I started my first seeds of the season last week — tomatoes, my favorite summer crop. I like to give them a head start by sowing the seeds indoors so that come March (if I’m lucky), I can harden them off and transplant them outside.
Right now I’m starting six varieties of tomatoes, a purple tomatillo, and a shishito pepper in 16 tiny seed starting pots recycled from years past. While 16 sounds like a reasonable number, it’s not uncommon for me to have upwards of 100 pots or more, of all sizes, once I’m in the thick of seed starting season. And, I rarely buy new pots.
I have a huge collection of containers in the yard, ranging from 1-inch seed starting flats to 1-gallon plastic pots. At one time or another I brought these home from various nurseries, and have rinsed and reused them season after season.
But with my garden growing every year, I often don’t have all the pots I need in spring, when hundreds of seeds await their new homes. That’s why I start gathering them now, and chances are, you can find just as many containers around your house and not spend a cent on “proper” seed starting pots. These upcycled seed starting containers only need to last a few weeks, but ones made of more durable materials (like old tea tins or baking sheets) can be used year after year.
If you’re the crafty type, you can easily make your own pots from newspapers and eggshells. Cranking out a season’s worth of newspaper pots is an especially well suited activity for a rainy day or movie night. (Try this with toilet paper tubes too.)
And while my eggshells now get crushed up and fed to my chickens as extra calcium, they still make great containers for starting just a few seeds on your windowsill.
Here we have a few things from my kitchen this week, which ordinarily would’ve been tossed in the recycling bin. But, they are perfect for seed starting!
I’ve saved a cardboard egg carton (which you can plant in the garden with your seedling, as the paper will decompose naturally), a tub that previously held a block of tofu, a carton that had feta in it, and a container that once had sour cream. You’ll need to poke a few holes in the plastic containers for drainage (a nail works well) and can set them on top of a baking sheet or other repurposed container to catch drips.
Along the same lines, you can upcycle paper milk cartons, plastic juice jugs, plastic water bottles, and plastic soda bottles by cutting off the tops and leaving 2 to 4 inches on the bottom for planting, depending on how wide your container is. When you’re done with them, you can wash and store until next season, or finally send them to recycling.
Take-out containers are useful too, and the aluminum ones are good for turning into drip trays as well as seed trays.
If you buy rotisserie chicken from the grocer, the container it comes in makes an ideal mini greenhouse. Warmth speeds up germination, and this provides a warm and cozy environment without the need for a heating mat. Simply poke some holes in the bottom tray, fill it with soil and seeds, and place the cover over it. The cover already has holes for ventilation, so your greenhouse is ready to go. In a couple of weeks, remove the cover to allow more air to flow between the seedlings (and reduce the chances of damping off disease).
What else makes a good greenhouse? Those plastic clamshell boxes that your salad greens and berries came in! This is truly coming full circle — using an old salad container to grow new salad. The containers are fairly deep, so fill them halfway with seed starting mix (here’s how to make your own), poke holes in the bottom, sow your seeds, and close. Once your seedlings have sprouted, you can leave them uncovered in a warm and sunny spot.
Unwanted kitchen tools, like ice cube trays, muffin tins, and baking dishes, are not only a nice size for starting seeds, they’re much more durable than flimsy plastic recyclables. You’ll need to drill holes into these denser materials, but they’ll last for many years even as you use and abuse them outside.
I hope some of these ideas will have you seeing your “trash” in new ways this growing season!
This post updated from an article that originally appeared on February 3, 2014.