How to Start Your Seeds on the Cheap

How to Find Seed-starting containers for free - Check out Owning Burton Farm and Misfit Gardening's Series on Frugal Gardening - Click now or save for later to learn how to start your seeds for free.

I love seeing row after row of uniform black plastic seed starting planters in garden centers and greenhouses. They’ve been dutifully watered and sunned, shaded and fertilized by the garden pros in the nursery. They even have the guts to set them out before the last frost of the year, so we can get our gardens started early! After spending so many cold days looking out the windows, dreaming over the seed catalogs, I’m itching to get started with my own seeds, but not quite ready to be outside.


To me, the miracle that a tiny seed can produce baskets of food and flowers is borderline spiritual.


Today, I want to inspire you to get started collecting all those seed-starting containers.

You don’t have to spend money at all to find suitable containers to start your seeds indoors! For me, our town does not have a local recycling program, but I can’t stand putting things in the trash that I can still use, so I’m happy to re-purpose as much of it as possible. I can guarantee you have many of these items at home already available. Don’t believe me?


You can raid your recycle bin right now for these items:


Toilet paper rolls, paper towel rolls, gift wrap rolls

You can cut these down to two or three inches, or use the toilet tissue rolls as-is to allow you extra time inside without the roots getting wadded up, like they would in growers’ trays.


Steel cans

Take a hammer and a nail for a primitive drainage hole and plant seeds in those green bean cans.


Water bottles

Lop off the tops, poke a drainage hole and go for it. These are especially awesome because you’ll be able to see when the roots have reached the bottom and need to be re-planted.


Newspapers and Magazines

Emma mentioned a tool that you can use to roll newspaper into tiny cylinders to start your seeds. If you can’t find one, then why not roll paper around a medicine bottle, a slim shaving can or body spray bottle, maybe even a large roll of thread? I’m sure you can find something about that size that will be perfect!


Large cardboard boxes

Line your small containers up inside one of those Amazon shipping boxes and you have your own reusable seed starting tray. Putting your plants in a big box makes it really easy to move them around, especially when you are short on space and need to move them off the dinner table for supper.


Seriously, most any cardboard box is going to work. I finally got around to hanging the holiday lights at Club Back Porch this weekend and decided to try planting in those skinny boxes after I cut them in half. Just think of it as if I’m espaliering the roots.


You can raid your fridge & pantry right now for these containers:


Cereal Boxes

They’re bagged inside, so you don’t need the box. Cut the box in half and you have two biodegradable planters that allow for more root growth than growers’ trays.


Breakfast Bar and Snack Bar boxes

Put all your bars in an attractive basket or bin and fill that box with dirt.


Other boxes

How many boxes of mac and cheese, Rice-a-Roni, cake mix, et cetera do you go through in a week? Do you or someone you know have a Mountain Dew can habit that leaves you with tons of fridge pack boxes? These are free biodegradable seed-starting containers!


Vegetable Containers

Make a big salad for dinner tonight and take those veggie containers to your potting station. Baby spinach and salad mixes come in very large containers; cherry tomatoes come in smaller ones.


Fruit Containers

Those clear plastic berry cartons are great tiny greenhouses for plants that might need extra protection early on. I usually just end up using the bottom halves of these.

Cut off the top of the carton and invert it into the bottom for drainage on a free seed starter. Come visit us at and for more ideas to homestead frugally
Easy Drainage Solution


Wax Cartons (Milk, Creamer, Egg Beaters)

I slice off the top and turn it upside down inside the bottom for drainage before putting dirt inside. These can be re-used a few times, too. 


Look in your freezer

It probably houses a number of items in boxes that are also in plastic packaging  – Waffles, Pancakes, even those ten ounce boxes of frozen spinach. Turn them on their sides and the roots can still grow deeper than in those black plastic growers’ trays.


When it’s time for final transplant into the garden, you can plant your seedlings, (unwaxed) cardboard box and all, without disturbing their roots. Less shock for your seedlings means healthier plants .


You can raid your trash bin for the following:


Plastic food containers

Think about what your cookies, cakes, and croissants came in — those baked goods containers make awesome drip trays to protect your surfaces and you can also use them as your own DIY seed starter greenhouse.


Thin aluminum pans with the clear plastic lids

Used it once for a cake and tossing it? Puh-lease! Rinse it out, put your little paper-and-dirt cups in here and you’ve got a free mini-greenhouse! I think you can buy these at the dollar store, so even if you start with fresh new ones, it’s a super cheap seed starter.


Empty fast food cups and cartons

They come in a variety of sizes, from french fry cups to the big gully-washers, and the larger your container, the more time you have before you’ll have to transplant. This is especially helpful when you’re wary of one more frost. Just poke a drainage hole at the bottom. You can plant the paper cups since they’ll decompose quickly, but I don’t recommend planting the styrofoam ones for obvious reasons.


Bath Cups

I feel so wasteful chucking these in the trash after only holding a few ounces of water one time. 



On that note, K-Cups could be used to start seeds, too! Of course, you’re going to have to re-pot them soon after, but if you buy K-Cups, you could probably amass quite a collection quickly, and they’re free.


Coffee Cups

If you’re anything like my mother, you have a cabinet full of old cups and mugs, but you only use your favorite few. Don’t go all Kon Mari on them! So what if it’s broken? Who needs a handle? If the mug is cracked, that’s good for drainage. If you have a drill bit for ceramic materials, I recommend a drainage hole. Otherwise, just put some packing peanuts or pebbles in the bottom.


Image result for image martha stewart egg shell plant
Martha Stewart uses eggshells to start plants and you can, too!

Egg Cartons

Of course, you can go all Martha Stewart and plant your seeds in the eggshells from eggs you’re buying anyway, but don’t forget the carton they came in! I especially love the cardboard egg cartons for seed-starting. When they get wet, the little egg cups break off just fine for planting directly into the garden.  The styrofoam cartons can be reused.



Large Yogurt, Cottage Cheese & Butter Tubs

Most of these are not recyclable, so keep them out of the landfill by using these when your seedlings outgrow their small starter trays, but aren’t quite ready to go outside. Everyone’s favorite “leftovers surprise” container gets a new useful life. I heard rubbing alcohol takes the labels off, so if the appearance of our childhood tupperware gets to you, you might try that.


Seed Starting Trays

Whenever I purchase plants at the nursery or big box store, I always save the black plastic pots for re-use. Try visiting your local store or coop’s nursery after a freeze. Many times, they will have marked down plants that look bad because nobody wants to pay retail for something that doesn’t look good. Often, these plants are just fine. I have purchased plants from snapdragons to marigolds before for fifty or seventy five cents, cut off the limp parts, and planted them without problems. (Buyer beware–some plants are more resilient than others when it comes to cold weather.)



Make sure something good comes out of your weekend party. Ha! Seriously, though, line these up in a tray or a box and re-use these things. A lot of work went into that cup design, a song was even sung about it, so give it the real dirt-road treatment with some plants. 


Ice cream cartons

I can’t believe this is my first year to save an ice cream carton for planting, but it’s perfect–wide, deep, and tolerates moisture! Since my squash, cukes, and zucchini still have another 6 weeks indoors, they’re going to love all that room for growing roots! I put two in each one with confidence.


Like what you see? Want more from Burton Farm?

Our resources library has an awesome Seed Starting Infographic you’re going to want to save.


What else could you use?

If it ain’t totally broke, you can still use it!


Shower curtain

So what the weights fell out of the bottom and the holes are torn! Use an old shower curtain to line your table or counter to protect the surface. I have mine on top of an old trash-picked dresser in the garage, with the edges folded to guide any runoff into a bucket sitting on the floor. You could also cut the shower curtain to line your homemade seed trays.


Plastic bags

Have you purchased something recently that came in a huge plastic bag, like a pillow or blanket? Use that plastic to line your box so it doesn’t get all soggy.



Do you have clear plastic totes without lids? Even if they are split or chipped, turn them over any of your homemade seed starting trays and you have DIY greenhouses for free! (And hey, if you still have the lid, you can start hundreds of seeds in very little space!)


Milk Jugs and large soda bottles

Cut off the bottoms and use the tops as individual greenhouses when when the plants get larger.


Cat litter containers

The small ones with the handles can be used as watering jugs when you drill holes in the screw-on cap. The large ones can be used to hold dirt, compost, rainwater, hand tools, etc.



Have an old suitcase that you don’t use anymore? Maybe the handle or or a wheel fell off? Pop it open, line it with a trash bag and you have a sturdy seed starting tray.


Glass Jars

Those baby food jars are great for storing seeds air-tight. Pickle jars are great for making compost tea, which is some stinky great nutrition for tiny roots. I reuse skinny glass jars for vases and growing roots from cuttings.

Baking Trays

Line up all those cups and containers on baking trays for sturdy, movable, re-usable drip pans. Who has time to bake right now?

Look under your kitchen and bathroom cabinets.

  • Is there a box with just a little baking soda left in it? Pour it in the toilet and plant seeds in the box.
  • How about a bottle of something that you didn’t like or aren’t going to finish? Pour it out and don’t feel guilty! At least you can use the container.
  • What about the last of that Windex? Clean your windows, then wash out the spray bottle. Fill it with water and you have a mister for keeping seeds moist while they germinate. Why buy a spray bottle?


Don’t forget the power of the ASK!


Put the word out to your friends and family, post it on facebook, freecycle and craigslist that you are looking for supplies to start seeds.

Friends will be happy to save their egg cartons and plastic tubs for you.

Have no shame in asking your neighbor for something in their recycle bin.


There’s always someone moving or deciding gardening’s not for them (how sad!), or they don’t even realize what a treasure they are giving away. This is community recycling at its best!


QUOTE: One of the Most Delightful things about a garden is the anticipation it provides. W.E. Johns - Come see how we're gardening on the cheap in our frugal gardening series - Owning Burton Farm and Misfit GardeningI hope these ideas have inspired you to get started collecting the free and super-cheap containers already available to you.


If you want to start a garden, this is where I’d start: try this for one week — Anytime you have something in your hand that is going into the  trash, donation bin, or recycling, ask yourself if you could re-use it in the garden. I bet you surprise yourself.

Now surprise me!

Let me know in the comments below or email me at what YOU will be using to start your seeds in this spring! I can’t wait to hear what you stumble upon!


I’m off to re-pot some cukes that are braiding themselves into celtic knots in their tiny little seed-starter packs. And I’m taking this plastic hummus container, Mt. Dew cardboard fridge pack box and empty 2-liter of soda with me to the basement.


PS: If you don’t already subscribe, you probably want to do so at the link below. You’ll get the password to my subscriber resources page, which includes a great infographic to remind you where to look for free containers, some free spreadsheets, a couple of debt maps, a collection of the quotes I’ve used in my posts, and a link to my hidden page, Lousy Mom, where I confess things completely unrelated to gardening. You don’t want to miss it.



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