A long, long time ago, when milk was measured in quarts, my mother would spread newspaper over the kitchen table and put me to work. She'd take a month's worth of empty milk cartons, carefully rinsed and dried, and saw off the tops with a kitchen knife, leaving only the bottom few inches. After cutting drainage holes, she'd fill the cartons with potting soil, using a soup spoon to ladle it out of the bag. My job was to poke holes in the soil with a pencil and, with my tiny, fussbudget's fingers, drop in the seeds.
My mother passed on her love of gardening, but not her taste for moptop annuals, which ran to garish dahlia-headed zinnias and the like. Recently I found one of her seed packets: Marigold Crackerjack Tall Double, Mixed Colours, priced at 39 cents and stamped 1981, the year I moved out and started a garden of my own.
Her thrift also fell on stony ground. I'm in thrall to instant gratification, which means this time of year I'm tempted by tantalizing seed-catalogue descriptions of plants I'll never get around to sowing (Native to Hawaii! Very cold-hardy! Children love them! Only $5.99 for 12 seeds!) and clever planting accessories I don't necessarily need'not unless I develop a lactose intolerance. The milk cartons made it plain that seeds sprout just as readily in a makeshift container as they will in a 21st-century technological marvel, but that hasn't discouraged me from dabbling in every other system on the market, from the spartan to the deluxe. Specialized products often cost considerably more, but save time and effort.
For no-frills sowing in volume, consider using seedling flats, relied on by many nurseries: shallow, rectangular plastic trays with drainage holes, about 12 by 20 inches (30 by 50 centimetres) and two inches (five centimetres) deep, which cost only a few dollars. The trays are filled with growing medium, and the seeds planted directly in them. Unless you don't mind water on the floor, you'll need another tray underneath to catch the runoff. Planting in this fashion saves space initially but creates extra transplanting trauma later when you have to tweeze the seedlings apart and untangle the roots. Special hand tools designed for this fiddly work are sold in wee sets—a mini-trowel, a doll-size fork and a utensil for pricking out'for $15 or less.
You might be better off using a solid-bottomed tray with pots sitting inside it: plastic pots or compartmentalized plastic containers called cell-packs; compressed peat and wood fibre pots; or peat pellets, small pods of sterile sphagnum that puff up like a sponge when they're soaked. Peat products are less expensive than plastic; they can be planted directly in the garden (where they decompose) without the bother of transplanting. Plastic, unlike peat, can be reused.
The least costly option is making your own containers. Last spring I invested in a PotMaker (about $14), an engagingly simple device that resembles an overgrown wooden chess pawn. With a few turns of the wrist, it rolls and presses strips of newspaper into biodegradable starter pots two inches (five centimetres) tall and 21⁄4 inches (5.7 centimetres) in diameter. After half an hour with the sports section, I had more little newsprint pots than I could use, not to mention ink smudges up to my elbows. Stuffed with planting mix and sown with Papaver paeoniflorum seeds, the paper pots held together just long enough to get the seedlings into the ground. The poppy crop failed'cutworms felled every last one'but the pots worked out fine.