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Recycled Containers for Seed Starting

Recycled Containers for Seed Starting, Nebraska Extension Acreage Insights for February 2018,

Despite our current cold, wintery conditions, gardeners are already placing seed orders and making plans to start plants for this year’s flowers and crops. Starting plants from seed isn’t difficult, just make sure to purchase high quality seed. In the long run, spending a little more on seeds will ensure good germination and healthy, vigorous plants that perform well in the garden.

Many types of containers can be used to start seeds. Commercial growers often sow seeds thickly in seed flats, then transplant the young seedlings to individual containers just as the first true leaf emerges. Home gardeners can use this technique too, if they need large numbers of any one type of plants. But most commonly, home gardeners sow seeds in individual containers right from the start, since they need fewer transplants for each type of plant.

If you don’t want to purchase special seeding containers or flats, consider using materials you already have at home to grow this year’s transplants.

Paper Pots
Creating planting containers from old newspaper is one great way to make use of your home recycling. There are a couple common methods used to make planting containers - wrapping paper strips around a small glass jar or can; folding flat newspaper sheets into square pots; or cutting toilet paper or paper towel rolls into smaller sections for use as pots.

Check out these videos for complete instructions.

Container Considerations
Seedlings can be started in many other types of containers, too, just make sure the containers are clean and have holes in the base to provide good drainage. If the containers don’t have drainage holes, then use whatever tools are needed to punch at least 3-4 drainage holes in each.

Other recycled container options include the following:

  • Last year’s plastic plant packs or containers
  • Paper or plastic cups
  • Small yogurt cups, sour cream or cottage cheese containers
  • Milk cartons
  • Clear plastic clamshells – used to sell strawberries and other fruits at the grocery store
  • Soda or water bottles, tops removed
  • Foil roasting trays or lasagna pans – sometimes these come with a clear plastic lid that fits over the top. This can create a mini-greenhouse environment, which is great for starting seeds.

You’ve probably never thought about it, but plant roots grow best in the dark. If you plan to use clear plastic containers, like old soda bottles or fruit clamshells from the grocery store, line them with 1 or 2 layers of newspaper before filling them with soil to block sunlight. Be sure to punch holes in the base of the paper, so it doesn’t prevent water drainage.

Containers to Avoid
Containers that don’t make great seeding pots include glass jars and Styrofoam cups. There’s no way to provide good drainage in glass jars and a layer of gravel is really not sufficient. Plus, you’ll have trouble getting the transplants out of glass jars. With so many other options, it’s better to recycle these normally and choose another type of container.

Styrofoam cups are not recyclable, so it’s better not to purchase or save them. Use paper or plastic instead.

Clean Before You Plant
Finally, if you’re reusing old plant packs or flats from last year, they must be properly cleaned to eliminate disease pathogens which could kill your new seedlings.

First wash them with detergent and water to remove soil residue. Then submerge the containers for 10 minutes in a solution of 1 part chlorine bleach to 10 parts water. This will kill any lingering fungal or bacterial pathogens. Change the bleach solution whenever it gets too dirty to see the bottom of the washtub.

Finally, rinse the containers in clean water and allow them to dry. Now they’re ready for planting.

Sarah Browning
Sarah Browning
Extension Educator, Horticulture & Urban Agriculture
Sarah focuses on environmental horticulture, fruit & vegetable production and food safety. Working with the general public and commercial green industry professionals, her major program goals include conserving water, protecting water quality, promoting local food production and protecting human health.

Contact Sarah at:
Lancaster County Extension
444 Cherrycreek Rd Ste A
Lincoln NE 68528-1591