Every growing operation, whether a commercial farm or backyard garden, starts with seeds. And around this time of the year, growers like you and me are dreaming of seed-starting systems with good germination, healthy seedlings, and low costs.
Choosing a system that will give you those things depends on your size, location, and growing goals. In this post, we’re going to describe some of the best systems for commercial indoor and greenhouse growers, classroom growers, and hobby growers.
Commercial Systems: Consistency in Large Volumes
If you’re working with clients and schedules, then you need a system that you can count on. The more consistent you can get with seed starting, the easier scheduling is. Yield estimates become more reliable, you spend fewer hours troubleshooting, and you’re able to please your customers better in general.
Here are a few things that farmers can do to increase that consistency:
- Order high-quality seeds with good germination rates & preventative treatments
- Use automated timers and flood tables to reduce patchy watering
- Implement regular checkpoints for troubleshooting & pest monitoring
- For the latter two of those strategies, a professional seed starting system is incredibly useful. A pump allows you use outlet timers to schedule watering and a dedicated space and environment makes troubleshooting easier.
Indoor Seed Starting Systems: DIY vs Pre-Fabricated Systems
There are two ways that commercial growers can set up a seedling cart. Both use a nutrient tank and pump that allows automated irrigation of flood trays. The main differences are in size, cost, and durability.
The first type is a DIY-style seedling cart using a wire rack. This system can hold about 20 10X20-inch trays (if you’re using a standard 162-cell tray, that comes out to 3,240 seedling plugs).
This is a great option for small indoor growers at $549.99. If you’re planning on scaling up in the future or if you want a stronger structure, you should think about the larger version of this, the Seedling Cart XL.
The Seedling Cart XL is the second option for growers. This is a much larger steel frame that holds much more weight (1,000 lbs on one shelf). The system can hold 21-35 trays (that’s 3,402-5,670 standard seedling plugs)
You can use either of these in a regular greenhouse, but if you’re building on a shoestring budget, not ready to make the investment, or looking for something more temporary, you can go with other greenhouse options.
Greenhouse Seed Starting: Seedling Benches and Direct Seeding
One of the cheapest options for greenhouse growers is an open seedling bench. We used a bench pieced together with cinder blocks and 2X4’s for years and it did the job. It’s not perfect – watering could be a bit inconsistent and it was rickety – but it got the job done.
You can see our benches here. An alternative is just starting seeds on the ground. If you have a greenhouse with good drainage on the floors, you can put them just about anywhere with light and they’ll do fine.
Question: Should I Use Plugs or Seed Directly?
If you’re growing in a diverse operation where direct seeding (planting seeds directly into soil or other media) is an option, you would be wondering which method is better?
We believe that the best way to plant seeds, (best defined here as the highest probability of getting the healthiest seedlings possible that are easily and efficiently transplanted) is planting seeds using plug trays.
Here’s a quick explanation of why and how we do that:
Direct seeding is planting seeds directly into the garden bed or a ZipGrow tower. While this is easy, inexpensive, and fast, there are several important disadvantages, including wasted space and inaccuracy.
Space is wasted in the garden bed or Tower while the seedling grows and germinates. Unless you diligently plant, seeds could disperse in the garden bed or Tower. Seeds that don’t germinate also waste space in your bed.
At ZipGrow, we experimented with different methods of seeding and decided that plug trays with pelleted seeds is the best way to plant seeds, and here’s why:
Plugs save time and space. By using plug trays, seedlings are allowed to do the initial growing before they move over to a bed or a Tower.
Plugs are more effective. Only the seeds that germinate and grow well are planted. Seedlings that lack vigor or seeds that fail to germinate can be thrown out.
The disadvantages of plugs are that they cost money and add a transplanting step to your process. For most commercial farmers, these costs are worth the better yield, but hobby growers might still consider direct seeding.
Hobby, Home, and Classroom Seed Systems
Speaking of small growers, there are several smaller seed methods that get the job done without the costs of a commercial system.
Small growers can still use a seed system, but probably won’t need more than a few hundred seedlings at any given time. They can choose to DIY their own small seedling rack system, or buy a simple seed starting kit. The important thing is that small growers are getting seeds everything they need.
Seedlings need 12 to 18 hours of light. Supplementary light is recommended. For more info about how much light to give your seedlings, see this article on giving seedlings enough light.
Seedling plugs should be watered two to four times a day depending on the environment. Make sure that your seedlings don’t have standing water and are given a chance to mostly dry out between waterings.
Most seedlings won’t need as many nutrients as maturing crops. We run our systems at about half strength nutrient concentration (1.0 EC will work just fine!).