After months of planning and dreaming about our gardens, the longer days of February are a great time to get an early start growing spring and summer vegetables, herbs, and flowers. Often, advice on how to start seeds involves equipment such as heat mats and grow lights. While it’s true that such equipment may lead to more reliable germination and sturdy growth, setting up lights and heat mats may not be feasible for every gardener. The cost of purchasing mats and lights, and running round-the-clock electricity to the equipment can be prohibitive. And homesteaders like us who live off-grid and use solar power for electricity may not generate enough power in the winter months for such a seed-starting set-up.
Starting Seeds Without Electricity
Without the benefits of an electric heat mat or grow lights, I had to come up with creative electricity-free ways to start seeds, both indoors, and outdoors. Here are my favorites:
Starting Seeds Indoors
With a sunny south-facing window, and plenty of space, starting seeds indoors without the use of grow lights or heat mats is possible – it just requires a little more attention.
Seeds will germinate in different areas of your home, depending on their specific temperature requirements. Place cool season crops in flats in your basement or root cellar; for warmer season crops, germinate seeds near a wood stove or other heat source. Some people like to use clear plastic domes or plastic wrap to retain moisture until seeds germinate. Remove this cover as soon as seeds germinate.
When seeds have sprouted, move flats to the sunniest location in your home, preferably a south facing window. I like to rotate my flats at least once a day, to ensure that plants are getting even light on all sides.
When days have warmed up, consider moving seedlings to a cold frame outdoors to get more direct sun exposure and to begin the hardening off process.
Starting Seeds Outdoors
Have you noticed how some hardy varieties reseed and germinate in the outdoors with no intervention? Often these plants lead to the first harvest. Such is the concept behind the winter sow method. Using the winter sow method, seeds are sown outdoors in the dead of winter, in a simple, homemade micro-greenhouse -namely recycled plastic containers!
Here’s how it works:
First, to select successful winter sow varieties, look for plants that have been selected for cold-climates or that require cool temperatures for germination. Think “Red Russian” or “Siberian” kale, “Winter Density” lettuce, or “Giant Winter” spinach.
Next, gather plastic containers that have tight-fitting lids. Takeout containers with a clear-plastic lid, organic washed salad green boxes, salad bar containers, or even plastic milk jugs are great choices for winter sowing. Put a few drainage holes in the bottom of the container, fill with a nice well-draining, organic soil to about an inch below the top, sow seeds according to directions, and give them a good drink of water.
Next, label your containers, and then turn your attention to the clear plastic lid. The lid needs ventilation, so as to not bake the tiny seedlings. Poke several slits in the lid, and then put the lid on tightly.
Now set your micro-greenhouses outside (yes, outside in the snow and cold!). They will freeze and thaw, and freeze again, and that’s okay! On a day when the sun is shining, and the air is warm, check the containers for moisture levels, adding water if needed. As your seedlings grow, cut larger and larger slits in the cover until more of the lid is open than not. Before long, you will have fully hardened-off seedlings, ready to plant into the ground. No heat mat, no grow lights, no taking up valuable windowsill space!
Cold frames are another useful tool for those wishing to get a jump-start on their spring or summer gardens. Cold frames, which are low boxes outfitted with a clear glass or plastic lid, are easy to make, can be constructed with reclaimed materials, and are a low-cost and small-scale substitute for a hoop house or greenhouse.
Cold frames protect small plants from the elements, and heat up the soil when the sun shines. As such, cold frames can benefit seed-starting gardeners in two ways: as a place to direct sow seeds, or as a place to harden off seeds started indoors. Consider direct sowing arugula, beets, spinach, lettuce, or radish directly into well-composted organic soil. Or transfer your growing seedlings from the indoors into an outdoor cold frame when the days warm.
One note of caution: Since they are typically oriented to the sun, cold frames can heat up quickly. On sunny days, be sure to ventilate your cold frame so your carefully sowed seedlings do not fry in the sun!
If you are blessed with a climate that allows you to direct sow in the early spring, do so! As soon as the ground is dry enough to work, and the soil is warm enough for the types of seeds you would like to plant, direct sow them right into the ground, following recommendations for that particular variety.
My intrepid (Zone 5) neighbor will even broadcast very cold hardy greens such as lettuce or mache directly on top of a snowy garden bed! As the snow melts, the small seeds work their way into the ground, germinating when conditions are right.
Although I have used low tunnels in the past to help tomato and other warm season plants get a head start in a cold spring, these days I’m using low tunnels to grow food year round. As I harvest food (kale and spinach are what I’m growing this year), I sow a few seeds in the empty space. So far, I’ve sprinkled corn salad, spinach, and kale in the low tunnel, and am watching for germination!
Whichever method you choose, getting a jump-start on your spring or summer garden does not have to be an expensive, equipment-intensive process. Sow your seeds indoors or outdoors, and you’re on your way to a successful harvest!
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