Practically every store has ramped up their gardening section by now with brightly colored plastic pots and gaudy yard art, cheap imported tools in adult and child sizes, racks of seeds and of course the ubiquitous flimsy plastic seed starting kits with peat pellets.
There are three main problems with these kits. One, they aren’t a good value. They are more expensive than other methods, and they rarely last past 2 or 3 seasons while you buy refill pellets, at which point you have to buy another kit. Two, peat is not a sustainable resource: peat bogs develop much, much more slowly than we harvest them.
And three: they are a lot more work than people think. Those peat pellets, ranging from small to painfully tiny are just not enough root space, so you will have to re-pot them rather rapidly. That’s not only extra work, but each time fragile seedlings are handled, there is the potential to damage them.
So why not be lazy and start them in their final sized pots before transplanting in the garden?
If you go this route, you can’t use a seed starting mix, because it won’t contain the nutrition the plants need once they are past the seedling stage. I use regular potting soil with the big chunks screened out. Potting soil without fertilizer is preferred, but it’s also acceptable to use it with a mild timed release fertilizer — you risk burning your seedlings if the growing media contains fertilizer before they are ready for it. Any old pot will do. Re-purposed cottage cheese containers. Mayonnaise jars with the lip cut off. Old nursery pots. Any vessel where the plant can come out safely and is big enough to hold a healthy root system until transplant time will work. Since many of my old nursery pots were cracked beyond repair this year, I supplemented with old paper cups that I can compost later.
Otherwise, I follow regular protocol. The pots go in a warm (75-80F), humid place. For me that’s in an old aquarium in my boiler room. An old fish tank light is turned on for the seeds that require light to germinate. Once the seedlings have sprouted, they get moved to a cooler place (65-70F) under a bright light. I use a cheap shop light with 6500k florescent tubes. On those warmer days of spring, they spend the warmest part of the day outdoors in the shade with plenty of indirect light, bringing them indoors if nighttime temps will drop below 50F. Finally, when the soil is warm enough and danger of frost is past, they get hardened off and then go out into the garden.
I have heard it said that seedlings do better if they are kept in small pots and slowly upgraded, but I cannot find any factual foundation for that claim. In my personal experience, I have never encountered any difficulty NOT starting them in tiny containers, and the inevitable volunteer seedlings in my garden and compost pile don’t seem to feel the lack.
So I stick with my lazy way.