Starting seeds need not require special pots or trays: You can make your own paper pots in just a few minutes.
Not only are these DIY paper seedling pots economical and earth-friendly, you can simply plant the whole thing in the ground when the seedling is ready to be transplanted because newspaper decomposes quickly. We used a wooden pot maker to form the seedling pots (available from garden shops and online retailers like Gardener’s Supply and Lee Valley), but if you don’t own the tool, you can also use a can, it’ll just be a little more fiddly to roll the pots. A 10.75 oz. condensed soup can is a great size; the more common 14 to 16 oz. size of a typical can of beans works too!
You’ll also need seeds and seed starting mix to plant them in. Purchase a potting mix specifically designed for starting seeds (opt for one that’s organic if you’re growing vegetables or herbs); soil scooped from your backyard won’t be ideal for the seedlings. Melissa Lillie, senior stylist at the Annie Selke Companies suggests you buy seeds for vegetables or flowers you know you like, so you’ll use your harvest. Melissa’s family plants things that are harder to find at their local market, like exotic peppers, shiso, and straw flowers. Corn, carrots, and cucumbers are all easy to grow from seed (tomatoes, however, are hard!); snap peas are especially satisfying and you can eat them right out in the garden.
Step 1: Cut your newspaper into strips. Use newsprint, not magazine pages, since it will biodegrade more quickly and is less likely to have any residual chemicals from printing (you should also avoid heavily printed newspaper advertisement pages). The strips should measure approximately 1 ½ to 2x the height of the pot maker base (or the can) and approximately 18-inches long.
Step 2: Lay a strip flat on the table and align the pot maker (or can), so that one edge of the paper hangs out over the end. Roll the cylinder towards you, using your fingers to keep the newsprint tight against the form (as shown).
Optional: Adults working with a pot maker can hold the paper in place and execute Step 3, but if you’re working with a can or if kids are helping, you might place a tiny piece of masking tape on at this point to hold the paper in its roll.
Step 3: Fold and press the overhanging paper against the bottom of your pot form. Pro tip: A few drops of water will help relax the paper and make the pot bottom sit flatter on your work surface.
Step 4: If you are working with a pot maker, twist the pot form over the base to secure the shape. Remove the pot maker or can.
Step 5: Repeat Steps 1 to 4 for as many pots as you need.
Step 6: Arrange the pots in a shallow tray or a baking sheet (you need at least a short lip to catch any excess water). Scoop the seed starting mix into each paper pot, leaving a little space at the top. This is a great task for little hands; try giving your child a small measuring cup, like a ½ or ⅓ cup for maximum fine-motor control.
Step 7: Follow the instructions on your seed packet for planting your seeds; you’ll want to put a few seeds (usually 3 to 4) in each pot. (Later you’ll pick which is the hardiest to transplant.) Be sure to get the kids to help with this step, since there is truly a little magic in seeing a seed you planted grow—whether you are five or fifty-five! As a general rule, the larger the seed, the deeper it needs to go into the potting mix. Don’t forget to label the pots: You’ll never remember which is which and even seasoned gardeners can’t ID seedlings accurately.
Step 8: Water the pots so that the soil is uniformly damp, but not sopping wet. Kids can help with this, but demo the amount of water first, so they don’t drown your seeds. Pro tip: A cleaned out squirt bottle like a dish soap bottle or a ketchup bottle will give you excellent control of the pour.
Step 9: Place the tray in a sunny, but not directly sunny spot. Keep the seedlings well watered, checking them at least daily to make sure they don’t dry out. When the sprouts emerge, transfer the tray to the best direct sunlight you can find in your home. You may need to rig something up in a funny location, but it’s only for a few weeks. Note: If your home does not get good sun, you might consider buying an inexpensive grow light.
Step 10: After a few weeks, you’ll take the seedlings outside to get used to the harsher outdoor conditions during the day, but you’ll bring them in at night when temperatures drop. Follow the specific directions on your seed packet for the hardening and transplanting the seedlings.
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