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Seed Starting: a Comparative Study on Cheap Indoor Methods

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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.

 
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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.

clrwl044 days ago
instead of yoghurt pots I use the plastic coffee cups from the free vend coffee machine in the office.
Akin Yildiz19 days ago

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.!

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manwood3 months ago

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

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.
jkading111 months ago
Great info thanks!! Just started basil in TP but didn't cut them down - will do that next time!
badart1 year ago
Thanks for the break down that was super thoughtful. I hope my garden will grow greener with this great information.
badart
ceblakeney1 year ago
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...)
ortsa2 years ago
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.
nerdmom9202 years ago
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.
konczewski3 years ago
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.
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
cww3 years ago
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.romero3 years ago
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 hj.romero3 years ago
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.
Why don't you try it without the container? Soil Blocks are easy and work really well: http://www.instructables.com/id/Make-Super-Cheap-Seed-Starters/
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.
robbert02083 years ago
Very nice instructable, this will help me and my seedlings a lot
ericCycles3 years ago
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.
Great instructable, you have quite an indoor garden.
autumn27933 years ago
Hmm, did you wash the milk container before you planted the seeds? I wonder if that had anything to do with their awesome growth.
The trace of milk would add traces of calcium, phosphorus and nitrogen.
gtrachel (author)  autumn27933 years ago
I did.
Ronyon3 years ago
Great info, I will be benefiting from it this year.Thank you!
KTea3 years ago
Great instructable! This helped me out so much with starting my seedlings, thank you.
fifi-folle4 years ago
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.