Best way to start seeds: Grow lights or sunny windowsills

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When it comes to seed sowing, the big question is what is the best way to start seeds – with grow lights or sunny windowsills? Are grow lights worth the expense? If you’re serious about seed starting, the answer is yes.

For me, the seed-starting season begins with early sowings of slow-growing plants like leeks, onions, geraniums, and pansies in mid-February. Today, I use a homemade three-tier light stand with simple four-foot long shop fixtures fitted with fluorescent bulbs. But, early on, I used my mother’s dining room table (sorry mom!).

Best way to start seeds: grow lights or windowsills

I was only about 16 years old when I first started sowing my own seeds indoors. I began with eight flats of annual flower, herb, and veggie seeds and may have been in a bit over my head! Oops! The only light source was a north-facing window that was located 10 feet from the closest seed tray. In my naivety, I thought I had the perfect setup, but boy, was I wrong! The seeds germinated just fine, but within days, the tiny plants were reaching – stretching – for the meagre light and were soon growing sideways. Their stems were long, but alarmingly thin and the seedlings flopped over, never to rise again.

What's the best way to grow seeds - windowsills or with grow lights?

A peek under my grow light set up, which is simple, inexpensive, and effective.

The next year, I got smart and bought my first grow light, and never looked back. My homemade three shelf grow light is used non-stop from February through August to produce a steady supply of sturdy seedlings for the spring garden, as well as for succession planting in late spring, summer, and even autumn.

To minimize my daily workload, I use a simple, inexpensive timer to turn my grow lights on for 16 hours each day. If I used a window, even a south-facing window, my early sown seedlings would receive far less light than they need for healthy growth. For example, I live in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where the day-length is just 10 hours and 23 minutes on February 13th. By March 1, we’ll be up to 11 hours and 11 minutes. Jump ahead to April 1, and you’re looking at 12 hours and 48 minutes of day-length, still lagging quite far behind my trusty lights that are left on for 16 hours a day. Plus, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that our winter days are often interrupted by cloudy skies, resulting in even less light for windowsill seedlings.

Grow lights are the best way to start seeds

Grow-light stands, like these at Halifax Seed, are available from garden centres.

The bottom line: So, what IS the best way to start seeds? If you’re new to seed starting and just want to try your hand at growing a few tomato seedlings without investing much money, stick to your (hopefully) sunny, south-facing windowsill. If you’re starting more than a few flats each year, and will continue to use your grow lights to start additional seedlings for succession and fall/winter planting, you will likely find that a simple light set-up pays off.

Learn the best way to grow seeds; grow lights or a windowsill

Spindly quinoa seedlings grown on a windowsill.

There is another unique way to start garden seeds: Winter sowing. In this video, Niki shows you how to start seeds outdoors using this fun and useful technique that doesn’t require grow lights or a windowsill.

How do you start your seeds? Grow lights or a sunny windowsill?

seed starting

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3 Responses to Best way to start seeds: Grow lights or sunny windowsills

  1. It is good to point out that cool white fluorescent lights work very well and are less expensive than special full spectrum bulbs. An inexpensive fluoresent fixture installed on adjustable chains allows for a lots of plants to be grown in quite a small area. Keep the lights very close to the seedlings so they don’t become lanky.

  2. jl says:

    Good (cold, icy, snowy) morning from upper middle TN! With my broccoli taking off beautifully, and eggplant starts right behind, please tell me how long I should leave my lights on them. They are on a 6 ft table, under 2 sets of the coolest shop lights, SW facing. The windows are bubble-wrapped, so there is great protection from the cold while still allowing for excellent natural light for 4-6 hrs.

  3. nikki says:

    I’m doing both-some seeds that I’m going to end up planting outside are under a light I managed to borrow to try. I’m growing lettuce in my south facing bay window with a bunch of chives I brought in last fall!

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