Not only is this my first gardening season in a new growing zone, it’s my first season to be growing seedlings indoors without a power source. Living off the grid has its own set of challenges, I hadn’t considered how it would affect the way we garden. At least the basics of gardening are the same no matter where you. Plants need healthy soil, adequate moisture, plenty of light, and toasty warmth to grow.
If you’re like me, you’ve spent the last few months looking over catalogs arriving in the mail. You open the mailbox and there they are. All those wish books filled with vivid colors, perfect looking fruits, and handy gadgets. Every day is like getting the old Sears Christmas catalog in the mail. You mark the pages by folding them down or you make a list including the page number of everything you want to try. We save our own seeds, but we do like to add something new to the garden every year, especially rare or endangered plants. Some become mainstays in our garden. Even though we save our seeds, looking and dreaming are still fun.
Depending on what growing zone you are in, you may have already started your seedlings. In my new zone, Zone 5 bordering zone 6, I’m told by the local old-timers now is the time to start seedlings. They tell me to be prepared for frosts and even snow at our elevation until June! Coming from the deep south this is a real change for us. In growing zone 8, we would already have potatoes in the ground and sweet potato slips ready and waiting.
So what’s the big deal? Well, we’re staying in the guest cabin of dear friends of ours. This cabin has no phones, no electric and no plumbing. When I say we’re off grid, I don’t mean we have solar, hydro or wind power. I mean we have no power. Our friends have solar panels for home use so we get our water from them. We carry it down to the cabin in 5 gallon buckets a couple of times a week.
Many people use grow lights, heat mats and/or at least some sort of artificial heat and light to get their seedlings started. These can be expensive and frankly I’ve never used them. I have used a well heated room with light bulbs set close to the trays, but now I don’t have light bulbs to stay on for hours at a time to help force the young seeds to grow. Some people say using these helps to have better germination rates and more predictable growth.
Growing seedlings indoors for people who have solar, wind or hydro power with off grid battery banks may even be a challenge because of the many gray days we experience in the winter. My on grid friends down south have been without power for weeks now because of flooding and storm damage. They’ve lost eggs they were incubating because of it and have not been able to start growing seeds indoors using their grow lights. Growing seedlings indoors without power isn’t something only done by those who live off grid, it just has it’s challenges.
I’ve gardened all my life in the south. I was gardening with my grandparents when I could barely walk. Now, we’re making a journey of putting those skills to use in an off-grid world.
How To Start Growing Seedlings Indoors Without Any Power at All
I don’t have my usual potting mix because we made our own on the farm from chicken yard dirt, vermiposted dirt, and sand. Now, I’ll have to purchase organic compost and mix it with top soil from the woods around us. I’ll have to add lime, the old-timers tell me, because of the types of trees here. The various pines and spruces make the soil acidic.
After I’ve prepared my growing trays by adding the soil, the exciting part begins! Adding those tiny little treasures of life, the seeds. I moisten the soil before adding the seeds. This keeps the top from compacting and the seed from washing to a section of the growing tray I don’t want it in.
The seeds are in the soil and now they need heat and light. For us, this is where the challenge begins. We live in a one room cabin so we are limited on space. We heat and cook with a wood stove so we are able to maintain the heat during the day. It’s the night time schedule that has to be altered. We usually get the house warm and then go to bed. We like to sleep cooler so we let the fire die out over night and start fresh in the morning.
Our nighttime temperatures are still in the 20’s and 30’s in late winter and early spring. This is too cool for seeds trying to live and sprout because they need warm soil. Temperature changes from the cool to the warmth can cause fungus to grow on the soil, so maintaining a pretty even temperature is important to the overall health of the seedling. To meet this challenge, we have to get up during the night and keep a low fire going to keep the inside temperature around 60. You could use a wood burning cook stove to do this too. Simply bank it at night and set the trays close to it in chairs or on a table.
Now for the light! The cabin we stay in is nestled in amongst the trees so we don’t have a window through which the sun pours directly. We do have three windows and two of them are very large so a great deal of light gets in. Placing the seed trays in front of the windows allows enough light to coax the little treasures from their slumber. Once you see germination, remember to rotate the trays so you get even growth and the seedling will be strong as it grows toward the light.
On days when the outside temperature is 50 or above, the seedlings can be set outside in the direct sun. We have a weatherproof fold out table which is perfect for this job. Covering them with clear plastic helps to keep the moisture and heat in so they can soak up the warmth and light without drying out. Since it’s still so cool, I cover them when outside. If it ever gets above 60 (surely it will) they won’t have to be covered when outside.
Different seeds do have different germination requirements. Cool weather crops don’t require as much attention to warmth, but you don’t want them to be too cold or exposed to freezing temps. If you use plastic coverings or tops on your trays, be sure to remove them once you see germination.
Once the ground temperature is warm enough for each crop, they can be hardened-off. Do this by placing the plants outside for longer and longer periods of time each day until they are hardy and ready to go in the ground. Depending on the crop, it can take a couple of days to a week for this process.
Knowing about growing seedlings indoors without power is a skill worth having. You never know when you may find yourself in a situation where you will be without power and need to get the garden going.
Do you start your seeds with power or without? Share your tips for growing seedlings indoors with us in the comments below.
Safe and Happy Journey,
Rhonda and The Pack