Farming the Back 40 (inches)

March 22nd, 2008 by Harrumpher Leave a reply »

Just like it says on the box — Fabriqué des pots avec du papier journal. For my container and backyard gardening, I again am growing from seed, in my handmade seed pots.

Consider two clichés related to shoemakers. One is that their children are unshod. The less well known one is that they epitomize the complete craftsmen. They can complete their work from leather to last to stitching and the details solo. There’s no assembly line or imported components. Unlike virtually anything else we buy, a custom pair of shoes represents pride of craft by a single artisan.

My pathetically pale imitation of that is making my seedling starting pots. I did that this morning, twisting out 106. That will be plenty to start seedlings that will fill all my containers and my backyard herbe plot.

It’s frugal, but that’s not what it’s about. Alternatives are precast peat shells to fill, even solid plugs of compressed potting soil just waiting for a seed and water. Sure those are quite a bit more expensive than rolling your own, but that’s in relative price. It costs me less than a penny to make a pot and fill it with potting soil, but the high end pre-fab like a Jiffy wafer costs about 20¢ each. So that’s 2,000 percent or in my case a premium of $20.14 today. Considering all the other cost of urban gardening, that’s not a deal breaker.

Maybe it’s because I’m an old coot, but for whatever reason, I recommend making your own seedling pots out of newspaper. I use Canadian firm Otto Richter and Sons, Ltd.’s PotMaker™.

It has no electronic content. It is not automated. It makes (lets) you do the work. It is clever and if you follow the few steps, flawless.

Non-gardeners may ask:

  1. Do newspapers have any advantages here other than negligible cost?
  2. Won’t the ink poison my veggies and herbs?

That’s yes to 1 and no to 2.

Les pots du papier journal

You can get a sense of the shoemaker when you do these little things from scratch. I have the benefit of an example of my maternal grandfather who grew organic and started many flowers and herbs from seed. He also hybridized his roses and such, but I don’t even entertain that.

What you want from seed pots includes:

  • Enough, but not too much, soil for root growth, moisture retention, and heat.
  • Walls that dissolve easily and let the roots growth through, certainly after transplanting into soil outside.

Junky, cheap newspaper does it all. It is just sturdy enough to form a wall and keep the potting soil in place. You can make it the right circumference and height to retain heat and water. It’s flimsy enough that a seedling with any vitality at all can poke right through at the proper time.

Poison Paranoia

But, but, but didn’t your teachers and parents tell you not to eat newspaper, that it was toxic? Well, a lot of it used to be. Particularly the ink used to have copper and other nasties.

It no longer does and if you have any qualms at all, just be sure you stick with black ink and avoid color advertising…just in case and so you can tell your mom you’re being safe.

Roll Your Own

parts.jpg The hardwood PotMaker is just two parts — a press that looks like the top of a newel with wine bottle punt in the bottom, and a form that has a groove with an elevated center.
roll.jpg Measure and cut enough newspaper strips for the pots. These are 9 X 25cm (3.5 X 10 inch); actually, I use 12 or 13 inches, the width of my newspapers instead of 10. I recommend ganging and I cut about a dozen strips at a time. Roll each strip around the press, starting at just below the knob. This leaves nearly 4cm (about an inch and one half) at the bottom.
tuck.jpg Fold the loose paper into the center of the press at the bottom. I suggest five tucks for a tight pot bottom. Then turn the press over and place it onto the form.
done.jpg Now play as macho as gardeners do at seed time. Push on the knob and turn it left and right to form the pot. If you’re wimpy and the paper is loose when you lift it off, recrimp and do it again, with feeling. If you goof one up, so what — toss it in your recycling bin.
crimped.jpg The resulting crimp at the bottom of the pot-to-be show appear tight and with an even inversion.
pot.jpg Ease the pot off the press. I put these in groups in a big tray and fill them with potting soil. Then I move them into smaller trays I have adapted from previous, more expensive versions of seed-starting systems. If you don’t have any, you can go to a hardware store and get cheap plastic ones. Next, I assume 100% germination (I fudge by a few extra pots) and press one seed into each pot’s soil. I water them and cover them, either with clear plastic lids from those old system or plastic wrap. This helps keep the heat and moisture in to speed germination.

This is a cheap (in both senses) gardening thrill. You are not only growing from seed, but you’ve made your own damned pots! You’re a green version of a shoemaker.

So you are likely to wonder what such a marvel of life force would cost. It’s the best $10 to $15 investment you can make in seed setting. You’re likely to pay more for seeds in a year and you’d save much more than buying pre-made pots.

I got mine at Jung Seed two years ago for $9.95 when I was ordering seed packets. Unfortunately, it’s not in their catalog this season. Richter sells it for $13 US and $6 shipping, but that shipping is per order, so if you get your seeds from them too, it can be a bargain. Other garden suppliers carry PotMaker, like Lee Valley and Grow Organic, both about $15, plus shipping. A big garden supply store might have one too.

Depending on how New England you are, if you are seriously into cost savings, you can make your own pots without my marvelous hardwood friend. One site that shows on video how to do this with a glass or jar is here. I’d caution 1) be very careful to have a small enough diameter — about 5.5cm/2.2 inches — container, and 2) be aware you’ll have to measure or estimate the loose paper and that your crimping “cup” won’t provide the securing indent that PotMaker does.

Also, PotMaker feels good in the hand and is pretty.

Non-gardeners have hooted at what they say is the trouble of making pots. Of course, many gardeners tend to buy plants instead of starting from seed. No shoemakers they.

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One Response

  1. Andy says:

    When I saw the reference to Jung I thought the name sounded familiar. Is there any way this would be the Jung based in Wisconsin? If so, that is an eerie sort of connection as I would pass that gardening center any time I left school in Madison to go and visit the folk back home. Strange, and small, world.

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