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