Seed Starting Containers: Use These to Grow Your Best Garden Ever

Seed Starting Containers
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Last Updated on 2 years by Michelle

When you’re starting seeds to plant in your garden, using the right containers will save you time AND money. That might not seem obvious at first, but it’s important to use the right seed starting containers from the start.

There are many options for seed-starting containers out there, and it can be confusing to know which ones to choose.

I have started literally THOUSANDS of seedlings and made some costly mistakes, which led me to find the absolute BEST containers to start seeds. I’m sharing these recommendations with you below.

In this blog post, I’m going to talk about the best seed starting containers for growing vegetables.

The Containers Most Beginner Gardeners Use

Beginner gardeners usually start seeds in whatever they have lying around the house. They may use egg cartons, toilet paper tubes, or old plastic food containers.

All those containers will technically work, and will likely get you started, but they have some major faults that soon become obvious after a bit of use.

Paper Egg Cartons

An egg carton seems like a perfect container to start seeds in. They are small, made of biodegradable material, and are easy to tear apart and plant into the soil when the seedling is big enough.

A MAJOR downside to these is that they are so biodegradeable that they basically disintegrate after about 3 weeks to 1 month of use. Once they get wet they are not durable at all.

Unless you are growing seedlings like lettuces that don’t need much more than 3 weeks in a seed starting container before you plant them, they will fall apart way before you are able to plant them in the ground. It also takes awhile to save more than a few egg cartons, depending on how many eggs you eat per week.

For this reason, egg cartons are NOT a good option for starting much more than a few small containers of small plants like lettuce.

Seed Starting Egg Carton
Kid's Egg Carton Seedling Garden

What are paper egg cartons perfect for? Showing kids how seeds germinate, that’s what! So save your egg cartons and show your little ones how seeds germinate AND show them how to recycle at the same time.

Seed Starting Egg Cartons
Squash Seedlings In the Kid's Egg Carton Garden

Toilet Paper Tubes

I’ve seen people use toilet paper tubes to start seeds when they didn’t want to spend money on seed starting containers.

These tubes have a few things going for them: they are made of biodegradable cardboard, they are lightweight, and can be recycled.

The main downside to using toilet paper tubes is that they don’t hold water well, so you have to keep watering the seedlings every day or two. This happens because the water tends to soak into the tube itself instead of the soil.

The water can also cause the tubes to unravel, so you have to handle them very gently once they are wet.

Another downside to these containers is that you will have to spend A LOT of time collecting used toilet paper rolls before you will have enough to start your garden. If you need 30 tubes to start your garden, you’ll need to remember to save tubes for months before you have enough to start your garden.

Red Plastic Cups

Ok…We’ve all been there.

We’ve all gotten the itch to plant some seeds so we turn the house upside down to find containers we can plant seeds in.

Almost all of us use plastic cups every day, so they are a no-brainer for starting seeds.

There are a lot of pros to using plastic cups. You already have them so they’re free. They aren’t that expensive so you can get started without spending much money on the cups if you do have to buy them. I have used these red plastic cups with success in the past, so don’t count them out for getting starting.

The downside of using plastic cups is that you probably are going to use too much soil in them so you’ll spend a TON of money on seed starting soil. And since the cups are so big, you’ll have a tougher time controlling soil temperature as I mentioned earlier.

And there is the pesky issue of no holes in the bottom for drainage. You’ll have to poke holes in the bottoms of each of the cups if you want them to drain properly and not rot your seedlings.

All in all, they will work to get you started, but if you want to grow most of your garden from seed (to reap ALL the amazing benefits I talk about in this post), you’ll need to get serious about getting better containers.

Successful Seed Starting Containers

When I started my garden, I knew I wanted to start a variety of seedlings at the same time, so I needed a solution that would allow me to grow many seedlings at once under the 4 grow lights that I had.

A quick google search showed pretty quickly that I needed seed starting trays, and after a ton of trial and error and wasted money, I have settled on these sizes for ALL my seed starting from now on:

Seed Starting Trays I Recommend

When you’re starting seeds to plant in your garden, using the right containers will save you time AND money. That might not seem obvious at first, but it’s important to use the right seed starting containers from the start.

There are many options for seed-starting containers out there, and it can be confusing to know which ones to choose.

I have started literally THOUSANDS of seedlings and made some costly mistakes, which led me to find the absolute BEST containers to start seeds. I’m sharing these recommendations with you below.

In this blog post, I’m going to talk about the best seed starting containers for growing vegetables.

The Containers Most Beginner Gardeners Use

Beginner gardeners usually start seeds in whatever they have lying around the house. They may use egg cartons, toilet paper tubes, or old plastic food containers. All those containers will technically work, and will likely get you started, but they have some major faults that soon become obvious after a bit of use.

Paper Egg Cartons

An egg carton seems like a perfect container to start seeds in. They are small, made of biodegradable material, and are easy to tear apart and plant into the soil when the seedling is big enough. A MAJOR downside to these is that they are so biodegradeable that they basically disintegrate after about 3 weeks to 1 month of use. Once they get wet they are not durable at all. Unless you are growing seedlings like lettuces that don’t need much more than 3 weeks in a seed starting container before you plant them, they will fall apart way before you are able to plant them in the ground. It also takes awhile to save more than a few egg cartons, depending on how many eggs you eat per week. For this reason, egg cartons are NOT a good option for starting much more than a few small containers of small plants like lettuce.
Seed Starting Egg Carton
Kid’s Egg Carton Seedling Garden
What are paper egg cartons perfect for? Showing kids how seeds germinate, that’s what! So save your egg cartons and show your little ones how seeds germinate AND show them how to recycle at the same time.
Seed Starting Egg Cartons
Squash Seedlings In the Kid’s Egg Carton Garden

Toilet Paper Tubes

I’ve seen people use toilet paper tubes to start seeds when they didn’t want to spend money on seed starting containers. These tubes have a few things going for them: they are made of biodegradable cardboard, they are lightweight, and can be recycled. The main downside to using toilet paper tubes is that they don’t hold water well, so you have to keep watering the seedlings every day or two. This happens because the water tends to soak into the tube itself instead of the soil. The water can also cause the tubes to unravel, so you have to handle them very gently once they are wet. Another downside to these containers is that you will have to spend A LOT of time collecting used toilet paper rolls before you will have enough to start your garden. If you need 30 tubes to start your garden, you’ll need to remember to save tubes for months before you have enough to start your garden.

Red Plastic Cups

Ok…We’ve all been there.

We’ve all gotten the itch to plant some seeds so we turn the house upside down to find containers we can plant seeds in.

Almost all of us use plastic cups every day, so they are a no-brainer for starting seeds.

There are a lot of pros to using plastic cups. You already have them so they’re free. They aren’t that expensive so you can get started without spending much money on the cups if you do have to buy them. I have used these red plastic cups with success in the past, so don’t count them out for getting starting.

The downside of using plastic cups is that you probably are going to use too much soil in them so you’ll spend a TON of money on seed starting soil. And since the cups are so big, you’ll have a tougher time controlling soil temperature as I mentioned earlier.

And there is the pesky issue of no holes in the bottom for drainage. You’ll have to poke holes in the bottoms of each of the cups if you want them to drain properly and not rot your seedlings.

All in all, they will work to get you started, but if you want to grow most of your garden from seed (to reap ALL the amazing benefits I talk about in this post), you’ll need to get serious about getting better containers.

Successful Seed Starting Containers

When I started my garden, I knew I wanted to start a variety of seedlings at the same time, so I needed a solution that would allow me to grow many seedlings at once under the 4 grow lights that I had. A quick google search showed pretty quickly that I needed seed starting trays, and after a ton of trial and error and wasted money, I have settled on these sizes for ALL my seed starting from now on:

Seed Starting Trays I Recommend

**The trays above from Bootstrap Farmer are all reusable and extremely strong.  They will last for several years if you take reasonable care of them. If 4 sizes of seed starting containers seems like too many, read on. I have settled on these specific trays for a reason…a reason that will become abundantly clear soon!

Use The Smallest Tray Possible Starting Out…Within Reason

When you are starting seeds, you want the cell size of the seed starting containers you use to be the smallest you can possibly get away with. Why? For several reasons. First, the less seed starting soil you have to buy or make, the less money you spend on soil. You can afford nice, light seed starting mix when you aren’t buying a bags and bags of it. Second, it’s easier to regulate the temperature of the soil when there isn’t extra soil in every cell. You only need a small amount of soil for a seedling that will be growing for 6-8 weeks total, and not much more for one that will need 10-12 weeks. If you have a lot more soil than that in each container, the soil temperature will vary more than it should for good germination. It will be almost impossible for you to keep the soil temperature in the temperature range it needs to be in, so some of your seeds just won’t germinate. That wastes your valuable time and money. Third, your space under grow lights is at a premium, so the more seedlings you can grow under them, the better. You won’t have to keep buying more grow lights if you can fit all the seedlings you want to start under the lights you already have.

Avoid Potting Up Whenever Possible

What is potting up? Potting up happens when your seedling has outgrown the seed starting container it’s in, but it’s not ready to be planted in the ground yet. The seedling has to be removed from the original container and planted into a bigger container where it grows until it can be put outside.
Seed Starting Containers Peppers
About to Pot Up These Peppers From Peat Pellets Into 4″ Round Pots
You might choose to pot up your plants on purpose–if you’re planning to sell them for example– but more often, potting up becomes necessary due to a miscalculation. You may get your timing wrong start your seeds WAAAAAAY too early for your zone so they get root bound before you can plant them outside. Or, you accidentally plant them in a cell that is too small to begin with because you didn’t know better. I have learned the best tray sizes to use through trial and error, and I’m sharing that with you so you don’t waste time and money.

Seed Starting Container Plans

In the following sections, I’ll go over which size seed-starting containers to use for popular vegetables.

Lettuces/Greens

  1. Seed lettuce seeds directly into a 128-cell flat,
  2. grow the seedlings for 3-4 weeks,
  3. then transplant directly into your garden or final growing container.
Seed Starting Lettuce

Cabbages/Brussels Sprouts/Broccoli/Herbs

  1. Seed directly into a 72-cell flat or 50-cell flat,
  2. grow the seedlings for 6-8 weeks,
  3. then transplant directly into the garden or final growing container.
Seed Starting Broccoli The 128-cell tray has small cells that don’t hold much soil, but that’s okay for lettuce and greens because they will only be in the cell for 3-4 weeks. If you tried to grow cabbages or Brussels Sprouts in a 128-cell tray, you would run out of room in a few short weeks and have to move them to a bigger container. That’s why it’s best to start cabbage or Brussels Sprouts seeds in a 72/50-cell container. That way, the seeds will stay in the tray that you planted them in until they are planted into the ground, saving you time, money, and headaches.

Tomatoes/Peppers/Eggplant

It’s with these plant types that you really see the benefit of using the correct seed starting trays. These plants all build vigorous root systems or take a while to germinate and grow, so they need larger cells. When you start tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant, start the seeds in a 32- cell tray if you can. This way, you can plant the seeds and they will germinate and grow in the same container for months until you need to plant them where you want them to be. Seed Starting Setup If you don’t, you will have to pot up ALL those seedlings into another pot about 4-6 weeks into it. That wastes SO much time, money, and resources. I learned this lesson the hard way last year. I seeded 2 entire 72-cell trays with various tomato varieties last year. I put 2 seeds in each cell, sometimes three. In a perfect storm, all my seeds germinated, AND I chickened out on thinning the seeds. I just couldn’t bear to “kill” the seeds I’d worked so hard to start. Seed Starting Trays Tomatoes The results? I had over three HUNDRED tomato plants that ran out of room after 3-4 weeks, and needed to be potted up into larger containers. Seed Starting Container DIY Do you know how long it takes to transplant 300 plants into 4″ pots? If everything is perfect, it takes 5 hours. In real life, it takes closer to 8 hours. That’s an entire workday. Seed Starting Station Do you know how much money it takes to pot up 300 plants into 4″ pots? It costs $35 for the pots and it costs $100 for the seed-starting mix. Seed Starting Calendar Do you know how much TIME it takes to haul 300 4″ pots inside and outside for a month until it’s time to plant them? I lost count, honestly, but it was HOURS.
Seed Starting Room
Dragging Hundreds of Tomato Plants Inside at Night…
Seed Starting Greenhouse
…Only to Drag Them All Out the Next Morning
That was a VERY costly mistake on my part. A choice that seemed so insignificant at the time had massive consequences.

If Only I Had Done This Instead

If I had used 32 cell trays from the beginning, the plants wouldn’t have had to be re-potted at all. The seeds would have stayed in the trays I started them in until they were in the garden, and I would have saved almost $150 dollars and AT least 16 hours of time. Please don’t make the same mistake I did! Be sure to think about the size that would be best for your seedlings BEFORE you get started. And if you can, purchase my recommendations to be absolutely sure you have what you need. I do not want you to make the mistakes I did, because it cost money and time that I didn’t have. I was completely overwhelmed by the garden for a couple weeks all because of that single mistake. It didn’t have to be that way. I’m actually looking forward to this process this year because I have my 32-cell trays READY to go. I can’t wait to document this process in a few weeks to see just how much easier this will go, and I’ll definitely take you along with me.

Conclusion

In this post, we reviewed the 4 best seed starting tray sizes and pots to ensure that you have the best garden ever.

You’ll grow the healthiest seedlings possible while saving your precious time, money, and resources.

Let me know in the comments below which of these seed starting containers you use, and which seed starting trays you’re excited to try!

**The trays above from Bootstrap Farmer are all reusable and extremely strong.  They will last for several years if you take reasonable care of them.

If 4 sizes of seed starting containers seems like too many, read on.

I have settled on these specific trays for a reason…a reason that will become abundantly clear soon!

Use The Smallest Tray Possible Starting Out...Within Reason

When you are starting seeds, you want the cell size of the seed starting containers you use to be the smallest you can possibly get away with.

Why?

For several reasons.

First, the less seed starting soil you have to buy or make, the less money you spend on soil. You can afford nice, light seed starting mix when you aren’t buying a bags and bags of it.

Second, it’s easier to regulate the temperature of the soil when there isn’t extra soil in every cell.

You only need a small amount of soil for a seedling that will be growing for 6-8 weeks total, and not much more for one that will need 10-12 weeks.

If you have a lot more soil than that in each container, the soil temperature will vary more than it should for good germination. It will be almost impossible for you to keep the soil temperature in the temperature range it needs to be in, so some of your seeds just won’t germinate. That wastes your valuable time and money.

Third, your space under grow lights is at a premium, so the more seedlings you can grow under them, the better. You won’t have to keep buying more grow lights if you can fit all the seedlings you want to start under the lights you already have.

Avoid Potting Up Whenever Possible

What is potting up? Potting up happens when your seedling has outgrown the seed starting container it’s in, but it’s not ready to be planted in the ground yet. The seedling has to be removed from the original container and planted into a bigger container where it grows until it can be put outside.

Seed Starting Containers Peppers
About to Pot Up These Peppers From Peat Pellets Into 4" Round Pots

You might choose to pot up your plants on purpose–if you’re planning to sell them for example– but more often, potting up becomes necessary due to a miscalculation.

You may get your timing wrong start your seeds WAAAAAAY too early for your zone so they get root bound before you can plant them outside. Or, you accidentally plant them in a cell that is too small to begin with because you didn’t know better.

I have learned the best tray sizes to use through trial and error, and I’m sharing that with you so you don’t waste time and money.

Seed Starting Container Plans

In the following sections, I’ll go over which size seed-starting containers to use for popular vegetables.

Lettuces/Greens

  1. Seed lettuce seeds directly into a 128-cell flat,
  2. grow the seedlings for 3-4 weeks,
  3. then transplant directly into your garden or final growing container.
Seed Starting Lettuce

Cabbages/Brussels Sprouts/Broccoli/Herbs

  1. Seed directly into a 72-cell flat or 50-cell flat,
  2. grow the seedlings for 6-8 weeks,
  3. then transplant directly into the garden or final growing container.
Seed Starting Broccoli

The 128-cell tray has small cells that don’t hold much soil, but that’s okay for lettuce and greens because they will only be in the cell for 3-4 weeks.

If you tried to grow cabbages or Brussels Sprouts in a 128-cell tray, you would run out of room in a few short weeks and have to move them to a bigger container.

That’s why it’s best to start cabbage or Brussels Sprouts seeds in a 72/50-cell container. That way, the seeds will stay in the tray that you planted them in until they are planted into the ground, saving you time, money, and headaches.

Tomatoes/Peppers/Eggplant

It’s with these plant types that you really see the benefit of using the correct seed starting trays.

These plants all build vigorous root systems or take a while to germinate and grow, so they need larger cells.

When you start tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant, start the seeds in a 32- cell tray if you can. This way, you can plant the seeds and they will germinate and grow in the same container for months until you need to plant them where you want them to be.

Seed Starting Setup

If you don’t, you will have to pot up ALL those seedlings into another pot about 4-6 weeks into it. That wastes SO much time, money, and resources.

I learned this lesson the hard way last year.

I seeded 2 entire 72-cell trays with various tomato varieties last year. I put 2 seeds in each cell, sometimes three. In a perfect storm, all my seeds germinated, AND I chickened out on thinning the seeds. I just couldn’t bear to “kill” the seeds I’d worked so hard to start.

Seed Starting Trays Tomatoes

The results? I had over three HUNDRED tomato plants that ran out of room after 3-4 weeks, and needed to be potted up into larger containers.

Seed Starting Container DIY

Do you know how long it takes to transplant 300 plants into 4″ pots? If everything is perfect, it takes 5 hours. In real life, it takes closer to 8 hours. That’s an entire workday.

Seed Starting Station

Do you know how much money it takes to pot up 300 plants into 4″ pots? It costs $35 for the pots and it costs $100 for the seed-starting mix.

Seed Starting Calendar

Do you know how much TIME it takes to haul 300 4″ pots inside and outside for a month until it’s time to plant them? I lost count, honestly, but it was HOURS.

Seed Starting Room
Dragging Hundreds of Tomato Plants Inside at Night...
Seed Starting Greenhouse
...Only to Drag Them All Out the Next Morning

That was a VERY costly mistake on my part. A choice that seemed so insignificant at the time had massive consequences.

If Only I Had Done This Instead

If I had used 32 cell trays from the beginning, the plants wouldn’t have had to be re-potted at all. The seeds would have stayed in the trays I started them in until they were in the garden, and I would have saved almost $150 dollars and AT least 16 hours of time.

Please don’t make the same mistake I did!

Be sure to think about the size that would be best for your seedlings BEFORE you get started. And if you can, purchase my recommendations to be absolutely sure you have what you need.

I do not want you to make the mistakes I did, because it cost money and time that I didn’t have. I was completely overwhelmed by the garden for a couple weeks all because of that single mistake. It didn’t have to be that way.

I’m actually looking forward to this process this year because I have my 32-cell trays READY to go. I can’t wait to document this process in a few weeks to see just how much easier this will go, and I’ll definitely take you along with me.

Conclusion

In this post, we reviewed the 4 best seed starting tray sizes and pots to ensure that you have the best garden ever.

You’ll grow the healthiest seedlings possible while saving your precious time, money, and resources.

Let me know in the comments below which of these seed starting containers you use, and which seed starting trays you’re excited to try!

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