Gardening on a budget: How to start seeds without grow lights or heat mats

pouring seeds from a packet into seed pods in a growing tray

One of the reasons a lot of people garden is because it’s an affordable way to create an abundance of fresh fruits and veggies.

But after seeds, organic soil, fertilizer, seed trays, and seemingly endless accessories, your price tag often ends up way higher than your grocery bill would have.

So what can you skip? There are a variety of ways you can save money on your garden by going to a seed swap, using your city’s free mulch program, or borrowing from a neighbor. But what about heat mats and grow lights? Can you save $100 by skipping the grow lights and heating mats, but still successfully start seeds at home?

First of all, what are grow lights?

Grow lights are electric lights that are used to help indoor plants get enough “sunlight” to thrive. They use special LED lightbulbs that emit the same colors as the sun, which helps stimulate growth. 

Because plenty of sunshine is a key ingredient for healthy plants, grow lights help seedlings and plants that don’t get adequate natural light. 

This allows people to start seeds and nurture their plants in darker parts of their homes like basements, closets, and garages.

Will regular lights help my plants grow?

So if all a grow light is is an LED light that you put over a plant, can you just use an LED lightbulb in any lamp you have instead?

Unfortunately, not really.

Plant grow lights produce more power than regular lights, which helps plants photosynthesize. At the same time, they actually produce less heat than regular LED lightbulbs. The heat from regular lights can damage or burn young seedlings. 

Grow lights also use specific wavelengths that mimic the sun, so if your regular LED lights lack the correct colors they may not have the same effect on your plants as specialized grow lights would.

What are heating mats?

Heating mats are another overwhelmingly popular product for gardeners who want to start their seeds inside. They are small mats the size of a standard seed tray that continually provide warmth to the bottom of your soil. 

Typically heat mats help raise the soil temperature about 15-20 degrees F warmer than they would be otherwise. This can be especially helpful in cold basements and unheated garages.

Warmer soil helps speed up the process of germination and creates a greenhouse effect when you cover your seed trays with clear plastic covers or plastic wrap.

How to start seeds without heating mats or grow lights

So, can you successfully start plants from seed without these specialized (re: expensive!) lights and heating mats?

Of course you can! But it might take a few tries and a little troubleshooting to find just the right conditions.

Here are a few tips for successfully starting your seeds without all the extra gear:

Find a warm spot

There are spaces in your home that are naturally warm, which will help compensate for a lack of heating mats. 

If you have a room that is naturally much warmer than the rest of your home even in winter, that may be the best place to germinate your seeds. Sometimes the kitchen or an upstairs room retain more heat than other rooms in the house.

You can also put your seed trays on top of your refrigerator or a chest freezer, which emit gentle heat that can be perfect for seed-starting. 

Find a sunny south-facing window

South-facing windows provide the best (and longest) lighting for your indoor seedlings. It is especially important to find the sunniest window in your home if you are not able to provide your plants with supplemental LED lighting. 

After a few days, you might notice that your seedlings are “reaching” for the sun. Be sure to rotate them regularly so that they don’t get too tall and leggy, bent in one direction to reach the sun.

Try winter sowing

Winter sowing is a good option for frost-hardy plants like broccoli and greens. Winter sowing involves creating a mini homemade “greenhouse” out of a plastic jug like a milk gallon or two-liter bottle of soda.

Cut your bottle about 4” from the bottom almost all the way around, so that the plastic hinges and you can pull back the top. Fill the bottle with damp nutrient-dense soil, and plant your seeds at the depth and frequency that the seed packet recommends.

Add a label to the inside of the jug, and then close the top and seal it with duct tape. Label the outside of the jug again by writing the name of the plant on the bottle or the duct tape.

The jug filled with moist soil will create a greenhouse effect and keep the soil and air warm and humid. Once the air outside is warm enough, your seeds will begin to germinate and pop through. When you can see the seedlings, remove the cap of the bottle so that they have better air circulation.

Once your seedlings grow large enough to fill the container, they will be strong enough to transplant directly into the earth!

Sow directly into the outdoor soil

In some places it’s easy to directly sow into the soil at almost any time of year, but a lot of plants can’t succeed when temperatures are below freezing. 

So, you may be able to directly sow frost-hardy plant like broccoli, carrots, and beets as soon as the ground thaws even if you haven’t yet reached your last frost date.

Many plants should always be directly sown outdoors, so you never need to worry about starting them inside with grow lights or supplemental heating. 

Choose the right type of plants

When you’re ready to plant your spring garden, start out with frost-hardy or frost-tolerant veggies earlier in the season before your last frost date.

Here are a few options of plants that can tolerate a little cold: broccoli, cauliflower, kohlrabi, peas, arugula, onions, and kale.

Root veggies should almost always be directly sown, as being transplanted will disrupt their root growth. That means that you should be sure to plant your carrots, beets, turnips, and radishes outdoors directly in the soil where you will eventually pick them!

Other plants like squashes (zucchini, pumpkins, acorn squash), melons, cucumbers, and beans also should be directly sown outdoors instead of started inside with grow lights. 

If you are new to gardening, or trying to find a sustainable way to add more color to your diet on a budget, you can skip the grow lights and heating mats and try natural heat and light sources, or plant your seeds directly outside!

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