Don’t waste your money on expensive seed starting kits! You can pull containers out of the recycle bin and use them for starting seeds. It’s free, easy, and works!
Starting seeds indoors can get expensive really quickly. Over the years, I have managed to use recycled containers for germinating seeds, potting up seedlings, gardening, and growing food indoors for practically free!
Here in New England, we have a very short growing season, so a lot of our slow growing vegetables need to get a head start indoors in the early spring.
With the unavoidable expense of seeds, seed starter potting mix, fertilizer, grow lights, and a seedling heat mat, you need to be able to cut costs at the garden center wherever possible. Using recycled containers is a huge help!
Recycled Containers for Gardening
Throughout the year, I save up recyclables for this purpose. I save egg cartons, newspapers, yogurt containers, toilet paper tubes, pretty much anything that can hold soil and a seed. The plastic salad greens and bakery containers are handy to use as seedling trays to prevent water from dripping.
Seedling pots can be expensive, and using recycled containers for gardening is totally free! Before using any container to start seeds, wash it well in warm soapy water, rinse thoroughly, and let air-dry. Here are some creative ways to use recycled containers for gardening:
Egg cartons are perfect for growing plants since it’s already divided into cups that are ready to be filled with dirt. I have used cardboard egg cartons to start my squash, cucumber, zucchini, and pumpkin seeds.
When the little seedlings are ready to go outside, I gently tear the carton apart, and plant each section right into the garden. The cardboard breaks down and composts away in the soil.
Starting Seeds in Egg Cartons
Save your egg cartons. I especially like using the cardboard cartons because make the perfect little biodegradable plant pots. If you are using paper or cardboard cartons, you’ll need to place them in a tray to prevent water from dripping. You can cut them into sections to fit your trays if you need to.
If your cartons are made of plastic or foam, you may be able to use the cover as your tray. Simply remove the cover and place underneath to catch any water. Test it first to be sure no water seeps out.
Poke a few small drainage holes in the bottom of each cup, and place it on your tray. Fill each section with damp seed starting mix, leaving about 1/2-inch at the top.
Follow the instructions on the seed packet, and sow your seeds. Cover with potting mix, mist with water, and use a humidity dome to hold in moisture. Label by writing the seed variety and sowing date right on the carton, or use plant labels.
Place the trays in a warm location under lights. Keep the soil evenly moist. Cardboard tends to wick moisture, so check frequently and water as needed to keep the soil damp until the seeds sprout.
I even tried using eggshells one year as seed starting pots, because we have plenty of those lying around! I started some sunflowers in the eggshells, having completely forgotten about how incredibly, unbelievably fast they grow. Next year, I’ll toss these seeds right in the garden instead!
Eggshells do work well for smaller seeds, such as lettuce, and herbs. I especially like using them to grow microgreens.
Tips for Planting in Eggshells
Gather enough eggshells over winter to use as seed pots. Save your egg cartons too! You’ll need them to hold the shells upright.
Crack your eggs more towards the pointy end, and save the shells where two-thirds of the bottom remains whole. Wash the shells well with warm, soapy water, and let them air dry, and then pack them away in a safe spot until you are ready to use them.
When you are ready to sow your seeds, place your egg carton on a tray to prevent water from dripping. You can cut the carton to fit your tray. All you need is the bottom portion to hold the eggshells straight.
Poke a drainage hole in the bottom of each shell. Use a spoon to fill with moist seed starting mix leaving about 1/2-inch at the top. Sprinkle seeds, and cover with soil. Press down gently so the seed makes contact with the soil, and mist the soil surface with water.
Use a permanent marker the label the eggshell with the seed variety and sowing date, and cover the containers with a humidity dome to keep in moisture. Place the trays in a warm location near a heat source, or use a seedling heat mat. Water as needed to keep the soil evenly moist.
Microgreens can be harvested all at once by clipping the stems. When you are ready to transplant other plants, gently crack the eggshell, remove a few shards around the bottom so the roots can grow out, and plant the whole thing!
Homemade newspaper pots work perfectly as seed starting pots. When it is time to transplant, these pots can be planted right in the ground! The only real downside is that the newspaper starts to disintegrate after a few weeks of watering, so be sure whatever you plant is in a tray that helps keep them together until you are ready to transplant into larger containers or outside into the garden.
How to Make Newspaper Pots
Save your black and white newspapers throughout the year. Decide on a size for your pots. I like starting them in 2 to 3-inch wide pots, but you can make them any size you want.
When you are ready to make your pots, find a bottle or can that is about 3 inches wide to form the pots. This can be a tomato paste can, shampoo bottle, or anything that is solid and has a flat bottom.
Unfold the newspapers and cut into 5 x 15 inch strips. Starting at the short end, place your can on the newspaper, allowing about 1-inch overhang. Roll the newspaper around the can to form a cylinder.
Fold the overhang edges inward to form the bottom of the pot, then flip the can over and press down on a firm surface. Remove the can, and place the paper pots in a container to help hold the pots together and catch water as it drains. Fill with damp potting mix, and sow your seeds.
Toilet Paper and Paper Towel Tubes
Empty toilet rolls and paper towel rolls make a great cardboard pot for planting seeds. I often use toilet paper tubes propped up in a box to germinate cucumber seeds to give them a little head start. These do work well, but the plants will outgrow the pots quickly, and will need to be hardened off and transplanted outside in 4-weeks.
Bonus: The cardboard tube makes a great collar around the stem of the plant to protect it from cutworms.
How to Make Toilet Paper Roll Seed Starter Pots
Gather your empty toilet paper and paper towel tubes. Decide on the height of your pots, and cut the tubes to size. You will need to place the tubes in a tray to hold them upright and prevent water from dripping.
I like using the whole toilet paper rolls with an open bottom for plants that have long roots, like corn, dill, and parsley. You can also cut notches on one end of the tube, and fold over to form a bottom to help hold in the soil.
Place the tubes in a container, fill with damp potting mix, and sow your seeds. Water frequently to keep the soil moist. When you transplant the seedling outdoors, you can plant the entire tube in the ground and let it decompose in the soil.
The plastic berry containers from your grocery store are perfect for starting seedlings. They come with holes for drainage and a cover to help hold in moisture. Just be sure to place these in a tray to catch water. Fill the containers with damp potting mix, sow your seeds, place on a tray to catch water, and grow your seedlings under lights.
My favorite way to re-use the berry containers is to sow onion seeds. I keep the cover on in the beginning, and then remove it after the seeds sprout.
The larger plastic party cups are great for potting up seedlings until they are ready to plant in the garden. Just be sure to poke holes in the bottom and keep them in a tray to catch water. You can label each seedling with a permanent market right on the cup, or use seed tags. Plastic cups are durable and can be reused as plant pots for many years.
How to Transplant Seedlings
When potting up seedlings, use a good quality potting mix that contains plenty of fertilizer to feed the plant. Fill the cup about half way with damp potting mix leaving enough room for the root ball to sit about 1/2-inch below the rim of the cup.
Water the seedling well, and carefully remove it from its original container. Place it in the cup, leaving about 1/2-inch gap between the rim and soil level for watering. Fill in the sides with potting mix, and press the soil in lightly until you have filled the gaps. Water well, and place on a drip tray under lights.
Instead of buying new pots, consider saving yogurt, sour cream, and ricotta cheese containers in various sizes. The smaller containers are excellent for starting seeds, while the larger 16-ounce containers can be used to pot up seedlings that need more time before planting into the garden. Wash the containers well with warm soapy water, and store the empty pots until you are ready to plant. Just follow the instructions for party cups above.
If you start your seedlings in coco coir grow pellets or soil blocks, recycled bakery containers make the perfect little greenhouse. Just flip them upside down, place your pellets on the cover side, plant, water well, and close the cover. Once the seeds sprout, snip off and remove the cover and the plastic trays continue to catch water as your seedlings grow.
The plastic spring lettuce and baby spinach containers from your grocery store can be used as a seedling tray. The smaller mushroom containers are ideal for holding toilet paper rolls and newspaper pots upright, while also catching extra water.
Plastic Milk Cartons
Reused milk jugs make the perfect mini-greenhouse for starting seeds, or a planter for larger vegetables. Collect quart, half-gallon, and gallon sized milk jugs over winter. Be sure to wash them out very well with soapy water, let them air dry, and store until you are ready to sow your seeds. You can discard the lid.
Planting in Milk Jugs
Using scissors, cut the milk jug horizontally at the bottom of the handle to form a 4 to 6-inch tall pot. You can remove the top completely, or leave the handle side connected to use as a hinge to open and close the container.
Poke a bunch of holes in the bottom of the jug to let water drain, fill with damp potting mix, and sow your seeds. Close the jug and place in a warm area, in a tray to catch drips. When the seeds sprout, remove the cover, and place the container under lights.
Once the seedlings are transplanted into larger pots or to the garden, you can reuse the milk jugs to start a new batch of seeds, or use the tops as a shelter for young plants in the garden.
Make plant labels from plastic milk jugs
Once you remove the tops, you can use them for plant tags! Cut the flat areas of the milk jugs into 1/2 x 4-inch strips. Write the name of your plants on the tag in permanent marker, and stick into the pots.
Reusing water bottles and 2 liter soda bottles as plant containers is a great way to keep them out of the landfill, especially if you don’t have a recycling program in your town. Cut the bottom off the bottle so you have a cup that is about 4 to 5-inches deep. Poke a few holes, and fill with damp seed-starting mix. Sow your seeds, and place the container on a plastic tray to catch moisture.
Have Fun and Grow Something!
I hope I have given you some ideas for using recycled containers for gardening. The best part is that it’s free – all you have to do is clean them! There is no need to spend all of that money on a seed starting kit when you have so many things in your household that can be repurposed to start seeds indoors.
So, get your hands dirty and plant some seeds! There’s no better time than now! Here are gardening and growing tips to get you started:
- Tips for Buying Seeds for Your Vegetable Garden
- How to Start Seeds Indoors
- Using Grow Lights for Indoor Seedlings
- How to Harden Off Seedlings Before Moving to the Garden
- How to Grow an Indoor Vegetable Garden
You May Also Like:
- DIY Self-Watering Containers
- Using Soil Blocks to Grow Seedlings
- How to Grow a Container Vegetable Garden
Good planning is key to a successful vegetable garden
Whether you are new to growing your own food or have been growing a vegetable garden for years, you will benefit from some planning each year. You will find everything you need to organize and plan your vegetable garden in my PDF eBook, Grow a Good Life Guide to Planning Your Vegetable Garden.