Seed Starting: What Worked (or Didn’t) This Year
I know, it’s May and in this part of the country, almost anything you want to put in your garden can be directly sowed outdoors. However…this also means that seed starting supplies will soon be marked down and cleared out of the garden centers.
Here’s a run down of some of the most popular containers and my experience with them.
1. Peat pellets (Jiffy). I usually only buy the refills and put them in my own trays, still one of my favorite ways to start seeds. I do remove the casing as it does NOT biodegrade as promised and I still find casings in my garden soil intact years later if not removed. Plants will do okay if you don’t remove them and I would not remove them if a plant is particularly fussy or delicate about being transplanted. They are economical at about .10 a piece, neat, easy to store and so convenient.
2. Toilet paper roll or newspaper pots. In my opinion, it isn’t worth saving the money over another method. Read more about my experience here.
3. Egg cartons. Cardboard egg cartons dried out much to quickly. If you use these, plan to stay on top of watering. Plastic egg cartons did a much better job. The plastic egg cartons have three sections: the bottom, a form fitting top and a second lid. I removed the form fitting top and used it as the planter (2). I punched hole in each egg section for drainage and set this part into the second lid (1)to use as a tray. The original bottom of the carton (3) becomes a domed lid to keep humidity in. I works best if you don’t separate sections 1 and 3 but you can. These are basically free unless you are buying those premium eggs just to get the trays. With either type of egg carton seedlings will need to be transplanted quickly because there isn’t much soil in half and egg space. Seedlings can outgrow the “dome” pretty quickly as well. You would think that the cardboard cartons would be easy to cut apart but they aren’t. I’ve seen some sites that say you can just plant the cardboard section along with the plant but I wouldn’t recommend it. Have you ever put egg cartons in your compost pile? They hang around awhile.
4) Peat pots (not the pellets). These come in various sizes and are sold in blocks of 8, 10 or individually (larger sizes). They are pretty economical. I spent about $2.70 after tax for a set of 40 or 50 depending on the size. I liked the size and how they fit neatly into a standard plant tray. They were easy to separate by tearing or cutting when it was time to plant or transplant. Once you do separate them, though they don’t stand up very well on their own because the bottoms are more narrow than the tops. What I really didn’t like was that they dried out so fast. I think these actually dried out faster than the stand alone soil blocks (more on them later). You are supposed to be able to plant these pot and all and I did that on some. When I pulled the plants up later to harvest I could see that some roots did penetrate the pot but the pot was still very much intact. I don’t think I’ll buy these again.
5. Cell packs. At the big box store theses usually come as a kit with a tray full of empty cell packs and a dome lid. I bought several of these just to get the trays and ended up cutting the 6 packs apart and using some of them as well. At a stand alone garden center/nursery you can most likely buy cell packs of various configurations without the tray and lid. Cell packs are inexpensive (.10-.15) but not very durable. They are intended for single use. If you reuse them, you are supposed to sanitize them first. You have to fill them with your own seedling mix, not as convenient but you get to chose your brand and not really a big deal to fill them. If you end up with cells where the seeds didn’t germinate then you have a non-productive cell taking up space in your tray and under the grow lights. I always seem to run out of room under my lights even with the new light stand. If you have a small garden you may not want 6 of something and you can mix different seeds in the cells but you may run into a situation where different plants grow at different rates. For instance, if you have fast growing, taller kale in a cell with shorter lettuce you may need to raise your grow lights for the kale but keep them low to the lettuce. You could run into a similar issue if you mix seeds that need to be on a heat mat with seeds that don’t, or seeds that have a short germination time with seeds that take longer.
6. Flats. This is probably my least favorite method. You have two trays about 10 x 20″, one with slots for drainage and the other without. You nest the slotted tray inside the solid tray and fill with an inch or two of seedling mix. You plant your seedlings in the mix and then dig them out when it’s time to transplant. This would be okay if you were growing one thing. I found that the roots did grow together and transplanting was more difficult. It didn’t work well for me to mix a variety of plants in one flat. They also should be sanitized between uses. I confess, I haven’t done that. I’ll try to do it next time. I do use them as trays for my cell packs, peat pellets and soil blocks.
7. Soil Blocks. These are stand alone blocks of soil in various sizes. They can be economical (depending on what kind of potting/seedling mix you use) but you need a specialty mix or you need to make your own. You have to make the blocks with a block maker
and they can be pricey. They are super efficient in terms of space management and transplanting and seedlings seem to like them. In a future post I’ll share my “how to” on soil blocks along with several other advantages but in the mean time here is a great resource. This method is my goal and I think it’s the best. The plan ahead factor is what keeps it from being a hand’s down preferred method.
The frugal me is also known to just use what I have around. This year I used a lot of clear plastic drinking cups with holes punched in them because we had several hundred left over from a wedding. I also like using empty cardboard milk cartons.
So there you have it. Even now, you can maximize your space by starting seeds indoors. For instance, if you have a spring crop of greens or peas in the ground and you plan to put squash or cucumbers or melons in the same space you can have them going and ready to transplant as soon as the greens and peas are done. Starting indoors can also buy you some time if the weather or ground conditions (too wet) or your schedule won’t let you direct sow. Otherwise, you know what to look for in the clearance aisles or garage sales this summer and you’ll be set for next year or for some fall seed starting. I’d love to know what has worked for you.