The Economics of Growing From Seed Indoors To Harvest

Feb. 09, 2011 11:14 AM ET
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Long Only, Growth, Long-Term Horizon

Contributor Since 2009

Elliott Morss has spent most of his career teaching and working as an economic consultant to developing countries on issues of trade, finance, and environmental preservation. Dr. Morss received a B.A. from Williams College in 1960 and a Ph.D. in political economy from The Johns Hopkins University in 1963. He has taught at the University of Michigan, Harvard, Boston University, Brandeis, and most recently at the University of Palermo in Buenos Aires. For several years, he worked in the Fiscal Affairs Department of the International Monetary Fund. He later helped establish Development Alternatives, Inc. (, a firm that became the largest contractor to the U.S. foreign assistance program (AID). Since his first IMF assignment in Ghana in 1966, he has worked in 45 countries. He has been the President of the Asia-Pacific Group, a British Virgin Islands for profit company with investments in Cambodia, China, and Myanmar. With Dr. Zhu Jia-Ming, he established Green China, an American NGO with the mission to increase the dialogue in China on the trade-offs between economic growth and environmental preservation. Dr. Morss has co-authored six books and published more than 50 articles in professional journals. He is currently available for consulting assignments.
by Elliott R. Morss
In my most recent article, I assessed different gardening catalogues. In this piece, I discuss the economics of growing from seed starting under indoor lights.
What Lights?
I use a 12-tray 3 level fluorescent lighting system capable of growing 32 seeds per tray or 384 seeds in total. The system is light and on wheels. It is available from Gardening Things for $728 which means $1.90 per seed. There are real economies of scale in buying this model: if you buy the 6-tray version at $582, you pay more than $3 per seed. Not all seeds will grow, so I usually end up with about 300 plants. An on/off timer is a useful accessory.
What Growing Medium?
There are many promotions for starting seeds – nearly every catalogue offers its “own” seed starting kit. And then there are peat pots, etc. Consider a few examples. Using prices from the Harris Seed catalogue The 3.5” x 4” square pot costs approximately 23 cents a pot if you buy at least 72 pots. Each pot will need two cups of soil which will cost 18 cents for a total of 41 cents. Or you might consider the 4” block maker featured in Johnny’s at $119. And then you will again have to add soil.
The most cost-effective growing medium? Plant seeds in Jiffy-7 pellets. I buy the extra depth pellets from Harris Seed. 500 cost $57.95, or 12 cents each. I don’t need anything to hold the pellets. They go straight into the trays that come with my lighting system. At 12 cents each, the Jiffy-7 pellets cost less than the soil for the other two alternatives. As a growing medium, nothing can compete with the Jiffy-7 pellets.
Hardening Off
Most plant need to move from indoors to outdoors gradually (hardening off). I use a mini-greenhouse offered in most catalogues at about $55.
Outdoor Garden Fence
Once you have identified where to have your outside garden, you need to till the soil and put up a fence. Assume a square 16’ x 16’ garden. To give you some perspective on this, 12 staked tomato plants would need 20 sq. feet or a little less than one quarter of the 256 sq. feet garden total. Assuming other plants would need half as much size as tomato plants, there would be enough room for 283 other plants. And this number is close to the 300 plants the lighting system can handle. For the fence, you need 9 posts, deer netting, chicken wire dug into the ground. A gate with hardware would also be required. I figure the fence would cost about $160 if you provide the labor.
I like to mulch to reduce weeding time. There are many types of mulch being offered, each with its own claims: red, silver, brown, etc. I use newspaper held down by stones at zero cost.
Watering by hand is time-consuming. A 75’ soaker hose with a water timer would eliminate the need for hand watering. You can get both for $43.  
A number of plans, e.g., tomatoes, beans, and cucumbers, require staking. You can use the fence for some staking. Beyond that, bamboo stakes tied together are the most cost-effective solution here ($50).
Look out! We are entering an unknown area where marketing scams abound. What do we know? Plants like more or less acid, nitrogen, potassium…. Now look at all the fertilizers and soil supplements presented in the catalogues. And all the personal testimonials! After getting 4 Spray-N-Grow catalogues last year, I e-mailed them for any scientific evidence that their product worked. I got a response that they would send me the scientific data. I never got it.
My view on this issue? Don’t try to change your soil into something it is not. Plant your seeds, see what grows, plant more of what grows. For vegetables/flowers that don’t do well in your garden buy them.   
The Economics
What this would all cost is presented in the following table. I have two cost columns. The first one presents total costs. But most of the expenditures are for items that will last for a number of
years – only two items – the seeds and Jiffy pellets have to be bought each year. So for the other items, I allocate only one-fifth of the investments’ cost (I am assuming these items will last 5 years) in the right hand column. This works out to 99 cents per plant, a pretty good deal if you are willing to provide the labor.
Growing From Seed Indoors
Lighting System - 3 levels, 12 trays (2904 square inches)
Growing Medium
500 Jiffy-7 Pellets (extra depth)
Garden 16 x 16 feet
9 Pressure Treated Wood Posts - 8' 4"x 4" @ $7.75 each
Deer Netting 7' x 100'
3 Chicken Wire 2' x 25' @ $15.53 each
Gatepost wood, associated hardware
Water System
Soaker Hose (75')
Water Timer
Bamboo poles and ties
Cost per Plant
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