Budget Friendly DIY Indoor Seed Starting Setup

Sharing is caring!

If you are looking for a budget friendly DIY Indoor Seed Starting Setup, you have come to the right place!  Starting your own seeds indoors isn’t difficult providing you have the right equipment.  I will show you my exact indoor seed starting setup that I use to successfully start hundreds of transplants for my vegetable and flower garden every year.  Be sure to scroll all the way to the bottom and watch the full video of our setup.

indoor seed starting setup

If you’re new here, we grow a large garden in Nebraska in zone 4b.   We preserve thousands of pounds of food from this garden each year to stock our homestead pantry.  We also sell a lot of produce every week at farmers market.  Our simple seed-starting setup is located in our basement and has served us well for several years.  

Why start seeds indoors?

Because our growing season here in Nebraska is fairly short, we have to start a lot of our plants indoors and then transplant them outside after all danger of frost is past in order to get a good crop.  Things we usually start from seed include tomatoes, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, sweet potatoes, cucumbers, watermelon, and cantaloupe, along with a few herbs and cut flowers.  

What is transplanting?

For those crops that have a longer lifespan than our short growing season, or for those crops that we want to have earlier than we could have them if we direct seeded them outside, we start them indoors.  For these we use this indoor seed starting setup to start these plants.  This allows us to “transplant” these seedlings (otherwise known as baby plants, or starts) out into the garden as soon as the weather is warm enough for those plants.  

What is direct seeding?

Direct seeding is when you “directly” plant your garden seeds right into your garden soil.  We usually do this for crops that have a shorter lifespan, and therefore don’t need to be started indoors.  Examples would be peas, beets, or carrots.  Also some crops don’t do very well when being transplanted because they don’t like to have their roots disturbed, so it’s better to direct seed them into the garden anyway.  Examples of these are corn, sunflowers and carrots.

garden in early sping

What are the benefits for transplanting versus direct seeding?

  1.  The first benefit of transplanting versus direct seeding is that you can get a jump on your gardening season and harvest produce from your garden sooner.  In my zone 4b, if I were to plant tomatoes from seed on May 15 which is my average last frost date, the tomatoes would barely be producing fruit by the time my first frost comes in the fall (late September).  So to get the earliest and highest yield from my plants, I choose to start them indoors and transplant them outdoors just after my average last frost date.
  1.  The second benefit of transplanting versus direct seeding is weed control.  Soil has a lot of weed seeds in it that are just waiting to be brought close enough to the surface of the ground to germinate and grow.  When you work the soil and prepare it for planting, you invariably bring new weed seeds to the surface each time.  If you plant lettuce seeds, for example, in freshly worked soil, there will be lots of tiny weeds germinating at the same time the lettuce germinates.  This means you will have a lot of tedious hand weeding to do until the lettuce grows enough to shade out the light to the weeds, which keeps them from growing as well.  But when you “transplant” starts into the freshly worked soil, they have a big head start on the weeds.  If you don’t want to spend hours weeding your garden, start as many seeds indoors as you can, and transplant them out into the soil.
  1. The third benefit of transplanting versus direct seeding is seed germination.  When you direct seed lettuce, for example, directly into the soil, you will have some seeds that germinate well and some that don’t.  This leaves your crop looking spotty, and is a poor use of your garden space.  Also, if you get a big rain before the seeds germinate or are well established, it can wash them away, leaving lots of empty spots in your garden.  This leads to lower produce yields, not to mention that it leaves more room for weeds to grow.
full bed of lettuce in garden

What are the benefits of starting your own seeds?  

When planting a garden, you generally have two choices when it comes to sourcing the plants for your garden.  You can start your own seeds indoors, or purchase plant starts from a nursery or green house.  If you are just learning to garden, you might consider purchasing your plants for the first couple of years.  There is enough of a learning curve to gardening without learning how to start your own seeds.  So if you can take the guesswork out of the beginning part of the growing process, by all means do so.  Keep in mind though, that purchasing started plants from a greenhouse or a nursery will cost you a lot more money than just purchasing seeds.  You have to figure out what is the best choice for you and do that.

  1.  Special varieties – if you start your own seeds you get to research and choose the exact varieties you want to grow.  
  2. Choose your planting dates – if you want to plant your crop outdoors earlier for an early summer harvest or later for a late fall or winter harvest, then starting your own seeds will give you that flexibility.
  3. Food supply – be in charge of your food supply from seed to plate.
  4. Valuable skill – Learning how to grow things from seed is a valuable skill to have in case purchasing plants from a nursery becomes difficult for whatever reason.

What are the benefits of this budget friendly DIY seed starting setup?

Low Cost Upfront Investment

Our system consists of a wire shelving unit with LED shop lights attached to each rack.  These are two things that can easily be sourced for most people and do not cost a lot in upfront investment.  You can order the whole setup on Amazon at the links below.

Inexpensive to Operate

Because the lights are LED, they will not only last a long time but are very inexpensive to operate.

Space Saving

If you were to grow these seedlings in a greenhouse, you would have to have lots of table space to put them on so they could all get enough sunlight.  Growing on these racks allows you to put lots of seed trays in a small space in your home.

Long Term Money Savings

If you were to buy one flat (tray) of vegetable seedings from a nursery or greenhouse it would cost you at least $42 per tray of 50 plants.  You can easily grow 16-20 flats (960 plants) of seedlings on just one of these seed starting racks, so starting them yourself would mean a savings of at least $672.00 per rack per year.  Yes, you will have to buy your own seeds and soil, but the cost of those items are quite minimal compared to the cost of buying seedlings.

young tomato seedlings growing in indoor seed starting setup

What is the cost of the indoor seed starting setup?

Each shelving unit is approximately $140.00, a 10 pack of lights are approximately $85.00, and a pack of S hooks is less than $10.00, making your total cost if you purchase from Amazon less than $250.00.  I have three shelving units, but I grow a very large garden.  Most home gardeners will only need one unit.

You will also need some plastic trays for growing your seedlings in.  I like to grow in soil blocks and I prefer to have one tray with holes nested inside a tray without holes so I can easily bottom water my seedlings.  (More on this below).  You will need 4 of these “tray sets” for each rack on your shelving unit and each tray will hold 50 soil blocks (more on soil blocking in another post).  So depending on how many seeds you are going to start, will depend on how many trays you need to buy.  These are the trays I prefer because they are heavy duty and will last you many years.  You can also purchase Jiffy seed starting trays or something similar until you’re ready to try soil blocking.

soil blocks

What is the best way to water your seedlings indoors?

The best way to water your seedlings is to bottom water them.  This means that you put a solid plastic tray without holes underneath the tray holding the soil and seedlings, so you can pour water in the bottom tray and let the seedlings suck up the amount of water they need.  There are several benefits to watering this way:

  1. Healthier plant growth – bottom watering will encourage the roots to grow downward and suck up just the amount of water they need. 
  2. All of the plants get watered evenly, which can be hard to do if you’re top watering larger seedlings
  3. Less mess.  You don’t have to worry about ruining walls or flooring by spraying water when trying to water your starts.  I just use a plastic pitcher and pour a little water in the bottom of each tray daily.  
  4. Saves time.  I can water thousands of seedlings in just a few minutes everyday using this method.

How close do the lights need to be to the seedlings?

It is important to give your seedlings enough light so they will be strong and healthy.  Putting them next to a sunny window to get natural light will not give them sufficient light.  They need to be under artificial light if kept indoors.  If you have a greenhouse, then that is a totally different story and would require a different setup.  When you are growing your seedlings, you want to keep your lights no more than 2-3” away from your plants.  

cabbage seedlings growing in indoor seed starting setup

How many hours of light do you need to start seeds indoors?

Your seedlings need 14-16 hours of daylight to grow efficiently.  If they do not get the right amount of light the starts will get “leggy” from trying to stretch higher to get more light.  If you have “leggy” seedlings, they will not survive the wind and weather very well when they are transplanted in the garden.  They will be weak and won’t be able to support their own weight very well.  I turn the lights on for my plants when I get up in the morning, and shut them off at night when I go to bed.  If you need your plants to grow really fast because you got them started late, you can leave the lights on 24 hours a day and they will grow even faster.  However, if possible, it is a good idea to get them used to darkness at night.  

What are the best grow lights for seed starting?

You do NOT need special grow lights to successfully start your seeds indoors.  LED shop lights work very well and are a much more budget friendly option than some of the expensive grow lights out there.  You should look for lights that have at least 5,000 Kelvins (K) because they will be closer to daylight on the light spectrum.  Here is a link to some inexpensive LED lights that work very well.

This post contains affiliate links, which means I make a small commission at no extra cost to you. See my full disclosure here

Tips for successfully starting healthy seedlings indoors

1.  Do not plant them too early.  Overgrown plants are hard to care for and don’t transplant into the garden very well.  Be sure to go to The Farmers Almanac website and put in your zip code to find out your average last frost date in the spring. You can look at the back of your seed packet to see how soon you should sow them indoors.

My favorite tool for managing what to plant and when to plant it is this free online app called Seedtime.  It allows you to easily plan your garden by putting in your average last frost date, and then each crop you’re planning to grow.  Then it tells you exactly when to start your seeds indoors or when to direct seed them, etc.  It also tells you when to plan on harvesting these crops.  This tool has been invaluable to me over the years.  Check out my step-by-step guide on how I plan my garden each year in this video. 

2.  Putting another tray or something similar over your seeds until they germinate will keep them moist and act as a humidity dome.   For seeds that take longer to germinate, you can mist the soil with a spray bottle each day if the top of the soil starts to dry out.  Once the new seedlings have sprouted, it’s a good idea to remove the dome and begin bottom watering

3.  It’s also a good idea to use some kind of plant markers to identify what is planted in each tray.

4.  Keep your lights within 2-3″ of the tops of your seedlings

5.  Give your plants between 14-16 hours of light each day

6.  It is a good idea to “pet” your plants daily.  Just gently run your hands back and forth across the tops of your plants.  It helps to prepare them for outdoor conditions by strengthening their stems.

7.  Once the plants are a couple of weeks old I like to run a fan on them during the day to help prepare them for wind outdoors and to reduce the chance of any fungal diseases developing on the top of the soil.  It also helps to reduce humidity levels in your seed starting area as the plants will put off quite a bit of humidity.  I usually just use a simple box fan and point it in the direction of my seedlings, but you can also purchase a small fan to attach to each rack of your shelving unit.

tomato seedlings growing in indoor seed starting setup

What equipment do I need to start seeds indoors?

  1.  4’ wide wire shelving unit
  2. Two 4’ long LED shop lights for each rack on your shelving unit.  There are 10 in the pack I recommend getting from Amazon.  This works perfect for the recommended rack because it has 5 shelves, however, if you plan to use the top rack you would need to mount those two lights from the ceiling or some other way.  Personally, I just use the four bottom racks and use the very top rack for storage of seed starting supplies etc. Then I use the other two lights on a second wire shelving unit for when my plants get a little bigger so I don’t have to adjust the height of the shelves on my main rack. This step is optional of course and is explained more in the video below.
  3. S hooks for attaching the lights to the racks

Setup Instructions

After purchasing the equipment, assemble the shelving unit.  Then hang 2 LED shop lights from the underside of each rack using the S hooks.  I like to run the chains with S hooks on the end towards the outside of the rack so I can easily adjust the height of the lights as the plants grow (see video below).    

When you hang the shop lights be sure to pay attention to where your plugins are at so you can plug the lights into each other and link them all together.  

If you’d like to make your own seed-starting mix and soil blocks, I will be adding all of this information for you in another post very soon. 

Video Of Our Indoor Seed Starting Setup

Be sure to watch this video showing this indoor seed starting setup in our basement. We also use this setup to grow microgreens and lettuce in the winter so we can have nutritious greens all year long.

And that’s it!  You’re all ready to start your seeds.  I know you will be so thankful you chose to invest in a budget friendly DIY seed starting setup like this, because it will help grow a successful garden for many years to come!  

Happy gardening, LaRee.

Pin For Later

budget friendly diy indoor seed starting setup

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *