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Frugal Seed Starting, Homeschool Style

Each year we plant a huge (think several thousand square feet) garden.  Of course we need seedlings, so we start them ourselves.  It’s a great learning experience and, when the seeds come up, it can be so exciting.

Over the years we’ve learned to do this more and more efficiently and frugally.  The children have learned about seeds, planting, soils, pots, germination, creativity, watering, labeling, and how plants grow.  Each year there are new things to discover, new responsibilities to deal with, and new skills to learn.

Although I’d hoped to reduce the garden work this summer, the children insisted on most of the usual vegetables and some even offered to be in charge of their choices.   However, Miss 8 and Miss 10 did much of the hands-on seed starting this year.  They prepared and labeled most of the boxes, filled them with soil, planted many seeds, watered them, and now keep a careful eye on them.

Although seed starting takes time and space, there are only three other things you need:  seeds, soil, and containers.


We buy our seeds from a small natural, partly organic company.  Other options may be cheaper, but we are pleased to get quality seed and to support an ethical company.  We often also have left-over seeds.  The Tightwad Gazette, tells us which of our older seeds will be reliable; if there’s any doubt, we do a quick germination test.  We also save some heritage and non-hybrid seeds from year to year.


We have tried all kinds of soil:  the cheapest lawn soil, potting soil of various varieties, and mixtures of compost and the above.  Sometimes they worked quite well, but often the plants did not grow as we wished.  Last year my geraniums never did get over two inches high!

So this year we went to a local greenhouse and bought some of the soil that they were mixing for their own use.  It was no more expensive than the department store variety. However, it did cause some mild allergic reactions so we put the plants in our verandah rather than scattered throughout the house on windowsills.  Now, after almost a week, the soil hardly smells at all anymore.


In the early days, we saved pots and containers from greenhouses and reused them. For a few years we used toilet paper tubes, cut in half, with paper taped to the bottom to hold the soil in.  That was a very useful craft project, but it went on forever. And, of course, we used egg cartons, but the egg cups do not hold enough soil for growing plants.

When our neighbor got a potmaker, a simple wooden device to make sturdy newsprint pots at home, our children spent hours making pots that we then put our plants in.  By then we’d bought a whole stack of blue IKEA trays for a song, and we used those to hold the pots.

Two years ago, we figured out how to use a plastic cup as a potmaker;  it still took forever to make a few hundred pots, but we no longer had to bother our neighbor for his potmaker.

And last year we tried…Kleenex boxes!  We wrapped a strip of masking tape around them to help them hold their shape, and they lasted all spring; the plants grew well.

This year we used the tops of egg cartons, all the Kleenex boxes we had, a rooibos tea box, a sardine tin box, and cola boxes, cut in half.  Note that we reinforced them all with masking tape, and wrote the seed names on the tape.  We also were given a package of peat pots which we used for early tomatoes and early peppers to give them, hopefully, a good start.

An advantage, besides time savings, is that these rectangular boxes take up much less space than round individual pots.  Of course, later we’ll have to transplant the petunias and some of the tomatoes to individual pots (homemade, from newspapers).

Now we need to water them regularly.  Of course, to protect our tables and window sills, we put our boxes of moist soil on trays. We’ve noticed that the peat pots dry out quickly, so we set them close together, and between boxes if possible.

Results so far:

After 5 days, the first marigold was up.  Miss 8 was amazed that the leeks came up white instead of green.   Now, however, we’re seeing green tips on them as well!

Note (added in 2016):  Although the cardboard boxes work well most of the time, we have had mold issues with them.  Now we prefer the clear plastic salad, strawberry, or mushroom containers which have never caused us any problem in any way.

For more great tips, see Works for Me Wednesday, Thrifty Thursday, and Frugal Friday.  For more homeschooling stories, visit the Carnival of Homeschooling.


  1. Jenn4him says:

    We’ve started sunflowers and have one basil plant ready to plant. My question is about light. I always thought you had to have a sunny spot to start seeds. We don’t really have such a spot for a lot of plants, maybe 2 windows. Of course, I have seen those lovely plant lights, but they are not frugal. This post is very helpful. Thanks. I need to get some more seeds started. Thankfully, our compost is making really good dirt right now.

    1. Annie Kate says:

      If you have two windows, you can put the plants in front of them. Perhaps it’s not great decor, but it does add a focal point to a room. LOL

      We’ve moved seedlings around during the day to follow the sun, or put them outside on nice days.

      I’ve also put them on top of the fridge to germinate, and then forgotten them. They did stretch a bit before I realized put them near a window.

      Our neighbors put them outside under an old window, making a mini-greenhouse, but it was tough keeping the temperature reasonable.

      I hope it works for you!

      Annie Kate

  2. Carmen Harke says:

    It looks….messy! I think that’s why I’ve never done it. 🙂 Actually, I think I did once, back in the days when I had two very little helpers. Which is why I think first of the mess. 🙁

  3. Annie Kate says:

    A few minutes of sweeping cleaned the place up for us.

    On the other hand, if you’ve done it only with little people, the mess is really all you remember. It’s worth a try again; I’m sure your little kids will love it, and your older ones will have the mess cleaned up in no time.

    Annie Kate

  4. Shelly says:

    A garden is so exciting! We are moving this year, and I am afraid my gardening days are in danger!

  5. Such awesome skills and memories you’re storing up for your kids. Thanks for submitting to the Carnival of Homeschooling.

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