Introduction: Inexpensive Seed Starter

Picture of Inexpensive Seed Starter

Over the past few years the family has started seeds for our garden. We have tried a few different enclosures from store bought, to floating the starting tray in our fish tank. (it works if you don't sink the tray with the filter)  The biggest hurdles were light and temperature. Our house has a programmable thermostat and in front of the door wall is the sunniest but not the warmest.

So last year after killing off the first set of seeds, I made a seed starting box, with lights, air flow, and heat (from the lights). The plants thrived.

Here is how its made...

Step 1: Materials

Picture of Materials

1 Sterlite clear plastic container.
3 temporary bulb holders (home depot rubber coated) UPC # 0 78477 83939 1
3 CFL 13w light bulbs (do not use other types the heat would create a dangerous situation)
2 wire nuts
1 cord end (I got this one off a dead microwave) a short extension cord work well also
3 band ties
emergency blanket
double sided tape
piece of bubble wrap the size of the bottom of the container

hole saw (the size of the bulb holders) 1 1/2"
Wire strippers

Step 2: Drill Light Holder Holes

Picture of Drill Light Holder Holes

Lets get started

A few words of caution:

If you are not comfortable with electrical wiring, please consult an electrician. You use this instructable at your own risk. Wiring lights is not difficult however if done wrong can be dangerous. Using standard incandescent / or halogen light bulbs will over heat the starter and could be dangerous

Chuck in your hole saw (1 1/2") in the drill and drill 3 holes in the lid of the bin. The holes have to be close enough together that the wire ends of the sockets touch with enough slack to connect the cord.

Step 3: Install the Lights and Wire

Picture of Install the Lights and Wire

Once the holes are drilled you can install the light holders socket facing the inside (photo 1) and place a band tie around the light to stop it from falling back in the hole (photo 2)

(Legal notice : IF you take on this project you do so at your own risk. Exposed wire can cause injury. IF you are not comfortable with electrical wiring please consult an electrician. Do not put tension on the electrical cord as wire nuts are not designed to take a strain load)

(Photo 3) Wire, use red wire nuts  to wire all the white together, then wire all the black together. Since the holders don't have a ground it will just hang free.

Wrapping these connections with electrical tape will give a bit of added protection if a nut comes loose or a wire is exposed.

Step 4: Wiring Explained

Picture of Wiring Explained

Well at least for this project..

There are notes on each picture.

Cut off the female end of the cord.
Strip back the insulation 6". This will reveal 3 wires (assuming you used a cord with a ground) black, white, and green.
Strip back 1" of insulation from the black and white wires for the cord.
Strip back 1" of insulation from the temporary bulb holder black and white wires.
Twist all the black together.
Twist all the white together.
Trim back the copper wire to 1/2 to 3/4".
Twist on a wire nut clockwise to each set of wire.

Step 5: Line the Bin

Picture of Line the Bin

Adding reflective foil to the bin helps the plants use all the light produced by the bulbs and light up your house at night. Cut a strip of foil the height of the bin and wrap it inside and cut to length.

Keep the foil in place by using double sided tape between the foil and the bin.

Cut a piece of bubble wrap the size of the bottom and place bumpy side up. This will provide a drain if you over water and insulate against a cold floor.

Step 6: Punch 4 Vent Holes in the Bin

Picture of Punch 4 Vent Holes in the Bin

To keep airflow I added 4 holes in the bottom of the bin. 2 at the bottom of each end. This allowed me to control the amount of heat the bin retained. Crack the top and the heat rising out of the bin crates a vacuum pulling fresh air in the bottom.

Use the same hole saw used on the lid for the lights, leave the reflective material in place and cut slits up either side to create a flap. You can close the flap if you want more or less airflow.

Step 7: Add Light Bulbs and Pots

Picture of Add Light Bulbs and Pots

I used 60 watt florescent bulbs. It seemed to give enough light and not cook the plants. When the plants got large I raised the lid with yoga blocks and added larger bulbs.

I close the lid until the plant got around 2 inches tall. Keep an eye on the moisture. They need to stay damp when sprouting, If they are too wet when growing they may form mold. Use starter soil and clean all your pots from last year.

This project should be plugged into a GFI protected circuit.

Enjoy your garden, and good luck.


buck2217 (author)2015-07-01

Great Idea

seleniebeanie67 (author)2015-03-08

Cool! I'm trying this! Right now there's 6' - 8' of snow outside -I'm thinking growing season is going to be a bit delayed this year :D

ckanazik (author)2015-03-04

Very cool!

Akin Yildiz (author)2014-07-09

you have to check this out sir... the life seeder .!

elephantwalker (author)2013-07-24

Rather than use foil to reflect light I have read that flat white paint actually reflects more light. I use sticks to anything , as listed on label , and it works fine . Spray for plastic if you can get it in flat would make short work. Foil may be quick and cheapest.. Look for lights in daylight range up in 5700-6500 K temp range(blue) as listed on package.

junewhosews (author)2013-04-28

From What I have read the lumens are about the same, it is the wave length that makes a difference between florescent and incandescent for plants. Anyway why so many nit pickers on this pretty straight forward project?

AtlantaTerry (author)2013-04-21

Why not cover the bottom side of the lid with aluminum foil? The blue plastic is not going to reflect much light.

I would be worried about the very delicate CFL bulbs breaking. Then when one does your seedlings will be contaminated with mercury and you will have to dispose everything. Instead, why not use strings of LED lights (sometimes called Rope Lights). Or strings of white LED lights sold at Christmas time. Yes, a LED puts out less light, but I wonder if the total quantity of the LED lights will add up to be enough illumination. Also they are not as hot so cooling is less of an issue.

This past winter I I put a heating pad under my large tub. I did not have any cooling holes. An inexpensive thermometer I had inside indicated a temperature over 85*F.

Atop the very warm tub I placed several clear $1.25 Home Depot "shoebox" containers that held my small starter pots. Inside the temperature of them was 75*F.

lidsdad (author)AtlantaTerry2013-04-23

Good idea on the double tubs. I thought about the foil, I just didn't want any conductive material on the lid.

My starter 2 years ago was an off the shelf small dome that I floated on the top of my fish tank and lifted the light. The water heater kept the tank at 75 and the added moisture keep watering down. Worked great till it migrated under the filter spillway...

AtlantaTerry (author)2013-04-21

You wrote, "Wrapping these connections with tape will give a bit of added protection".

You should have said, "electrical tape" to prevent someone from using celophane (Scotch) tape, duct tape, masking tape, whatever.

lidsdad (author)AtlantaTerry2013-04-23

Good point, I updated it on step 3.

buteman (author)2013-04-22

In the u.k Brown is Live, blue is Neutral and green/yellow is Earth.

lidsdad (author)buteman2013-04-23

Didn't know that, I think I will add it to the instructable. Thanks for the info.

fatchumba667 (author)2013-04-21

Another word for 'seed starter' could be 'germinating station', but this is great! Definitely gonna string one up! Thanks :)

koecke (author)fatchumba6672013-04-22

Germination station. For the vegetation nation.

fatchumba667 (author)koecke2013-04-22

Mother of God...

lidsdad (author)fatchumba6672013-04-21

I am not sure if I can add "germinating station" to the key words without republishing, but would like too.

spin498 (author)2013-04-22

Marr nuts are great for a static connection, ie; in a wall or ceiling, since your application involves a lot of movement, I'd recommend backing the Marr nuts off after the initial connection and melting some solder through the threads, then reinstall. I'd further secure with electrical tape. Call me paranoid about electricity.

AtlantaTerry (author)2013-04-21

You wrote, "Use starter soil and clean all your pots from last year."

You should have said to clean with diluted bleach.

lidsdad (author)2013-04-21

I added a step showing the cord wiring. I hope this helps.

windexblue (author)2013-04-21

Like one of the other commenters, I also need a little more detail on Step 3. I've replaced light sockets a couple of times, but only using super-specific instructions. How does the extension cord/dead cord end get connected? Are you stripping the casing and wrapping it with the black pigtails?

lidsdad (author)windexblue2013-04-21

Using an electrical cord:
Cut off the female end of the cord, strip back the insulation 6". This will reveal 3 wires (assuming you used a cord with a ground) black, white, and green.
Strip back 1" of insulation from the black and white wires for the cord.
Strip back 1" of insulation from the temporary bulb holder black and white wires.
Twist all the black together.
Twist all the white together.
Trim back the copper wire to 1/2 to 3/4".
Twist on a wire nut clockwise to each set of wire.

mainah (author)lidsdad2013-04-21

I hope that you are referring to connecting the ground wires as well. That ground could save your life. 110 volts can stop your heart.

lidsdad (author)mainah2013-04-21

Temporary bulb holders don't have grounds and since the bin is plastic there is nothing to connect the ground too. They are a lot like plastic keyless bulb holders (single light bulb fixtures) they do not contain grounds either. If you look at your breaker panel the ground and the common (white) run to the same bus bar. This is why I suggest using a GFI circuit to plug this into.

kpearce (author)2013-04-21

Warmth causes the seeds to germinate. You could simply use a heating pad until you see the cotyledons, then use the lights to aid in photosynthesis. I've found that with some toilet paper tubes, germination isn't possible (probably because of acids in the paper or ""glue) . I have my students take a single newspaper page, torn in half at the fold, then folded in half, and fold around the toilet paper tubes and run their hands over it several times to make it hold the shape of the tube. Then place them all in the container, fill with damp soil, tamp down, seed and cover with more soil. Don't forget to leave your seedlings outside for a week before planting! This "hardens" the seedlings.

mainah (author)kpearce2013-04-21

kpearce, make the newspaper about 2 inches longer than a soup can with both ends cut out. moisten the paper and wrap it 2 or 3times around the can and tuck the leftover up into the can. Turn the can over on a hard surface and mash the tucked up paper down to make a bottom. Fill with good quality potting soil (not dirt) and plant away. When you get ready to plant, make sure the paper is really moist and plant the whole thing. The roots will push their way out and Voila'!! Good luck with your garden this year.

jungfong (author)2013-04-21

Way cool. I think I'll build one tomorrow. Many thinks

ClareBS (author)2013-04-21

The reason for using certified seed potatoes is that potatoes are susceptible to hundreds of diseases (search for potato diseases, look at the Wikipedia list). I guess if you are just planting a few in a bucket or tires it wouldn't matter if you planted sprouters from your kitchen, but if you want a crop of good potatoes, buy your seed potatoes. They are often on sale.

daytona675 (author)2013-04-21

However, many seeds also need light to germinate (check your seed packet) and therefore this instructible is perfect for them

gingerely (author)2013-04-21

Love the use of plastic bins. I use them to grow sweet potatoes in Zone 2b. The soil stays warm (I use dark green bins), I can check the water consumption easily and the critters don't gnaw on the little sweeties!
I don't get alot and they aren't huge (actually they are baby-sized vegs - think 'baby' carrots or 'new' potatoes), but are they ever nice! We eat them peels and all, they are that tender! One bin 2+ft by 1.5 ft and about 1.5 ft high gives us about 3 or so pounds of baby sweeties. Easy harvesting, too!

lidsdad (author)gingerely2013-04-21

A friend of mine told me about doing potatoes in a couple of dirt filled stacked tires. What so you use to "seed" the potatoes I would love to try it this year with a bin (tires just don't seem healthy)

pattiemelt (author)lidsdad2013-04-21

You can use tires that have been sitting for several years - they will have outgassed & are safe for growing food plants. All that's left is the rubber.

AmyCat59 (author)lidsdad2013-04-21

Either buy "seed potatoes" at a garden shop, or (free!) use a potato or three from your own kitchen that's started to "sprout". You can cut up a sprouting spud: each "eye" that's got a sprout in it will grow a separate potato plant. If you don't have any spuds that are sprouting already, just wait a week or two... :-)

lidsdad (author)AmyCat592013-04-21

I'm good with free version, and may even have some sprouting.

bwater (author)2013-04-20

I've never gotten even close to working with electrical stuff. How does the old extension cord attach with the nuts?

lidsdad (author)bwater2013-04-21

I have had a few people ask about this. Here are the instructions. Be careful any exposed wire could be a risk. Also plugging the completed seed starter into a GFI plug is recommended.

Using an electrical cord:
Cut off the female end of the cord, strip back the insulation 6". This will reveal 3 wires (assuming you used a cord with a ground) black, white, and green.
Strip back 1" of insulation from the black and white wires for the cord.
Strip back 1" of insulation from the temporary bulb holder black and white wires.
Twist all the black together.
Twist all the white together.
Trim back the copper wire to 1/2 to 3/4".
Twist on a wire nut clockwise to each set of wire.

lidsdad (author)lidsdad2013-04-21

Here is a pic of how the wires should look to wire nut. With this instructable you will be using red wire nuts and wiring together a total of 4 wires (3 from the temporary bulb holders and 1 from the cord)

lidsdad (author)2013-04-21

Thanks for all the views and comments....

afardella (author)2013-04-21

Great... I'd add a computer blower (12 volts) for airflow... :)

lidsdad (author)afardella2013-04-21

good idea if you build it send me a pic.

ac-dc (author)2013-04-21

This is not entirely safe. Wire nuts are never supposed to be used as a link between two wires that are outside of a chassis, not mechanically fixed in place and by that I mean using standard electrical components. Don't let your insurance company find out about this, and ideally, re-do it!

Also, those are not 60W CFL bulbs, they are around 13W CFL blubs that claim they are the equivalent of 60W incandescent bulbs. It makes a big difference, 3 x 13W CFL bulbs are barely enough light and will cause the plants to get leggy, though at least the emergency blanket helps to reduce light loss.

Might I suggest it be done the opposite way? Build it with the container upside down so the sprouts sit in the lid as a tray. This way when you lift the box off you have better access to the pots for watering, removal, rotation, etc., although some plastic storage box lids are better for this than others.

Lastly it's not very important to first wash out pots that you used last year, just leave them sitting dry before reuse. Anything that might grow in there due to the environment, will just grow again anyway since it's the same environment.

Something else I would add is an electrical outlet timer so the lights come on and go off automatically every day. As for temperature, try to keep it around 80F to 85F for most things but around 75F initially and only 70F after sprouting for herbs that bolt fast in warmer temperatures.

lidsdad (author)ac-dc2013-04-21

'Thanks for the comments, you are correct wire nuts are intended to be used in an enclosure. The bulb holders that are used in this project are designed for temporary use. They are typical used nutted to ceiling light wires to provide light during construction. If the cord is pulled it could cause an issue.

The CFL bulbs are indeed 13W usage 60W equivalents. They use 13W of energy and provide 900 lumen of 2700K light. Giving you a total of 2700 lumens with 39W of energy usage. I'm open to suggestions on light bulbs...

Last year the plants were a bit leggy, but survived to produce.

I never considered flipping the operation an putting the plants on the lid.

I thought about the timer, but not having one forces me to visit the set up just before bed and I typically water then.

2mustangrider2 (author)2013-04-21

Great seedling starter. I am going to build one this weekend!

agis68 (author)2013-04-21

excellent and simple!!!thanks for sharing

tkowalenko (author)2013-04-21

Hey there! I love this idea and want to try it out. Could you please explain this wiring in more detail? How do the bulbs attach to the extension cord?
Thank you!

taf1 (author)2013-04-21

Great idea. Thanks.

GreenMeUpScotty (author)2013-04-21

Good Stuff Lidsdad!

Gonazar (author)2013-04-17

With that many lights in a small system like that do you lose a lot of water very quickly?

lidsdad (author)Gonazar2013-04-18

Since they are CFL they don't generate a ton of heat so not really. I water once a day to every other day depending on if I have the lid open for venting.

About This Instructable




Bio: A creative engineer, who builds because I cant bring myself to have someone else do things I can. I had a great maker childhood, one ... More »
More by lidsdad:How to Cut a Glass Wine BottleInexpensive Seed Starteralcohol lamp on a shoe string budget
Add instructable to: