want purple carrots?  Easy.  How about pink celery?  Just get the seeds.  There are so many interesting varieties out there, it’ll take a lifetime to try a fraction of them.

Our favorite thing about “growing our own” though is being able to see the plants go through their lifecycle, all by our doing.  We are often extremely proud of our garden, that each and every plant was grown by us, from seed.

First Things First, Seed Planting Schedules!

When we first approached gardening, we were like most new gardeners and just put seeds in the dirt without a care in the world.  As with most brand new gardeners, this resulted in a jungle of plant craziness!

One of the most important aspects of indoor plant germination is following a seed planting schedule.  The schedule is determined by your specific zone (or climate) that you live in.  We’ve published ours here, specifically for the interior of Alaska.

Following a schedule will help you maintain consistent sizing among your garden starts.  It will also ensure that basically all your plants are “ready to go” into the garden itself at the appropriate time.

How Much Space Do You Really Need To Grow Seeds?

Obviously, this isn’t a one size fits all type of answer.  What is almost certain, though, is it takes more space than you might think.

Specifically, the space you need does depend on a number of factors, such as what you want to grow, how big of a garden you have and how early you get started.

If you have small hobby garden, your requirements really aren’t much.  When you start talking about serious home garden food production, it’s can be a little bit more.

We would recommend 16 square feet as a starting point, at least for most gardeners that are putting together a reasonable size garden.  This is about a 4 foot by 4 foot space, or a little more than a meter squared.

This grow tent is 4 foot by 4 foot, or about 1.2 meters squared.  If comfortably holds eight 1020 trays.  There is a little bit of room for plants along the sides, but not much.

Our setup, for indoor growing, is approximately 28 square feet.  That let’s us grow around 800 seed starts for our garden.  We have that split among a 16 square foot grow tent and a 2×6 table we use as an “overflow” space.

From there, we’ve also invested into temperature control in outdoor spaces that allow us to take advantage of weeks outdoors, while frost is still quite a problem.

The Basics Of Indoor Seed Germination Setup

We detail our germination setup in much more detail in this piece, but this is the overview of what we use to grow our garden starts.

We’ve spent a fair bit of effort trying to optimize our indoor growing systems for space efficiency.  We don’t have all the space in the world, so how we use that space is important to us.

We have essentially answered the question, “If you could go back to the beginning, what equipment would you buy?”  This is what works well for us.

The major components of our indoor germination set up are as follows:

  • Indoor lighting (LED variants, both Quantum Board and Chip on Board)
  • Seedling trays
  •  Pots
  • 1020 Inserts
  • 1020 trays
  • Humidity domes
  • Tables (2×4 or 2×6)
  • Grow tent or light hanging fixture
  • Fans

Let’s also be clear that there are many different types of equipment out there.  The above is just a reflection of what we use in our space.  Our set up is very space efficient and allows for significant quantity in a restricted size space.

Choosing The Right Indoor Lighting…

Garden lighting has been something we’ve changed over the years as technology improved.  We’ve learned a few things that we’d like to share with those just starting out.

First, without going into complex mechanics of how plants use sunlight (or artificial light) to grow, light intensity matters a LOT.  Poor lighting results in leggy, poor garden starts.  Not just any light will do to make good plants.

Second, as of 2020 and beyond, the only lighting that makes sense for growing your own garden starts is LED lighting.  We’ve written extensively about the choices you can make, but the savings on electricity for LED make it the obvious choice these days.

For specific types of lighting, we really like what are called quantum board LED’s here at Frosty Garden.  They are a relatively modern and simple, plug and play solution.  We’ve played around with advanced DIY lights, such as building our own lights from chip-on-board LEDs, and these are very comparable.

Quantum boards LED’s are basically 90% of a COB without all the hassle of DIY.  They are some of the best and cheapest to operate indoor grow lights you can buy.

Quantum board LED’s come in a variety of sizes, makes and models.  We personally use the Horticultural Lighting Group’s HLG-100 series and highly recommend them.

A Growing Space Can Be Very Flexible

Conceptually, you have the choice of either temporary setups or something a little more permanent.

Setting up a couple of tables with a light above it is pretty easy to do.  For many years, that’s basically how we started our gardens.  We made a very simple light hanger out of 1-1/4 inch PVC pipe.  From there, we hung our light using light hangers, which allow vertical adjustment very easily.

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For many years, we set up a couple of temporary tables and used a DIY PVC light hanger, which is super cheap and easy to build.  Growing food has become part of our way of life, so we ultimately invested into better growing space.

We found that we wanted a more “permanent” type of growing space.  Not permanent, as in built into the house, rather a “dedicated” space.  We set up a 4 foot by 4 foot grow tent in our multi-purpose room.

We had multiple motivations for setting up a more dedicated growing space:

  • For almost 3 months of the year, we have a considerable garden being started
  • We occasionally need to offer our houseplants supplemental lighting to get through winter, due to our low sun levels in the subarctic
  • We occasionally experiment with or conduct indoor growing of various vegetables (such as kratky hydroponic lettuce) over the off season
  • It was becoming more tedious to set up three tables, three lights and re-do everything every season

It’s not very convenient to put up and take down a grow tent.  While you could use a grow tent in a more temporary type of set up, it’s probably overkill.

Beyond a ready-to-go garden space, the largest advantage of a grow tent is increased light efficiency.  The walls tend to made from a reflective material, increasing the “bang for the buck” you get out of your lighting.

There are many ways to throw together an indoor grow area.  It can be really simple or a lot more involved.  In almost every case, you can grow good plants.

 

Avoid The New Gardener’s Folly!

Most new gardeners are really excited to get started growing their own seeds.  They go out and buy stuff and slap everything together.  Within a few days, they are elated to see their seedlings sprout!

Pretty soon, their plants grow larger and their list of seeds they want to grow continues to expand.  Most of them, at some point, realize their initial setup was insufficient.

That new gardener then goes and spends more on lights, tables and so forth.  This cycle continues at least a couple more times as the plants get larger and larger.  Pretty soon, they’ve spent several hundred dollars on stuff and it’s difficult to maintain it all.

If you take a step back early, you’re going to realize there’s a couple key points you can learn from:

  • You are going to need more space than you originally needed for just seedlings
  • Your initial budget for a system should have been higher than what it was
  • If you think about your system initially, and have an idea of how much space you’ll actually need to cover with lighting, you can make better equipment choices.

I think the biggest thing we’ve learned is that it’s better to buy lighting (and possibly other accessories) based on your total needs, as opposed to your initial needs.

What we mean by that is you need very little space to get seeds to pop.  You need considerably more space to transplant them and grow them until they’re ready to put in the garden.  It’s better to buy things around that final need, as opposed to piecemealing things together haphazardly.

Have A Plan For Your Garden

We are big advocates of planning out your garden space.  It’s a bit of work up front, but it helps you at every other step of the way.

While we have an entire article on the planning aspects gardening, we call it out again here because it’s so important.

We like to use software (specifically, GrowVeg.com) for our planning efforts.  This allows to not only plan out our spaces, but also know exactly how many of each plant we’re going to need for our garden.

Not all gardens will support a subscription service, such as the one we use.  Sometimes the extra cost just isn’t worth it.  The plan could be a simple piece of paper, or a spreadsheet, or even just a Google document.

Every gardener gets excited when they start putting seeds into soil.  We still experience “the rush” when we do it.  It’s very easy to get carried away, our plan is the primary means of defense against getting too carried away.

Having a plan helps us to stick to exactly what we need, with maybe a little extra.  This helps us avoid significant excess, as well as insufficiencies where we’d have to purchase starts to get what we need.

Overall, having the plan reduces mistakes.  Mistakes tend to cost money, or create waste, and we like to minimize those things as much as possible.

Use The Buy Once – Cry Once Mentality

If we could learn anything from our past selves, it’s to invest in good equipment as much as possible.

When you are just dabbling your toes in the water of gardening, it’s probably fine to get away with the cheapest equipment.  If you’re extremely financially burdened, you might have fewer choices.  If, however, you’re at all serious, you will strongly benefit from better gear.

We call this the buy once, cry once mentality.  It applies to more than just gardening.

Basically, if there is a serious value add proposition or better equipment available that will last considerably longer, that’s a perfectly valid reason to spend more money.

For example, if you buy a cheap 1020 tray, they will likely only last a season or two before it needs replacing.  Compare that to a heavy duty tray, though, and it will last for a decade or more.  Sure, they are three times the price, initially.  But, after a few years, you’re basically saving money at that point.

The same is true for indoor garden lighting.  You can buy inexpensive systems, but when you want more light or a bigger footprint, you’re stuck.  You can think in terms of a bunch of cheap lights, or in terms fewer but more expensive (and higher quality) lights.

With gardening, sometimes it’s better to spend a little more up front so you can get the dividends in the long run.

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