Greenpoint: Starting the garden in whatever is handy

Seedlings are sprouting in all sorts of containers inside the writer’s home.

Seedlings are sprouting in all sorts of containers inside the writer’s home.

The table by the window is full of vegetable seedlings, sprouting out of various food packaging items — the clear clamshells that strawberries came in last summer, black plastic containers that held mushrooms, some shallow boxes from canning jars and clementines.

Even careful shoppers end up with plenty of plastic containers — from yogurt, milk, meat trays. I’ve been cleaning what’s on hand, poking holes in the bottom, adding potting soil and dropping in seeds. I overplant the containers because once the seedlings get big enough I transplant them, generally into other recycled cups, bags, bins and anything else of a reasonable size and shape.

I used to mine the floor of my husband’s vehicles for takeout coffee cups to use for those bigger vegetable and flower seedlings. Since we haven’t been going anywhere this year, I don’t have the usual abundance. But I have something else: the foil-like bags from the coffee you buy at the supermarket. I started saving them a while ago, when my husband kept commenting that back when he was a kid, his mom would bring the same paper coffee bag back to the PX to refill on their monthly shopping trips. “Isn’t there something you can do with these?” he’d ask.

I know what he means. They are not recyclable but they are sturdy, so you should be able to use them over and over — but for what? Freezing food? Gift bags? Cookies to mail to the kids? No, because no matter how much I washed them, I couldn’t get the coffee smell out. But they seem fine for planters, cut in half with a hole poked in the end. Now I have a pile of them, ready for when the seedlings need more room.

Trash to planters — it’s not exactly “upcycling.” It’s actually more like downcycling, finding one more use for something before it winds up in the trash, recycling bin or compost pile. It’s better than buying new plastic seed pots, which also will eventually become garbage. We have plenty of those, too, from nursery starter plants we’ve picked up over the years and from donations from other gardeners.

All the plastic containers can be used multiple times, and I’ve been cleaning out some of last year’s food containers-turned-planters for another go-round.

Then there are the makeshift planters that will end up in the compost but can get a one-time reuse before they break down. I have tomatoes in a corrugated cardboard box that will fall apart by the time the seedlings are ready to be transplanted. But that’s OK — after a few months in the compost pile it’ll end up as part of the garden.

This year my niece is starting her marigolds in eggshells — a fun planting trick I’d forgotten about. Save the shells from the eggs you’ve neatly cracked in half, rinse them out and poke a hole in the bottom with a tack or small nail, and put them back in the egg carton. When you’ve filled your carton, you have starters for 12 seeds, and the beauty of it is that when you are ready to plant, you can crack the shell a little more and pop the whole thing in your garden. I used to do that for delicate seedlings that can be hard to transplant, like asclepia.

You can use a cardboard egg carton as a compostable planter if you are very careful to keep it well watered — the cardboard wicks a lot of water out of the soil. Same goes for those molded cardboard berry bins: They’re handy planters if you keep them well watered, and they’re compost when you’re done.

Plastic and foam egg cartons also work as planters and don’t wick out water, but they are trash at the end of seedling season. Then again, if you have them in your house, it makes sense to use them a few more times before they go.

We’re not saving the planet here. But finding a few more uses for what is ultimately garbage is, at the least, a way to avoid buying new temporary objects that will eventually have to be disposed of.

Greenpoint appears every other Sunday. Look for it next on April 11. Reach Margaret Hartley at [email protected] or @Hartley_Maggie on Twitter. Opinions expressed in Greenpoint are hers and not necessarily the newspaper’s.

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