A DIY seed starter: As you saw, so shall you reap

By Adrian Higgins
Thursday, February 18, 2010; GZ07

Gardeners are at that annual seasonal threshold called seed starting, which is an unexpectedly fiddly enterprise that takes some experience to get right. It is the most methodical facet of horticulture, and one that requires a fair amount of equipment and materials, all destined to invade your living space until the weather warms in May.

Annuals, herbs and perennials lend themselves to seed starting, but it is the latent vegetable crop that cries most plaintively from the seed packet in late winter: "Let me out."

You don't have to germinate veggies indoors in late winter; you can buy greenhouse-grown plants in the spring. Once the soil has warmed, you can also directly sow garden beds with seeds of beets and carrots and, eventually, beans and cucumbers.

But there are valid reasons to start seeds indoors as winter lingers. You would be hard-pressed to get leeks to reach their full potential without starting them now, or to have sweet peppers sufficiently along when you set them out in May so the fruit will ripen fully come September. If you wait until spring to sow cool-season plants such as cabbage, cauliflower and spinach, the heat of June will pounce upon immature plants, with ugly results.

Winter seed starting is also done for the benefit of the gardener. There is nothing quite as satisfying as cutting fresh parsley in July from a clump that was seed-started in February. But there's one enormous rub to this enterprise. If you flip through mail-order gardening catalogues, you will find useful, multi-decked seed-starting light stands, but at a pretty penny. No doubt the adjustable, wide-spectrum growing lights coddle the infant plants, but the cost of these apparatus has never ceased to leave me more wilted than a schefflera in a frat house.

In one catalogue, the proprietors want $630 for such a device; in another a three-decker sells for $899.95 before shipping. These prices seem to negate the whole selling point that seed starting is a way to raise a lot of plants cheaply. For that reason, I have always started mine on the workbench or picnic tables under cheap, plug-in shop lights. But the multi-tiered stands are enticingly handy, allowing one to raise a multitude of plants in a compact space.

How, I wondered, could I make one economically? At a workshop last year at Green Spring Gardens in Alexandria, instructors showed folks how to make a light stand out of half-inch PVC pipe. But it was one-layered, bottomless and designed to sit on a table. Surely, I asked myself, couldn't I use the same piping and connections to fabricate a full-blown, multi-deck light stand?

As it turned out, the answer was yes. As proud(ish) as I am of the finished incubator, I'm not sure I could recommend it to any but the most handy, patient and forbearing readers. It was one of those exasperating, do-it-yourself projects that you had to stop, abruptly, and leave for the day to avoid oath-laden acts of destruction.

The stand is six feet tall, four feet long and two feet wide, and consists of 57 sections of pipe, 50 joints, 4 plywood shelves, 16 bolts, 4 shop lights and 8 fluorescent bulbs. Cost: $151.69. Cost in aggravation: $8 million, which included five journeys to three big-box stores at a time when hordes were fighting over the last snow shovel on the Eastern Seaboard.

I won't bore you with all the snags in the assembly, except to say that I had to make close to 200 pipe cuts using a miter box and a hacksaw. One of the biggest challenges was anchoring the plywood shelves. They were labeled 48-by-24 inches but as is customary, they were less than that and too small to rest on the frames of pipe for each deck. My initial, harebrained solution was to insert T-joints that would have connected additional supporting pipes beneath the plywood. No good. My second scheme was to drill holes in some of the joints so I could weave a web of supporting string underneath each plank. It looked like a dream catcher, which later seemed oddly appropriate. The solution was to reduce the width of the whole apparatus by an inch so the plywood could be bolted to the frame.

The stand will be of lasting use, but there has to be a better way of building a cheap seed starter. An acquaintance avoided this hassle by buying a shelving unit from Target and stringing lights under each deck. This cost around $70, plus the lights. I also came across a homemade wooden light stand made of strips of 1-by-3-inch lumber. It was simple and well crafted, consisting of four frames, capped with board and connected with four uprights at each corner. Obviously, it was made by an experienced woodworker.

Moral: Marry a carpenter.

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