Seed Starting in Small Spaces

Seed Starting in Small Spaces

Seed starting in small spaces can help your garden by growing seeds indoors while it's still too cold for them to survive outside. It's a great idea, but can be daunting to the urban homesteader or tiny house dweller. How can we possible grow food and flowers without a greenhouse or at least a large table that can be dedicated to this project?

With some compromises and ingenuity, it's rather simple.  

Step One: Choosing a Seed Starting Location

Seeds only want a few things in their early life: a safe place to grow, water, and warmth. Before they've sprouted, they don't even need light! The hardest part of seed starting in small spaces is figuring out where that safe place is. The kitchen is a classic, and I long used an odd sliver of apartment marketed as the world's tiniest dining room when I lived in Brooklyn. This year, my Asheville apartment only has room for seeds in one place: the bathroom.

If you have a bathroom with shelving, or enough room for a small table, this is a great option. Baby plants love the humidity of a bathroom, and the fact that this room (hopefully) has a door can keep curious pets out of your growing experiments.

Step Two: Select a Seed Starting Structure

Once you've selected the location, pick out the structure on which your seeds will rest. For four years my seedlings lived on dining room chairs. The slatted backs were perfect for attaching work lights (see Step Four), and they were easy to move if we needed the dining room for, well, dining. A utility or bath cart with multiple levels is another great option, though a little harder to light properly. This year, my seeds are living on the top of plastic lug containers. All this is to say that you don't need to find fancy seed trays or seed starting kits that most likely won't fit in your small space anyway! 

Step Three: Choose a Seed Starting Container

With your unique seed starting shelving selected, it's time to decide what to put your seeds into. Small spaces call for another simple solution: cardboard egg cartons. If you eat eggs, these will be easy to come by. Cut off and compost or recycle the tops, and use the egg crate for your plant babies. Each egg space will become one start, and can be filled with a seed starting mixture from Villagers or your local gardening store. If the egg crates aren't your speed, you can use a soil blocker to make little seed starting cubes. If you choose this method, go back to Step Two and make sure that your surface isn't slatted or mesh or something that would promote the disintegration of your blocks and a subsequent mess. Note that seed starting mixture does not actually contain soil! Seeds need a sterile environment as they grow their garden legs to ensure they develop disease-free.

Your seed packet will usually say how deep a particular seed likes to be planted, so follow those instructions. Put several seeds in each egg space, and as they grow you will pull off any that aren't as strong, eventually leaving you with one rockin' seedling in each space. Keep the soil moist and the your egg cartons warm, and at the first sign of green get them under some lights.

Step Four: Make the Sun Rise with Grow Lamps

If your safe seed starting small space has a great window with tons of sun, awesome. But, it very well may not. There are fancy grow lamps and things that are made specifically for seed starting, but I've been successfully using utility clamp lights for years. Any large garden store will have incandescent grow bulbs. Pop them in a clamp light, and you're ready to go. This is why having a shelving setup where you can clamp lights is important. The lamps need to be as close to the seedlings as possible without burning them to prevent overlong stems as they reach futilely for your fake sun. It can be hard to manage that with our jury-rigged setup, so you may want to rotate the egg cartons every day or so in order to evenly distribute the light. 

Step Five: Size Up

The egg cartons are a great place to start, but your seedlings will soon outgrow them. When the time comes to move your seedlings to a second pre-outdoors home, a small plantable container like these cowpots are perfect. They'll stay intact for up to three months indoors, which is longer than you'll need, and can be planted directly into your garden when the time comes. They're also made of manure (but don't smell!), so your baby seedlings will get an extra dose of nutrients as they transition to their outdoor life. Note that you can certainly start in a larger container, but I find that some seeds don't make it to the transplant phase, and I like to minimize my costs and the space that the project takes up by waiting to only repot successful seedlings.

Step Six: Set the Seedlings Free

Once the threat of the last frost has passed (in our area of Asheville, that's usually early April), you can begin to transition your seeds outside. Slowly introduce them to the world but putting them out for an hour or two to start, and moving them between shadow and sun. It can take a week or more for some sensitive plants like tomatoes to be happy outdoors, but it's worth it. You've kept them alive in your bathroom all this time, so don't skimp on the effort now!

Seed starting in small spaces can seem overwhelming, but doesn't have to be. Much of the commercial seed starting equipment is made for larger spaces and greenhouses, but by using what you already have, and putting in some extra effort, you can easily begin a beautiful garden in your tiny home or apartment. 

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