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Seed Starting 101: Containers

May 12th, 2010

Containers are a very important part of the seed starting system. There are all different kinds of containers, you can use specially made pots or recycled items from around the house. You can use anything from: plastic, terracotta, pressed peat, newspaper pots, toilet paper tubes, egg cartons, egg shells, and so much more. I’ve used just about every single option in my seed starting career, and continue to try new methods each year.

A long long time ago when I first decided to start some seeds I attempted to make newspaper pots and used some toilet paper tubes as well. They are cheap, but with the amount of seeds I start I just don’t have time to make the hundreds of pots I need. There are many people that use them for everything and love them, but they’re not for me. The next year I bought one of those Jiffy Mini Greenhouse that came with those little Jiffy Peat Pellets. I do like the little peat pellets, they’re very nice, quick and easy, but they can be pricey! Especially if you’re starting 500 seeds or more each spring.

photo courtesy of Joey’s Planting from Flickr
After that I used some flats with small cells that my mom gave me and I bought a few more at the local greenhouse. They cost between .99-$1.50 for each piece and can be used for several years. This is the method I still use and love. I like that you have the option of different cell sizes. I prefer to the smallest ones because they maximize the space under my grow lights, which is limited during the seed starting season.

This past year I bought some Peat Pot Strips from Johnny’s. I have to admit, I am not very fond of them. I find they dry out much quicker when my seedlings are outside and I often have to water several times a day. I also don’t think that my seedlings do as well in them as they do in plastic pots. I’ll save my remaining peat pots for things like beans and peas that don’t like to have their roots disturbed, but I’ll be back to using plastic pots after this.

There are a lot of gardeners that love to use soil blocks for seed starting. You can buy different sizes, the smallest fitting into the next larger one, and on up (here’s the soil blocker page at Johnny’s that shows all the sizes & extras). I have a medium soil block maker, but I have yet to master the soil mix for them. I also need to invest in some strong trays, soil blocks are heavier than plastic pots so the black plastic trays aren’t really strong enough to support the weight (at least with the soil mix I’ve used).

I really love using terracotta, since it’s reusable and my plants seem to thrive in it. But they’re expensive to get enough, especially for the amount of plants I have. I do use them for some of my seed starting, especially for things that I want to keep in pots or grow inside as a houseplant.

Of course you can also direct seed in the garden, then you don’t even have to worry about containers. I try to do this as much as possible since plants, like gardeners, prefer to be in real soil and under the sun, instead of indoors in a plastic pot under lights.

However, if you’re a northern gardener you’ll have to start things indoors if you want to eat a ripe tomato before the first frost. Also, some seeds are just easier to start indoors (like onions and seeds that take a long time to germinate). I like to start heat loving plants, like tomatoes, peppers and squash family plants indoors. Lettuce, spinach, carrots, peas and other cool season crops do much better when started directly in the the garden.

I’ll continue to try new container options just because I like to try new things and it gives me some great fodder for my blog. For the majority of my seed starting I’ll continue using regular plastic trays because I have a bunch of them, they’re inexpensive, they can be used for a few years, and they’re convenient. I’ll keep posting here about anything new and fantastic I find.

What’s your preferred container for seed starting?

The rest of the Seed Starting 101 Series
Why Start from Seed
Getting Started
Soil Mix
The Needs of Seeds
My Workflow
Diseases and Problems
Hardening Off
Learn More Each Season

Visit my Amazon store to see what seed starting supplies I like.

14 Comments to “Seed Starting 101: Containers”
  1. Justin on May 12, 2010 at 10:07 am

    Hi Susy,

    Thanks so much for continuing this series. I really love it.

    I think I mentioned in a previous comment that I have the most trouble with the plastic cell trays that you seem to really love. I have one that’s essentially a “mini greenhouse” (tray with a clear plastic cover) but it has cell trays in it instead of peat pellets. Every year, I plant this tray and I’m lucky to get 2-3 plants to actually germinate and not die.

    I think the problem is moisture. I have a difficult time not getting the soil in the cell trays so soggy that it won’t dry-out. Also, the bottoms of the cells have pinholes that allow them to sit in any water that’s in the tray below–kind of like a self-watering pot. I’m not sure if I’m supposed to use that feature or avoid it by dumping the excess water.

    I’m curious if any of your readers have any tips for working with these. I think I’ll try your potting mix recipe if I can get my hands on some perlite. I’ve been using potting soil mixed with peat and it still seems too heavy and is holding too much water.

    This year, I’ve had the best luck with peat pellets and newspaper pots, but as you said, the pellets get expensive and the newsprint pots are time-consuming and take up space.

    Reply to Justin's comment

    • Susy on May 12, 2010 at 10:13 am

      I usually wet the soil first with warm water, to get the peat to absorb moisture. Then I let the tray sit for a few days to get some of the water to evaporate. I try not to let too much water sit in the bottom of the tray, and I uncover (If I use a cover, which I usually don’t) as soon as one seedling germinates.

      Overwatering and too much moisture is probably the biggest issue with seed starting. I always let my plants dry out in between watering. It’s good for your seedlings to let them dry out and experience some of the same things they will when planted outside.

      Reply to Susy's comment

  2. sarah on May 12, 2010 at 10:12 am

    Great post. I agree with you on the paper pots. I love the idea and they are fairly easy to make – but far too time consuming if planting many seeds. This year was a first for seed starting and although I started with paper pots, I quickly moved to the jiffy pellets – which were not bad and easy when it came time to plant. I think I’d like to give the cells a try next but worry about the soil falling off the roots when I pull it out. Thanks for the post and great pictures :)
    .-= sarah´s last blog ..What’s In Bloom =-.

    Reply to sarah's comment

    • Susy on May 12, 2010 at 10:15 am

      I don’t worry too much about the soil falling off the roots. Plants are pretty resilient, I have found that I don’t have too many issues with this.

      I do water with some fish emulsion after transplanting. I’ve read that the plants can’t take up what they need right after being transplanted because their roots aren’t yet established.

      Reply to Susy's comment

  3. Amy @ Homestead Revival on May 12, 2010 at 11:34 am

    I love the newspaper pots, but I agree, that it takes quite a while to make the amount I need and I’m finding I procrastinate making them! When I tried the peat cups, I was surprised to find that they didn’t work as great as I had thought. Like you said, they dried out way too quickly (but then again, I live where it is very arid). I appreciate the tip on the soil blockers – I use the black trays and assumed they’d work fine. I noticed that on Johnny’s Select Seed video, they just place these directly onto the heat mat. Hmmm… don’t think that will be very practical in my situation. I need a tray of some kind. Let us know if you come up with a solution.

    I love the look of the small terra cotta pots, but do you have a problem with them drying out too quickly as well?
    .-= Amy @ Homestead Revival´s last blog ..White Vinegar: A Household Essential =-.

    Reply to Amy @ Homestead Revival's comment

  4. mamaraby on May 12, 2010 at 12:17 pm

    We use the plastic tray/cover with the cell packs. I like that you can reuse the cell packs and when they’re past their life cycle you can buy refills.
    .-= mamaraby´s last blog ..Getting Older or Rather “If it’s Not Chocolate, Why Bother?” =-.

    Reply to mamaraby's comment

  5. Sense of Home on May 12, 2010 at 12:52 pm

    Thanks for the information, very helpful.

    Reply to Sense of Home's comment

  6. Xan on May 12, 2010 at 1:18 pm

    Check out the Target dollar spot for tiny terracotta pots. At seed starting time, they have these little seed kits with 2″ pots (!) plus seeds and coir, usually herbs and marigolds, 2 for a dollar. Use the seeds or not, but the tiny pots are great.
    .-= Xan´s last blog ..Sconeday experiment =-.

    Reply to Xan's comment

  7. Quinn on May 12, 2010 at 1:22 pm

    I agree with you 100% about the plastic trays! While this is only my second year starting seeds so I’m definitely a beginner, I’ve used newspaper pots and cardboard tubes (hated them, I thought the roots were pitiful), jiffy pots (which dry out as you said) and plastic trays (which I love!)

    I have tomato seedlings planted in both jiffy pots and plastic trays right now have been very interested in noticing that the plants in the jiffy pots are about 3-4 inches shorter than the plastic tray counterparts.

    I appreciate that the plastic trays are reusable so I won’t have to continue investing yearly.
    .-= Quinn´s last blog ..~You’re Not Qualified~ =-.

    Reply to Quinn's comment

  8. Jeff on May 12, 2010 at 4:46 pm

    I start most of my plants in a cold box. They seem to grow quick and fast. When one planting is done, clear them out and start another. Succession planting baby.
    .-= Jeff´s last blog ..For the birds. =-.

    Reply to Jeff's comment

  9. MAYBELLINE on May 12, 2010 at 6:02 pm

    My favorite way to start seeds is to sew directly in the ground.
    .-= MAYBELLINE´s last blog ..Tomatoes Are In! =-.

    Reply to MAYBELLINE's comment

    • MAYBELLINE on May 14, 2010 at 12:48 pm

      Did I really use “sew” instead of “sow”.
      English is such a tricky language.
      .-= MAYBELLINE´s last blog ..Tomatoes Are In! =-.

      Reply to MAYBELLINE's comment

  10. Tess on May 12, 2010 at 9:23 pm

    i love your seed starting series! very informative for beginner-gardeners like me. keep up the good work!
    .-= Tess´s last blog ..A Lime tree, Tomatoes, and a Pitchfork: What I Think About When I Think About Gardening =-.

    Reply to Tess's comment

  11. Tessa (aka dirtdigger) on February 8, 2011 at 5:02 pm

    I love soil blocks. I used to make my own mix using a recipe in one of Coleman’s books, but most of the time I don’t get around to making it in the fall as I should, so I had to come up with something else. Most of the time I end up using Black Gold Coco blend- sometimes adding a little more coir or peat and some bone meal for the beginning of the season.

    Reply to Tessa (aka dirtdigger)'s comment


This is a daily journal of my efforts to cultivate a more simple life, through local eating, gardening and so many other things. We used to live in a small suburban neighborhood Ohio but moved to 153 acres in Liberty, Maine in 2012.

Read previous post:
Seed Starting 101: Getting Started

Making the decision to start plants from seeds instead of buying them at the nursery can be a scary endeavor...