How to Start Eco-Friendly Seedlings
Gardeners and homesteaders are usually concerned about living a more sustainable, environmentally-friendly lifestyle. We grow our own food to help save money, be healthier, and reduce our waste. So why do we keep buying those plastic seedling pots and peat-based potting soil? The fact is we can start eco-friendly seedlings for our gardens without spending a bunch of money!
Check out How to Start Seedlings Indoors!
Plastic trays don’t biodegrade in the environment and are made with petroleum. Peat moss is harvested from bogs (a biologically sensitive ecosystem) at a rate that far outpaces their natural rate of regeneration.
Fortunately, there are eco-friendly options for seed starting!
Do you want to reduce your garden’s impact on the environment? Let’s start by listing the things that you need to start seeds indoors to get a jump on the season.
Eco-Friendly Seed Starting Materials
- growing medium (‘soil’)
- label (optional)
- light (natural or artificial)
When possible, grow non-GMO organic heirloom seeds that can be saved and replanted each year. You will reduce the number of seed packets you purchase and also the shipping required.
In addition, you’ll be able to save the seed that is most suited for your growing conditions each year. Using organic seeds will ensure that they are not treated with heavy metals used as fungicides.
Here are some alternatives to plastic trays and pots that never seem to hold up for more than one use…
- clear plastic salad containers*
- yogurt, cottage cheese, and sour cream containers*
- paper towel and toilet paper tubes (check out Mother Earth News)
- newspaper pots
- clay pots
- egg cartons and egg shells
- Burpee’s Eco-Friendly Seed Starting Kit
*I’m trying to purchase fewer products packaged in plastic, so I don’t always have these on hand. You could put a request on Craigslist or Freecycle for these.
These newspaper pots are pretty quick and easy to make and they will biodegrade in your garden. If you don’t have the newspaper, try asking for it on Freecycle or Craigslist. You can also use other types of paper. Fill them with growing medium and plant your seeds. Burpee’s website has a short video showing you how to make these pots much neater than mine came out.
Burpee’s Eco-Friendly Seed Starting Kits
I found Eco-Friendly seed starting kits from Burpee at a local garden center. The price was $6.99 + tax… higher than the conventional trays (2015). I had a rebate check that paid for all but $2 for two trays. The plastic tray is biodegradable and made from plant material and the growing pellets are made of coir, an all-natural fiber from coconut shells (a biodegradable ‘waste’ product). They also contain a compostable plastic sheet to cover the trays to trap moisture for germination.
I liked the convenience of the trays and the uniformity of the cells in comparison to some of the homemade and recycled containers I’ve used. I also like the fact that it is a more eco-friendly product than conventional plastic trays. However, I’d like to see the packaging made from compostable plastic and the cardboard insert could be replaced with recycled paper.
The plastic film for holding in moisture is much better for the environment than clear plastic domes, and they’re made from biodegradable plastic. The coir pellets were not very uniform in size and I ended up filling up some of the cells with potting mix, but that wasn’t a big deal. Overall, I liked these trays, but I’d like to reuse them if possible to further reduce my environmental impact.
Re-using Conventional Plastic Seed Starting Trays
I had a couple of these trays left over from last year so I’m using them and will attempt to reuse them next year. Although the packaging has a small label saying that it is made with recycled plastic, it doesn’t list whether they used any post-consumer plastic and it also doesn’t list a percentage. I
t comes wrapped in plastic with a cardboard insert. It has a plastic tray, plastic cells, and a clear plastic dome. That’s a lot of plastic.
I started using these trays a few years ago because I like the uniformity and size of the cells. They fit easily under my shop lights and are easy to move out to the garden. However, I have never felt good about buying plastic. I’ve decided not to purchase these anymore.
You might be able to find used trays that are being thrown out at garden centers or landscaping companies. If you are a customer and you ask nicely they may give them to you. Be sure to sanitize them with a mild bleach solution before reusing them.
Growing Medium or Potting ‘Soil’
You’ll need some sort of growing medium to plant your seeds in, and peat moss is often the main ingredient in potting mixes. Coir is a great alternative and is a renewable resource. It’s made from coconut shells and I’ve found that I like it much better than peat. It doesn’t contain all the little sticks and stones I find in potting mixes and it holds moisture quite well.
You can also use garden soil after it is sterilized in an oven, but I find that our soil is very heavy on clay and doesn’t work well. You might have a better soil structure for this application. You can even try making your own soil blocks as professional nurseries use.
- garden soil
A combination of these would make a great soil mix for starting seeds indoors. Be sure that the soil you use hasn’t had plants with diseases growing in it!
I found two products made from coconut fiber for sale at my local garden center.
Planters Pride Growing Mix
This product is made from 100% peat-free renewable coir. I liked the fact that it is compressed, requiring less packaging. However, this company included a plastic bag for mixing it…give me a break! Planters Pride, you need to rethink the plastic bag. Any gardener worth their salt will have some sort of container for rehydrating and fluffing up the compressed brick of coir! That was my only complaint about this product. Be sure to check the instructions for using coir products…some of them need to be rinsed with water to remove salts before using.
I liked how the coir brick fluffed up when I soaked it with warm water.
Burpee Eco-Friendly Organic Seed Starting Mix
The only thing that I didn’t like about this seed starting mix is the heavy plastic bag. I think that Burpee should try to come up with an environmentally friendly package for this product. I did like the fact that there is nitrogen in the mix from turkey litter. That is convenient for getting little plants off to a good start. I’m not sure that the perlite is necessary, but it makes the mix a little bit lighter than the 100% coir.
You don’t need to use plastic labels for your seed starting trays. Here are some ways to reduce, reuse, and recycle…
- wooden popsicle sticks
- cut out strips of white plastic from unwanted packaging
- make labels from styrofoam meat trays
- use masking tape on side of trays to record seed varieties
- reusable metal plant labels
- old spoons or table knives with varieties stamped on them
The Best Lights for Eco-Friendly Seed Starting
I’ve started seeds in a sunny window, a greenhouse, and under lights. Hands down, a greenhouse is the best place to get those little plants growing. Hopefully, someday I’ll have a solar-heated greenhouse, but for now, I am starting my seedlings under fluorescent lights in the basement. It is the best setup for this house. But I know this isn’t the best option for reducing my carbon footprint since it uses electricity.
If you have a greenhouse heated with renewable energy, that’s the best way to go. A sunny window can also work, but don’t start your seeds as early or they will be leggy and easily damaged by wind. Move them outside on nice days, but watch to be sure they don’t burn.
Starting Eco-Friendly Seedlings for the Future!
These are just a few ideas and products to get you started on your way to a more environmentally friendly garden.
Other ideas that might be helpful for you include:
- Compost leaves for potting soil
- Start saving heirloom seeds to reduce packaging
- Support small local nurseries
- Use organic fertilizers and ditch the pesticides
- Plant pollinator-friendly gardens
- Leave natural areas for wildlife
- Plant native species in your landscape
- Provide food and water sources for wildlife
There are many other tips and tricks that I’m sure would help you in this effort. Do you raise eco-friendly seedlings for your garden?
If you have any you’d like to share, leave a comment! I love to hear from you. 🙂