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Related to this question Why is it best to start seeds in shallow trays? I'm questioning the need for seed trays. In particular I'm wondering how did folks start seeds before these mass produced plastic seed trays were available?

Were egg cartons more commonly used? Were regular pots, or special clay trays, used to start seeds? Or was less indoor starting done, because heat mats and grow lights were less available?

I try to use minimal money and fossil fuel to garden. I like direct seeding but wanted to start some things indoors to get to harvests a little sooner. I have a heat mat already and two small grow lights, and I'd be starting small batches of seeds for a small household garden. I have various gardening materials, including some seed trays, but I'm wondering how I could start seeds without those special made plastic trays. How would my great grandma have done it?

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You might look for example at John Claudius Loudon's "Encyclopedia of Gardening" (1835) where you will find that gardeners made great use of boxes of various kinds, from big boxes for orange trees to smaller boxes for mushrooms and seeding. It would have been no problem to go to your local chippie and request that he made up a few dozen shallow open top boxes a couple of inches deep and various areas, mostly square with gaps in the slats on the bottom providing opportunities for drainage. These would be bare wood tacked together with small nails and great work for apprentice woodworkers.

In the previous late summer when the ground was dry you could put some garden soil through a sieve to remove stones and store the soil in a dry area for use the following spring. Then you build hotbeds with the plentiful supply of horse manure and straw in your cold frames and greenhouses and put the boxes of seedlings on those warm beds to germinate. There were of course no outlets to plug the heat mats (provided by time travellers) into.

Of course the soft wood of the cheap trays would soon rot in the warm humidity of the cold frames but no problem they were easily replaced with new, the old rotten ones being used for fuel. Inevitably there were more diseases to contend with compared to modern hard plastic surfaces but that was compensated for by the availability of cheap and plentiful seed and knowledgeable and observant gardeners.

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One of my grandfathers started his seeds in 1.5"/2" diameter clay pots in a well-lit upper-story bedroom. No artificial lights or heating mats. He also started his seeds later than we do now (his tomatoes were only 3 inches tall when planted out, for example), probably to prevent lots of etiolation. For a Memorial Day planting (which is when we planted tomatoes under the "old weather"), he'd plant his seeds at the end of April.

My wife's grandfather planted his seeds in the cardboard trays that his beer cans came in (a case of cans per tray). Said that gave him an excuse to drink more beer during the winter. I know that he used to plant directly into the trays, although I also remember him using pots made from newspaper, folded and then formed around a 2" dowel and placed into the trays. Again, no heating mats or artificial lights. In his case, he used a glass-enclosed sunny, unheated, back porch. He placed the cardboard trays on old cookie sheets for easy transport into the kitchen at night. Like my grandfather, he planted later than we do now.

Both tended to plant only vegetables indoors. IIRC, my wife's grandfather also planted easy things like marigolds inside.

As the pre-WWII generation have left us, they've taken a lot of practical knowledge with them.

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In my grandfather's day in the UK, many grocery shops received bulk goods in wooden boxes, typically about a 3 foot (1 meter) cube made from thin plywood sheets nailed to a softwood frame.

These "tea chests" (though they were not exclusively used for tea) were given away free to anybody who wanted them, and were ideal for making things like seed trays. The cheap wood had a short life, but the shops always had more to give away.

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