Sunday, March 9, 2014

The DD's Comprehensive Guide to Saving Money by Growing Your Own Food, Part V: Starting Your Own Transplants

In the previous part of this guide, I wrote that I was going to have the next part of the series dealing with planting your seeds out in the garden, spacing and outdoor germination tips.  Although it's definitely within the realm of possibility for some people to go ahead and plant seeds outdoors, I wanted to talk about starting transplants first, for people who are more adventurous and want a greater variety of plants in their garden.  If you would rather not deal with the obstacles of indoor plant growing, feel free to skip this section for now.  Come back when--not if--you are feeling confident enough to start growing your own transplants.  Trust me, you'll eventually want to.

Why should you start your own transplants in pots?  Well, it depends on what you expect to grow and where you are located.  For some people, growing transplants may not be the best option.  For example, if you live in a tropical or sub-tropical climate area, you may be able to sow seeds outdoors pretty much year round.  Starting transplants may be more of a hassle than it's worth for you.  On the other hand, if you live farther north, where the ground doesn't even thaw out until May, starting transplants may be your only option to ensure a harvest in such a short growing season.  And to further complicate matters, some plants don't like to be transplanted in any growing conditions.  You must take all these factors into account before starting transplants, especially if you are thinking about purchasing indoor lighting to grow them.

Starting Your Own Transplants, the Frugal Way

To start your own transplants from seed, you will require a few things.  The first (and probably easiest) requirement is a source of water.  Secondly, you will need a container to hold the medium and the plant once it starts growing.  You will also need the soil, or medium, used to germinate the seeds.  Finally, and arguably most important, you will need a source of light.  Let's go through each requirement one by one.


If you have running water in your home, or a well or stream on your property, you've already got the water aspect taken care of.  If not, perhaps you can use a small tupperware container or a bucket to collect rainwater.  In any case, make sure you have this essential resource available at all times.  Your transplants will suffer, if not die, without this very basic requirement.


Finding a container to use to grow plants sounds more expensive than it really needs to be.  You don't really need a fancy pot to grow transplants.  In fact, you don't need a pot at all.  Many common household "trash" items can be re-purposed into containers for your seedlings.  Take toiler paper rolls, for instance.  Instead of just throwing them out, cut a few slits in the bottom of the roll, fold the slits over one another and add soil.  You now have a seed starting container!  Here's a guide to show you exactly what to do.

It's just as easy to do this will other materials as well.  Old soda bottles, cereal boxes, plastic food containers and many other things can be made into a plant potter.  Just make sure your container has the ability to drain water well.  Poke holes in the bottom of your container to allow excess water to drain out.

Potting Medium

Remember my article about seeds, soil and tools?  If you haven't, take a minute to look over it, and then head down to your local Dollar Tree store and pick up a few bags of $1 potting soil.  You can even "create" a better potting soil by using a five gallon bucket, filling it about 1/3 of the way to the top with home made compost, and dumping a bag of the Dollar Tree soil in there, too.  Mix it all together, and you will have an excellent potting soil that will keep your transplants well fed all the way up to the point where you plant them in the garden outside.  No additional fertilizers needed.

Don't be tempted to use the soil in your yard for your transplants.  It will likely compact very badly, making it hard for the plant's roots to grow, as well as making the soil difficult to wet.  There's a high possibility it will contain seeds from unwanted plants as well.  Just spend the $1 on a bag of potting soil and mix it with compost.  You'll thank yourself later.


Lighting is the one area where it is difficult to be extremely frugal, but one good thing about lighting is you should only have to buy equipment one time and it will typically last many, many seasons of growing.  Depending on your specific conditions, however, you may not even need additional light.  Let's look at some of the options.

The most basic (and cheapest) of all options is to use natural sunlight that comes in through a window.  It's available to anyone at any time of the year, and plants prefer sunlight to artificial light.  However, growing transplants indoors with only sunlight can be tricky.  You'll want to use a south-facing window if at all possible, as more of the light from the sun will be shining through these windows than any others in the house.  The size of the window will determine how many plants you can start in a given area.  Extremely small windows may not even support one plant without the plant getting leggy.  Huge windows may be capable of growing gigantic plants.  It really all depends on the amount of sun that is able to shine through the glass.  Almost everyone will benefit from having additional sources of lighting, however.  You may also need a stand to place next to the window, for the plant to reach the sunlight.  My wife bought me a very simple indoor greenhouse last year, which is what I use, but any flat piece of furniture should work.

For about $10, you can purchase a 30-watt CFL bulb, like this one from Home Depot , that will fit into any standard light socket.  This combined with the sunlight from a south-facing window will keep your plants from getting too leggy, as well as helping the plant grow a bit faster.  Keep in mind that you will need a lamp to hold the light over the plant pots, if you don't already have one.  This will drive up the cost a bit more.  Again, you will need some way to hold the plant and the lamp up to the window so the plant can reach the sunlight.
CFLs can help grow plants

If you don't have a south-facing window, you may want to invest in a fluorescent light strip to grow your transplants.  This will be quite a bit more expensive, with prices starting around $30 for a simple 4-ft fluorescent light strip and two bulbs.  However, going this route will allow you space to start a lot more transplants without needing the sun's light for assistance.  You will need to find a way to hang the lights above the plants, though.  A bit of nylon string hung from the ceiling should do the trick.

There are other lighting options that are even "better" at growing plants indoors, but they also cost much more and are not necessary for our purposes.  Remember, we are simply trying to grow seedlings to put outside once the weather is appropriate for them.  We're not trying to grow plants entirely indoors, which is what more powerful lighting setups are generally used for.

The great thing about purchasing lights to grow plant starts is that it is a one time cost.  You will only have to spend money initially and then you have the light strip for life.  You can keep using it each year to start your seedlings, allowing you to save money on transplants.  Bulbs will need to be replace eventually, but you will have long since recouped your money based on the worth of the food you grew.

Get Growing

Once you have all the items you need, it's time to start growing your plants.  It's quite simple, really.  Take your potting soil/compost mix and fill up your selected container with it up to about a half inch from the top.  Sprinkle whatever kind of seeds you are trying to grow onto the soil, and use a little bit more soil to cover them up.  How much soil you put on top will depend on what you're trying to grow; refer to the seed packet for planting depth.  Finally, water the pot thoroughly and set it under whatever light source you are using.  At this point, just keep the soil moist if possible, and wait for the seeds to germinate.

Once You See Sprouts...

There are a few things you can do to improve the survival of your newly sprouted seedlings.  First, make sure not to over water the sprout.  The tender root of a seedling is easily drowned by too much water.  Thin out the seedlings until you are left with only one or two of the largest sprouts in each pot.  If you are using fluorescent lights, keep the sprouts about 1" away from the lights to prevent them from stretching.  To help the sprouts become tough enough to handle an outdoor environment, use a fan to lightly blow air over each pot.  This will help thicken each sprout's stem and increase the airflow around the plants, reducing the chance of a moisture-related disease killing the young seedlings.  If you don't have a fan, gently blowing on your plants a few times a day will produce similar results.  Keep the ambient air around the sprouts moderate.  Too hot, and the plants will start trying to grow faster and stretch, which we don't want.  Being too cold will result in low germination rates and extremely slow growth.  A good range is 65-75 degrees F.

Once your plant reaches this stage, it's ready to be planted outdoors
With a little care, your seedlings will become well established and grow bigger each day.  Once your seedlings have three to four sets of "true" leaves (the first set of leaves are known as "cotyledons," every set after that are considered the "true" leaves of the plant), it will no longer need to be coddled, and it might be big enough to move into bigger pot.  After a few weeks, it will be strong enough to be hardened off outdoors and eventually planted in its final destination.  More on that in a later article.

Final Thoughts

Growing transplants indoors is one of the most difficult tasks when following this guide, but it will be well worth the effort.  Growing your transplants from seed is not only more economical, but it will give you a wider range of plant varieties to choose from.  There's also nothing quite like the feeling of knowing that you helped bring something in this world to life, and grew a (relatively) gigantic plant out of something as tiny as a seed.  It's one of the most rewarding feelings I have had in life, and it's hard to put a price on that.

Total Costs So Far

The cost of growing your own food so far:
  • $0.00 for home-made compost
  • $0.25 for seed packets
  • $1.00 for potting soil
  • $1.00 for hand tools
  • $5.00 for perennial plant starts
  • $0.00 - $30.00 for lights, depending on if you need/want to start transplants
My total costs for this year: $23.54 (for vegetable seed/flower packets, potting soil)

Click here to read Part VI: Planting Your Seeds and Transplants

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