DIY Gardening: Starting Seeds in Recycled Egg Cartons

Good news: Ellen Drews is joining us for another gardening tutorial! Last spring, Ellen shared her DIY container gardening technique (pictured below). Today, she’s going to teach us how to start our own seeds in egg cartons! Have you ever done something like this before? I can’t wait to give it a try!

Before we get to her wonderful post, I did want to take a second to let you all know that Anne and I leave for Greece tomorrow! (Follow me on Instagram to see some pictures of our trip.) We will be home in three weeks, and I’ll be back to blogging in late July with more projects, recipes, and some pictures from our trip. I’ve got an exciting collaboration and giveaway coming your way later this summer!

Without further ado, Ellen:

As a backyard vegetable gardener in Somerville, Massachusetts, I am always cooking up ways to feed my gardening addiction on a tight budget. I love finding ways to use recycled materials to grow my vegetables safely in the city. This year in my container garden, I decided to see the process from start to finish. I was going to start my own seeds in my own DIY greenhouses: egg cartons!

Starting seeds indoors is an important concept for vegetable gardening. There are some vegetables that prefer to grow right where they’re planted (i.e. cold-tolerant plants like spinach, or delicate root-crops like carrots). For these crops, I put seeds directly into my container garden as soon as the soil has thawed.

Other plants must be started indoors and then transplanted to the outdoor garden as seedlings, such as tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and basil. These warm-season crops evolved in hot climates with longer growing seasons and so they have a long, leisurely lifespan. Where I live in New England, we can have frosts as late as Memorial Day, which would most likely kill a seedling before it had a chance to bear any fruit—the ultimate prize of the tomato plant. Starting tomato seedlings indoors as early as April allows you to get your plants going so they will reach fruiting maturity by midsummer.

Seedlings are available for purchase at farmers’ markets, grocery and hardware stores, and big-box stores like K-Mart. However, there are awesome benefits to starting from seeds:

  • Choose varieties! There are thousands of beautiful heirloom seeds out there and many cool ones are available through seed companies with the mission of saving these varieties (Seed Savers Exchange, Hudson Valley Seed Library, High Mowing Organic Seeds, and Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds are some of my favorites).
  • Save money on fancy organic seedlings and use the seeds you already have. I’m still using seeds that I bought or traded two years ago (with proper storage, seeds can last up to 5 years).
  • Avoid the pitfalls of buying cheaper, mass-distributed seedlings at stores like Home Depot and K-Mart. Devastating diseases can spread across the country via these discount seedlings. For example, in 2009, late blight on tomatoes spread across the east coast because many people bought tomato seedlings from K-Mart, Walmart, and Lowe’s—all of which carried a fungus originating in a handful of greenhouses in Alabama. (Read one article about it here.)

So, now that you’re convinced that starting your own seedlings at home is a good idea, I’ll show you how I started mine this year!

Starting Seeds in Recycled Egg Cartons

Materials:

  • Plastic or cardboard egg cartons, empty (avoid Styrofoam or heavily inked cartons)
  • Nail or awl
  • Organic potting soil or mix (Look for varieties that contain compost. You want your seeds to access as many nutrients in their little cells as possible.)
  • Seeds!
  • Spray bottle or watering can with a gentle sprinkle

Step 1: Using the nail or awl, punch three holes in the bottom of each egg cell to allow excess water to drain.

Step 2: Fill the egg carton cells with the potting soil. Use your fingers to gently press divots into each cell and re-fill the divots with more potting soil. You want to give your seeds as much material in each cell as possible without compacting the soil. For many weeks, the nutrients in the soil will be all they will get so you’ll want to fill ‘em up!

Step 3: Put 1-2 seeds in each cell, following the directions on the seed packet for how deep to put them (it will be under “seed depth”). Cover with a light topping of potting soil.

Step 4: Soak the cells with water using a spray bottle or a gentle sprinkle of water. You want water to drip out of the holes at the bottom of the egg carton to ensure that you have really soaked all the soil. BUT you also want to be careful that you don’t dislodge the seeds or compact the soil so it’s important to be gentle when watering!

Step 5: Place egg carton seed-trays indoors in a sunny window or under grow lights. Seeds should germinate in about a week! I also got fancy and used the lid of the egg carton to create a greenhouse effect over my seeds. The plastic roof kept moisture in and trapped some heat from the sun. I also punched holes in this “greenhouse” roof to keep things from getting way too humid in there.

Here’s what my tomatoes and tomatillos looked like after they grew up a bit! Now that it’s June, it’s a bit late for starting tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant like I did here, but it is a great time to start seeds for fall crops such as broccoli, cabbage, collard greens, chard, fennel and kale.

And here’s what my garden looks like today!

Leave a comment if you’ve found other ways to use recycled materials in your garden!

Note: All photos were taken by Ellen Drews.

Mini Caprese Frittatas

A few weeks ago, I brought these homemade mini caprese frittatas to a brunch with some coworkers. They went over so well that I thought I’d share the recipe with you here! These frittatas are perfect for this time of year, with fresh basil and cherry tomatoes quickly coming into season. They’re delicious served hot or at room temperature.

Mini Caprese Frittatas

Prep time: 15 minutes | Bake time: 22 minutes | Yields: 12 mini frittatas

Ingredients:

  • 6 eggs
  • 1/3 cup milk
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1/8 tsp pepper
  • 1 tbs pesto
  • 1 1/2 cups grated mozzarella
  • 12 cherry tomatoes

Preheat oven to 350°F. Coat a standard 12-cup muffin pan with cooking spray and set aside. Cut cherry tomatoes into thin coins and set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, combine eggs, milk, salt, pepper, and pesto. Whisk until fluffy, 1-2 minutes. Pour the egg mixture into the muffin pan, filling each cup approximately 1/3 full.

Bake for 10 minutes. At the 10-minute mark, sprinkle mozzarella evenly over each muffin cup. Put back in the oven and bake for 10 more minutes.

When the frittatas have cooked for a total of 20 minutes, place cherry tomatoes on top of each frittata. (The frittatas might be puffed up, but that is okay.) Once the cherry tomatoes are added, turn the oven to broil for the remaining two minutes.

Let muffin pan cool for five minutes before transferring frittatas to a cooling rack. Eat promptly, or at room temperature. Enjoy!

From Scissors & Sage

Airplane Mode: We’re Going to Greece!

I’ve always liked this quotation from the Dalai Lama because you don’t have to travel halfway across the world to go some place you’ve never been before. “Travel” might take the form of visiting a new neighborhood in your very own city, or experiencing nature in a new way. Traveling is something that has always interested me. It stretches you in new ways, makes you think creatively, and, if done right, can be a very humbling experience.

For me and Anne, our trip to Greece is five weeks away. WHAT?! We have been looking forward to this since January. It’ll be our first time traveling abroad together, and I couldn’t be more excited! After what was a long year for me, exploring Greece with Anne for three weeks is going to feel incredible. I hope that it is just the rejuvenation I need.

As we plan and map out our trip, I’ve come across some really wonderful inspiration, both for Greece specifically and travel more generally. I thought I’d share some of that with you today. Are you traveling anywhere this summer? Tell me where in the comments below!

Greek Inspiration

A colorful fishing boat (source)

Santorini (source)

Gala Beach on Pano Koufonisi (source)

Fresh sardines and Greek salad on Antiparos (source)

Sunset in Santorini, and other helpful tips (source)

Delphi, one of the world’s greatest ruins (source)

Design*Sponge's Athens city guide

Design*Sponge’s Athens city guide (source)

A mix and match color scheme (source)

General Tips & Tricks

Learn how to best use your iPhone while abroad here.

Learn how to download offline Google maps here. Beware that offline Google maps expire after 30 days. Add this to your to-do list just before you leave!

These tips in Travel 101 are incredibly helpful for any kind of trip you plan on taking.

Rick Steves on the importance of packing lightly.

Here’s a great blog post on upping your travel photography game.

Suggested travel apps:

Before you leave:

  • Hold your mail and any current subscriptions.
  • Set up a self-watering wicking system for your houseplants.
  • Notify the bank of your upcoming travels.
  • Sign up for the smart traveler enrollment program (STEP).
  • Photocopy all travel documents (leave one copy in your luggage, and one copy with a family member at home).

This just skims the surface. What are your go-to travel tips and tricks? I’d love to find out more, so leave a comment below!

DIY Self-Watering System for Houseplants

Happy Monday! Did anyone notice I was absent last week? The bad news is I had bronchitis for a few weeks there, but the good news is that I’m feeling better! Philly is in full-blown spring mode, and I can’t get enough of it. My parents visited me and Anne this weekend, and we had a great picnic at the Japanese Gardens in Fairmount Park. The cherry blossoms were out of control!

As the warmer weather begins to take us out of hibernation, it quickly becomes the season to travel more. Day trips, weekend excursions, and longer vacations. All of this traveling means that those houseplants you so carefully take care of are soon left to fend for themselves.

When Anne and I took our road trip through the south last spring, we devised a self-watering wicking system to keep our houseplants happy and healthy while we were away for a week. I pride myself on my level of care for our houseplants, but let me say this: our plants have never looked better than that week they were watering themselves.

Here’s why a self-watering wicking system works so well:

  1. By using a wicking system, the plants only absorb the amount of water that they need. They will never sit in an excess of water.
  2. Different plants require different amounts of water. With this setup, you can keep all of your plants hydrated with one system.
  3. You don’t need to do a damn thing! This system will water itself and leave your plants feeling great.

Oh, and another tip: If you’re new to houseplants, or aren’t sure how much to water them, use this system even when you’re home. You can reap the benefits of keeping houseplants, but your black thumb won’t get in the way!

Are you convinced? Do you want to use this system the next time you’re away from home? The setup process takes about 30 minutes, and should be done the day before you leave in order to minimize stress and confirm the system is working. I’ll walk you through the steps to making your own at home.

DIY Self-Watering System for Houseplants

Materials:

  • 100% cotton string
  • Scissors
  • Paper clips
  • Pasta pot
  • Short stool

Step 1: Gather your houseplants in a location near where they usually reside. Cut the cotton string into two-feet segments (cut as many as you have plants). If you do not have cotton string on hand, take an old 100% cotton t-shirt and cut it into long, thin strips.

Step 2: Tie a paper clip to one end of each piece of string.

Step 3: Fill a pasta pot with water, about 4 quarts. Place the pot on a stool to elevate the water above the level of the plants. (Gravity will work with you to pull the water down the string.) Gather the plants around the pot of water.

Step 4: Place the paper clip end of the string in the pasta pot. (The paper clips will ensure that the string stays in the water.) Take the other end of the string and, using your finger, bury it about one or two inches into the soil of each plant. Press firmly on the soil to hold the string in place.

Step 5: When you have placed the string into each plant, make sure that there are no “dips” in the string. The line of string from the pasta pot to the plant needs to be a fully downward slope. If the string dips below the planter, water will not travel back up the string and into the soil. To avoid this, gently pull the extra string into the pasta pot.

Wrong:

Right:

That is how to create your very own DIY self-watering wicking system! In about an hour, you will notice your plant beginning to receive water.

Depending on how long you are away, there will most likely be water still in the pasta pot when you return home. Gently disassemble the string from the plant, and go back to your usual houseplant routine in about ten minutes.

Or, don’t! There are other, more subtle ways to continue this system while you’re home. Keep your plants where you usually have them, and place smaller bowls of water–on a stack of books, say–near your plants. You can refill the water bowls and know that your plants are receiving just the right amount of water at all times.

Note: Our orchid and fiddle leaf fig are getting their own self-watering setups when Anne and I travel to Greece this summer. They are quite particular plants, so I will keep them right where they are elsewhere in our apartment.

Are you going anywhere this spring or summer? Tell me where you’re traveling in the comments!

A Morning at Quail Hill Farm

Last weekend, Anne and I took a drive out to Amagansett, NY to see my family.  It’s that time of year when you try to squeeze in that final beach vacation or time spent with loved ones before the fall rolls around.  My aunt, uncle, and twin cousins live in a cozy house tucked away on a dirt path, removed from the hustle and bustle of the Hamptons but close to the beach.

Early Saturday morning, my aunt Melanie took a few of us to Quail Hill Farm, the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm she belongs to.  I have memories of going to this farm from when I was a kid, eagerly scouring dirt patches with my cousins to dig up potatoes from the ground.  Digging for potatoes proved to still be one of my favorite activities, but going back now, I realize just how much this farm has to offer: Quail Hill Farm is one of the original CSAs in the United States!

We were amidst the veggies, herbs, and flowers for a few hours, and we entered a trance-like state from the sheer happiness of gathering food straight from the source.  (The feeling reminded me of the days when I worked at Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture.)  We weren’t the only ones out there, either.  Our morning excursion included friendly community farmers, each teaching the other how to cook this, and how to identify that.  No one was texting; no one was snapchatting.  We were all enjoying the beautiful weather, the pretty wildflowers, and each others’ company.

Below is a sampling of pictures that represent the treasures that we picked.  Keep reading for a full list of what we found!

We harvested:

  • Curly parsley
  • String beans (green, purple, white)
  • Hakurei turnips
  • Heirloom carrots (orange, purple, white)
  • Fingerling potatoes
  • Italian eggplant
  • Japanese eggplant
  • Cucumbers (green, white)
  • Peppers (green, purple, red, orange)
  • Heirloom tomatoes (cherry, grape, black cherry, green zebra, peach, red zebra, San Marzano, pear-shaped, pink)
  • Zucchini
  • Artichokes
  • Garlic
  • Onions (yellow)
  • Lettuce (green and red)
  • Cabbage
  • Wheatberries

Also:

  • Wildflowers
  • Sunflowers
  • Fresh bread

Here we are at the end of it all!  It is certainly an experience we will all remember for a long time to come.  Do you belong to a CSA?  Do you grow your own produce at home?  Respond to these questions and share your thoughts in the comments section below.