This winter gardening tip is either ironic, serendipitous, or meta. Or maybe a little bit of all three. Re-using empty lettuce containers as mini greenhouses to grow new lettuce is really the ultimate in recycling.

Here’s what you’ll need:

Several plastic clam-shell containers - from grocery-store-purchased baby spinach and mesclun.

Seeds – spinach, arugula, mesclun work great.

Seed-starting soil mixture, or light potting soil

A rimmed baking sheet

Here’s the process:

If the plastic clam-shell container you’re reusing doesn’t have circulation holes in the bottom, use a sharp knife to create five slits…one at each corner and one in the middle. Conversely, if your plastic clam-shell container has air circulation holes that are so large that soil would leak out (like some berry boxes) line it with a paper towel. These holes will act as drainage. Place as many containers side-by-side as will fit on your baking sheet.

Fill clamshell container halfway with moistened seed-starting mixture or light potting soil.

Sprinkle seeds on top of soil according to directions on packet, and lightly press to ensure seeds are in contact with damp soil.

Place plastic cover on container and set tray on top of refrigerator, or other consistently warm spot for 2-5 days, until seeds begin to sprout. Keep moist by pouring water into the baking sheet and allowing the dirt to soak it up from the bottom.

Once sprouted, move to warm, bright, south-facing window. Keep watering from bottom.

When lettuce leaves reach the lid, uncover and allow to grow freely. Keep watering from bottom. If you plant your seeds very closely, you can thin them to use as sprouts in a salad.

Harvest your crop at any stage after leaves have formed by clipping at base of plants with scissors. As long as the roots are left undisturbed, new leaves should grow.

(If you want to get serious about starting your own seeds at home, we recommend getting seed mat warmers and this grow light kit like we use at Beekman 1802 Farm.

The covers help keep the soil heat in which is necessary for proper seed germination.

Two intrepid spinach seedlings.

If you have plenty of seed, plant them thickly to harvest sprouts. Simply leave a few behind to grow into full size leaves.

Because we start a lot of seeds, we use grow lights. The lights are on a pulley because they must always hover just above the seedlings as they grow.

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  • By: eliselabarge

    I did this a few weeks ago, but was able to leave the box outside because spring is threatening. It works fabulously as a greenhouse and we have loads of sprouts, but how to avoid mold in the soil?

  • By: Kathy P

    What a great suggestion guys, I’m going back to my recycle bin and take out the containers to start growing lettuce. Love it!!! Thanks, Kathy P

  • By: Beth

    My dad always had his grow lights on a chain & hook system that he could raise and lower (like adjusting seats on a swing set). I love the pulley idea!

  • By: Vitta Fernandez

    I have been getting antsy about planting already and this seems like the perfect project for the cold winter! An early start on the planting season, too.

  • By: Cathy

    Instead of buying a Grow Light Kit, you can also use shop lights that are available in Home Depot, Lowes, probably even Wal Mart. Just chain them to the beams in the cellar and raise or lower as you need to. It will be a little less expensive. I have a friend who grows and sells at least a thousand tomato plants each year using this method.

  • By: Suzanne Koba

    What a great idea! I now have another use for these containers. Been using them to store my shoes, easy to see what pair I’m looking for. Question though, would it be better to make small holes in bottom instead of slits? Thank you

  • By: Mel McSweeney

    Here’s the real deal. . . I lOVE WINTER and have not had a good dose of it , here in Maryland, for several years. I DON’T want to think about spring and seedlings or anything else that signals spring when I haven’t even had SNOW! I may have to move to Sharon Springs. . .

    • By: paula gill

      Mel, I’m here for my first winter in the mild Pacific Northwest and I too miss a real winter snow. The locals freaked at the 2 inches we received in November. I just laughed, thinking there would be much more. No such luck.

  • By: Pam Landy

    I tried this with Beekman 1802 Heirloom Tomatoes last year and it worked wonderfully! Thanks for the idea. :)

  • By: mARY

    Will try this with my students at the urban school I teach at!

  • By: Phyllis

    Do you need to worry about salmonella? I read somewhere that it’s a hazard of growing sprouts.

  • By: April

    I LOVE this idea! I have limited space for a garden in my yard, but I just grabbed 2 of these containers back from my recycling bin to start my spinach & lettuce – ill make room somehow! Thank you :)

  • By: TerryBurns

    Genius, indeed! I love this idea. I have stacked up a gang of these containers just knowing they were too cool to ditch…only to toss them later. I have a swell sunroom/office with lots of winter sun and covered radiators…perfect…but my previous midwinter dirty (sprouting) dances were a bit messy. This self contained approach is perfect.

    Thank you!

  • By: Joanne Owens

    I love this idea! Thank you for sharing. Will let you know how I do this season with my plants.

  • By: Dolores Harrison

    I have been using this technique for a couple years now too.These nice clear containers are just to versatile to get rid of. I also use them to store dried garden beans for seed for the new planting season.

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