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. 🙂
Hi, thanks for this post.
I’ve struggled finding something that works for me and this year am using loo rolls for the first time – for carrots & leeks whose roots mustn’t be disturbed when planting out – so am delighted to see the folding trick.
Otherwise I find individual pots too fastidious and prefer window boxes (which I pick up in the street) – but they are very deep and use lots of soil. Am now experimenting with wooden but also cardboard fruit & veg boxes.
Re : potting medium : if you grow potatoes in compost or using the lasagne method you can then use the soil from the potato crop as potting compost – the potatoes will have used up all the excess nutriments and killed all the weeds. I also use the soil from anything else that’s been in a pot or tub, a bit of compost or garden soil and whatever coffee grounds I can muster up. I would never buy potting medium.
Thank you for sharing your methods…great ideas! If you see signs of disease, you may want to bake the soil or compost it using a hot method. Best wishes with your garden!
I save eggshells to start my seeds in. At first I put the shells in egg cartons, which I always save to give to friends with chickens. Then, I add store-bought garden soil mixed with coffee grounds in which to place the seeds. I got some seedlings from this method, but most of what I planted sprouted then died because I couldn’t keep them moist enough. So, I took the eggshells and placed them in plastic containers with clear lids saved from various food items I had purchased. I planted new seeds in them, placed the containers in a sunny window, and I had sprouts within a week. I have transferred many of the seedlings to bigger pots after crunching the shells to pieces, and they are all doing very well.
I enjoyed reading all your ideas, but I think I will stick to the proven method. I read recently that newspapers are not good for planting because the ink is extremely toxic. Thanks for sharing!
Thank you for sharing your method with us, April! I haven’t tried eggs shells, mainly because I crush them up and feed them back to my chickens.
I had read in Organic Gardening magazine many years ago that they composted newspapers and found no toxic residue, but I think I should do some more research into that. You’ve got me thinking 🙂
Great post! Good for you for taking a closer look at the materials involved in our gardening processes. It’s an important thing to consider. I just wanted to add a couple things. We’ve started using a soil blocker for our seed starts and wooden trays. We build the trays from scrap wood and match them to the size of our soil blocks. In fact, the soil blocks hold together so amazingly well, we’ve even started them just on a flat board in a pinch. If you’ve never used one you should definitely check them out. We got ours from Peaceful Valley. I included the link below. Also, another substitute for peat moss that we’ve been experimenting with is leaf mold. Leaves break down into amazing organic matter, great for adding to your garden or your potting soil mix. The only thing is, they take a while. We’ve started a couple big leaf-only compost bins so we will begin to have consistent access to nicely composted leaf litter. We rake up leaves from out own yard in the fall, but also collect a lot from other places. People often rake and bag their leaves and put them on the side of the road, so in the fall I just keep my eye out when I’m going places and grab bags of leaves. They are great for mulching, adding to the other compost piles, and using for our seed starting. It’s also good, since most of what we have on our property are oak trees, and their leaves are pretty acidic, so it’s helpful to bring in other leaf matter. This year, since we didn’t have any that were well composted yet, we experimented with chopping them up. We put a bunch in an old trash can and used the weedwacker to chop them up, and then mixed that into our seed mix. It’s been working really well!
Cheers, and happy spring gardening!
Elizabeth, at Squawking Hawk Acres
Thanks for the information, Elizabeth! Great ideas! Leaves do make wonderful compost and I need to try using them to make my own seed starting mix. 🙂 The only soil block form I’ve ever used was a commercial grade one that was really expensive for home gardeners, so I hadn’t seen these at Peaceful Valley…great resource. Thanks so much for sharing your experience…much appreciated!
Hieveryone…Just want to add my two cents to the seed starting. I collect the cardboard inner tube from toilet paper. Line them up in a container…Iuse an old dishpan (plastic …sorry) fill each one to the top with soil and plant one seed in each use the usually routine for starting seeds and when they are ready just plant the whole thing tolet roll and all. They will have a wonderful long root system compared to the tradition seed starting and no disturbances. I got this method from a wonderful little book by Lolo Houbein. “One Magic Sqare” a must have for those of trying to raise our crops in a tiny townhouse plot. Happy growing. Ruth
Thanks for sharing Ruth! Check out the link I shared in the post that goes to a post on Mother Earth News…they used toilet paper tubes, but cut and folded the bottoms to hold the soil in place…I’m saving tubes now to give it a try. 😉
I have a backyard propagation nursery and start my own veggie seeds. My daughter collects old blinds at recycle place and gives to me to cut up and mark with paint pens to use as labels. The sun does not fade the labels with paint pens like it does with other writing tools. A grease pen might work for a couple of month but will not hold up to being row markers.
I have read that some blinds may have chemicals that are bad for our health, but the aluminum blinds are ok. Be careful which kind you use, especially if it is for labelling veggies. Thanks for sharing!
I did the tubes this year! They are working great and love that I can just bury them too.
That’s great, Lisa! I’m saving some up and I want to try making the cuts and folds on the bottom like the article on Mother Earth News. 🙂
Thank you for this helpful post. I also obsess about using biodegradable/re-used pots. We have made a pop can greenhouse heater, and I think it’s working quite well. I’ll post about it soon.
That sounds really cool, Gail! or should I say warm?! Can’t wait to hear about it 🙂
Thank you. Saving the large salad containers are great seed starters!