Start Seeds Indoors ... With Your Garbage

Photo: Linda Ly

Looking at the picture above, you might think you're just looking at the daily waste of your home, destined for the garbage bin (or rather, the compost heap, if you want to be all PC).

But what you're actually looking at are the humble beginnings of your new garden. It might not look like much right now, but just add soil, seeds, water, and sun, and you've got yourself a spring project that even the kids will enjoy partaking in.

Southland weather is notorious for being all over the place this time of year: One day it's cool and cloudy, the next it's 90°F and blazing. Thanks to May Gray and June Gloom and even the Santa Anas, starting seeds outdoors can be hit or miss, and you often end up sowing more seeds than you actually need ... just in case. Starting seeds indoors is often a more successful (and simple) process since you can adjust the moisture, sunlight, and temperature as your seedlings grow. It's like being the Garden God(dess).

For the novice gardener, a look around your local nursery can actually bring on more confusion than excitement. Heating mats? Plastic domes? Peat pots and seed trays and coir bricks and ... blah. Instead of spending money on an elaborate setup just to start a few seeds in your house, you can easily reuse what you already have. Nothing fancy needed, not even tools. Bare hands are best!

Take a look around your house and see what you've got.

Paper Towels
To start hard-to-germinate seeds, the paper towel method gives you the most control. It's sometimes also called the baggie method, as it uses a plastic baggie as a "greenhouse" for your seeds. This method works well for seeds that require constant heat for germination (such as chile peppers) since you can put your baggies near a heat source, even if you don't have a lot of space. You're also not left guessing whether a seed has sprouted yet, as you often do when it's an inch under the soil.

To start, wet a paper towel and wring it out. (The smaller "pick-a-size" towels are great for this, or you can simply cut yours down, depending on how many seeds you're starting.) You want the towel moist, but not soaking. Place your seeds (spaced about an inch apart) on one half of the towel, then fold the other half over it. Put the whole thing inside a plastic baggie (like a Ziploc-type sandwich bag) and place it in a warm spot in your house, unsealed for a little airflow. Make sure the towel stays moist by spritzing a little water on it when it feels dry.

Most seeds will sprout at room temperature, but certain seeds (like peppers and tomatoes) require more heat. You can place those seeds near a heating vent or something similar until they germinate. Once the roots have grown at least half an inch long, you can transplant your new seedlings into a pot of soil.

Mr. Brown Thumb has a good visual of the baggie method. (You can do this with paper coffee filters too!)

Cracked Eggshells
This project is especially fun for kids because it looks like magic (little plants growing out of eggs?!) and it's downright adorable. You can reuse an empty egg carton to hold your eggshell "pots" and start a whole herb garden on your windowsill this way. The eggshell method is best for smaller seeds such as basil, cilantro, parsley, and dill.

You want eggshells that have been cracked right in the middle so you have two halves. Wash and dry the shells, then place them in an egg carton. Fill each eggshell with a little moist soil, then sow your seeds according to the seed packet's instructions. Use a spray bottle to lightly spritz the surface of the soil whenever it looks dry.

As your seedling outgrows its pot, you can crack the shell ever so slightly and transplant the entire thing into your garden. The eggshell provides extra calcium to the soil! Garden Betty shows how it's done.

Toilet Paper Tubes
It seems you can start seeds in just about anything, right? And those empty rolls of toilet paper are no exception. Sturdy and biodegradable (not to mention cheap and abundant, my two favorite things when it comes to gardening), toilet paper tubes make excellent seed starting pots.

With a pair of scissors, cut 1/4-inch to 1/2-inch wide strips around the bottom of a tube. It will resemble fringe. Then, fold each strip down one by one, overlapping the previous one so the strips all stay in place. Now that you've created a flat bottom to your "pot," you can fill it with soil and sow your seeds.

Like the eggshells, the tubes can go straight into the ground when you're ready to transplant. You Grow Girl also claims there's no better cut worm deterrent in the garden than the lowly loo roll.

No matter which method you go with, remember to always label your seeds! Especially if you're growing different varieties of the same plant. All seedlings look alike at birth. You have no idea how many times I've ended up with mystery plants that I think are basil but they've turned out to be mustard greens. I'll take 'em all though!

About the Author

Linda Ly runs the award-winning blog Garden Betty, which chronicles her adventures in the dirt and on the road. Her first book, The CSA Cookbook, will be out March 2015.
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