Where to start my seedlings?

Time for the annual debate of what kinds of pots to use for seed starting, trying to find a balance between environmental friendliness, biodegradability (is that a word?), practicality, and price.  The different options I’ve debated (most of which I’ve used at some point) are peat pots, coconut coir pots, small plastic pots, egg cartons, toilet paper rolls, and cow pots.

Peat pots at school

Peat pots: They biodegrade well, they’re pretty inexpensive, and they are nice and easy to use.  Unfortunately, harvesting sphagnum peat moss is incredibly unsustainable.  As far as I understand, they essentially drain ancient bogs and use huge vacuums to suck out the moss, which then takes ages and ages to regenerate.  They hold moisture quite well, but have a tendency to get mouldy at times.

Coconut coir pots: They are more sustainable (they’re made of the fuzzy outside part of coconuts, which is a byproduct of other coconut products), they’re pretty practical, and pretty inexpensive.  They dry out a bit more quickly, which means more frequent watering but fewer mould problems.  The major problem with these is that they take AGES to decompose.  When pulling out dead plants in the fall, the pots are pretty much totally intact, and I feel that this impedes root growth.

Small plastic pots (i.e. the four-packs that you buy seedlings in): These are pretty easy to plant into, but are hard to reuse if they’ve been used by kids (as in the pots don’t often survive the kids taking the plants out of them).  Also, some plants don’t like being transplanted, so pulling the roots out of the pots doesn’t make them happy.  They’re ok, but not great in a school setting.

Egg cartons (cardboard):  They’re cheap (aka free if you or someone you know eat eggs anyway), they biodegrade well, and they’re a good way of reusing something you often already have around.  They’re practical for seed starting at home, but not ideal for school; I find that cutting them apart into single cells makes them pretty tippy, but keeping them all together makes it hard for a bunch of kids to seed into separate cells/pots.  They’re also pretty tiny, so they need to be transplanted quite early.

Egg cartons and toilet paper rolls, for seed starting at home.

Toilet paper and newspaper seeding pots at school

Toilet paper rolls:   Free, biodegradable, reusing something you’ve got around, and a pretty good size.  They can be tippy, so you really have to stuff a lot into a seeding tray so they don’t fall over.  And I made them with grade 2s and 3s which went well, but I don’t think it would work with anyone younger.  Depending on the strength of the roll, they can sometimes fall apart if they’re too wet.  I’ve used a couple of different methods for this (neither of which is my idea).  One method is to cut about 1″ long slits into one end of the tube and fold/stuff them together until you have a flat’ish bottom.  The other method is to crumple a page or half a page of newspaper into a ball and stuff it into one end of the toilet paper roll, pushing it down against a flat surface.

Cow pots: They’re made by a farm family/company in the US from cow manure from their dairy farm.  I bought some this year, but haven’t yet used them.  They’re supposed to biodegrade pretty easily and they’re using an available and plentiful resource.  They’re larger than the other seed starting pots, so I might use them for my first transplanting at home.  They’re also about 5 times more expensive than the peat pots, so unfortunately out of the budget for the school gardens.  I’m curious to try them out this year, though.


The (incredibly helpful and knowledgeable) guy who helped me at Home Depot today said that there are also recycled cardboard pots in existence (very similar to the peat pots), but we weren’t able to find where to buy those.  He suggested a couple of folks to ask, so I’m looking into that for future use.

And this is where I open the conversation/debate up to you.  What do you use for seed starting?  What are the pros and cons?  Have you used them in a school setting?

Happy growing!

Some pictures of my super simple toilet paper roll pots:


Toilet paper roll pots, step 1: Cut 1" slits into one end of the roll.




Toilet paper pots, step 2: fold and push slits into the tube and smush them until you get a flat'ish bottom.

Toilet paper roll pot, step 3: Press the roll against a flat surface until it's relatively flat and stable.


2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by catherine on March 27, 2012 at 9:01 pm

    Incredibly helpful info — I’ve tended to use peat pots but will try for more sustainable methods, like toilet roles, this year. What about using large plastic salad bins (from grocery store pre-washed salad mixes) for multiple seedlings?


    • Cool! Thanks for the feedback! The plastic bins seem like a good idea, but I like having individual pots for when I’m doing the seed starting in class. I feel like having a number of kids working on one container would get too chaotic. That would work for seed starting at home, though. How is the Gledhill garden?


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