Seed Starting: Be Successful, Not Silly

Seed Starting: Be Successful, Not Silly

As spring approaches, seed starting ideas and images make the rounds on social media. Some of them are sensible, but others are simply silly. They are often called “hacks,” a slang term for a useful tip. But another definition of “hack” is someone who isn’t great at what they do, and many of these seed starting ideas aren’t at all good for growing seedlings.

Can I start seeds in ice cream cones?

The first piece of poor advice is to plant your seeds in ice cream cones. Anyone who has ever held a cone filled with melting ice cream can guess how successful this would be. These wafer cones very quickly turn mushy when exposed to liquid. See the photos below to learn what really happens when you fill a cone with moist potting soil.

This is the photo that’s shared at this time of year. Notice that the cone isn’t filled with seedlings, but with a clump of moss and clover that someone has pulled from their lawn and stuck on the top of the cone.
I took two ice cream cones and filled them with moist potting mix, then watered as I would if seeds were planted in them.
I’m glad I thought to put these in a bowl, because just one hour after filling the cones collapsed.
One week later the cones continue to fall apart, and they are now starting to mold. If I had planted tomato seeds in these cones, they’d be dissolved and moldy before the seedlings even appeared.

Can I plant seeds in eggshells?

This tip is a bit better than the ice cream cone idea since eggshells won’t dissolve when wet. But the problem with the shell idea is that they are very small. One thing everyone needs to remember about plant growth is “what goes on below the soil surface is reflected up above.” In other words, if a plant has room and good soil so that it can quickly stretch its roots, the growth on top will be faster and vigorous. But if a plant’s roots are constricted, the top growth will also be stunted. Think of bonsai trees: they stay small because they are grown in tiny, shallow dishes that constrict the root systems.

If you’re starting seeds in March or even early April, you’ll want the containers you are growing in to be large enough to encourage growth for the next two or three months. Additionally, plan on only placing one seed per pot so that your young plant isn’t competing for root-room, and you won’t be injuring the roots when you transplant into the garden.

There are two things wrong with this seed-starting idea. The first is the eggshells. They only hold about a tablespoon of soil, which isn’t enough to support big growth on top. Secondly, several seeds were started in each shell, which further crowds the roots. These seedlings will not grow large or quickly, and when the person who started the seeds separates them damage will be done to the roots which are already intertwined.

Sometimes the eggshell idea is passed along with the idea that the shells will provide tomato plants with calcium, which prevents blossom end rot. This isn’t totally true. First of all, eggshells take years to decompose into a form of calcium that plants can take up. Secondly, blossom end rot isn’t caused by a calcium deficiency, but by stress such as drought, uneven watering, or tilling that harms the young plant’s roots. If the soil is drying between waterings, and the roots dry out, or if roots are cut in tilling, the plant is unable to take up the calcium that’s already in the soil.

When planting seeds in March, don’t crowd them into a small container such as an eggshell. They will be stunted in their growth and when you transplant into larger pots you’ll do damage to the roots. This is a “hack” that is actually bad advice. Put the eggshells in your compost, and give your seedlings the space they need to GROW!

Can I start seeds in egg cartons or ice cube trays?

You can germinate seeds in anything that will hold the potting soil or seed-starting mix, but you’ll need to provide drainage holes. And once again, any container that holds less than two tablespoons of soil won’t promote good root growth for your plants. If you want to recycle something plastic, a yogurt container would be a better choice, as long as you’ve punched holes in the bottom.

Start seeds in ice cube trays or plastic egg cartons? You could, if you want to take the time to drill or punch drainage holes in those small compartments. But again, limiting their root growth will make your plants smaller.

I don’t want to use plastic pots for my seedlings.

There are several choices for those who don’t want to purchase plastic packs or pots. We carry Jiffy Pots and Cow Pots, both made of organic material that decomposes into the garden. If you choose a larger size of either of these products you won’t have to transplant before they go into the garden.

Last year I started all of my tomatoes in Cow Pots. This plantable pot is made in Connecticut from dairy farm manure.

How can I label a plantable pot?

Pots that biodegrade aren’t as easy to label. Yes, you can use a marker to write the name of your tomato or pepper variety on the pot, but as the pots stay wet for a few weeks this is likely to disappear. Last year I used wine bottle corks as a way to keep track of what variety of tomato was growing in my Cow Pots.

I made a list of all the tomato varieties that I was starting, and gave each an abbreviation. That was written with a Sharpie marker on the top of the corks, which were pushed into the corner of each pot. Having the cork even with the edge of the pot allowed me to spread a sheet of plastic wrap over these trays while the seeds were germinating. The corks went into the garden along with the soil and the Cow Pots at the end of May. (The T stood for Tropic, Mal for Mama Leone, M for Mountain Magic and St for Stellar. Of these, the Mountain Magic was once again the winner for tomato production and disease resistance.)

The bottom line: start your seeds in containers that give them enough room to grow big, strong root systems without competition, and make sure to use pots with drainage holes.

If you want more information about growing tomatoes, look at the sheets on our informational handouts page.

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1 Comment

  1. Susan R Donald on March 2, 2023 at 1:17 pm

    Very helpful

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