If you’re starting your garden veggies like tomatoes and peppers from seed this year, you’ll need some basic equipment. Here are the different essentials that will help you have a successful seed starting adventure and make it easier to manage.
Trays and Planting Cells
Flat trays fit a variety of different types of cell inserts, make it easier to organize your seedlings, and move them when needed. The trays are quite sturdy, but once they’re full, they may flex a bit. You can add a web tray to the bottom to give them a bit more strength when you’re moving them. These trays also make watering a little simpler since they’ll catch any excess water. It’s handy to have quite a few of these trays to easily move and organize your seedlings.
There are plenty of different kinds of growing cells that you can use in standard trays. Growing cells are one of those essentials that make growing from seed much easier. Most growing cells are made of thin plastic, with 2-3 drainage slots in the bottom of each cell.
You can get sets of cells that are four-packs, six-packs, or single larger rectangular cells. The rectangular cells are nice for starting small seeds in. Once the seedlings get a little larger, you can quite easily tease them out of the group and transplant them into their own growing cell.
If you want to start individual seeds, you may want to consider a plug tray. These come in varying sizes, from 72 cells in a tray up to 512. For the average gardener, the 128 or 72 cell trays are usually perfect. Plug trays are typically different dimensions than standard flat trays, so they won’t necessarily fit into a standard greenhouse flat tray, so you may need to find a different solution for catching excess water runoff.
Humidity domes are one of the essentials for the early days of starting seeds. Seedlings can dry out and die quite quickly when they’re tiny, so humidity trays will help keep in the moisture they need to grow stronger.
Humidity domes come in different heights, from 2 inches all the way up to 12 inches. Generally, the 2-inch tall ones are more than enough for starting garden seeds. Once your plants are an inch or two tall, it’s usually best to keep your domes off, so plants can start toughening up and getting used to air movement.
Too high of humidity can also cause damping-off, which you don’t want. Once damping-off starts in a tray, it’s almost certain you’ll lose the entire tray of seedlings. Good air circulation is essential for preventing damping-off.
Seedling Heat Mats
Heat mats can be convenient since many of the seeds that people start ahead like to germinate in warm soil. Heat mats may also improve germination rates and help some plants grow a little faster since they keep the root zone at optimum growing temperatures.
You can get heat mats in a variety of sizes, ranging from a single tray size to ones that are long enough for a whole table of trays. Check your seed packets for growing temperature info before you put trays on the heat mats. Not all seedlings necessarily want or need warm soil.
Grow lights are one of the most critical essentials to starting vigorous vegetable seedlings for your garden. A sunny windowsill might seem ideal, but windows cut the sun’s power a lot, and the days are relatively short when gardeners are starting their seeds.
At the bare minimum, you should have at least one 2-foot long grow light per tray, but two bulbs per tray are better. With just one bulb, you’ll still notice some plants stretching and getting spindly.
Ideally, when you’re starting your seeds, the bulbs should be hung so they’re just slightly higher than the top of your humidity domes. The lights need to be very close to the plants to help them grow compact and strong. Mounting your lights so the height is adjustable will give you the best results as you’ll be able to keep moving them up a little at a time as the plants grow.
When it comes to choosing to grow lights, it’s important to think about how many plants you’ll start. If you’re only going to have one tray with a couple of tomatoes, peppers, and maybe some herbs, then 2-foot lights are probably enough. But if you think you’re going to want to grow more from seed in future years, then it is a good idea to invest in longer bulbs and fixtures.
There are plenty of options for grow lights now, from LED to the standard fluorescent. Lots of growers still use fluorescent bulbs, and they work well. But, LEDs are more energy-efficient, and they don’t heat up as much.
Lights with built-in timers make life super easy, but you can also easily add a timer to any grow lights. Timers on your lights are one of those essentials that you might think you can do without, but once you get one, you’ll wonder why you waited so long!
If you’re interested in starting your Iowa garden from seed this year, we’ve got everything you’ll need at the garden center. Stop by, and we can help set you up with all your garden starting essentials.
The best part is that your seed starting equipment will last you for years and years. If you store your lights carefully and clean and sterilize your trays and cells, you won’t need to replace any of them for a long time yet.