Starting Seeds: Containers

I first posted this about ten years ago. Since my husband had unexpected bypass surgery today, I don’t have the time (or the concentration!) to write a new post. I hope you find this flashback to be a helpful reminder as we start our seeds for the upcoming growing season.

Seed trays_LAH_9674

Raise your hand if you remember starting seeds in elementary school. Perhaps they sprouted in the cells of a cardboard egg carton. Sound familiar? Now, did your seedlings grow and thrive? Hmm, thought so. Granted, you probably forgot to water them, or you dropped the whole shebang on the way home from school. But it wasn’t all your fault. Egg cartons make awful seed starting containers.

What should you use to start those little seedlings? There are a number of excellent choices. Suitable containers share several attributes.

First of all, seedlings are growing roots, so your containers should have plenty of space for those roots to develop. Next, those roots want to be damp—not soggy, and not dried out. So the container should be large enough to stay moist between waterings, and have good drainage to avoid drowning your plant babies. And finally, the container should be strong enough to remain intact while your seedlings grow to transplant size. (Note that cardboard egg cartons fail all of these criteria. They are small, they have no drainage, and the cardboard disintegrates when it gets wet.)

If your containers meet these conditions, they will probably work well. Let’s look at some specific examples.

pepper-first-leaves-lahRecycled 4- and 6-packs from commercially bought seedlings are an excellent choice. These are my personal favorites. If handled carefully, they can last several years. All my friends know to save these for me, so I rarely have to buy them.  I particularly like the way they fit into planting trays available at the garden center. The downside is that you are wasting space if some of your seeds don’t germinate.

Yogurt containers and other plastic cups are another excellent choice. They are sturdy and last for years. The 8-ounce size works well for larger plants (such as tomatoes and cucumbers). Likewise, I use the larger yogurt cups (the quart size) or large plastic cups for tomatoes and peppers that have outgrown their starter pots. Plus, in the case of the yogurt containers, you are recycling something that might otherwise end up in a landfill.

cups-lahYou will need to add some drainage holes in the bottom. I do this by heating a large nail on the stove (I just hold the end in the gas flame, but an electric stove would work too) and poking it through the plastic. The melting plastic smells pretty awful, but you end up with very nice round holes. Don’t stop at just one-I usually poke about six holes in a circle.

What about traditional clay flowerpots? In our high and dry area, I find these lose too much moisture through the porous clay walls. They look very official, but I give them a thumbs down.

Peat pellets are highly touted by their manufacturer. I like the fact that you can easily soak one or two at a time. When I’m starting just a few of something, it’s much easier to grab a peat pellet than to pull out the 6-packs and planting mix. Of course, you have to buy new ones every year. And you need to remove any netting holding them together before setting the transplant in the ground. At least in my garden, the netting lasts long enough to bind the roots trying to grow through it, which eventually stunts the plant.

Peat pots are supposedly biodegradable containers that you fill with your own planting mix. The idea is to plant pot and all, and eliminate transplant shock. Well, I have found peat pots that were still intact at the end of the growing season. Almost all the plant’s roots were cooped up inside. That would explain the poor growth that plant experienced!

Another problem is that any peat sticking up above the soil surface will wick moisture away from the root ball. Not a good thing. And, again, you have to buy new ones every year. So, peat pots will work, but be sure to remove most of the pot before planting. Then make sure to completely bury what is left.

I need to add one final point in their favor. Peat pots and peat pellets are made from renewable Canadian peat moss, rather than plastic.

Many traditional nurseries start their seedlings in large, undivided trays. As the seedlings get their first set of true leaves, they are teased apart and planted into their own personal cell compartments. This has the advantage of maximizing use of your growing space, since every cell has a living plant in it. However, the transplanting process, no matter how carefully done, checks the seedling’s rapid growth. And, it’s a lot of work.

Another option I haven’t personally tried is the newspaper pot. You buy a specially-shaped fat wooden dowel that comes with directions on how to wrap newspaper around it and form a pot. This is really a variation on the peat pot, except you make them yourself. A friend of mine just purchased one of these pot makers, so I’ll let you know how it works for her.

These are probably the most popular choices for seedling containers, but really, your options are unlimited. I’ve seen everything from milk cartons to deep Styrofoam meat trays used successfully. Just make sure your containers are sturdy, have good drainage, and are large enough to accommodate your seedlings.

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