After months of planning and dreaming about our gardens, the longer days of February are a great time to get an early starting seeds for 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 a few ways to start seeds without electricity. I’d love to hear which method you like best!
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.
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!
Another useful tool for those wishing to get a jump-start on their spring or summer gardens are cold frames. 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. Start your seeds without electricity, indoors or outdoors, and you’re on your way to a successful harvest!
For a step-by-step guide to growing food year round, check out my Fall Gardening Guide!
Sharon Carson says
I do have grow lights that I use occasionally but mostly I now start seeds without electric I use an organic seed starting mix that I buy by the bale for around $35that starts enough seedlings to grow an acre of produce plus plants to sell. I also make my own mix with my own compost for potting up . I ‘m now doing germination testing of all my seeds in damp paper towels . I also start seeds in flats (the standard seedling flats with 1″ plugs)I put many varieties in one flat with good lablels on each seed that I make from Aluminum cans so the writing is always there . I but the wholew tray or group of trays in a large plastic trash bag and put it behind my woodstove in the kitchen where the temps are just right for germinating . I start with the cold hardy crops and move them out to the unheated greenhouse after they sprout ,then plant the more tender things. I have racks hanging from the rafters of the greenhouse that are made with chicken wire that will hold 50 flats of seedlings . In this way ,the tubs full of winter greens beneath are still available for harvest . I let many of them go to seed and harvest the seed as well. The racks are used for drying things in the summer . The racks were the idea of my homeschooled son now going to school for mechanical engeneering .Great idea
Teri Page says
That sounds like a great plan. Love the idea of the racks. We had a gorgeous 20 x 50 ft unheated greenhouse on our former homestead, and we built a wrap around shelf for starts. I miss it!
Sharon Carson says
Mine is 15 by 30 and attatched to the block garage. I have a row of black 60 gallon pickle barrels full of water and put plants on top of them too. There are 2 rows of planters made with pickle barrels cut in half that are 30 gallon each filled with my compost . and a shelf next to the glass windows . Theres even a table and chairs in there ,a few 6 ft citrus trees and a huge bay tree . I love the space .
Jeff Schwersinske says
I didnt get home yet apt got a garden plot is mine apt,last year buy tomatoes pepper green & hot herbs,did the best,lots,have to get home.Jeff
Ed Brown says
I have only used a sub-heat mat for rooting cuttings. I never forced seedlings with electric means, but I have used the heat from compost to get things moving early and I built a compost heap in my greenhouse one year to speed things along and ended up with mold and white flies everywhere! My favas, sown in November, are knee high now and shooting up inches daily with lots of little buds just waiting for the right day length to blossom. Just sowed tomato seeds in peat and expect them to show their leaves any day now.
I start lots of seeds inside, using the aforementioned grow lights and heat maps, because I don’t have any south or west facing windows. I’m hoping I can get a greenhouse within the next few years so I can start outside!
Great tips! Thank you 🙂 I’m Southern Hemisphere, so thinking of the winter patch now, but when planning the summer garden, I dont have the fancy indoor equipment and end up with not great results. I will try much of what you’ve mentioned for next spring!