Starting Seeds

Reusing old egg cartons to start seeds

When I was a little girl I grew up in the countryside outside Atlanta (yeah, decades ago that still existed). To the left was a horse pasture and to the right was pine forest, and our property backed up several acres with two big fields of tall grass, a weathered barn, and gardens. I loved that garden with its unruly patch of wild blackberries, sweet muscadines on a creeping vine, and long rectangles of dark, rich vegetable beds raised above the Georgia red clay.

We grew so much on that land - peaches, figs, blackberries, blueberries, raspberries, grapes, eggplant, summer squash, beans, and a rotating cast of other veggies. I might have begrudged having to water the beds most days (and I might have intentionally not watered the eggplant), and I might have a few too many vivid memories of sitting on or stepping in fire ant mounds, but those gardens left a strong impression on me, and so when McCrae and I moved into our first apartment together I started growing some herbs in containers. These flourished, and so when we moved into a rental house I excitedly put herbs into the built-in containers of the deck and slowly built up some raised beds. Now that we're in our own house and spring is tantalizing me with its options I'm itching to add to the garden that is already established on my little half acre.

Mmmm tomatoes 

But I have a confession: when it comes to gardens my strategy is more "plant it" than "plan it." I like to experiment in the garden and prefer plants that flourish on their own. In other words? I'm lazy. I get so excited about planting that I just want to jump in and put things into the ground and see what happens instead of doing my research and carefully planning. I'm also a garden cheapskate, so when I knew I was moving last summer I carefully collected seeds from my basil, cilantro, and arugula, and collected clippings and root balls of my mint, oregano, and sage. This spring is now an experiment: I'm waiting to see my clippings and root balls flourish and I'm trying to figure out how to get plants to grow from seeds.

Baby arugula sprouting!

I have a south-facing bay window in my house that gets a lot of rich light, and I commandeered its built-in shelf for starting seeds. I had no idea what I was doing, but I figured it would be fun to play in the dirt, so I collected some egg cartons from my dad - a variety of cardboard and styrofoam cartons - punched in some drainage holes, and mixed in some dirt, seeds, and water and waited for magic to happen.

Grow, little plants, grow!

The seeds have started to germinate now, and I'm excited to see them grow, but I've already got a few lessons learned from the experiment so far:

Styrofoam containers hold moisture (and shape!) better than cardboard.

On the one hand I despise styrofoam because ughhhhhhh it's a material that can't be recycled and will never decompose, but on the other hand I'm glad I found some use for all the old styrofoam containers my dad has been hoarding. (Thanks, Dad, for being green and not letting them go to the landfill!) I've found the cardboard containers have already started to break down from all the moisture from the soil and watering the plants, and I think the cardboard is actually sucking moisture out of the soil because the plants in the cardboard containers dry out much faster than the styrofoam containers. So here's a big win for reusing styrofoam egg cartons!

Here's how I made the containers:

1. Start with your container. Yay reusing and upcycling!

2. Cut down the middle of the carton to remove the lid.

Dirty fingernails. Don't care. Cut off the top of the styrofoam container because you don't need that for now. If it fits you can use the top as a tray to catch water.

3. Punch some drainage holes in the styrofoam.

Again with the dirty fingernails! It means I'm an authentic gardener ;)

4. Fill with soil and seeds.

Seedling soil is much better than regular ol' organic soil.

I started using some leftover organic soil, but I soon discovered it wasn't ideal for starting seeds. The best way to describe that organic soil is it's chunky - there are chunks of mulch and bigger bits of organic matter that just aren't ideal for tiny, fragile seeds. I picked up some seedling soil from the local home improvement store and while I was disappointed it wasn't explicitly organic, I noticed the soil had a much finer consistency and also had a good amount of peat moss - a great option for retaining moisture in the soil. (You can see in the above picture how fine the soil is in my hand.) I may experiment with seedling soil options in the future, but for now I'm happy with the seedling soil I have.

That south-facing window is not as great as I thought it would be.

I've been a little disappointed with growth so far, but I was trying to be cheap and not buy a big grow lamp and seedling set-up. I'm still holding out on being cheap (plus I really don't have the extra space right now), but I need to be diligent about getting my seedlings enough sunlight. Which brings me to...

Squirrels are a pain in the butt when you're growing seeds.

When I know it's going to be a sunny day or if someone is home for a few hours I try to move the seedlings outside so they can get some direct sunlight on the back deck. The problem is critters. I left the seedlings out unattended one afternoon and when I went to water them later I found some of the containers upturned. Soil was everywhere, but I managed to recover most of the soil and seeds. At first I figured it was Ryder being nosy (#scapedog) but when I found the seedlings disturbed a second time I figured it must be squirrels. Plus they're eating all the blossoms off my strawberries. Rotten tree rats.

Hey squirrels! Keep your paws off my strawberries!

I'm having some mixed success so far with seeds - the cilantro and cucumbers are looking perky, but the basil and arugula are stunted. The thyme is still tiny, but their little leaves are quickly multiplying which gives me hope, while the jalapeños have just started sprouting. Now I just need the lavender to do something. (Wakey wakey, little lavender!)

My cilantro is looking happy though. Pico de gallo this summer, anyone?

Growing plants from seeds is more time-consuming than other options, but I love checking in on the plants every day and seeing their progress. (And yes, I love singing and talking to them when I water them. Don't judge - it's scientifically proven to be good to happily talk to your plants!) I can't wait to see how they grow and to share more tips and tricks on growing plants from seeds!

Have you ever grown plants from seeds? What are some helpful tips you've learned along the way? Let me know in the comments!


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