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How To Grow A Garden On A Budget, Part Three

by Landon Gilfillan on March 6, 2013

How To Grow A Garden On A Budget, Part Three

Buying, Assembling, and Starting Your Seeds

Taking the information from my previous two posts into account, it is now time to buy your seeds and/or transplants, assemble your seed-starting materials, and start your seeds on next to nothing.

Where To Buy Your Seeds & Plants

There are plenty of places where you can buy or order seeds, but I absolutely love an organization known as the Seed Saver’s Exchange, and I rarely buy anything outside of their inventory.

SSE is a non-profit, member-supported organization that saves and shares the heirloom seeds that have been passed down through generations of families.

They conserve and promote America’s culturally diverse but endangered food crop heritage for future generations by collecting, growing, and sharing heirloom seeds and plants.

For a more detailed explanation of their mission, go here.  But the gist of why I love these seeds is because each one has a different story and an original owner that makes them unique and interesting.

On top of that, they are heirloom seeds and most of them are certified organic, so no genetically modified foods here!

You will get quality seeds, and therefore quality plants that cost you less than a head of cauliflower or a container of strawberries at Wal-Mart!

But if this is not of interest to you, you can go to your local garden store (Lowe’s has a great selection) and pick up seed packets for about a buck fifty (give or take 30 cents).

And in that little packet you will have anywhere from 25 to 1,000 seeds.  That’s possibly 25 to 1,000 plants bearing who knows how much fruit (or vegetables).  Now how’s that for saving your dollars?!

Just to give you an idea, I bought 34 seed packets for $2.75 each, plus shipping and handling.  So, I spent about a week’s worth of grocery money on something that will last us well through the summer, into the fall, and even to next spring’s garden!


And if I preserve my excess produce (i.e. canning), I will have vegetables to last us through the winter as well.  Not bad for $100!

If that sounds like a lot to spend on seeds, no worries, you could spend less than $20 and have a great little garden full of lettuce, a tomato plant or two, some herbs, a bell pepper, and a few other plants.

If you’re like me, it becomes difficult to decide which plants to buy because I want to grow them all!

Seed-Starting Materials

This can be a little tedious, but once you’re done, it is so exciting to watch those little seeds sprout!  Plus, not all your vegetables will have to be started indoors.

Many can be directly sown into your soil outside according to the directions on the seed packet.  Once you have purchased and received your seed packets, read the directions on the back to see whether or not they will need to be started indoors.

Separate your seeds into two piles, those you start indoors and those you directly seed outdoors.  Some seeds can be started both indoors (to reap an early harvest) and directly sown outdoors.

Once you’ve separated your packets, use this chart to determine when to start your seeds indoors and when to plant them outside.

If you’re planning a garden for this spring, there maybe some seeds that you should have (and I say that lightly) already started.  Don’t worry, if you’re only a few weeks behind, just start them anyways because you can still plant them out even if they are a little smaller then they would have been.

Now here’s where you can start saving your dollars.

You can spend a lot of extra money on seed-starting kits, fluorescent growing lights, warming mats, and the like, OR you can use items you probably already have on hand.

You can use all kinds of containers to start seeds in, so long as you can make drainage holes in the bottoms of them.  The smaller the better because you don’t want to waste your seed starting mix in a huge container.

My seed-starting materials just so happen to be egg cartons, plastic bags and containers, seed-starting mix, and a sunny windowsill!  I did spend about five bucks on an 8-qt. bag of seed-starting mix, but it’s worth the small investment.

seed-starting supplies

I thought of using egg cartons on a whim this year, and it’s turned out to be a great idea!

The individual egg “pots” are the perfect size to start little seedlings.  They are basically the same size and shape as the peat pots sold in the store, and the egg carton lid will serve as a drainage tray for any water that, well, drains from the seedlings.

You can use Styrofoam, plastic, or cardboard egg cartons, but I suggest a mixture of all three, and here’s why:

The Styrofoam cartons are great because they’re sturdy and water-resistant, unlike the cardboard cartons.  It’s also much easier to pierce a drainage hole through the bottoms, unlike the plastic cartons.  The lid will also serve as a drainage tray that fits perfectly underneath the bottom of the egg carton.

egg carton seed-starter close-up

Cardboard egg cartons are made out of the same material as the store-bought peat pots, but you will not be able to use the lid as a drainage tray because it is not water resistant.  Plus, the cardboard becomes flimsy once it absorbs a good amount of water.

You will have to use a Styrofoam or plastic lid or some other container, like a baking sheet, for some support and a drainage tray.

Clear plastic egg cartons do not make good “peat pots” because it is difficult to pierce the drainage holes through the plastic.  However, the bottom and top of the carton make great drainage trays and plastic lids (the lids will cover the seed tray until the seeds germinate.)

plastic lid for germination

Land ‘O Lakes sells their eggs in clear plastic containers, and you’ll get three trays and/or lids from each carton.  I didn’t have enough clear plastic lids to cover all my seed trays, so I used some plastic newspaper bags instead.

You could also use 2-gallon Zip-lock bags, plastic twisty-tie storage bags, or translucent grocery bags.

plastic bags covering egg carton seed-starters

Other ideas for makeshift “peat pots” could be the eggshells themselves (although I find this more tedious), cardboard half & half containers, aluminum cans, or just about anything that you can put drainage holes into.

Just keep in mind, the bigger the container, the more seed starting mix you will use.

Here’s another idea I recently saw using plastic salad containers and cardboard paper towel or toilet paper rolls.  Brillant!

It’s amazing what you can do when you put your mind to work.  But there’s nothing wrong with borrowing other people’s ideas either.

Ask your friends to start saving their egg cartons, plastic bags, and newspapers and you’ll have plenty of tools to get started.

Here’s a picture of what some of my trays look like.  You’ll see quite the variety as I really tried to use what I had on hand.

seed trays on windowsill

Sowing Your Seeds (Indoors)

Once you have collected your materials, it’s time to start sowing your seeds.

Decide how many plants of each vegetable, fruit, herb, and/or flower you want to start.  This will help you determine how many egg cartons you will need.

For example, if you have six different plants, you will only need about one egg carton (two slots for each plant.)  I suggest planting one or two extra plants just in case some of your seeds do not sprout.

If they do all sprout, give your extra plants away to a friend or someone in need.  It’ll be the gift that keeps on giving!

If you’re using egg cartons, cut off the lid and place it underneath the egg crate as a drainage tray.  Then pierce a hole or two (depending on the size of your seeding container) in the bottom and/or side of each seed slot for drainage.  If you’re using a seed-starting kit, the holes have already been made for you.

Cut lid off carton


Pierce bottom of carton

Next, fill your trays about three fourths full with the seed starting mix.  Then gently water each slot before placing the seeds.  I use a turkey baster to place a small amount of water in each slot.  You could also use a syringe, spoon, or squirt bottle.

Fill tray with seed mix

If you don’t water the mix before placing the seeds, the water and the seeds along with it may run out of its slot into a neighboring slot or out of the container all together.

Gently water each pot

The water will pill on top and eventually soak through, and it’s at that point that you will place your seed.

Carefully place two or three seeds in each slot, separating and spacing them if you can.  The reason you place a couple seeds per slot is in case one or more of the seeds do not sprout.

Carefully place seeds into pot

They will most likely all sprout and you will end up thinning the seedlings, but you don’t want to take the chance and plant too few.

Once you’ve placed your seed, lightly cover each slot with some more seed-starting mix and very gently water again.

Lightly cover seeds with seed starting mix

Finally, make little signs to label your different seeds; because trust me, you’ll forget which plant was planted where if you don’t!  Use a toothpick and tape a small piece of paper across the top with each plant’s name.

If you’re using Styrofoam egg cartons, you could write the label on the side of the carton as well (that’s what I did this year).

Label each carton

You will need to cover your seed containers with a clear plastic lid or bag until the seed germinates (i.e. sprouts.)  The lids help keep the seed and soil warm and moist, creating a sort of greenhouse effect.

This is where the plastic egg cartons come in handy.  When separated, the lid and the egg crate can both be used as a lid or a drainage tray.  Plastic salad containers work great as lids too, if they are long enough.

Once the seed germinates (sprouts), you will remove the plastic and expose the seedlings to the air.

You will want to keep your seed trays near a sunny window, under fluorescent lights, or on a heating mat to keep them warm.  You can spend the money to buy these things or not.

I’ve had great success just setting my seed trays on sunny windowsill during the day and then putting them somewhere warmer at night, typically under my dining room table lights.

Generally, you want to keep them about 70 degrees, which is about what our house stays at throughout the day, give or take a few degrees.

Keep the soil moist but not wet until the plants are ready to plant out.  You’ll be amazed at how quickly they sprout and grow!

Refer back to your seed-starting chart to determine when you can plant your seedlings outside.  The seed packet may also give you a time frame depending on your “hardiness zone”, which you can view here.

Also, be sure and look up your local extension office.  You’ll be amazed how many resources they have to offer the novice and experienced gardener alike.

Looking forward to continuing the journey!  Stay tuned to my next post:  Preparing Your Outside Garden & Sowing Seeds.


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