Post 100! Rethinking the Need for Individual Pots in Seed Starting

This is post 100 – in my previous blog, I only did 19 posts before I gave up. Obviously this blog is a better match for my interests!

In late March I started some tomato seeds in a small pot. After a few weeks the plants had developed their first true leaves and I was getting ready to transplant them into peat pots when I realized that I didn’t have enough pots. I could have run out to the garden center to get more but instead, it got me thinking about how we grow plants for transplanting.

Almost all of the small plants that you find in the garden center today are in individual plastic pots, coir or peat pots or they’re growing in small trays with separate compartments for each plant. This seems to be the accepted practice today but it wasn’t always this way.

When I was growing up on a dairy/cash crop farm, the tomatoes and peppers that we planted in the field didn’t grow in individual containers. Instead they grew in wood flats that had a couple of inches of soil in them and the plants were spaced two inches apart. The roots of the plants were all intermingled and when we planted them, we literally tore them out of the flats. This would make most gardeners today cringe, but you know what? The plants grew fine.

Even more extreme was how we grew transplants of cabbage and cauliflower. These seeds would be sown close together in rows 6″ inches apart. When it was time to transplant them, we’d put them out of the ground by their stems, shake off the soil, separate the plants and pack them into bushel baskets. When they were planted in the field, they grew, even with this rough handling.

With these experiences in mind, I looked at those tomato plants and thought “Why do they need individual pots?” And the answer I came to was that they don’t.

Personally, I think a lot of gardening today is what I call “fussy gardening.” Plants are handled so delicately and nurtured so carefully. It’s as if we’ve forgotten how resilient plants are. One of the prime areas where this “fussy gardening” appears is in how seedlings and transplants are grown and sold.

I’ll be the first to agree that there are some plants that don’t take well to transplanting – zinnias, squash and cucumbers are great examples. If you grew them in a flat and separated the plants by tearing their roots apart, the shock of this would hinder their growth. In the case of these plants, individual pots makes sense. (Actually, what makes even more sense is to direct sow these seeds and not transplant at all but that’s a whole other issue and worthy of a separate post!)

Many garden plants transplant easily. Tomatoes, peppers, cabbage, broccoli, lettuce, petunias, portulaca, vinca and more grow well in flats and recover quickly from transplanting. Yes, separating the plants does cause root damage but that damage stimulates the plant to grow more roots. Also, there are times that individual peat or coir pots can be a problem – if any of the top of the pot sticks out of the ground, it can act like a wick, drying out the soil and making it harder for the plant to get established.

Tomato Seedlings in a Flat

Tomato Seedlings in a Flat

After all of these reflections, I’ve had a change of heart. I had bought into the “individual pot theory of seed starting” in the past without really thinking about it. But now that I have thought about it, I’m done with it. I’m growing my transplants from this point on in flats. It’s easier, saves space under the florescent lights and is a lot less expensive.

I don’t have the old wooden trays from the ’60’s and ’70’s but I have some old plastic storage trays that are about 2″ deep. I put a few holes in them, filled them with potting mix and planted my tomato seedlings in them. When it’s time to plant the tomatoes in the garden, I’ll have to pull the plants apart. But that’s OK – experience has taught me that they’ll be just fine.

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3 responses to “Post 100! Rethinking the Need for Individual Pots in Seed Starting

  1. this is actually super heartening – the seeds i started recently, i did in plastic containers, with little plastic lids to make mini greenhouses – rather than individual pots. i wanted to both save money and resources. and you know what? they seem to be going ok!

    • Glad I could be encouraging! I’m sure they’ll be fine without the individual pots – plants are tough.

      • they seem to be ok! it’s not ideal growing conditions – only a few hours of sun in the morning – but despite their slow growth, they are getting there!

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