Introduction: DIY Indoor Seed Starting System

Picture of DIY Indoor Seed Starting System
I have for a long time wanted to try my hand at growing something.  I think it's awesome to be able to grow food oneself, instead of buying it from large-scale farms, after it's been processed and shipped thousands of miles.  For this reason, I decided this spring to attempt to grow some crops of my own.  However, in Northeast Ohio, winter lasts too long, and spring comes around too late to plant seeds outside initially.  This system allowed me to start my seeds about mid-February, and keep them inside until the weather wouldn't destroy them.

This Instructable will focus on what I used and built to start my seeds rather than in-depth gardening theory.  This is because this project was my first attempt at growing plants, and I am far from an expert gardener.  This project was done for fun and learning about gardening, while still trying to be able to harvest some produce, in a cost-effective manner.
  1. Choosing What to Grow
  2. Pots and Planting
  3. The Frame
  4. Lighting
  5. Conclusion
5/21/2012: Thanks for the feature!!
6/7/2012:  A sincerest thank you to all who read and voted for this Instructable in the Gardening Challenge!  Second Prize!

Step 1: Choosing What to Grow

Picture of Choosing What to Grow

Since this is my first attempt to grow any plants, I wanted to start simple.  Therefore, I chose to try to grow sunflowers and tomatoes. 

I assumed that sunflowers would be less maintenance than other vegetable plants because they're flowers.  I'm not sure what my logic here was, but that's how I saw it : ).  Also, sunflowers can have their seeds harvested and eaten, so not only do they look nice, but produce food.  The seeds that are harvested can also be used to plant more sunflowers next year.  As for tomatoes, I made another assumption that tomatoes seem to be a popular starting point for gardeners.

I went down to Home Depot and grabbed some seeds.  I got four breeds of sunflowers, and one of tomatoes.  If I could do this project over again, I would have gotten less variety, in an effort to keep things relatively small and simple for my first gardening experience.  The sunflower breeds I bought were: American Giant, Mammoth, Autumn Beauty, and Teddy Bear.  The tomato seeds I bought were Beefsteak Tomatoes.

Step 2: Pots and Planting

Picture of Pots and Planting

The first thing I did was decide what containers I wanted to start my seeds in.  On Instructables you'll see everything, from pop bottles to egg cartons, to bio-degradable options.  I did not have egg cartons or a sufficient amount of pop bottles, so I took a trip to the dollar store, and found small, thin, plastic pots.  I got twelve in a pack for a dollar, and bought six packs. 

I took a trip to the garden store after that, and told the employee there that I needed a bag of dirt.  I bought the MiracleGrow stuff in the picture below.  It occurred to me later that actual seed-starting soil/pellets are sold, and could have been better for this step.  However, the soil I bought worked fine as well.

I then set up in my garage, planting seeds of each variety, making sure to keep everything organized by species.  I ended up with 70 plants, and used that number to help decide how large of a frame to build to hold all of the small pots.  I wanted to have a fairly high number of plants to account for seeds that may not work, and plants that die early.

Step 3: The Frame

Picture of The Frame

Now that I had 70 little pots sitting on the floor of my garage, I needed a place to move them so that they would be able to receive sunlight and grow.  Living in suburban America, this can be a challenge, so I built a frame to hold all of the plants to help keep them organized.

The frame was built using 1/8" thick plywood, salvaged from a wooden pallet I found a long time ago.  It is held together using hot glue.  I wasn't particularly worried about the strength of the frame, since it would only be sitting inside.  The pieces were cut using a jig saw, using measurements from the small pots as a guide, to allow for ten columns of seven plants each.  Two columns would be used for each species.  The pots hang slightly about the floor, balanced between the two pieces of wood on each side.  Newspaper is placed underneath the frame to catch and absorb any excess water.

Step 4: Lighting

Picture of Lighting

Based on countless random sources online, I knew that the light from the largest windows in my house probably wouldn't be sufficient for my seedlings.  Also, on cloudy days, I couldn't have the young plants receive no light all day.  Grow lights are the solution to this problem.

The stand is made up of two-by-fours that I had left over from another project.  They are cut and nailed together into a T-shape, and a notch was cut into the top using a jig saw and oscillating cutting tool.  A large aluminum pipe that I've had laying around for a long time was cut to fit between the two T-shapes.  I bought two light bulb sockets used for lamps and compact-fluorescent flood lights from Home Depot.  The flood lights I chose seemed to have the best lumen-per-dollar ratio of the compact florescents that I looked at.  The sockets I chose to have a twisting switch built in, so that the lights could be easily turned off.   The sockets were attached to the aluminum pipe using small pieces on bendable steel and screws to create a sort of bracket.  Both the steel and screws were taken from some sort of appliance a long time ago.  The bulbs were wired in parallel, using a long wire salvaged from a vacuum cleaner.

My only costs here were the light bulb sockets and the bulbs, which came to less than $15 USD.

Step 5: Conclusion

Picture of Conclusion

After the set-up is complete, the only thing left to do is water the plants regularly, and wait for them to grow!

Thanks for reading!  I like comments, so if you would like to leave one, don't be shy!  They help keep me motivated to keep posting Instructables.  Also if you wanted to rate this Instructable and follow me, that would be awesome too. : )

If you really like this Instructable, it is entered into the Gardening Challenge contest, and I would really appreciate a vote.

Thanks again, and good luck gardening!


Nates568 (author)2015-02-01

Could you grow weed with this just a hypothetical question?d

sguerra3 (author)Nates5682015-07-28

I hope so, I can't imagine those seeds are any different from a tomato seed, except the fruit is sweeter

cabbageman (author)2013-12-27

a grate gide for growing sunflowers ^

Wyzard0001 (author)2013-05-08

Be creative in looking at everyday objects. I try to re-use whenever possible. Some of my favorite pots for my seedlings are Venti cups from Starb..., 1/2 gallon ice cream cartons, and extra large soda cups. I have 18" x 4' x 4' raised beds, all built with donated scrap lumber. With a keen eye and a little luck, the possibilities are endless. I hope you are still gardening...

fozzy13 (author)Wyzard00012013-05-10

Unfortunately the gardening didn't happen this year, even though I managed to harvest seeds from all of my sunflowers last year with the intent to plant them this year.. Being away at college interfered, as I wasn't able to start my seeds early like last year..

azharz (author)2012-11-27

Nice Idea and Congratulations for projcet of the day.

fozzy13 (author)azharz2012-11-29

Thank you!! It's my first project of the day. I'm so happy : )

Beergnome (author)2012-05-24

I don't really care for the seed starter pellet thingies.
the seed starter soil to a certain degree, but, Best results Ive ever had starting seeds is using a 5-5-0 manure.compost blend.
I good commercial brand is called "Black Cow" composted cow poop with other organic compost mixed in.. no, it's past the point of stinking so don't worry about that. lots of nutrients.

the miracle grow dirt you got there is potting soil and its best used for already established house plants. overall, it has a lot of nitrogen in it. and not much of anything else.

the lights, just because they are bright, dont mean they are right, as said earlier, a full spectrum bulb, just get a "grow light" type of bulb and the plants will be much happier. general purpose CFL's just don't cut it.

where will the seedlings be going once planted?

sunflowers and tomatoes both demand full sun, Tomatoes really really want a good composted soil to grow in. An old country trick is for when you are digging your planting hole is to drop a chunck of cow patty in the hole before planting.. I can attest that this works VERY well, but admidt that in our modern times, cow patty is hard to come by. once again, back to the Black cow gardening dirt.

fozzy13 (author)Beergnome2012-05-24

Hi there!
Next year around I'll definitely have to look some better soils to plant in then.
Most of the sources I looked at suggested CFL's as an alternative to expensive High-Pressure Sodium bulbs, and that the CFL's would suffice, but there's undoubtedly better out there.
The tomatoes have been going into hanging pop bottle planters, and the sunflowers into bigger pots.
Haha.. No cow patty in Suburbia : )

Thanks for the comment!! : )

ortsa (author)fozzy132012-07-19

CFL bulbs would be a big improvement since seedlings are so sensitive to high temperatures. Also don't put any sort of manure near seedlings the salts, heavy metals and ammonia are very detrimental to germination rate and root development.

Beergnome (author)ortsa2012-07-19

to a point I guess, depends on the type of poop you are using I would reckon. compost made from deep bedded straw from a chicken coop would be fine, composted cow manure like I recommended up there would be fine as well.. I certainly wouldn't start a seed in the middle of a straight up cow patty. though I have composted my beds using Elephant poo from the Circus.

High pressure sodium bulbs are good if you have an extensive indoor hydroponic grow operation dealing with mature plants. live in California, and have a doctors prescription. otherwise CFL GROW lamps or regular incandescent grow lamps are just fine.. in fact, I would dare say the incandescent are a better choice BECAUSE of the heat the produce.

if you are doing the mini green house thing, the light bulb's heat is going ramp up the humidity in the enclosure and spur germination, I wouldn't move to a CFL until you are trying to harden the seedlings for transplant.

Wrecksness (author)Beergnome2012-07-01

Now wouldn't an online Cow Patty store be a great idea for people that don't normally have access to such items?
A good side business. What's the overhead? Nothing! Lots of heavy plastic bags.

TheBlackSharpie (author)2012-05-22

I always thought sunflowers were best planted directly into the ground. Some plants do not like to be transplanted.

ac-dc (author)TheBlackSharpie2012-05-24

The biggest issue I have found with transplanting anything is if the pots they are growing in do not release the soil easily, so it takes a lot of pulling, stress on the stem and ripping of the roots to get the plant out.

Otherwise, try not to do it in the heat of the day, a cool evening when the temperature will be only moderate not hot for the next few days (and no strong wind or rain forecasted) would be best.

Wrecksness (author)ac-dc2012-07-01

Here's a couple of tricks I use.
1. Line the inside of the pot with aluminum foil (with drain holes of course).
It comes out cleanly and easily. All you have to do is pull the foil away from the soil and its ready to go.
2. Cut a circle of plastic screening to fit the bottom the pot. Using a washer and small screw, attach it to a wooden dowel a couple of inches higher than the pot. Then, just lift the whole thing out by the dowel.
Both are very inexpensive.
What do you think?

aaahotdog (author)Wrecksness2012-07-08

A member of our church congregation gave away extra plants from his greenhouse this year by leaving boxes of them by the entry. The plants were started from seed in ziplock sandwich size bags. The bags were filled with miracle grow and the seeds took off like magic. The bags allowed enough air in the sides so no drainage holes were needed. At transplant, I just tore the bag down the side and put the contents into a small hole in the garden. Gonna do that next year rather than the peat pellets I use.

fozzy13 (author)ac-dc2012-05-24

Thankfully, I haven't had too many issues with the soil not releasing so far, but I will be trying to transplant some later today.

Thanks for the comment! : )

ac-dc (author)TheBlackSharpie2012-05-24

The biggest issue I have found with transplanting anything is if the pots they are growing in do not release the soil easily, so it takes a lot of pulling, stress on the stem and ripping of the roots to get the plant out.

Otherwise, try not to do it in the heat of the day, a cool evening when the temperature will be only moderate not hot for the next few days (and no strong wind or rain forecasted) would be best.

fozzy13 (author)TheBlackSharpie2012-05-22

That's entirely possible! I'm not a pro gardener, but so far I haven't had any problems moving my sunflowers to different pots. I've had way more problems dealing with weather and such, but not transplanting.

Thanks for commenting! : )

reelfurbe (author)2012-05-26

HI been doing this for a couple seasons , still learning.
I had room for a 4x8 piece of plywood, put some 2x4s on it and put plastic in to keep it water tight, i use Metal Halide Light to start, when plants have 2 or 3 sets of leaves showing then switch to high pressure sodium light, and have a oscillating fan going, it really helps, all on a timer !
when they get 4 or 5 inches tall i put them in plastic cups with several holes in the sides for water, once a week i add 10 gallons of water, which i have in buckets at least for a day to vent the chlorine out , the fan keeps the mold issues at bay and strengthens the plant to and i add a organic fertilizer once a month or so !
This is a good starting point and when then get 6" or so i move them out to my front porch enclosed to adjust !
This works well so far for me, am in syracuse ny so weather is a issue here to !
This is a basic starting point for me have had good results so far !
I would like to start the hydroponic thing with this to a small pump to keep the water moving, but have some concerns about fertilizer/food and putting them out side in soil, can they convert to soil will find out on that !
Thank u for doing this it helps us all, we all need to update r skill level especially in these times, seems to be a lost art growing ur own food !!
Good luck in ur planting and please pass along ur results and everyone else please its all good for us !!!

Thank You !!

fozzy13 (author)reelfurbe2012-05-27

Hi there!
That sounds great! It seems like you have a good system going, and it's similar to what I've been making up as I go along : )
Thanks for commenting!! : )

hehinckley (author)2012-05-24

Very nice work! I will tell you what I do, which would help, I think, with your lighting. I bought a 4' shop light. Then I bought 2 full-spectrum light bulbs for it. I bought them at K-Mart, but they are quite reasonably priced. It is important to have the fulll-spectrum plant growing bulbs, to duplicate the sun as much as possible. We have a third bathroom which no one uses, so I hung the shop light from the towel bar, so the light was close to the emerging plants. Keep them in the dark and covered with a clear plastic, like saran wrap, until the plants emerge. Then put them under the light, with the bulbs close to the plants. This year, finally, I bought a non-digital plug-in timer, so I wouldn't have to turn the light on each morning and turn it off at night when I went to bed. I should have done that years ago!
I started the plants in small styrofoam cups with potting soil. I set all these cups in a plastic tray. As the plants grow, I raise the light. Here in Montana, I start our tomatoes, peppers, etc in mid-March. Sometime in mid-April I have to transplant them to larger containers. I use the 4' plastic square containers that I have accumulated over the years from buying potted plants.
When it gets to mid-late May, I bring the two trays (used to be 1 tray until I re-potted them) and set them on the back deck during the day time where they can still have some protection from the wind, but get the morning sun. Then I bring them in at night. I continue this for 2-3 days before I start leaving them out at night (watching the weather forecast). They will stay out for 2-3 nights before I finally will transplant them into the garden.
Hope this helps you! I am impressed that someone as young as yourself has an interest in growing plants! Congratulations to you and your project!

fozzy13 (author)hehinckley2012-05-24

Hi! Thanks for all the tips!
I thought about covering the seeds with plastic wrap, as I had seen online a few times, but then wasn't entirely sure why it was necessary.

Thank you for your kind words, and commenting! : )

Beergnome (author)fozzy132012-05-25

It is to create a high humidity environment to help spur germination. think of it as a green house, because... well, it is. ;)

as for removing the plants from the starter pots?

invert the pot in your hand with the stem coming out from between your fingers and just give a gentle tap to the bottom of the pot, should release with no problem.

fozzy13 (author)Beergnome2012-05-26

Ah that makes sense..

Thank you! : )

luky luke (author)2012-05-24

best yet is to plant the seed of any kind in those species that look like small circles of glass wool is biodegradable and not moving from seed to make, just break a few small roots and it's damn for his growing, I will follow you, I voted also, i like gardening flowers are beautiful Sunflower according to their variety, in France where I live is not the top either outdoors and summer comes late, I put out in early July.
Bye guys, good luck for your Sunflower and your tomatoes, I'm waiting for mine too.

fozzy13 (author)luky luke2012-05-24

I didn't know I could start seeds in glass wool, thanks! I really appreciate you taking the time to comment and vote!
Good luck with your plants as well!

rockpainter (author)fozzy132012-05-24

What is glass wool? If you mean fibreglass that would not be a good idea..........

Beergnome (author)rockpainter2012-05-24

he probably means rock wool, and that is often used in hydroponics.

rockpainter (author)Beergnome2012-05-25

Still doesn't tell me what it is........

Beergnome (author)rockpainter2012-05-25

rockpainter (author)Beergnome2012-05-25

Thank you for sending the link!

faelenor (author)2012-05-24

I'm pretty sure your lights are insufficient. The problem I always had with indoor started plants is insufficient light.

This year, I bought a dual 32w daylight neon tube fixture and even that was not enough! The plants grow with a lighter green shade and burn in the sun when transplanted outside. You have to gradually expose them to the sun before transplanting them to avoid it. As I'm working during the day, I couldn't do it and I lost everything again...

Next year, I'll build a cold frame and it should solve my problems! I hope you'll still have success with your plants!

fozzy13 (author)faelenor2012-05-24

Hi there : )

It's very possible that my lights are insufficient. However, they are not the only light source. The rig is positioned near the biggest windows in my house to allow some sunlight to reach the plants.
I haven't had any issues with the plants not tolerating the sun, but the wind is a different story. I had a lot of plants get broken at the stems from the strength of the wind, and I often had to bring some plants in at night once I started putting them outside to try to prevent this.

Good luck next year! Thanks for commenting! : )

evil_jweller (author)fozzy132012-05-25

What I typically do when I first transplant, is save a clear plastic jug from juice, cut the bottom off of it, throw away the lid and then put it over the plant like a miniature green house. It seems to work pretty well for me.

ac-dc (author)fozzy132012-05-24

Last year we had very strong wind so I share your concerns about wind damage.

However wind damage is related to light. The more light they get, the less leggy they get, growing shorter thicker stems that are a lot more wind resistant. While still inside you can point a fan to blow not directly on them but to the side which helps cause thicker stem growth too, but it also greatly increases the watering frequency so if you are away for a few hours you may not want the fan blowing during that period.

Don't leave them outside at night in the little containers you're using, they can harden outside for a few hours a day when wind isn't bad then leave them outside after they are transferred to their final pot or the ground. By then they should be at least (roughly, depends on plant type) 3" tall.

Put a stake next to the plant soon after transplanting so there are no roots to disturb where the stake is placed, even if it is not tall enough to need one yet. Once the plant is tall enough that wind might damage it, tie it to the stake. Place the stake on the side of the plant where the wind usually comes from, though you may need to observe this outside rather than relying on weather forecasts because local obstructions like buildings or fences can change wind direction.

fozzy13 (author)ac-dc2012-05-24

Thanks for the tips! I do see what you mean by the thin stems reflecting the lack of light. Most of my plants' stems are pretty thin, and I have been trying to use stakes to help with that.

Thanks for commenting!! : )

davIRE (author)faelenor2012-05-25

the lights may or may not be insufficient, but a big part of greenhouse growing, or in this case indoor growing, is the median step of transporting to a shadehouse before transplanting.

bt shadehouse i mean a greenhouse type deal made of shadecloth. this, as you were getting at, acclimatises the plants to both wind/temperature and sun, so by the time you get to planting them in direct sunlight/outdoor-elements, they're hopefully a little more hardy, vegetated and the stems have become a little more wooded

faelenor (author)davIRE2012-05-25

Thanks for sharing this idea! I'll try this next year.

luky luke (author)2012-05-25

Yes it is exactly that of rock wool, my system is hydroponics, homemade, I'm satisfied, at least those are the vegetables that I grown I eat, it is not dealt with all kinds of products, except Fertilizers for the boost a little, outside there will not need it, when lighting, they now sell all sorts of brilliant Led lights.
Bye my Friends, and Good Culture of your vegetables

gulliverrr (author)2012-05-25

Hi! I read your post because I want to start a windowfarm (hydroponic technique) so the soil part at the end probably wont do for me. How long did they take to start poping? There are probably much more posts here about seed growing for hydroponics but as this is a fresh idea for me I havent studied enough yet :)
Either way well done for your great work and detailed instructable!

sitearm (author)2012-05-24

@fozzy13; Hi! I've tweeted your article and sent it to my 85-year-old father-in-law to assure him the knowledge passes forward. Great job! : ) Site

fozzy13 (author)sitearm2012-05-24

And thank you!

Thanks for commenting!! : )

Tuhua Tarakona (author)2012-05-24

Nice work, fozzy13! I've *seen* some clever ideas of things you can use instead of plastic/styrofoam pots that would enable you to plant straight into the ground. That, by far, is the best route because then you are not disturbing the roots at all, and what the plant is currently in becomes food, too.

A couple of the ideas I've seen are using eggshells - very clever. The picture I've seen (haven't tried this one yet myself tho plan to) is that you tap off just the top part of the egg...use the egg (of course...that's a duh factor there) and then add your potting soil to the large egg shell and plant a seed.

The other idea that I actually have tried is folding newspaper into mini-pot-squares, adding potting soil and planting the seed.

As the seedlings grow and it gets to the point of transplanting....merely dig your hole and put the hole thing (newspaper pot or eggshell) into the hole. Voila - done. I like the idea of the eggshell especially, because it adds calcium to the soil which benefits the plant, too.

I like this idea - wish my home were larger to even try a seed tray. Will have to work on it (priorities..I know!
) and get rid of the procrastination (my worst enemy). Keep it up - you'll be teaching everyone new things before you know it!! :^D step......learning how to save your seeds from non-hybrid (good) seeds and plant year to year. ;^)

fozzy13 (author)Tuhua Tarakona2012-05-24

I actually had both of those ideas! I didn't want anything bad to happen to the plants due to the ink from the newspaper though.

Thanks for commenting!! : )

doomsayer_md (author)2012-05-24

instead of using newspaper to catch the water i would recommend another trip to the dollar store to check out the kitchen section for some cheap trays. there would be a lot less mess...

fozzy13 (author)doomsayer_md2012-05-24

Hi there!
I did consider doing just that. However, I would likely have to raise the frame I had build to allow the trays to slide underneath, which I didn't want to do out of both laziness and unwillingness to spend money. Maybe next year I'll raise it and get some trays!

Thanks for commenting!! : )

doomsayer_md (author)2012-05-24

instead of using newspaper to catch the water i would recommend another trip to the dollar store to check out the kitchen section for some cheap trays. there would be a lot less mess...

About This Instructable




Bio: I am currently a mechanical engineering student at the University of Toledo, and the founder of the University of Toledo Maker Society. I have a ... More »
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