So let's talk equipment. Like most homesteading ventures, you can go ultra frugal, super grand, or something in between. I usually find that the extremes create frustration... either because it doesn't work like it should or financially it takes all the joy out of the process. Typically, a modest investment in some good supplies will help you to succeed better than if you try to go "too cheap" and still last long enough to pay for themselves (if you shop around). The goal is to get the most bang for your buck, to only buy what you really need to be successful, and make do with what you can.
What To Buy
• Trays. The black plastic seed starting trays are worth every dime as long as you don't overpay. I find that I move my seedlings around a LOT and if you have to move them one at a time, you'll be exasperated. Or if you try to use something too flimsy or with sides not high enough, they tend to fall over and get damaged. Trays can be purchased on line, but shipping costs are a bit high due to the size. I suggest looking around locally at garden supply centers, nurseries, and even big box hardware stores. (How I use these will be discussed in a following post in this series).
You'll find different kinds of trays, but I use two types almost exclusively and I highly recommend you have a good supply of both.
The first is a solid bottom tray with no holes. This is mainly for catching water under a second tray, but I also have used these for growing fodder for my chickens (that's another post someday!).
The second is what I call a lattice bottom tray. It has just enough to hold your seed cups but allows water to pass through when you don't want your seedlings in standing water.
There is a third type of tray and I do keep some on hand for onions and if you use soil blockers, they might be handy. This kind of tray has some slits in the bottom for draining, but more of a solid bottom otherwise.
You can use the trays with "cells", but keep in mind that plants grow at different rates - some will outgrow their cells faster than others. You also have the issue of removing them without distrupting the entire tray of seedlings. And you are limited on the size so that roots can only expand so far. I really don't use these and don't recommend them.
On the other hand, I DO recommend a plastic dome (the short kind). You only need it until they sprout, but boy does it make a difference! Yes, you can use plastic wrap and I've used plenty in my day for seed sprouting, but it makes me want to say words that are not nice. Moving on...
A frugal option is to use your cookie sheets with sides (or jelly roll pans), but when water accumulates, you'll find them harder to move to drain off the excess. For the price, the reusable plastic trays are a great investment.
• Heat Mats. This purchase requires a bit more of your investment dollars, but I feel it's highly worth the price. A heat mat is a flat rubber coated pad that goes under your warm season seeds to help create an ideal temperature for germinating. You can purchase a temperature controller for it as well, but for the most part, I have found it really isn't necessary as I have had much success without one. However, if your room is a bit warmer, you may need to invest in one since the heat mats typically raise the temperature 10-20 degrees above ambient room temperature. You don't want to cook your seedlings!
Water is not an issue for heat mats either; you can run a hose with a sprinkler on them if necessary (I've seen photos of Eliot Coleman doing this) as they are waterproof. Don't go submerging it, but if you're using a watering can and some of it spills on the mat, you can relax!
Heat mats come in various sizes, but I selected one that fit the space I intended to place it on which holds about 4 seed starting trays at a time. Think a bit beyond your immediate needs. If you think it's possible you might expand your garden, don't buy the smallest mat! On the other hand, if you buy something too large, it might not fit on your table or you could have some seeds on the mat but not under your grow lights. The mat and the grow lights should match in size.
Many people recommend using a heating pad or Christmas lights underneath. I've used the heating pad and had some success, but most heating pads are not the right size or large enough. An electric blanket can give you more coverage, but don't let it get too hot! Most seeds germinate between 65-85 degrees, so you need to mimic that as much as possible. Another concern is watering. I do NOT recommend watering your seedlings on a pad or blanket. This creates more work for you, but if you ruin the electric blanket, it might cost more to replace than the heat mat! A final consideration is of a fire hazard. Normally it's not typically an issue, but if you're using it around water, then that's a different story.
Since most people already have Christmas lights, you might want to give this a try, especially if you need to spend money on another seed starting item. You can always purchase the heat mat the next season to spread out your costs. Typically water resistant, a little sprinkling shouldn't be an issue, but I would not go hog wild with water around the Christmas lights.
• Lights. Is it possible to start seeds without grow lights? Yes. Is it easy? No. Even if you can get the seeds to germinate (some seeds actually germinate better in the dark), they will often get leggy without proper lighting. And depending on where you live and the placement of your windows, this could be a big deal.
The good news is, you don't have to spend the really big bucks on this purchase. Many garden companies sell grow lights on stands for upwards of $250 (for a standard unit - not a small table top variety that only starts a handful of seeds). A standard florescent shop light (T-12) will suffice, but for my set up, I found that two lights were needed for each shelf that I have. I also selected a shop light that had sides that curve down so as to direct the light toward the plants below and not just all over the room. And this has turned out to be a good choice. If your plants are going to be in a room where you spend any amount of time, you don't want an annoying light glaring at you all day long!
As for bulbs, some recommend special grow lights or full spectrum florescent bulbs, but a standard florescent bulb should work fine as well. It's not like your seedlings are going to live out their lives under the light. You just need it until they're large enough to transplant when the weather is accommodating. I chose to use Philips Natural Sunshine bulbs. I'm sure I could have used a cheaper bulb, and I'm not sure if I gained anything by going with "natural sunshine", but my seedlings are very happy!
If you live where the sun is strong in the spring and you have southern windows, you might be able to just turn your plants daily, but watch that they don't start getting too leggy!
• Shelving. Once again, you need to match your mat and light to your shelf or table top. It won't do any good to have a small shelving unit if your mat is hanging over the sides. In fact, it's bad for the mat! A stand could easily be made out of scrap wood, a metal garage shelving unit, or even a folding table. Just be wary of using your good furniture since water could damage anything with a finish on it.
Originally, I purchased a metal shelving unit, but after two seasons, I re-purposed it for holding storage items. I found that it was way more than I needed (over kill) and not easy to move. It took me three years to find the right location for my set up, so each time it had to be taken apart. And since this is typically a seasonal item, I didn't want to set it up in a prime location only to have to take it down again later.
I found my perfect match in a little folding table we already had from our earlier homeschooling years. My mat and lights fit it perfectly, it's easy to move (I can do it myself without a hammer!), and it's low profile. I can even cover it with a cute table cloth if I so desire (I find an oil cloth makes it easier to wipe down when necessary).
For my lights, I just prop them up on blocks of scrap wood, but underneath, where I keep my cooler crops, I suspend the light by chains from the leg mechanism. I need to work on a "proper" light stand, but this is something that can be done frugally without much effort.
• Watering. I recommend two items: a spray bottle and a watering can with a small spout. This way I can mist the soil surfaces (for really small seeds and tender sprouts) but I also have a means of fertilizing or soaking pots from the bottom (watering can method). The small spout allows me to control the flow and not knock over tender plants. It's also a bit faster than misting if you can get by with it!
So there you have my top seed sprouting supplies. Everything else is something you probably have around the house - a fork, a small spade, a bucket, etc. In another post we'll talk potting options, soils, and things like that. But for now, you can consider your budget and which items you might want to invest in.
If you're inclined to give soil blockers a try, you will need to invest in some additional equipment. I have a couple, but haven't actually used them yet. I've chickened out (for various reasons). However, Stephen McGehee of The Southern Agrarian has a couple of great posts here and here. I am referring you to him for further instructions on that topic. Even if you don't think soil blockers are a fit for you, do check out his blog! (And someday, I'm going to get brave and give soil blockers a try!)
For those of you who are veteran seed starters, what is the #1 piece of equipment you wouldn't want to be without?