An even more bare-bones method is to use a soil blocker, a hand-held metal gizmo that presses down into the planting mix, forming it into tidy cubes that are, in effect, container-less containers. A dimple attachment makes a shallow indentation on top of the compressed block to hold the seed. The seedling's roots are air-pruned naturally once they reach the end of the soil. These gizmos cost about $30, and you need to have the right blend of peat moss, vermiculite and compost for the blocks to hold their shape. Careful watering is also required to keep the blocks from disintegrating.
But watering with care is always necessary when starting plants from seed. Too little, too much, too forcefully'there are plenty of ways to go wrong. With a capillary waterer, absent-minded gardeners need only fill a reservoir now and then to ensure that a consistent, gentle flow of moisture is delivered to seedlings. These systems usually take the form of a channelled tray and a porous mat on which seed containers sit. Water gets wicked up through the mat to the pots to keep the soil moist. Some models include a gauge to keep tabs on the reservoir's water level. Packaged together with a clear plastic dome to maintain humidity during germination, these multi-storey units are marketed as self-watering greenhouses or seed-starter systems. Windowsill-size models start at about $15. '
Don't confuse them with mini-greenhouses or propagators, which usually consist of only a tray and a clear dome. With pots or peat pellets thrown in, they're called greenhouse kits or growing kits. Prices start at about $5 for the flimsiest models and can soar to $40 for a sturdy tray with a high dome and adjustable vents, one that'll last many seasons and serve as a dandy hothouse for propagating cuttings, as well.
Besides inconsistent watering, another suspect in poor germination is fluctuating temperatures. An electric heating mat'heating wires sandwiched between layers of rubber matting'placed under the flats provides gentle radiant warmth to the root zone. It runs upward of $50, particularly if it has an adjustable thermostat. Moisture-proof heating cables, which run under flats or through the soil, are cheaper.
Growing plants from scratch is more economical than buying them. (It's also potentially more satisfying and/or frustrating, depending on the whims of fate.) With the savings, you might be able to justify splurging on the many other seed-starting tools and gadgets available: seedling misters, light and moisture meters, dispensers for doling out seeds frugally, one at a time. How about an electric soil sterilizer, or a potting tray to keep your work area tidy? Or why not a whole new work area, say a teak potting bench right next to a three-tier plant stand with high-intensity grow lights and an electronic timer?
And while you're deciding, pass me the milk.