I live off the grid – without consistent electricity, and this spring I ran into the unique challenge –
The Problem: How the heck do I start seeds for my garden without electricity for lamps?
I’ll show you what I did, tell you how I was sabotaged in my efforts, and what I plan on doing next year.
My Current Situation
While I have a generator to charge my computer and cool off my fridge twice a day, I don’t have consistent power since I don’t have a battery system up yet. So – using the usual grow lamps or fluorescent light setup was out of the question. But I did want to start my own, since I have my preference of what varieties I like to grow (particularly in tomatoes).
Living in a half-finished house certainly has it’s ups and downs, but I figured out one big benefit was that since I have no windowsills yet, there was no reason I couldn’t rig up some contraption on my south-facing windows to start my seeds without electricity (I’m utilizing passive solar).
For starters, I got my mini-mes together and we all planted a big peat pellet flat full of tomatoes and peppers, and some other smaller flats as well.
Heat for Germination – I was still lighting morning fires in the stove to give a bit of warmth in the mornings, so after the flats were planted, I would keep them nearby the stove for heat, covered with a plastic dome. When the stove would cool off to a more manageable temperature, I would place the flats on top of the stove to capture the residual heat for germination.
Heat mats are indispensable when starting tomatoes and peppers, and supply that bottom heat that they love, but if you are trying to germinate without electricity you gotta be creative!
My Window Setup – I cut a piece of plywood the width of my biggest window (5′ wide) and approximately 14″ deep and screwed it right onto the windowsill (which at the moment is just 2x4s since I haven’t finished that part of the house yet).
I cut apart a cardboard box in one long strip, covered it with tinfoil (dull side out) and arranged it as a sort of reflector on the back of the window shelf I’d made. The end result looked like this:
Fast Germination – As the seeds germinated, I moved the pellets to a separate flat on the windowsill where they got tons of light. Germination was faster than I expected – about 7 days just using residual heat from the woodstove – and my little tomatoes and peppers were on their way!
Great Growth – They grew really quickly and very well. I was quite proud of them! I had a few other misc herbs and whatnot started. I thought I would have to turn them periodically, but the reflector worked so well that there was no leaning at all – it surrounded the starts with light.
But that was when I ran into some issues.
Firstly, once they were all potted up into 3″ containers, I had no more windowsill space! I even cut a shelf for my other main room window, for a total of 8′ of growing space. I debated on rigging up a second shelf set in the middle of the window but decided against it, since I don’t have lights and I figured it would block too much of my light. So, this really is limiting in terms of how much you can start.
And secondly, I waited too long to pot them up. By the time we got around to transplanting, they had all sent roots into each others’ pellets and it was a mess. Naturally, each one suffered transplant shock.
However… they never really seemed to recover. The leaves curled inward, they lost their beautiful bright green color, and no matter what they just didn’t seem to thrive. I did the best I could but I thought perhaps because the angle of the sun had changed and not as much was getting through to my window, they were just not doing very well.
Long story short – after several months and pretty much zero growth (and brownish, curled in leaves) I realized that the problem was some kind of deficiency in the potting soil, most likely magnesium. My mom had bought a bag of the same potting soil I used to pot up my plants and she had similar issues. It wasn’t until we talked about it that I made the connection to that particular potting soil – I had planted some oregano directly into a pot of it and said oregano never got past the seed leaf stage, not even in two months. I also lost quite a few strawberry starts that were given to me that I had potted into that same soil, waiting for my garden to be finished.
You can see the difference here – I had given my dad a few of my starts to plant in his greenhouse and here is a comparison of the two:
My potted, unplanted start:
The greenhouse planted start, having been in regular topsoil for approx. 2 months:
Since I am still only halfway through building my garden (I’m doing hugelkultur, all by myself without power equipment besides my chainsaw… so slow going), I decided I wasn’t going to plan on being able to plant them this year. So, I figured I’d put as many of my plants as I can into containers of topsoil, hoping for at least SOME harvest this year even though it’s later than I should be planting and they are ALL stunted.
As standard, I planted each pepper and tomato with a couple Tums and a handful of epsom salt, and they are planted with topsoil. Within a week they were greening up nicely and are putting out new growth. I also top dressed with epsom salt and did a foliar spray with epsom solution (1/2 Tbs Epsom Salt to 1 quart water), and the results are definitely positive. My tomatoes are looking green for the first time since I potted them up! And I’m finally seeing new growth.
(I will probably edit/update this post after I harvest or have more visible progress)
So here is what I’ve learned and decided:
The system works GREAT.
When I finish my house, I am going to intentionally finish with extra-wide windowsills or have some kind of removable attachment so I can do this every year. I ended up building a more sturdy reflector out of a presentation board, cut in half lengthwise and taped together. It was perfect.
Space is limited.
I will have to be selective about what I plan on planting – and plan on buying starts for the rest of them. I will also look at building some kind of cold frame outside and see if perhaps I could move the tomatoes/peppers outside in time for me to be able to also start cole crops/eggplants, and any other seeds that are helped by starting a few weeks before the last frost date.
Use a good soil.
Or not even that – I won’t leave it to chance. I’ll be amending and mixing my own soil next year, using topsoil, worm castings, and probably a generous amount of rotten wood with mycelium if I can find it. Probably time to invest in a soil blocker!
And now it’s your turn! Have you ever successfully started seeds without electricity? Tell me about it in the comments! Together, we can conquer the world, one garden at a time 🙂