Low Energy Seed Starting

Sharon January 29th, 2008

Seed Starting, Low Energy Style

The first thing you need to remember is to think ahead, and bring in the compost before three feet of snow and ice lands on top of it. That was my big discovery two years ago, and like so many big discoveries was a. unpleasant and b. completely obvious - in retrospect. Living in a linear society, it can be difficult to get cyclical.

You see, I knew you could start seeds in lightly sifted compost – in fact, I’d seen Rodale Institute tests that showed that seeds did best in finished compost. So, the year before, I’d gone out in February, dug up some compost, let it defrost, and then sifted it through an old screen and used it, with lovely results. All those living organic bacteria made a very happy arrangement, and the seeds I started that way did far better than those I did in potting mix.

Because that winter was an extremely mild one, it didn’t occur to me that normally, getting compost out of the pile in February in upstate NY was going to be trouble. If I’d thought about it for 2 seconds, I would have realized I had to do it in October, but I didn’t, and thus, the trouble. This year I took 20 minutes to shovel and haven’t regretted it.

Which is all just a reminder of how seed starting, as most of us do it, is a heavily energy intensive process. It can involve lights, heating mats, lots of purchased seed starting mixes and various liquid substances that make your house smell vaguely of rotting fish for a week after you use them. All of these substances have to be transported to you. How do you get along without all those things, either if you have to or if you want to?

Well, the first thing you’d do is rethink how much you need to start inside. I do a lot of transplanting, from preference – I enjoy it, and I think it saves me time on weeding later and works better with my mulching techniques. But there’s no reason why I have to do so much. There are a few crops that need an advance start, but even a few cherry tomatoes will self seed and make a late crop. Now I want tomatoes earlier than that, and different varieties, but I could make do, and start fewer inside. Some crops I get a head start on, like broccoli, could easily be entirely direct seeded.

The next strategy I’d probably use is starting things a little later – my house is quite cool in February, and since space by the stove is always limited, I’d probably need to cut down on the things that simply don’t germinate well without some bottom heat in cold temps – peppers, eggplant and basil being some of the biggies. But a smaller number of these could be germinated by the stove, and waiting until late March would mean later harvests (late August, September), but would require less supplemental heating. In March, the windowsills are warmer, because there’s more sun and the outdoor temps are higher – not high, mind you, but higher.
Another alternative would be a hotbed. This is a coldframe with a thick layer ( a foot or so) of uncomposted horse or pig manure, covered with a layer of soil, and a cover on top and insulators on the side. The manure, decomposing, heats the soil and creates a great environmental for little seedlings.

What about those little flats? Well, they really aren’t hard even for a klutz like me to knock together with scrap wood, and we aren’t going to run out of old food cans for a long, long time. With some holes in the bottom, they make find pots for seed starting. Same with old plastic containers. I don’t think we’ll see a shortage for some time.

What about seed starting material? Well, you can plant things in straight, *finished* (that is, no longer heating up) compost, but that does use your compost apace, and you do have to plan ahead in cold places. Now the next part is controversial. If you use soil, the conventional wisdom is that you are supposed to sterilize it by baking the soil at 250 degrees. That’s supposed to spare you damping off disease. My own feeling is that this is stinky, unpleasant, a waste of energy and kinda nuts. That is, I think killing all the good soil bacteria so that you can get rid of a single bacteria is a bad idea.

If you use light dirt (you can mix some sand or compost in to lighten it up – I find 1-1 compost and dirt to be nice, I don’t bake it, I dig it in the fall (remember, cold weather people have to plan ahead), and bring it in. I mix in the compost, and let it sit. And then I give everything a nice bath of chamomile tea periodically to prevent damping off. In 5 years of doing this, I’ve had damping off two or three times, mostly when I’ve overwatered – but I’ve had it at least 5 times with plants started in a seed starting mix.

What about light? Well, windowsills are still a good idea, particularly if you make a reflector from tinfoil and cardboard and put it behind the plants to maximize light access. But if you haven’t sunny windows, you’ll have to use hotbeds and cold frames – that is, plants will have to go straight from germination outside, in a protected way. An easy cold frame is an old window and some hay bales, but you can get more complicated and build some structures. I’ve also seen (but not tried) pop up greenhouses, that can be set over a row in the garden. The big problem with starting out in the cold isn’t the cold, but the heat, I find – a bright sunny day can fry your seedlings even when it is quite cold. So either keep a close eye on the temps and open them up a little, or acquire an automatic opener – these are powered by temperature changes and don’t need any energy, but they are pricey.

How about fertilizing? Compost and manure teas will do it – they do get a little ripe smelling in the house, but no worse than fish emulsion or most kelp-fish mixes. And if you use compost as a large portion of your seed medium, you won’t need much fertilizer, another plus.

If you want to know where to buy your seeds, I wrote this last year:http://casaubonsbook.blogspot.com/2007/01/where-to-buy-your-seeds-and-where-not.html

Note my correction of my error re: Burpee here: http://casaubonsbook.blogspot.com/2007/01/i-screwed-up.html

Thomas Jefferson reportedly planted juniper seeds in a bed by feeding the seeds to his chickens and confining them where he wanted the seeds to grow. Despite the cold, they did rather well, encased in chicken manure. So there’s always that, too.

Happy growing,


8 Responses to “Low Energy Seed Starting”

  1. homebrewlibrarianon 30 Jan 2008 at 2:08 am

    Yeah, but what do you do when you have no locally grown compost? I’m just starting up a compost pile (started last summer) so that’s not really an option. I’ll probably end up using commercially made compost for now.

    On a related note, seeds love worm compost. Or more specifically, the seeds I threw into the countertop worm bin I used to have would grow luxuriously (if leggily from lack of light). In fact, one year I managed to get several starts including cantalope and danish squash. I had read that straight worm compost is a little too strong for seeds but just about every seed I threw in there would sprout - including apple and orange seeds. It was quite a sight to open the bin the week after throwing the guts and seeds from some winter squash to the worms. The entire surface would be covered in 8 inch long squash seedlings. In February, the only thing to do was pull them up and rebury them for the worms to consume. When I was transplanting starts I’d throw a trowelful of worm compost in the hole with some dirt over it and plants seemed to do well with that.

    The real question I have is will I have enough time between break up and tranplant time to make enough raised beds for my starts? Especially since I haven’t done that before winter hit? I’m in Alaska where it takes a good long time for the ground to be warm enough for transplants which is the reason for raised beds (and probably cold frames).


  2. Christineon 30 Jan 2008 at 5:46 pm


    I’m very glad you posted this. I have been stewing about this very issue. A few questions. 1) what do you think about goat manure? And if the manure comes from livestock that are given antibiotics, etc., that’a problem for my compost, right? I’m just not sure I have access to “organic” manure. Are there other kinds of things that might heat up in the same way? 2) what does the chamomile tea do? Why does it work? Thanks!


  3. Laura in So Calon 30 Jan 2008 at 6:08 pm


    I’m interested in your use of chamomile tea to discourage damping off. We have that problem here as well. Do you think it would work on raised bed that you are direct seeding to? Is your chamomile tea just straight steeped chamomile or are their other ingredients??

    I’d love to know.
    Laura in So Cal

  4. Barbaraon 30 Jan 2008 at 9:26 pm

    Thank you, Sharon, for tackling what I was just mulling over. I have this unheated south-facing sunroom, see, that on sunny not-freezing days heats the house all afternoon. I also want to try (for the first time) growing lettuces in spring. I think that means I should plant them soon, and I wondered about (a) the sunroom conditions and (b) the whole heat-pad, grow-light thing.

    I figured maybe I’d pull together the small plastic containers I’ve put aside lately for seed starting, get some lettuce seeds, and figure out where to go from there. Thanks to this post I’ll go poke around my sheet-composted, ignored “garden” bed and see what I’ve got in there (bare today, probably snow-covered tomorrow, bare a few days after that…).

    Today I’m a bit encouraged that the sunroom, low-energy way might actually work. Thanks!

  5. katuahon 30 Jan 2008 at 11:09 pm

    uh, what is “damping off”??

    - yours confusedly,
    very beginning gardener

  6. spelled with a Kon 31 Jan 2008 at 3:00 am

    The strange weather we have had in Syracuse made me forget that the pile would eventually freeze. (my first year at this) Then about a week ago the spade made a dull thud and i realized game over till spring…grrr

    live and learn

    great idea though, I could help but wonder if there was a better way when I dropped the bag of potting mix in the shopping cart

  7. jewishfarmeron 31 Jan 2008 at 3:16 pm

    Damping off is a fungal disease common to seedlings when they are kept moist and don’t receive sufficient air circulation - that is, the conditions of most homes. The seedlings just flop over and die.

    I have read that chamomile tea works, and have been using it, although it is hard to tell whether it works or I’ve been lucky. Dusting cinnamon over the top of the soil has also been suggested - I have not tried that. Not keeping seedlings too wet and getting good air circulation works well too.

    Kerri, I’m glad to know that about worm compost - I’ve been using it 1/4, but I’ll try more this time. Cool!

    Barbara - our sun porch produces greens even when the night temps fall well below freezing, so I think you’ll be ok, as long as you are growing winter lettuces, bred to tolerate cold.

    Christine, goat manure is great, but it probably won’t heat up a hot bed - horse or pig is better for that. I use non-organic manures on my farm - I can’t afford to be totally picky here, but that’s a choice everyone has to make for themselves.


  8. Idaho Locavoreon 13 Feb 2008 at 5:25 pm

    I think Soil Block Makers are a wonderful, sustainable solution for seedstarting. I use a fibrous compost for making mine.

    Soil Block Makers at Johnny’s Select Seeds.

    I’ve used these for years with great results.

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