Introduction: DIY Indoor Seed Starting System

About: I'm a Mechanical Engineer who has been a part of this community for over 10 years! My interests have evolved over time, and now center around 3D printing.
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

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

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

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

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

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!
Gardening Challenge

Runner Up in the
Gardening Challenge