Growing your plants from seed is a great way to save money, and to ensure that your plants are grown organically right from the start. I'm growing most of my vegetables from organic seeds this year (I'll have to purchase organic asparagus crowns, strawberry plants and a blueberry bush), and am determined to do it right. In years past I've started seeds without the optimal lighting or location, and have had poor results.
Freecycled an old washer and dryer, leaving my basement laundry closet available for my seed-starting area. Instead of buying a retail light shelf, I decided to make my own. I'd already had a wire 4-shelf unit, so I simply purchased three shop lights (I already had one installed in the ceiling for the top shelf) and replaced the bulbs with inexpensive grow lights. I tied them to the underside of each shelf, where they can provide light for the seedlings in the shelf below. While looking for used spoons at Goodwill (that's a whole 'nother blog post) I got lucky and spotted a timer for $1.99. Now I would be able to provide the seedlings with the 12-16 hours of light they need without having to remember to turn the lights on and off. I estimate I saved about $350 making this system myself.
I'm using the Burpee eco-friendly growing system. It's made from 100% sustainable natural materials, and is fully recyclable. I plan to re-use them for as many years as I can. The soilless mix that's included is not organic, so I'll use an organic mix instead.
If you need some tips on starting your own seeds, check out these three no-frills videos from Colorado State University:
Seed Starting Video 1
Seed Starting Video 2
Seed Starting Video 3
So, just when should you start your seeds? It all depends on the plant and when you plan to transfer them outside to the garden, which should coincide with the average date of the last frost in your area. In the Chicagoland area, a good rule of thumb is to wait to plant until after Mother's Day, or even a week after to be safe. We know how unpredictable weather in Chicago can be, and you don't want a late frost to kill the little darlings. Look to the back of your seed packets for specific indoor start time frames for each particular plant. A more general guide is available here. For example, if tomatoes should be started about 8 weeks before the last frost date of around May 15, you can go ahead and start them somewhere around March 15. As you can see, it's not an exact science - some say it's a lot of "trowel" and error!