I have a confession: I’m a dollar store junkie. I especially love going to the dollar store to get my car camping fix. If you’ve ever wandered the aisles of your local 99¢ Only (or here in California, we have the absolutely fantastic Japanese 100-yen store called Daiso — which, silly as it sounds, is actually the $1.50 store once you convert the currency), you might be overwhelmed by all the cheap and practical car camping goods you can buy.
I always stock up on dish rags, scrubby sponges, plastic tablecloths, aluminum pans, aluminum foil, food containers, and zip-top bags on my dollar store sprees. I also replace utensils (especially grilling utensils) that get lost or left behind at campgrounds and cabins.
You know what else the dollar store is good for? Seed starting supplies.
While I always advocate repurposing and reusing what you already have around the house, sometimes you need to buy a few things to round out your collection, and the dollar store is a great way to get started with minimal expense. Anyone who says seed starting is an expensive endeavor should look beyond the traditional garden centers and nurseries, and even beyond the gardening aisle of their local dollar store.
Strange as it seems, the best seed starting supplies are actually found in the non-gardening aisles!
But before I go into what you should buy, I’ll explain what you should never buy from the dollar store, no matter how tempting.
First, never buy seeds or soil — those are two things worth splurging for from a reputable supplier. You never truly know the origin of the seeds and soil you find at the dollar store, whether they’re actually organic or even contaminated, and how the seeds have been stored. Seeds and soil are the foundation of your whole garden, so know your sources.
Second, don’t bother buying gardening gloves from the dollar store. I’ve worn through countless pairs of cheap gloves, sometimes several a season, and in the end it just makes more sense to invest in a good, sturdy pair that will last a long time. (I’ve been using these same gloves for years.) In a pinch the cheapies will work, but think of them as disposables so you won’t be disappointed when you blow a hole through the fingers. (I also rarely wear gloves for everyday gardening tasks, and never when I’m seed starting. I like the feeling of the soil between my hands — not to mention the smell — and my gloves only go on for heavy weeding, lifting, picking, or shoveling.)
Along the same lines, don’t buy pruners, trowels, or other small tools because they seem like such a good bargain. They’re not as sharp or durable as heftier tools from reliable brands, and you’ll end up replacing them sooner than you think. (Though to be fair, I do have a dollar-store trowel that’s been with me since I started gardening a few years ago, but only because it’s a backup that gets used once a year to stir up soft, fluffy potting soil.) There is nothing more frustrating than a tool that doesn’t perform or breaks in the middle of a job — I’ve been there.
That said, here are the things you should buy from the dollar store, and with proper care and storage, they’ll last several seasons.
Wash bin. This multipurpose tub works well for mixing soil (especially if you’re making your own), moving compost, bottom-watering small pots, and transporting other supplies to and from your potting bench. Together with a roll of plastic cling wrap (just cover the top and poke a few holes in the plastic), you can make a mini greenhouse for starting seeds in a warm environment without the need for heating mats.
Cookie sheet or baking pan. These things are so versatile. They make great drip trays for starter plugs, seedling flats, planter boxes, or lots of little pots. When you’re ready to harden off your seedlings, the cookie sheet makes it easy to transport the pots in and out of the house.
Aluminum pan. Similar to the cookie sheet above, but not really sturdy enough if you plan to move your seedlings around. On the upside, these aluminum pans are huge and work well as drip trays for lots of different pots. You can also poke some holes in the bottom for drainage, fill the pan with seed starting mix, and use it to sprout your seeds.
Doormat. To protect your indoor surfaces from drips and spills, a thin, rubber-backed mat that you can hose off is a practical solution.
Paper pots. I’m a fan of these paper pots when I don’t have the time to make newspaper pots at home. They last just long enough until my seedlings are ready to be transplanted (usually a month or so) and I can plant them right in the ground with my seedlings or simply add them to the compost pile. I usually keep a couple of packages around as back-up containers when I run out of reusable plastic pots.
Plastic cups. Poke some holes in the bottoms of these cups with a nail, and you’ve got instant seed starting pots you can reuse season after season. They’re also a good choice for potting up starter plants you want to gift to friends.
Spray bottle. For seed starting, I always use a spray bottle to moisten the soil without unearthing the seeds. They might seem flimsy at first, but I’ve had good luck with my dollar-store spray bottles.
Watering can. When your seedlings have moved into larger pots, you can start watering them with a normal watering can.
Plastic utensils for plant markers. A cheap and easy way to label a whole season’s worth of plants. I like to write on the blades of plastic knives (which typically have a wider surface) and then stick them in the soil. (If you can find them, wooden craft sticks are also handy for marking plants in the short term, but they’ll eventually rot.)
Clothespins. Write the name of your plant on a clothespin (plenty of permanent markers can be found in the school supplies aisle) and clip it to the edge of your pot — instant plant marker! These plastic ones will last longer, but wooden clothespins will do in a pinch.
Zip-top bags and coffee filters. If you plan to start your seeds using the coffee filter method, both of your supplies can be found in the same aisle.
Plastic bin for seed storage. This is a great score from the dollar store. You can keep all your seed packets organized in this covered container, and store your plant markers, clips and ties, extra bags and coffee filters, and other supplies in a second one.
Storage caddy. I’ve found all kinds of caddies in the organization and kitchen aisles; these are the same baskets you might use to store toiletries. But for seed starting, they’re an excellent way to keep all your small supplies organized.
Dish towels. I stock up on dollar-store towels to use as cleaning rags. Can’t go wrong with them.
Plastic hamper. I assume this tiny hamper is intended for tiny loads of laundry (a few of my jeans would fill it to the top!), but it’s perfect for keeping all your gardening supplies together and tidy. When your plants start producing, it’ll make an excellent harvest basket.
Bucket. Store your soil, vermiculite, perlite, compost, and fertilizer in multiple buckets to mix and match as needed for your perfect potting mix. And, you’ll find endless other uses for a bucket in the garden, like transporting bulbs, seed packets, small stakes, compost tea, mulch, and water.
Cleaning supplies. I usually just hose off my pots between uses, but if you notice a lot of your seedlings dying from damping off or growing fungus on the soil, it’s a good idea to give your pots a more thorough cleaning with soap and hot water. Scrubbers and sponges are abundant at the dollar store, so you can keep a set especially for your garden.
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