Why you should build a seedling/sprouting table

Have you bought seedlings at the big box stores and discovered a couple months later that you wasted your money? Did those healthy-looking plants end up withering and producing poor quality fruit?

That seems to be the usual pattern. Oftentimes the methods used to produce those very appealing seedlings also makes them unhealthy in the long run. They grow too fast, with too much fertilizer. Then they become root-bound and they stagnate. And due to the noxious pesticides that are used in these mass-produced plants, you might also be killing honey bees.

You are better off growing your own plants from seed. Once you get the hang of it, you’ll end up with much healthier and more productive plants, and you’ll be able to grow very tasty and interesting varieties that aren’t available in the big box stores.

Many of the most desirable vegetables need to be started indoors from seed — like tomatoes, broccoli, onions (from seed), cabbage, cauliflower, eggplant, peppers, and (for the best results) summer squashes.

Growing them on a sunny windowsill probably won’t cut it. To get good results you need a seedling growing table. It’s an investment, but it will pay off in the long run.

There’s two routes you go — you can buy a pre-made table, or you can make your own. Pre-made tables are expensive — you’ll spend $400 or more.  I think if you are somewhat handy with tools, you are better off building your own. It will be a lot cheaper and you can custom build it to fit your available space and needs.

Build your own

I just built a large table in my basement to replace a venerable table that I had been using for 25 years. The old table was designed by my college friend Todd and based around a 4-bulb fluorescent fixture that my brother-in-law/gardening bro Skip gave me. I had modified it over the years in an effort to solve the most vexing problem I had — heat consistency. Long story short, I couldn’t beat the heat problem. Also, I need to grow a lot more seedlings to keep up with my farmstand’s customer demand, and the fixture I was using was the old T12 bulb technology.

I built the new seedling table in my basement. Most underground spaces will have a baseline temperature of 50-55 degrees, which is a bit cold for seedlings but you can use some techniques to bump up the heat. The best reason to put it in your basement is the temperature will stay consistent. My old light table was in the barn, where springtime temperatures can swing wildly from the 20s to the 70s.

How much does it cost?

You don’t need to buy a lot of stuff to build a light table. Let’s say you want to build a 2-foot-by 4-foot table. That’s big enough to grow about 4 large trays of plants — in other words, hundreds of seedlings! Here’s a look at what you need to buy:

  • Lumber: eight 2x4s ($20); one 2-foot by 4-foot piece of plywood ($10)
  • Lights: One 4-bulb T8 florescent fixture ($40 to $50), 4 T8 aquarium/plant bulbs ($40) T8s are a newer technology that use a lot less energy than the old T12s, and can produce a richer range of plant-healthy light.
  • Heat pad: One seedling heat pad — they come in a variety of sizes ($20-$40)
  • Light timer: One light timer ($10)… plants should be exposed to light for about 14-16 hours a day; they need time to “sleep” with the lights off, just as we do.
  • Hardware: A box of 2-inch wood screws ($5), and a box of 3-inch wood screws ($5)
  • Plastic: A sheet of 3-foot-by-50-foot clear plastic, at least 3.5 mil in thickness. ($10)

TOTAL COST: $120 to $150

TOOLS: Here’s what you need for tools:

  • A power screwdriver (cordless is best), with phillips head attachment
  • A phillips head screwdriver
  • A stapler
  • A power saw
  • Tape measure

LABOR: Even for an awful carpenter like me, this project is pretty simple. Power tools can make up for a lot of knuckleheaded problems, like making sure the cuts are straight. There are lots of do-it-yourself blog posts and videos on how to build one, so I won’t reinvent the wheel here. Here’s a good one.

This is a great project to tackle at this time of the year, when it’s too early to plant outside yet you’ve got the planting bug.

So clear out a junky corner of the basement and make room for a little project that will put you in great shape to have a fantastic vegetable garden this summer.

John Macone owns Farmer John’s Organic Foods, a neighborhood organic farm in Amesbury, Mass.







Old secrets in a dusty cellar

It feels like the dead of winter, yet spring isn’t that far off. On March 1 I always plant the first of the cold weather transplantable crops — broccoli, cabbage, and brussels sprouts. I had been starting them in the barn, but it’s so cold in there they have a hard time germinating.

So this year I decided to move the seedling growing area inside, into the basement. It’s not your run-of-the-mill basement. It’s a 250-year-old cellar hole, with enough cobwebs and dust to choke you. So a major clean-up has been underway.

Along the way I’ve come across a few discoveries that remind me how many hidden and long-forgotten artifacts find their way into cellars. I cleared out all the “valuables” (as well as 30-year-old homemade pickles) first, and came across some interesting old crockery. But the discoveries that I really liked were at the bottom of the stairs, and an old shelf.


Bottom step, with beveled edges

I’ve stepped on that step 100 times and never noticed that there are some unusual features on it. It’s a very hard wood, maybe oak, and when I started cleaning 50 years of dust and dirt off it I realized its edges are perfectly beveled. In its former life it must have been a part of a raised panel wall.


As I moved on to clear the dust off the bottom shelf of a very old and rickety wooden stack of shelves, an unusual feature caught my eye. The shelf had a carved bead running down the middle, where two pieces of wood joined together. Then I noticed that it also had some metal hardware — a hole to accept a latch. So this was an old door.

It’s hard to say whether these two features were originally from this house. The entire

Old door, now used as a shelf

first floor is remarkably intact, with every piece of molding and every door accounted for. But the second floor doesn’t have any features from the 1700s — it looks like it was completely redone in the latter 1800s. in fact when we were stripped some of the peeling wallpaper, we came across the date “1870” painted onto one of the walls. Seems that’s when the major rehab of the upstairs happened, and maybe that’s where these two pieces came from.


I found one other item that was interesting — an old recipe for pickling cauliflower, along with the cost of buying the supplies. The recipe was faded and the paper it was written on is brown and brittle from its old age. This is a small piece of Colby family history (the Colbys had owned the land that the house was built on from 1654 to 1986, and owned the house from its construction in 1754 until 1986).

Dated wall on second floor


So I left all of these pieces in place but documented them. They’ll stay right where they are.

Starting next week, the old cellar will get some new life as a vegetable plant nursery. By mid May I should have a great crop of vegetable seedlings for sale on the farmstand.