Thursday, February 14, 2013

Seedling trays

Seedlings in a tray (1)
Every year around this time, I find myself wandering around Home Depot or Agway with the family, often when other people are picking up supplies for house chores. I will meander over to the garden section every time, and look longingly at the neat, ordered trays they have with the little germination lids and the evenly spaced little cups and ... and ... and I never buy them.

That's not true. I did buy one, one year, and while it worked just fine it didn't work so much better than my usual methods that I'd bother doing it again. Instead, I re-use items from around the house that would otherwise get trashed, for starting my seedlings in!

Plastic tray from the swap shop
Throughout January and February, I start collecting items for creating seedling trays. Egg cartons, toilet paper and paper towel rolls (and the rolls from the middle of wrapping paper, too!) all make good seedling pots. Last year I also used Chinese take out containers (the plastic ones with a black bottom and a clear lid) and the similar containers that rotisserie chickens come in when you buy them at Market Basket. Clean any plastics well, and collect all your containers in a single place so they're easy to find when the time comes.

Don't forget about small sour cream containers, and the ones your single-serve yogurt comes in. Any small plastic container can be used to grow plants in, and some metal ones too! This year I'll be adding a few herbs to my windowsill in the cleaned out tins my Hungarian paprika comes in.

Egg carton planter
In my opinion, the best seedling starter around is the paper egg carton. Whether it's a six pack, a full dozen, or a tray of 18 doesn't really matter. You need to be sure that your egg carton is made of paper and not styrofoam, and if it has a lid that's good. Some people feel that the egg cups are a bit small, but it depends what you're planting. You wouldn't want to start a squash plant in an egg cup, but most herbs, tomatoes, and even broccoli will do well to start in them.

A plastic bag holds in moisture
Simply take the lids off carefully, and the little locking flap as well. Fill the egg cups with your planting medium (I use compost and potting soil, mixed equally, but you can also buy some decent seedling medium at most local stores in the spring) and make sure it's moist but not wet. Line the carton lid with plastic wrap or a plastic bag, then put the cup part into the lid. The plastic keeps the lid from getting wet, and helps keep the seedlings moist. The lid, being dry, holds its form well and keeps the egg cups from all falling apart.

The necessary tools
Plant your seeds one or two to a cup, depending on the plant. During the germination process, you can slide the whole thing inside a plastic bag, either a grocery bag or a ziploc style one. As soon as seedlings begin to peek through the soil, take them out of the bag right away and set in a sunny spot. Most egg cartons will fit relatively well on a window sill, and you could even stack them up using a baking rack or something similar.

Mark 1.5" from the end and cut
Toilet rolls and paper towel rolls can both be turned into seedling cups. To use the toilet roll, make a mark 1.5 inches from one end of the roll, then cut several times from the end to the line. Fold the resulting flaps in, and you will have a small, round planting pot. If  you have difficulty with keeping the little toilet roll pots upright, you can use a nice hemp or other twine to tie four together at a time, which will lend to their stability. Place dirt filled toilet roll pots into a plastic or tin foil bottom (old tin pie plates or roasting pans work great for this) and keep watered as you would for the egg cartons.

Fold in the flaps
Small plastic containers need to have a few holes poked into the bottom for drainage, but this is easily achieved by using a hammer and nail. Tap several holes into the bottom of each container and then fill with dirt. Treat them like the other seedlings.

The major difference between the egg cartons and toilet rolls, and the plastic containers, is that the former can go right into the ground without ever disturbing the roots of your seedlings. Plastic containers should be tipped upside down and tapped or gently squeezed to release the plants and dirt from the plastic. Plastic ones work better for larger plants like squash and corn, if you happen to be starting them indoors.

When it comes to seed starting, you can even start a handful of seeds indoors that you might normally put right outside. Cucumbers, for instance, normally just go outside in June and are planted in the soil directly. However, by starting two or three seedlings indoors, you can have vines already growing when you put the rest into the garden as seed. This gives you a handful of slicing cucumbers weeks earlier than you'll get the in-ground ones. The same can go for any plant, really.

It's economical and educational to start your own seeds, indoors or out. A packet of seeds costs less than a dollar in many stores, and not much more than that even for open pollinated or  organic seeds. The same plants as starters, purchased from a nursery or other store will cost you at least that much per plant! Starting those seeds at home gives you the opportunity to be a part of the life cycle of your plant, and lets you teach your children the value of life. It gives you control over what your plants grow in, and what pesticides and chemicals they are introduced to. Add to that, there is a definite feeling of accomplishment you get when you pick a tomato or eggplant that you've nursed from seed to fruit. You can taste the love, the freshness, the glory in it as you eat it.

Shared at the Backyard Farming Connection Hop #20!
Shared at Eco-Kids Tuesday!
Shared at The HomeAcre Hop #7!

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1) Image by mrmac04 / morgueFile