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Planting Biodegradable Seed Starting Pots

Starting your plants by growing from seed in biodegradable seed starting pots is one of the most earth-friendly methods of starting a garden. Homemade biodegradable seed starting pots range from: seed starting pots from newspaper, toilet paper tubes--even eggshells can be used. These are just some of the seed starting tips for beginners I've covered in the past. Then there are the commercially available biodegradable seed starting pots at your local garden center. However, not all biodegradable seed starting pots are created equal. Below I'll offer some tips on selecting commercial seed starter pots, how to water seedlings, and how to plant these pots in your garden.

Biodegradable Seed Starting Pots

Selecting Biodegradable Seed Starting Pots
The first thing you'll notice when buying biodegradable seed starters is that you have three options: There are square pots, round pots and trays of strips. The individual round pots and square pots generally come in two sizes--small and large-- while the strips I've only found in one.

If you read any available packing for the seed starting pots you'll notice that they are generally made from three things. They can be made from peat, coconut coir, "recycled materials" and dried cow manure. The pots made from cow manure aren't as easily available, but you should ask for them at your garden center if you are interested in lessening the dependence on plastic in your seed starting operation.

Peat, Paper or Coir Pots: Which are Sustainable? 

Peat Seed Starters

Over the past two years I've been involved in conversations with other gardeners about the use of peat. These conversations usually boil down to someone in the industry trying to convince me, or people around me, that harvesting peat can be done in an environmentally-friendly manner. I do not subscribe to this idea. Personally, I don't want to contribute to the destruction of an ecosystem while trying to develop one in my own yard. If I'm giving peat pots I'll use them. But I don't go out of my way to buy them. You should read the peat page and educate yourself on the pros and cons of harvesting peat and make your own decision.

Coir Seed Starters

Seed starter pots made from coconut coir, a waste product, is a great substitute for pots made from peat. I like coir so much that I use it as my seed starting soil too. Recently, I've had gardeners express concern about the salt levels in this medium. I've never encountered a problem with it, and I wonder if it isn't one that has been pushed by the peat industrial complex.

Paper Seed Starters

Finally, over the past three years I've noticed these pots made from "recycled materials" are becoming more and more available in dollar stores and big box retailers that devote a small section to seeds and seed starting supplies in the spring. I've yet to call the company to ask what exactly "recycled materials" they use, but given their low price, density, and how the pots react to water-- I'm pretty confident that it the product is recycled paper.

Starting Seeds in Biodegradable Pots

The first thing I do when starting pots these pots made from natural fibers is to check if there is a drainage hole. In the case of the strips, I've noticed that the drainage hole's size can vary from strip to strip, and from one cell to another. If you look at the picture above, you'll see the irregular drainage holes in each of the pots that come in strips. These holes are rather large and a lot of your seed starting mix will fall out if you lift the pots and when you water. I like to take a small piece of napkins and just cover some of the hole to minimize the loss of my seed starting soil.

In the image above, the pot made from "recycled materials" is the only one with a precisely cut drainage hole. It's another indication that makes me think it is made from paper as the cut is too clean for it to be peat or coir.

Before filling these pots with your seed starting soil I recommend you moisten the pots with either a spray bottle, or by dunking them in warm water for a few seconds. Not too wet, but make sure they are moist. I even go so far as to moisten my seed starting mix before adding it to the moistened biodegradable pots. Pots made from natural fibers will wick away moisture in your seed starting mix and from planted seeds resulting in poor germination rates. This goes for newspaper pots and pots from toilet paper rolls, too! Keep it an eye out for pots drying out when temperatures get warm and on sunny days if you're starting seeds in your windowsill. They dry out real fast.

How to Plant Biodegradable Seed Starting Pots

How to plant biodegradable Seed Starting Pots

After all danger of frost has passed, it's time to take your seedlings that you've grown and tended to indoors and introduce them to your garden beds or container garden. Dig a hole or trench that is wide enough and deep enough to set your biodegradable pots in. The depth is very important. If any portion of the pot is exposed above the soil line, the air circulating above ground will wick away moisture from the pot. Then the pot will wick away moisture from the surrounding soil and you'll be left with dead seedlings. This also applies to the paper tube and newspaper pots.

Herbs in biodegradable seed starting pots

Herbs planted in biodegradable seed starting pots. 

Peppers in biodegradable seed starting pots

Pepper plant planted in biodegradable seed starting pots. 

When you buy plants that have been commercially grown it is often recommended that you gently break apart the soil and roots to promote root growth, and counter the effects of the plants having become root bound. It's a good idea to break or tear apart these pots when you are planting them in ground and in containers too. The second to last photograph shows an herb I planted in a pot and you can see that the roots grew through the pot. In the last picture the roots of a pepper plant didn't grow as vigorously through the pot and would have benefited from the pot having been broken to allow them to penetrate the surrounding soil as the roots concentrated on growing around the surface of the pot.

Planting biodegradable seed starting pots in the garden, while better for the environment, require a bit of planning and thought. Don't allow them to dry out completely when you're starting seeds in them. Especially the seedling pots made from paper. They can be harder to initially water and will hold more water than the pots made from peat and coconut coir, but they are more durable.

After transplanting your seedlings into the garden ensure that the pot is completely covered in soil to prevent the air from drying out your plant and seedlings. These natural parts will break apart and decompose on their own, but it is a good idea to help the seedlings, and the decomposition process, along by breaking the pots when you're planting them in the ground.

More Seed Starting Tips
Eco-Seed Starter from Burpee
Seed Starting Bio-Dome from Plastic Bin
Seed Starting Tips for Beginner Gardeners

You can also look over the archive of my posts about starting and saving seeds from your garden for more tips, suggestions and recycling ideas for seed starters all in one easy to remember page.


  1. Anonymous3:51 PM

    I just use egg cartons, the roots go right through them!

    1. The egg cartons are pretty good because they are kind of flimsy compared to these biodegradable seed starter pots. I gave them a mention in my post on Seed Starting Tips for Beginner Gardeners

  2. Anonymous3:53 PM

    I know a lot of seed starting kits come with their own little "greenhouse", meaning they have some form of plastic cover that goes over the tray, and I've always worked with those. I'm not sure if I should still use something like that with the compostable seed trays our neighbors gave us?

    1. Hi,

      If you want to use those little seed starting greenhouses you find at garden centers they work perfectly fine. However, you can make your own Seed Starting Greenhouse from a plastic bin which is more durable. You can also use a container from your deli or bakery which comes with a clear, plastic cover.

      I like the compostable seed trays you mention. I tested Burpee's Compostable Seed Starter last year, and think they're pretty neat. However, I feel like you're just throwing away money buying compostable plastics. Hopefully, gardeners who buy them are doing so because they are making starting their plants from seeds part of their life. And if you're starting a lot of seeds over the years, using something that will last many years--or upcycling something you would toss--is a more environmentally-friendly option, in my opinion. Not to mention much cheaper.

  3. Starting plants from seeds is on my list for "when i retire" - which is thankfully getting closer every month! Would love to do it, but just can't seem to set aside the time at the right time! These are good suggestions, tho, and will also we helpful in planting the degradable pots from the garden center. I am always unsure about breaking or not breaking and didn't realize I needed to totally bury them to avoid wicking. Thanks.

    1. Webb,

      Yeah, it's funny that we never hear much talk about breaking apart the biodegradable pots and making sure they get planted deep enough. I was cleaning up the garden and found large chunks of biodegradable pots from previous seasons still in the soil.

  4. I also use a variety of these pots for starting my seeds with much success! Although , in the past, I did have a few "pieces" of the pot remain underground until the fall; which did not break down. I also tear back the tops of the pot before planting to keep this from happening, and I am glad to see you recommend breaking them also!

    1. THH,

      Tearing off the top part is a good idea too.

  5. What a great resource this post is! I usually sow directly into the ground or use plastic containers like used yogurt containers. Like you, I never use peat unless its been given to me.

    1. LLG,

      My favorite method of sowing seeds is to direct sow them into the garden. It's faster and way cheaper than the alternatives. :0)But sometimes you just need to start some seeds indoors because it fuels the soul.

  6. Good tip about the planting depth. That's a mistake I already made, though partly because the pots were partially heaved upwards.

    1. Jason,

      Yeah, soil heaving can be a big cause of your plants not getting established or drying out in the early spring. I don't think enough people pay attention to this when planting and make sure to keep an eye on the soil. So it's best to always plant a little deeper than recommended.

  7. I made that depth mistake in the past myself, but one garden mistake does compost make! (One upshot, anyhow :)

    1. Garden Broad,

      I remember the first time I ever planted seedlings started in biodegradable pots and I couldn't figure out why they were drying out and wilting when I had just watered the day before. Then I learned about the wicking that can happen and made sure to plant them deep enough so that it wouldn't be a problem.

  8. Hey Mr. B.T.
    I sometimes use the manure pots, but still find them challenging, similar to the peat pots because they dry out fast in my garden and greenhouse, and once they do, they can be difficult to re-hydrate. I tend to stay away from coir not for environmental reasons, but more because I don't believe that it is a good horticultural growing medium, as it has no nutrition and it doesn't hold nutrients. Mostly, it dry's out too fast in my greenhouse, and I've lost too many plants to the medium as it doesn't hold moisture well, either. I am trying to switch to a shredded leaf mix (beech) with compost, sharp sand and garden loam next winter ( sterilized, simiar to J.Innes #2), but even though I know peat is not environmentally a smart choice, I don't know of a better option right now. Great blog though! I haven't been here for a long time, so it's time to go snoop around some more!

    1. Matt,

      I hear you about the downsides of coir, but I don't grow in big enough numbers in these pots to make keeping them watered a real issue. I see the fact that coir has no nutrition as a plus though because I know what kind of nutrients in the form of fertilizers I will be adding. Appreciate the input from someone like you.

  9. I am always looking for tips to reduce my environmental footprint related to gardening. You information is greatly appreciated.

    1. Charlie,

      Hope you find the information on this garden blog useful.

  10. "Egg cartons, the roots go right through them!"

    Couldn't agree more.

  11. Great starter pots..

  12. I was transplanting my seedlings to pots since it'll be a couple more weeks til I have a house with a yard, and looking for top soil without peat (or perlite, also not renewable) was hard! I finally found "Harvest Superpowered Organic Ultralite Top Soil" at Lowes, along with another package that was made from local compost.

  13. this article was a really good read! Thank you for the different views on different types if Biodegradable Pots. I love reading things like this. It really helps get you prepared for starting seeds, especially when you don't know which one will do best for your seedlings or yourself if your unsure. New thing I learned that I didn't know before was that your completely cover the Biodegradable pot into your soil when its time to do so. Maybe thats why the past experiences I've had they dried out quickly and died... hehe... oops!

  14. I got one of these as a gift years ago, but I've never planted it. Is it to late or should I just throw it in the trash. The contents of the bag look kinda dry.



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