new gardener, needs advice

My girlfriend and I love gardening, but have only ever planted tomatos and peppers from starts you buy at the hardware store, or even walmart, in the fall. We're trying to go cheaper this year, and I have a henry fields catalog here with tomato and pepper seeds.
Here's where it starts to sound kinda hokey. Could we save money by trying to start our own tomato and pepper plants inside? I can get a 48" flourescent two-bulb fixture and two grow bulbs for around $30. I know, it's not a greenhouse. Another issue, we're planning on putting them in dixie cups to start them, is that an issue?
We're only planning on growing about a dozen tomato plants and maybe a dozen bell pepper plants, but we have many friends and family who also garden that we'd share our starts with.
How large can these starts get in the house under a growlight?
Thanks! Jason Kelly Valley Center, KS
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Saving money by growing your own? I don't think that's possible unless you work for free. Can you? Should you? Different questions. Purchasing seeds by mailorder: seeds are cheap, shipping and handling are not.
You certainly can start plants under lights; I'd recommend 2 shop light fixtures, that gives you roughly 4 square feet of space. Space the lights about 1 foot apart, on a system that lets you raise/lower the lights. I raise/lower my seedlings, same principle.
Lots of space for seedlings, but not so much for plants.
Put lights just above your seedlings - flourescent lights won't burn your plants. You don't REALLY need gro-lights, but a full-spectrum tube (one per fixture) would be good. I use regular old tubes in mine.
Dixie cups for small stuff - sure, but you'll have to be careful watering that you don't over-do. I usually start tomatoe plants in a 3 or 4 inch pot, several per pot. When seedlings have two true leaves, I put each seedling into its own cell in a 6-pack cell (handle with care, by leaf only). When I see roots coming out of the bottom, I transplant to a 4 inch pot. When I see roots coming out of the bottom of that, I TP to a larger pot. Usually about this time the plants are 12-16 inches tall. I usually put them in the ground too early, but at this point they make the ones for sale look puny. However, all tomatoe plants can by transplanted to the garden and buried except for the tips, and they'll root all along the buried stem.
A dozen plants sounds like a lot :) Unless you really like tomatoes that is!
The plants will do fine uder lights; you'll want a timer to turn off the lights 5-6 hours every day. You also need to take care when setting your plants out - harden them off over a week. Don't take plants from your lights and put them into full sun, you'll kill them. They need gradual exposure to sunlight and weather. Easy does it for the first couple days.
Usually the main reason for growing your own is variety - plants for sale are usually just a small piece of the plant spectrum you have access to by starting your own plants. I don't think I save any money by starting my own, because my seed bill is usually 30-60 dollars and I nurse those plants along for 2-3 months. Figure water, electric, time & energy, space in the house.. Expensive plants. But in my opinion.. worth it all :)
Good luck!
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gonzo wrote:

This response worries me in that one day the IRS will discover that home owners are doing stuff around their house for free and not paying taxes. For example if you had a lawn service come in at $50/week, the grass cutters would probably pay out $20 in taxes. If the current crop in congress think about this, to make up for the lost revenue, we may have to pay them $20 every time we cut our own grass ;) Frank
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One of our elected twits (NY) was commenting once about taxing barter deals, and he used the words "garage sales, too". I never heard it mentioned again. I suspect his wife slapped him silly when he got home.
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snipped-for-privacy@gmail.com wrote:

You can grow seedlings on a window sill indoors. I start mine in moist potting soil on top of the water heater in the basement and transfer to peat pots when they sprout. Plenty of seeds will be available in stores shortly so there is no need to mail order. Tomato and pepper seeds are only good for a few years so unless you have a lot of plants, plant about 2 seeds for each expected seedling the first year and about 4 for each the 2nd year. As weather warms, I harden plants on deck and take in if danger of frost. Usually I repot in bigger pots before setting out in grow pots on deck for summer. Frank
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snipped-for-privacy@gmail.com wrote:

First get you another catalog, I like Pinetree and/or Johnny's Seeds, both have online catalogs. Had bad luck once with Fields.

Certainly you can save money by starting your own. I have a steel shelf unit in my office. Two of the shelves have 48 inch twin tube fluorescent units and in those I have a "daylight" tube and a "kitchen and bath" tube. Those two together duplicate actual sunlight and are much cheaper than "grow" lights. I don't see dixie cups as a problem but be sure you put them in some sort of tray that allows the water you put in/on the cups to drain or you will get root rot quickly. Keep the light about one inch above the plants as they grow. Feed them lightly with a liquid fertilizer as needed. You should get enough warmth from the light fixture to keep them going.

When we've had a late cold spell here in USDA zone 9b I've had the seedlings get up to 8 to 12 inches tall before planting out. Ensure your garden soil is at 70F before planting the seedlings in the ground.

George
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I wouldn't use paper cups. I've used both paper and styrofoam ones, but the styrofoam ones tend to tip easily and the paper cups start looking moldy around the bottom fairly quickly. Plus, the bottom (where you punch the drain holes) gets damp and weak.
I'd either get the cheap plastic trays & domes from the home store/Walmart or, if they're not available early enough, use plastic yogurt containers and a bag (until the plants appear). You can use an awl to put a small hole in the bottom and then enlarge it with something like a big nail.
Charlotte
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Some (real) garden centers sell new 6-packs very cheaply. I can buy them locally for about 15 cents each. If they're not mishandled, I'll get 3-4 uses out of each one. One advantage to them is that if they're in a tray and you have to bottom water the whole tray, they won't tip over if the water makes them float before they soak it up. Individual cups or small pots can be funny that way.
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>>

I save any that I buy after planting what I got, wash them in Clorox water, and reuse them until they get too raggedy to use. I put shelves, a thermometer and a light in my hot water heater room. As soon as they start spouting, I take them out and put them where they will get more light (my light system in that room is weak, but it stays plenty warm).
I also grow sweet potatoes, and start my slips in plastic trays on top of my freezer (a self defrosting type that stays warm). It is a challenge, but a lot of fun. I raise my own cabbage, make my own kraut, and then I can it.
Dwayne Colby, KS
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I think I'll just buy the pre-grown varieties, as we don't need more than a dozen plants. Thanks for all your replies!
Jason Kelly Valley Center, KS
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If you buy from a place that keeps the plants in a partially shaded greenhouse, they'll probably look much nicer than those which are out on tables in the sun all day. In fact, the greenhouse plants ARE healthier because they don't go through the huge dry-to-wet cycles as the those displayed outdoors. One caveat, though: The greenhouse plants should be gradually acclamated to full sun, or some of them will suffer very badly. This may mean that you have to stash them behind bushes for part of the day, or whatever else you have to do to make the change a gradual one. This is especially important if you aren't home all day. On a sunny day with a little breeze, 6-packs will dry out in about 23 minutes.
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