Introduction: Seed Starting: a Comparative Study on Cheap Indoor Methods

Picture of Seed Starting: a Comparative Study on Cheap Indoor Methods

In this instructable, I will offer instructions for making, and discuss the pros and cons of, 5 cheap methods of starting seeds indoors:

(1) Egg cartons
(2) Toilet paper tubes
(3) Milk cartons
(4) Yogurt cups
(5) Peat pots and coco fiber pots

The seeds that I start using these methods include peas (climbers, like other legumes), tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants (nightshades), corn, basil, thyme, parsley, and marigolds.  Since I live in an area where we can get snow into mid-May, it's important for me to have healthy, well-started seedlings by the time we're frost free so that my plants have enough time to mature and produce veggies.

Step 1: What You Need

Take a look at the various starters I've used and decide which ones best suit your needs.  In addition, you will need:

- seed starter mix: it's not that expensive, and superior to potting soil because it's fine and uniform.
- water: I never use plain tap water, because it's chlorinated.  At the very least, I run it through my Brita.  If you have distilled water, that's the best for watering plants.
- something to mix your dirt and water in (I used the bottom half of a gallon jug)
- a latex glove: optional, but dirt dries your skin out and I don't like that, so I wear a glove on my dirt hand.
- seeds.  I like heirloom seeds and buy them from Tomato Bob's website, where they have varieties on sale for twenty-five cents at times.  But the local hardware store or gardening store sells seeds too, and there ain't no shame in that.

That's it.  Do this outside on a mild day, or be prepared to clean up dirt inside.

Step 2: Egg Cartons

Picture of Egg Cartons

Pros: cool and convenient
Cons: too small
Best for: basil

While it's fun to use egg cartons as seed starters, they are at the bottom of my list for effective options.  Why?  Because the egg-shaped spaces are just too darn small.  However, if you want to give them a try, here's what I've learned.

First, cut the carton in half (separating the bottom from the top).

Prep your starter mix by mixing it with water in your vessel of choice.  It should be good and wet.  The texture and color visibly change as it absorbs water; you want it to be about as wet as it can be without having water sitting in the bottom of the bowl.

Fill the egg cups up as much as you can.  Put your seeds on top.  Add more mix.

Line the top of the carton with plastic (I use produce bags from the grocery store).  Put the top half into the bottom half.  This not only stabilizes the whole apparatus, since the cardboard egg carton gets awfully flexible when it's wet, but also keeps moisture in - that cardboard, if exposed to air, wicks moisture away like you wouldn't believe and sucks the life out of your seedlings in just a day.  The plastic lining is essential.

The second photo shows basil growing in pots and in an egg carton.  The potted basil was planted in those pots and is at least a month older than the sprouts.  I intend to keep it indoors in those pots.  But I also want basil to plant in my garden, and that's why I planted more in the egg carton - so I have plenty of sprouts to put in the ground with my tomatoes.  I had basil - notoriously easy to grow - sprout at 100% in the egg carton.  I also have bell peppers sprouting well, but in my third carton, with a mix of eggplant and sweet Italian peppers, I have about 30% no-shows.  I also suspect the size of the egg cavities limit the growth of my seedlings.

Step 3: Toilet Paper Tubes

Picture of Toilet Paper Tubes

Pros: compact and easy to transplant
Cons: molds easily
Best for: tomatoes

The toilet paper tube is a step up from the egg carton.  The first step here is to cut these babies in half, because the full length tube is pretty much guaranteed to develop nasty black mold on the bottom, where moisture collects and can't be reached by little baby plant roots.  Gross, and hungry mold risks overpowering and killing your seedlings.

Half-length tubes, however, work pretty well.  You can see in the photos how much cleaner they are than the tall ones.  You'll need a tray to arrange them in.  If you don't want to shell out five bucks for an alleged "seed starter tray," build something yourself - I used the bottom of a paper grocery bag, stabilized with a Netflix ad I got in the mail, and lined with a plastic grocery bag.

Prep your mix as for egg cartons.  Pack it firmly into the tube with the bottom opening blocked by something (like the table, or the bottom of the mix bowl).  Fill most of the way.  You can fill a little more loosely closer to the top.  Put your seeds on top.  Add more mix.  Arrange in your tray.

TP tubes are not good for anything with big, aggressive roots - like corn or peas.  Those roots will grow right out of the bottom and run rampant in your tray, and you will have to transplant within just a few days (see photo #4).  Tomatoes, however, have little bitty roots that don't stray from their mix, and they seem to like TP tubes quite a bit.  Of the tomatoes in my TP and 2" mini peat pot tray, I had a much better result from seeds planted in the TP tubes.

When you want to transplant from the TP tube into something bigger, here's my preferred method:
(1) Fill your desired vessel halfway with damp potting soil.
(2) Place the tube on top, then fill the space around the tube with soil.
(3) Remove the tube by pushing down gently on the seed mix around your seedling with one hand, and pulling up on the tube with the other.  Go slow.
(4) Add more soil after you've removed the tube.  Water.

I don't like to leave the tube in for two reasons: first, I don't want my plants to have to wait for it to decompose before they can stretch their roots out.  Second, there's usually at least a little bit of moldy fuzz starting to develop at the bottom of the tube, and I want that out of the picture.  It's not difficult to remove the tube.  Just be gentle.

Step 4: Milk Cartons

Picture of Milk Cartons

Pros: tomatoes' first choice award
Cons: no separation of seedlings
Best for: tomatoes

Okay, this was a half-assed thing that I tried, and I couldn't believe how well it worked.  I cut a milk carton in half (the long way), filled it about an inch with prepped mix, laid down my tomato seeds, and covered with more mix.

I had 100% germination and the seedlings from the milk carton were the biggest, fastest, best-developed tomatoes of all.  I thought they would be a nightmare to transplant because they were all growing together and I imagined a major root entanglement, but this was not the case.  The tomatoes came apart easily, I transplanted them into 3" and 4" coco fiber pots, and they are doing great.

I don't know why it works so well, but it does.  The second photo shows the milk carton tomatoes transplanted into pots, next to the TP tube and mini-peat tomatoes - they were all planted at the same time.

When you transplant tomatoes, cover the cotyledon leaves (the first leaves, the generic-looking ones) with soil.  I've heard it's good to cover them up to the second set of true leaves, but I transplanted mine before they were that big.  They'll grow roots from the covered part of the stem, and be sturdier plants.

Step 5: Yogurt Cups

Picture of Yogurt Cups

Pros: easy, easy, easy
Cons: yogurt is more expensive than eggs or milk
Best for: pretty much everything

Yogurt cups make great seed starters.  They are a good size, they don't rot, and the soft plastic makes it easy to slide your babies out with their roots intact when it's time to transplant.  I love these things.  I don't even poke holes in the bottom (careful not to overwater!).  They hold moisture like pros and everything I've planted in yogurt cups has grown well.

I've put zucchini, peppers, parsley, and marigolds in them.  Procedure: prep mix, fill, plant, and cover.
The first picture shoes marigolds up top and bell peppers on the bottom.  The second photo also shows a huge zucchini sprout (which is only a few days old, while everything else is at least two weeks old) and some parsley as well.

Step 6: Peat and Coco Pots

Picture of Peat and Coco Pots

Pros: roomy, no removal necessary for transplanting
Cons: $$
Best for: big seedlings - legumes, corn

Okay, these are the only starter pots that you actually have to purchase as such, but they are worth it in some cases.

This may seem obvious, but if you plant a big seed, you can expect a big seedling.  In that case, forget about egg cartons and TP tubes.  For huge seeds like peas, beans, corn, and zucchini, go straight to a 4" or 5" peat or coco pot.  Otherwise you'll have to transplant them right away, and a lot of these guys don't like that.  I had at least one healthy pea shoot die on me after transplanting to a larger pot.  So skip that and start big.

I've also used coco pots to step up my tomato seedlings, particularly the ones from the milk carton (second photo).  Everything that needs to be transplanted from its original starter pot will go into one of these, because they've only got another two weeks indoors before they start the transition to the outside.

I'm now planting my peas and corn together.  Why?  Because corn is tall and thin and likes lots of nitrogen, and peas climb and deposit nitrogen in the soil as they grow.  Beans do, as well (it's a legume family trait).  It's a match made in Native American farming techniques heaven.

Prep your mix.  I fill the bottom third or half of the pot with potting soil, and then put seed starter mix on top of that.  Put your seeds on top.  Big seeds tend to prefer to be buried deeper, an inch or so - refer to your packet.  Put mix on top.

A note: I can't recommend the 2" mini peat pots, because they were outperformed in sprouting tomato seedlings by both of the other container types I used with tomatoes.  I conclude that the large ones are useful for large seeds, but for small seeds, other options are preferable.

Step 7: Tips

Here are some things I've learned.

"Thinning" is a heartbreaking experience.  The first seeds I planted were herbs in a pot.  I planted lots of seeds and had to throw most of my seedlings out as they grew.  I now plant seeds individually, one per container (or a couple in a pot, spaced appropriately), and plan for them all to sprout.  If they don't, I can always plant a new seed.  But most seeds sprout.

Covering seedling trays with plastic is not something I do, because I don't have plastic wrap lying around.  I'm attentive to the soil moisture and haven't had any problems.  Seed starter mix holds water particularly well (one of the reasons it's worth buying), but do keep in mind that the smaller your container, the more often you'll need to water it.  The mix is also easily compacted by the impact of a stream of water.  I've found that the handiest way to water small containers without disturbing the soil is to make a SEEDLING WATERER as follows:

1 plastic water bottle with lid
something with which to poke a hole in the lid

Poke a hole in the lid.  Fill the bottle with water and put the lid on.  Squirt the water through the hole onto your seedling pot.  No soil disturbance!

I also don't keep my seeds in the dark before they've germinated.  I'm sure people who insist on doing that have a good reason to do so, but I try to keep things simple and so all my guys are on the same table by my south-facing window.  I figure they're under soil, so it's pretty dark down there, and they seem to be doing fine and germinating in the appropriate time frame.  I don't use grow lights - that would be way expensive - but I do turn my seedlings, sometimes more than once a day, and take them outside when the weather is good.

A note about parsley: parsley takes forever to germinate.  So long that, long after the other herbs I had planted the same day were sprouting their first and even second true leaves, I'd yet to see any action from the parsley.  I finally planted something else on top, but the very next day they sprouted, and they continued to sprout for a couple of weeks.  Some seeds just require a lot of patience, and it never hurts to look them up with Google to get some extra info - seed packets can be frustratingly brief.

Finally, keep track of your planting dates by writing them on your seedling pots (in ballpoint or something similar, which doesn't bleed on cardboard, and sharpie on yogurt cups).  You'll want this information for your own reference.  Also write down varieties, especially if you've got seedlings that look similar (all the nightshades look a like at first, and forget telling two kinds of tomatoes apart).  You can never have too much data.

I hope you've enjoyed my instructable and feel inspired to start your own seeds for cheap.  I'm entering the gardening contest, so if you liked it, please give me a good rating and vote for me.  Good luck!

Comments

TamJ550 (author)2016-09-25

This is fantastic! Just what I needed now I'm getting ready to start homesteading a little in our new house with a big garden and great soil quality! Here's to future generations growing more than lining supermarket pockets. Thank for all the time and effort you put into this, it's greatly appreciated by us frugal newbies :)

gtrachel (author)TamJ5502016-09-25

Good luck out there!

ceblakeney (author)2012-12-08

Love the pro/con comparison! Although I still have a decent supply of yogurt cups, my favorite containers for the past few years have been the plastic tubs from 8 oz. packages of mushrooms, and 1 lb. plastic tofu tubs. There are no individual cells of course, but if you are reasonable about how many seeds you try to start in each it's not a problem to prick them out. The containers are REALLY sturdy and good for several growing seasons if you don't leave them out on the porch year round (not that anybody chez moi has done that...)

TamJ550 (author)ceblakeney2016-09-25

Those are what I used this year to start some of my seeds off and with a bit of tape on the short edge, you can join two the same size to make a mini-greenhouse that you can prop open :) Works really well, but like gtrachel says, only for smaller seeds! I tried starting pumpkin in one... lol

pale_green_fingaz (author)2013-09-20

With the toilet paper cups they can be made more sturdy on the bottom in the following way: flatten the roll lengthwise , then flatten again lengthwise the other way (newly-made fold to fold) so that instead of being round, the roll is now rectangular. Cut in half. Nominate one end of the half as the "bottom" of the pot and cut slits approx. 1 cm (half an inch) up each corner from the bottom up along the corner fold. You'll now have four "flaps" at the bottom. Fold these up into the roll to make them a bit more flexible, then flip them out again and arrange them against each other (under and over) like the bottom of a cardboard box. Repeat with the other half of the toilet roll. You now have two sturdy little square pots.

These can be made mindlessly while watching TV. They are good for plants that don't like root disturbance - just bury the whole pot as is once the seedling has started off. The bottom will rot out and the roots move down into the soil. I don't mind the little bit of black mold they get - just Nature doing its thing. I've never lost any plants yet to damping off (fingers x'd!).

I think ortsa (who asked about purchased pots) has missed the point of recycling, and taking items out of the waste stream.

Guess I better try some milk cartons next! Thanks for your testing.

Those are such great tips, thank you! I have three kids who don't understand "moderation" with TP so I always have spare tubes :)

whitejayne (author)2015-08-24

does anyone have experience sowing seed gardens for non veggie plants

ortsa (author)2012-07-19

Are pots and module trays that hard to obtain in the US or expensive? I find the longevity, ease of transplantation and drainage/water retention of a good pot are much better than any DIY container.

dsantil71 (author)ortsa2015-02-21

There not hard to find at all. It just depends on where u buy them. The price can add up if someone is doing a large amount of peat pots & the plastic trays don't last forever plus you need space to store them. So it helps to use items like yogurt cups, if u already buy them for consumption. Why not recycle instead of spending more money if you don't have to.

spydarbot (author)2015-02-20

Thanks--this is a very helpful comparison!

MelPhleg (author)2015-01-13

How bout paper bag material, rather than newspaper. Might be sturdier. No idea how well it'd work, nor if mold, or lack of swift biodegradability would be problems, as have not tried it yet.

clrwl04 (author)2014-07-25

instead of yoghurt pots I use the plastic coffee cups from the free vend coffee machine in the office.

Akin Yildiz (author)2014-07-09

very informative. i must admit that i have tried all of these methods as well and they all work, but now i live in an apartment that gets no sunlight, so i have to start extra early and get my seedlings very strong for the short summer... if you are faced with no sunlight as well check out the life seeder, and get a fast, strong and stable start for the next season.!

manwood (author)2014-04-26

très bon travail de recherche. Approche intéressante avec la nature et l'environnement mais aussi très simplifié tout en restant efficace pour le jardinier. merci

jkading1 (author)2013-08-25

Great info thanks!! Just started basil in TP but didn't cut them down - will do that next time!

badart (author)2013-02-09

Thanks for the break down that was super thoughtful. I hope my garden will grow greener with this great information.
badart

nerdmom920 (author)2012-04-20

Nice instructable. This year, I was so loathe to start seeds inside (I have small children and cats) that I just started them all out of doors, using plastic bottle cloche's to protest the tender ones (tomatoes, peppers, etc.) So far, so good, they have survived 45 degree weather.

konczewski (author)2011-05-20

Have you tried the seedling pots you can make out of newspaper (found here on Instructables)? Curious as to your take on them.

I tried one round of the newspaper this year. I was unsuccessful for other reasons than the fault of the pots. I put them together as instructed on here somewhere, with staples, because they wanted to unroll otherwise.
Pros: cheap compared to most alternatives, customizable size, and you bury the pots in the ground!
Cons: They are fairly flimsy when wet. If you're careful when handling, they shouldn't fall apart on you. Although, they will not stand up to being dropped and or eaten by the dog...

Alternatively, I am trying paper beer bags (from a gas station) They seem to hold up better than the newspaper and are not so much of a pain to put together. Plus they are fairly cheap. The brown ones would have low die levels by my guess, and would be pretty safe for this use.

padawanspider (author)2011-05-16

Excellent. Wish I'd read this earlier this year! I have several seedlings growing in egg cartons, and yes, they're being stunted by the limitations of the container.

Now I just need to find someone who eats a lot of yogurt. :D

cww (author)2011-04-29

I love seeing comparisons, thanks for taking time to post this. I'm doing carrots in TP tubes so they needed to be full length but f course, that has meant black mould- eugh.

I always lose my notes about which seeds I planted, what dates, how long they took to germinate etc. so I now use a free online garden tracking site which I'm now addicted to, I can see when everything was planted, how many days it took to germinate/sprout/flower/harvest etc. and you can make journal notes for each plant which is great when you are doing comparisons or being a bit experimental. They also have tons of additional features for supporters which has been totally worth it for me. I'm growing more seeds this year than ever before. If you are intersted here's a link: http://www.myfolia.com/gardener/CDfolia/invite

hj.romero (author)2011-04-27

You wouldn't want your little seeds bathing in chlorine so it's better to use rain water instead of using tap. Wonderful instructable..I'd try the egg cartons and the tissue paper rolls next time!

Noadi (author)hj.romero2011-04-28

Chlorine evaporates out of tap water very fast, simply refilling your water can immediately after watering (so that it has at least a day to sit) will remove all the chlorine. I agree that rainwater or non-chlorinated tap water (I wish I had well water like my parents do) but it's not always possible to collect enough rainwater to water your plants and unfortunately in some places it's actually illegal.

velacreations (author)2011-04-10

Why don't you try it without the container? Soil Blocks are easy and work really well: https://www.instructables.com/id/Make-Super-Cheap-Seed-Starters/

KedaDibandion (author)2011-04-09

This won't be for everyone, but: if you are given a bunch of those cute melted record bowls that you don't really know what to do with (as I was last Christmas), they make excellent seed starters for bigger sprouts (corn, zucchini, etc.). The hole at the bottom gives a little bit of drainage, and they're generally deep enough that you get some good strong roots.

robbert0208 (author)2011-04-03

Very nice instructable, this will help me and my seedlings a lot

ericCycles (author)2011-04-02

I make tubes from part of a sheet of newspaper rolled around a cylindrical form (2" pipe, filled pop can, plastic bottle) , stapled along the side along the top and on the bottom, and then filled with potting soil. It's not self supporting, so I usually put as many of them as will fit into a plastic crate. Later, when the plant is ready to to go into the ground, I slice up the paper a bit so make sure the roots aren't blocked. The benefits: I can make them any dimension I want (just have to find the right form); the tech scales well (not limited by the amount of toilet paper you've consumed that year).

It's not perfect, but it is cheap.

On the commercial end, I have some folding air pruning things. Flimsy, only lasted a few years, but they work very well.

Kaptain Kool (author)2011-04-02

Great instructable, you have quite an indoor garden.

autumn2793 (author)2011-03-21

Hmm, did you wash the milk container before you planted the seeds? I wonder if that had anything to do with their awesome growth.

Johenix (author)autumn27932011-04-02

The trace of milk would add traces of calcium, phosphorus and nitrogen.

gtrachel (author)autumn27932011-03-21

I did.

Ronyon (author)2011-02-22

Great info, I will be benefiting from it this year.Thank you!

KTea (author)2011-02-21

Great instructable! This helped me out so much with starting my seedlings, thank you.

fifi-folle (author)2010-05-04

Rather than cutting the TP tubes in half, leave them whole and I have found you can plant beans and peas without a problem. They seem to appreciate being able to grow long roots. Much cheaper than the fancy "root trainers" you can spend a fortune on! Creative idea for tray to plant them in. Another idea is to use margarine-type tubs, or you could cut the top off milk/juice containers.

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