Seed-starting with reservoir systems store-bought & home-made

4:57 pm in Getting Started, Materials and Resources, Plants, Starting Seeds by Donna Mileti Benenson

I’m new to Windowfarming and hydroponic gardening, but am falling fast, having been an outdoor organic fruit and herb and vegetable home gardener for years, but one who is now reading seed and gardening supply catalogs with Windowfarming also in mind.

One item I’ve noticed in a catalog that’s just turned up is a new hydroponic seed-starting reservoir system specifically designed for home gardeners, called “All-Roots Seed-Starting System” from Gardens Alive.

(Gardens Alive is a reputable organic supply company that I’ve used for over 20 years. I’ve no connection, I’m a home-gardener and just a long-time customer of their organic fertilizers and sticky traps and the like)

I’m wondering if anyone has tried this hydroponic reservoir system to start seeds, or, even better, devised his own version of it at home.

The link is well-illustrated, which is my main reason for posting it, because the price isn’t as attractive – but it may give Windowfarmers ideas about how to make their own systems, without buying the kit at all.

If some Windowfarmers are already using this “All-Roots”reservoir system, or have built a comparable one of their own, it would be great to read about it.  (I’m wondering, from my own experience using a reservoir system to start non-hydroponic transplants – more info below – whether, if you did buy the kit, that instead of ordering refill plugs, you could simply pack the cells with loose potting medium that comes in bags.)

The reservoir system that I did use for years, called APS, was truly foolproof for healthy seed-starting, and it may be another system of interest to Windowfarmers, because you would simply need to use a hydroponic growing medium instead of a peat or soil based one.,default,sc.html (again, no relation except as customer, and, also again, my main reason for posting is as an example of ways to suggest ideas for devising your own)

Using this system, and versions I made up, based on it, I raised thousands of very healthy, strong-rooted, seedlings under lights in my dirt basement and root cellar (think: jerry-rigged shop lights, timers, flourescent bulbs from the hardware store. You do not need expensive full-spectrum bulbs for raising seedlings, or even plants that aren’t going to flower or fruit.  And still some of my lathyrus odorata – sweet peas – did begin to flower under the cheaper lights. But this was a mistake of timing.  You don’t want seedlings to reach fruiting or flowering stage before transplant.  The goal is to keep the top green growth relatively short and stocky, and have most of the development going on in the root system. This is achieved by keeping your light source low, about 3-4″ above the growing tips of the plants, adjusting upwards as they get taller. )

The links for the APS seed-starting system on the Gardeners Supply website include some good illustrations of how the system works, and I think Windowfarmers could come up with their own home-made versions, if they haven’t already, by looking at it.

(In my instance, years ago when I was first learning,  I did buy some of the actual kits. They cost half as much at that time, and even less if you bought 3.  But once I saw how they worked – and how well they worked – I improvised my own versions, using various household items and recyclables, and only having to buy the capillary matting – link below.

So, if you’d like to investigate making your own reservoir system, this is the page you want.  It’s the page for APS replacement parts:,11802,default,cp.html#

Below the main illustration, there are two smaller ones.  Click on the one on the right and you’ll see “How the APS System Works.”   It shows the individual components and how they fit together.  (I’d be happy to explain more in further posts)

Now, here’s the link on their site for a roll of capillary matting (which in the diagram has been cut to fit their plant tray) It’s $14.95 for 3 yards. You may be able to find it for less.,default,pd.html

Capillary matting was the only part of the system I had to buy, when I started making up my own version of the system.

I’d be glad to get more specific about this, but as this post is already so long, I’ll stop here, because some Windowfarmers may want to order a kit, or look at the links and invent their own versions, and I can offer more suggestions in a subsequent post.

Of course, there are now many variants of these “self-watering” reservoir systems, long windowsill trays as well as pots with wicks, that can save your seeds and seedlings from dying of thirst or by drowning – and perhaps free you as they did me from the sorry graveyard of dried up paper towels and dusty peat balls and green shoots that weren’t plants but colonies of mold at my house, when I first got started.

But there is an added virtue with using these reservoir systems that have individualized plant cells – at least there was for me, especially as a beginner with seedlings, in that you not only end up with evenly, consistently watered transplants, but with plants that have a very compact and easily handled and transplanted rootball.

This means you end up not only with very sturdy healthy seedlings, but with ones that will suffer less root disturbance, and the break-up of the potting medium in your hands, causing more root disturbance or breakage, as can often happen when “pricking out” seedlings from a flat or large pot.

(That said, small bathrom-dispenser sized wax paper cups, filled with potting medium and set on a reservoir system, can be a reasonable compromise between planting in large flats or small cells)

(Note: if you are thinking about buying one of these kits, it seems to me that growing cubes like Root Riot or Root Cubes would fit into the APS cells; or you could use a loose hydroponic growing medium that comes in bags to fill them.

The APS systems do not come with growing medium, and are designed for loose mixes. But by the time your seedlings are ready to be popped out of the cell for transplanting,  they’ve developed a very compact root ball that ends up virtually a solid “plug” that holds together for transplanting (if dampened before removing). This seems to be a reliable virtue of the way plants develop with these systems.

As for the “All-Roots” hydroponic system, I’m guessing that you could use a bagged potting medium instead of buying more “refill plugs” to start a second batch of seedlings.)

Well, I hope some of these suggestions from a dirt-gardener end up sparking better ones from Windowfarmers who are already experienced with seed-starting for their hydroponic systems.

I’d love to learn what others are already doing.

Donna MB