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The Economics of Growing From Seed Indoors To Harvest

by Elliott R. Morss
 
Introduction
 
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.
 
Mulching
 
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
 
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.  
 
Staking
 
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).
 
Fertilizers
 
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
Cost
Annualized
 
 
 
Lights
 
 
Lighting System - 3 levels, 12 trays (2904 square inches)
722
144
 
 
 
Growing Medium
 
 
500 Jiffy-7 Pellets (extra depth)
58
58
 
 
 
Seeds
32
32
 
 
 
Mini-Greenhouse
55
11
 
 
 
TOTAL INDOORS
867
245
 
 
 
Garden 16 x 16 feet
 
 
9 Pressure Treated Wood Posts - 8' 4"x 4" @ $7.75 each
70
14
Deer Netting 7' x 100'
20
4
3 Chicken Wire 2' x 25' @ $15.53 each
47
9
Gatepost wood, associated hardware
25
5
sub-total
161
32
 
 
 
Water System
 
 
Soaker Hose (75')
18
4
Water Timer
25
5
sub-total
43
9
 
 
 
Staking
 
 
Bamboo poles and ties
50
10
 
 
 
TOTAL OUTDOORS
255
51
 
 
 
OVERALL TOTAL
1,122
296
 
 
 
Cost per Plant
 
$0.99