I love gardening. I love the inherent miracle of it. I love getting dirt under my fingernails. My heart thrills seeing plants grow. I love the planning, the planting, the watering. Heck, I don't even mind weeding all that much. I'm fascinated by my compost pile and I fantasize over tiny green tomatoes. Oh, the possibilities that come with growing a garden!
But there was always one aspect of gardening that I felt I was missing out on. I'd never started seeds indoors. Sure, I planted some seeds outside in the early spring -- peas, spinach, kale, Swiss chard, carrots, pretty much all the cold-hardy ones. However, I'd always relied heavily on transplants from the local nursery when it came to tender vegetables like tomatoes.
Not only did I feel like I wasn't a full-fledged gardener, but I also felt a little ashamed that I was spending as much as I was on my garden. When I took a step back and considered the money put in and the produce coming out of my garden, I wasn't really saving that much money by gardening. There have been a couple seasons where my gardens were pretty disappointing and I barely broke even (last season, I think I may have even lost money). Gardening is a great way to save money and a great way to be self-reliant; however, it wasn't saving me the money I wanted it to and I didn't feel so self-reliant depending on transplants from the garden center at Home Depot.
But seed starting seemed so daunting, what with all the fluorescent lighting and seed trays. I couldn't think of a spot in my basement-less, 1500-square-foot house to devote to a seed starting operation. Maybe someday I would be able to buy organic seeds and grow heirloom tomatoes from scratch, but I figured it'd have to wait until I had a bigger home.
Then, in the beginning of this year, when I was in the midst of my garden planning and book reading (it's basically how I make it through the cold, muddy-snowy months of February and March), I came across a completely new way to start seeds: mini greenhouses made from empty milk jugs.
I started collecting them that day.
I washed out and saved more gallon-size milk and vinegar (we go through A LOT of vinegar at our house) jugs than I needed. Like I said, I was pretty excited about this new gardening experiment.
To make the mini-greenhouses, you simply need clean and empty gallon-sized jugs, something to cut them with (I used my husband's pocket knife), a drill, duct tape, a permanent marker, potting soil, and seeds.
Cut the empty milk jug almost in half (you want to leave part of it connected so it stays together -- the uncut part works like a hinge). Drill 15 holes in the bottom and a couple on each side (about an inch from the base) -- this allows for proper drainage and ventilation. Speaking of ventilation, you can throw away the caps of the jugs at this point. (For step-by-step instructions and pictures on making the greenhouses, follow this link to my post about it).
Next, fill the bottom of each mini greenhouse with a few inches of potting soil. Wet the soil thoroughly and plant your seeds. Keep the calendar in mind when you plant your seeds. If you're going to be planting tomatoes, for example, you won't want to start your seeds in February if you can't transplant them until May. I started my tomatoes in April, about six or seven weeks before the last frost date in my area. You can plant so many things in these, though, starting in January. For a complete list of what to plant in your mini greenhouses and when, check out this helpful link.
Once you've planted your seeds, close the jug and tape it shut. On each jug, write what you've planted in it and the date you planted the seeds. Now, here's the best part: once you've done this, you keep the mini greenhouses outside and leave them alone. No need to bother with artificial lighting and seed trays inside -- you simply leave the milk jug greenhouses outside where they get natural sunlight and the needed moisture from rain and snow through the opening at the top of the jug (that's why you don't keep the cap). Since we had such a dry winter and spring, I did spray the tops of the jugs with the hose when the soil inside looked a little dry. The mini greenhouses require almost no work. The snow can pile up on these things and they'll still grow. In fact, I've read that plants started this way are more hardy because they're exposed to the colder temperatures from the get-go. Not all my seedlings survived transplanting, but a good majority did.
So, why am I writing about seed starting, something that is done in late winter and early spring, in the middle of July? Because I have proof that it works! This season, I've got the healthiest, biggest tomato plants I've ever had since I started gardening in my backyard.
I've got organic heirloom slicing tomatoes growing, as well as San Marzano paste tomatoes and tomatillos. I've got twelve tomato plants and three tomatillo plants. In years past, I usually spent about $3-5 each for the transplants. Instead, I ordered three packets of organic seeds for about $3 each. If I'd purchased the same amount of tomatoes and tomatillos as transplants this year, I would have spent anywhere from $45-75; with this new seed starting method, I only spent ten bucks. It's enough to make this frugal gardener a little giddy. Yet another reason to love homegrown tomatoes!
So, even though this isn't the time of year for seed starting, save this idea for later. Try it in the dreary winter months or the early days of spring. Next summer, you'll be glad you did. I know I am. I can practically taste the homemade salsa already.
Heather writes at The Parsimonious Princess, a blog about living frugally in a way that is practical, natural, and simple. She and her husband are the parents of two beautiful little boys and caretakers to one giant cat, two hens, and thousands of Italian honeybees.