Seed starting is a right of passage for most gardeners. However, there are so many different ways to do it, that it can be overwhelming! Compare the pros and cons of 7 different DIY seed starting trays that you can make at home. From using eggshells to toilet paper rolls for seed starting, learn which method works best.
The weather may be warming a bit and it’s been many months since we had our green thumbs digging in the soil, so it’s no surprise that folks are just itching to get seeds started. I’m hearing about or seeing a lot of different seed starting blog posts floating around the web, from rookies who picked up a kit at the local hardware store to seasoned pros with pretty sophisticated grow ops.
I decided it was probably time for me to chime in and share what I know to be true about seed starting as well, so I put together this series. I’ll share my experiences with all those super-adorable containers you can make at home (Part 1 – below) as well as some thoughts on the store-bought stuff (Part 2). So here goes, the good, the bad, and the ugly of seed starting containers.
Note: for more information on the whole process of seed starting, check out Seed Starting 101 for the basics. The following is more in-depth on only one of the topics covered briefly in that post.
The Best DIY Seed Starting Trays You Can Make At Home
You absolutely, positively, do not need to BUY anything to be successful at seed starting. Well, besides your seeds (if you haven’t saved your own) and some great sterilized seed starting mix, you can find most of what you need around the house.
Not every oh-so-cute Pinterest-worthy repurposed container gives your seeds the best start though. And some are just unnecessarily time-consuming. Here are the facts so you can choose what is right for you and your garden.
These wildly popular little containers can be easily made by cutting strips of newspaper and rolling it around a small tomato paste can, glass, or a fancy-dancy pot maker to make cheap little starters. Make sure the paper you choose uses a non-toxic soy-based ink, especially when growing veggies start.
Newspaper is biodegradable so you can plant your seedling out in the garden in the newspaper pot and it’ll break down naturally from the bacteria and other organisms in the soil.
Pros: cheap, readily available, plantable pot breaks down easily
Cons: can be flimsy when wet, can’t bottom-water delicate seedlings, time-consuming to make many
Toilet Tissue Roll Pots
These pots are a bit sturdier than the newspaper pots and again readily available. We all use toilet paper, right? To make a toilet paper roll into a simple diy seed starting container, cut tissue roll in half. Then cut four ½” long slits on the bottom of one end, equally spaced to make 4 flaps you will fold over like closing a box.
In theory, the cardboard will break down in the soil so they can be planted out like the newspaper pots, BUT not all soil is equal. If your soil doesn’t have the necessary elements to break down this cardboard quickly the roots will not be able to spread and the plant will suffer.
If you do plant them in the ground, be sure to plant the whole container, because if the lip stays above soil it can wick moisture away from the roots.
This method of seed starting works well for cuttings and seeds that may take longer than average to germinate. But, remember, without the right soil, your seedlings will likely have to be removed from these before planting, so choose wisely.
Pros: cheap, readily available, sturdy, hole in the bottom for drainage
Cons: time-consuming to make many, too small to be useful for most seedlings, will likely need to be removed when planting.
Egg cartons can be a good option for starting plants with shallow roots that you want to plant in a row, such as peas or lettuce. By the way, we’re talking about the cardboard variety, not styrofoam egg cartons here. Styrofoam never decomposes—I avoid it at all costs.
Grab a box cutter and use it to score (not cut!) a line through the middle of the divets in the carton. You are basically doing this so that all the seeds can germinate together, but later you can gently pull it apart to drop all the seeds into the dirt.
When it’s time to plant, simply make a trough in the dirt and place your egg carton halves inside. Pull the cartons apart sot hat the seeds fall through.
Pros: cheap, readily available, helps keep seeds spaced evenly apart
Cons: have to get the seeds from the container into the ground, which can be tricky
These are so adorable aren’t they? Using a cardboard egg carton filled with soil, you can find 12 little cells to start seeds. When you’re ready to plant you can theoretically just grab one and plant in the garden like the toilet tubes. And the eggshells couldn’t be more precious.
HOWEVER…I won’t even do a pros and cons list on them because that’s it for pros (cute) and never mind that you’ll have to remove the seedling from that shell and crush it before it hits the soil, they are just too darn small.
This means you will have to delicately extract that little seedling before it has its true leaves and plant it in a bigger, deeper container. I say, why not just start with a bigger container and save the seedling the stress?
They don’t have to be yogurt (shown here are cream cheese containers) but you get the picture. This is the equivalent of the plastic nursery pots. Just punch a few drainage holes in the bottom and Bob’s your uncle. My only suggestion is to check your plastic for food safety to make sure it isn’t toxic to yourself or your plants.
Pros: cheap, readily available, sturdy, drainage holes for bottom watering
Cons: Unless you are fairly new to gardening, you probably have more nursery pots than yogurt containers, not all plastic is safe to reuse
Plastic Salad Containers
The box that you buy pre-washed baby greens in will make a lovely container, as will a chicken dome or a cake tray. Anything that has a bit of a bottom on it and a wonderful clear plastic lid will create a mini greenhouse akin to what you can buy in retail.
Cut a few holes in the lid for ventilation and check it often to make sure seedlings don’t succumb to the dreaded “damping off,” a fungal infection that kills the seedling. You can either set all your little homemade containers in these or line the bottom with soil and plant directly.
Pros: cheap, readily available, sturdy, is a built-in greenhouse
Cons: not all plastic is safe to reuse, you must keep an eye on greenhouse domes and vent regularly to avoid damping-off, need to prick out and transplant germinated seedlings one by one which will inevitably cause some loss
So, most like you don’t have a soil blocking tool around your home. But, they cost you about $35 and once you have one, it is the option with the least waste, because it requires no additional materials outside of your seed-starting mix.
To use this handy tool, combine your seed starting mix with water in a bucket until it’s the same texture as wet sand. Grab your soil blocking tool and press it into the wet mix. Then, press the handle and you’ll have perfect little blocks of soil that you can add your seed into.
Pros: no-waste option, easiest way to transplant seedlings into the ground
Cons: have to purchase a tool
The Best Seed Starting Trays – Personal Preference
That’s my list. Are there more? Please comment if there are others out there that you have used and loved or hated. What it really comes down to is a personal preference.
I’ve tried many ways and I have my favorite, trusted, old standby seed-starting methodology, but you will find that in Part 2 of this series. Check out Seed Starting Containers: The Real Dirt – Part 2 where I write up the pros and cons of the store-bought seed starters out there: peat pellets, fiber pots, and more.