Toilet Roll Seed-Starter

UPDATE March 2014: I see each growing season as an opportunity to do better than the last and as a result I rarely stick with one “right way” to do things. I wrote this article back in 2007 (7 years ago) and it reflects how I used toilet paper rolls as seed-starting cells at the time. Since then I have altered the way I use them quite a bit, and since this article gets a lot of traffic each spring, I figured it was time to provide an update. Those of you who have my book, Grow Great Grub: Organic Food from Small Spaces, will notice that I covered a very different method on page 27. Over time I found that cutting slits into the bottom of the toilet rolls to make a little pot is fine, but an unnecessary step. It makes a smaller “pot” that dries out faster and I find that fast-growing seedlings need to be repotted sooner. Instead, I simply leave the paper tube whole and use the bottom of the water catching tray as support to keep the soil in place. I sometimes tie a string around a bundle of 5 to prevent them from falling over. However, please note that this can reduce air flow between the tubes.

For the most part I no longer bother using toilet rolls when starting plants indoors underneath lights. However, I still use them regularly when starting seeds outdoors that I would normally direct sow, but can’t due to the pernicious squirrels that dig seeds up before they can germinate. I start seeds such as beans, Swiss chard, and sunflower in a the tubes and allow them to germinate and develop in a protected spot. I transfer them into the ground, raised beds, or a large pot once the seedlings are developed enough to hold their own.

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Through the magic of online photo-sharing I have been catching a peak at little seedlings coming up all over the Northern Hemisphere. I’ve also been enjoying the smell of tomato plants sprouting fresh leaves right in my own home grow-op. The promise of spring smells good! And yet one thing disturbs me — ya’ll are too in love with those horrible peat pellets! Because I am so eager to get you off that dope I’ve come up with another seed-starting option that is mega-cheap and easy.

It’s so simple I almost feel like I’m talking down to you by providing directions. Simply get yourself a bag of seed-starting mix or mix up a batch yourself. I purchased a 10L bag for $3.99 CDN at my friendly local hardware store. I have seen seed-starting soil for a lower price however this mix is organic, chemical-free, and features compost and “sustainably harvested peat”. [Note: I am not listing the product because while I like it I am still looking into what "sustainably harvested peat" really means.] Regardless, 10L is more than enough to tackle Phase One of my frighteningly large and ever-growing list of seeds and should take me straight through to upsizing my wee seedlings from the starter and into transplant containers. If you’ve got too much save it for next year or use it to root cuttings. The fact of the matter is that you will need to replant into larger containers at some point in the seed-starting process regardless of whether or not you start in those horrible peat pellets or not so you might as well just save the dough, buy a bag, and forego the pellets altogether.

Next, save yourself some toilet rolls. Start a week or two ahead and you’ll have plenty in time. Ask your neighbours and friends! They will not assume that this gardening thing has driven you mad.

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With a pair of scissors, cut 1/4″ wide strips all around one end of the toilet roll tube. This is the same method used to wrap a bottle of wine or a poster.

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Fold each strip down. The strips should start to overlap each other creating a bottom that will hold soil.

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Fill the tube with pre-moistened soil, tap lightly or push the soil down, and add more until there is about a 1/2″ or so left at the top of the roll.

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Sow one seed per roll. Watch the sides of the tube for dryness and keep that soil moist!

You’ll need to transplant your tubes into larger containers about 2-4 weeks after your seeds have germinated. The best part is that you don’t have to remove the toilet roll or touch any delicate seedling roots. Just plop the entire thing into a larger container of soil (think 4″ transplant pot). The toilet roll with breakdown into the soil and be overcome by little plant roots in no time.

And since we’re on the topic of toilet rolls, start saving yours now so you’ll be stocked up when it comes time to plant your tomato seedlings out. I am yet to find anything better than a lowly loo roll to protect seedlings from cut worms.

Gayla Trail
Gayla is a writer, photographer, and former graphic designer with a background in the Fine Arts, cultural criticism, and ecology. She is the author, photographer, and designer of best-selling books on gardening, cooking, and preserving.

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35 thoughts on “Toilet Roll Seed-Starter

  1. Depends on the brand. I would guess or at least hope the answer is no if the brand is “eco-friendly.”

    If you’re asking about mine in the photos I don’t know why these are white because they are sometimes brown.

  2. That’s a great idea! I didn’t think the paper rolls would break down enough in time to let the roots through, it’s good to know that they do, I’m going to start saving tubes for next year!

    I used those awful peat pellet things a few years ago, and I really hated the netting that was around them, and then after I found out that peat is a no-no I stopped using them entirely. I used peat pots this year, but only because I was given some and I figured I should use them up rather than waste them.

  3. Meighan: Even if the sides aren’t degrading… which they do quite quickly especially because they are kept moist for so long… the bottom opens easily. If your toilet roll is exceptionally durable you can easily peel off the outer layers without disturbing roots.

  4. i saw alan titchmarsh on his gardening series “how to be a gardener” use toilet rolls to start seedlings that have a long middle root. worked great for him. i am collecting rolls to start more seeds. i never had any luck with those peat pods. this is my first time using seed starting mix that i got from my local hardware store as well. my seedlings germinated and sprouted up quickly and look quite healthy.

  5. It’s something of a family tradition to start saving loo rolls as soon as it gets near seed planting time. My grandad always uses them to start onion’s off in.

  6. Gayla, I used newspaper seed starters, but the problem is that I can’t really water from below and i noticed that I get little success with germination and it tends to dry out very easily.
    Do you have any suggestions for that?

  7. Sandy: Start your rolls (newspaper or toilet) inside a plastic dome. A used takeaway container or those large, plastic containers that bulk packs of greens sometimes come in make perfect miniature greenhouses. This will help keep the soil consistently moist through germination.

  8. I’m using newspaper pots for some of my seedlings, and have not had a problem with bottom watering, actually — they’re sort of weirdly sturdy.

    The cardboard roll is a great idea, too!

  9. Absolutely genius! I was immediately intrigued by the title, but thought to myself “how in the world…?” I guess I just don’t think that creatively.

    I always hear about people using yogurt cups and all that, but to tell you the truth, I don’t ever eat that stuff regularly enough to make good use out of it and we don’t subscribe to a newspaper. But toilet paper rolls! Something just about everyone will have! I’ve also been slowly saving up some eggs cartons to use for the same purpose.

    Thanks Gayla!

  10. What a great idea! I make pots from newspaper like others, but I’m going to try this as well and see which way I like better.

  11. We run a community garden here at Green Venture (Hamilton). We try to demonstrate how gardening can be fun, creative, affordable, and in the long run save valuable resources. The toilet paper roll idea encompasses it all. I can’t wait to try it out with our team of volunteers. Thanks for sharing!

  12. The mini green house idea is great! I sometimes get those large plastic ‘boxes’ and have always wished I could use them for something. Brilliant.
    I sure wish I had the room and sun for vegies, I want to start some seeds!

  13. Ciao all-

    If any of you would like some yogurt cups to use for your plants, please let me know. I normally use them, but I’ve got some deeper cell trays from Lee Valley that I’m using this year, so I’m hoping to forego one transplant step and put my seedlings straight away into 16 oz cups. I’ve got lots of the yogurt cups saved and I mean LOTS.

    The plastic produce containers with hinged lids do indeed make lovely greenhouses, as well as containers for produce give-aways from the garden. We save these whenever we get them from the store and they go fast in the summer. We also save cherry tomato containers because everyone loves getting colourful ones from us.

    I also have quite the collection of plastic milk bags if people are interested in using those bigger things for larger transplants. They work great with small holes cut out of the bottoms, especially for woody cuttings of perennials and berries for plant swaps. Do let me know.

  14. Sorellina those are all great recycling tips. It also cracked me up because it read like a description of the junk drawers of anyone I have known who has been through the Great Depression! An endless assortment of used (but cleaned) take-away containers and bread bag ties. We could learn a lot from them in this era of abject wastefulness.

  15. So, I’m a first-time home gardener and I’m a little late with getting my garden started. I don’t want to wait until I’ve collected enough TP rolls…does anyone think using a cardboard egg carton would be fine, or are the cups too small?

  16. APM: The cups are very small. They’re especially shallow. You can go ahead and use them but keep in mind that you will need to tranplant your seedlings quite quickly… this can be a problem if the seedlings are very small. Try and avoid transplanting until your seedlings have at least one set of “true leaves.” The first set are seed leaves and are not “true.”

    An alternative would be to use the egg cartons for smaller plants like basil and peppers. Try and start larger plants like tomatoes in something larger.

  17. I have to say, I am more than a little disappointed. I thought this was some wonderful way to grow our own toilet paper! Seriously, I thought that!!

  18. I did the tomatoes in toilet roll thing – this is my first attempt at growing stuff from seed like this. It worked very well except that it all went moldy – the tomato seedlings seem okay, but the toilet rolls and dirt are all white & fuzzy – help!
    em

  19. Sounds like too much water and not enough air circulation. If the plants seem healthy I would work to reduce the moisture and increase air flow (open a window. Some people use little fans). Mold can also form when the pots are too close to one another (again an air circulation issue).

    Since I’m guessing the toilet rolls are still fairly intact you can try peeling the outer layer away and popping them into a larger container. They have to be upsized anyways and now may be the right time to do it.

  20. Yeah, I put them in plastic bags in the airing cupboard – no air at all in there! I’ve taken the bags off and have put them in a windowsill but they are still really tiny – they only have their first seed-leaves yet. Would it be ok to leave them to dry out – will the mold harm the dirt or anything?

    Thank you so much for your help!
    em

  21. Don’t let them dry out. The goal is to keep them at a fairly consistent level of moisture that is like a damp sponge but not soaking. Removing them from the bag should help curb the mold issue. You can try sprinkling a little cinnamon on the soil surface (it’s got antifungal properties).

  22. Hmmm… takes me back a bit to childhood springs when I’d see rows and rows of milk cartons on my grandmother’s window sills, turned on their sides, sprouting tomato plants. She’d cut off one side panel and grow three plants in each, and they fit perfectly without overhanging the window sills! Since the cartons weren’t recycleable then, and bottles were long gone, this was just one of her waste-not methods…

    Along with converting chipped china and dinged cookie tins into succulent planters for the thrift store she volunteered at, which saved the containers from being thrown out, and brought a better price at sale anyway.

  23. Oh…my…that is brilliant. I am definitely going to try this – that is, if I can get my kid to stop using all our tp rolls for crafts! Guess we’ll have to share. We need to do more of this kind of thing. With all the recycling and composting we do, I’m still bothered by how much ends up at the curb.

    I would imagine you could do the same with the paper towel – just cut it in half?

  24. Yes cutting a papertowel roll in half would work out the same. Don’t forget to save your rolls for transplanting tomato seedlings as well.

  25. Another good solution is a PotMaker. It uses newspaper for making seed starting pots. They break down easily in the garden after planting. Roots easily grow through the sides. And they keep lots of paper out of landfills. They’re made in Canada by Richters. Lots of web sites carry them.

  26. This sounds very cool. I’ve also had lots of luck using egg cartons to start seedlings. The roots grow right through it, and the fiber breaks down in the soil.

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