September 22, 2009: Home Made Seed Mat Tutorial

There are several ways to plant small seeds, such as carrots. You can scatter the seeds by hand, in a row, then spend a lot of time thinning out the excess plants so the survivors have room to mature. Another way is to put them in in a container with a shaker top, sprinkle them over a wide row and, when the tiny plants emerge, carefully draw a garden rake through them to thin them. I prefer to make seed mats, which work especially well in a square foot type garden. These seed mats take very little time to make, and there is absolutely no thinning and wasting of plants. Following is a tutorial I shot using lettuce seeds. Carrots would be done the same, but with closer spacing.


Start with a cheap paper napkin. Test it to make sure it will disintegrate quickly in the garden. Wet a corner and see if it easily tears with your fingers....if it does, you're good to go. This napkin was purchased from the grocery store, and it proved to be a bit too flimsy as it let the glue seep through to the other side. If that happens, just hang it over a clothes hanger to dry. If you can get some napkins from a fast food place they work perfectly.



I use a Sharpie pen to make dots at the proper distances. Here, with lettuce seeds, I'm placing the dots about 4" apart in all directions. Note the first row has three dots, the second row two dots, the third row three dots, etc. For carrots I would put the dots 1-2 inches apart in all directions. Be sure to protect your work surface, as the ink will bleed through. I also write the name of the seed on the napkin at this time, which helps when I'm planting several different varieties.



Using a water soluble glue, I place a dot of glue on each mark.



Sprinkle a few seeds out onto a plate (or the table) so they are spread out just a bit. Dampen a toothpick or the end of a pencil (just spit on it!) and pick up one seed at a time and touch it to a spot of glue. Try not to get the glue on the toothpick, spit works (releases) much better.



There. I have 13 seeds on each of my squares. That's a few more than I should have, but I find this spacing to work just fine for cut and come again crops.



I lay out my five seed mats to dry. They contain the seeds of five varieties of lettuce.



When the mats are dried, they can be stored until ready for use. I'm going to plant mine, so I mix up a bucket of compost and vernmiculite and head for the garden.



I prepare the seed bed and rake it smooth.



Four mats fit perfectly in the four foot wide bed.



I sprinkle a bit of my compost-vermiculite mixture over them to hold them in place.



Then I cover them completely, to a depth of about 1/4 inch...or just enough to cover all the mats so no paper shows.



I tamp it firmly with the rake.



Then carefully water it.



It's all ready to grow!



The carrots on the left in this bed were planted 2" apart on seed mats. Germination was very close to 100%, and there was no thinning. After I covered these mats with vermiculite/compost and watered them, I covered them with a board. After 4-5 days I checked daily for any sight of growth. Once growth was detected, the board was removed. These were planted on June 28th (photo taken August 10) and are now being harvested.


Now I'll have to tell you that, although I got nearly 100% germination from my earlier mat-planted carrot seeds, this lettuce bed was a bust. The seeds all germinated and I had some tiny little plants, but a wind storm toppled those parsnips over, breaking the barrier I had made, and smashed the lettuce plants to pieces. I did find three survivors that were moved to another area, but all the others were lost. So go the ups and downs of gardening.


104 comments:

  1. Wahoo! I'm doing the square napkin/seed method as soon as it cools off enough for them to survive... We're hitting triple digits again today.

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  2. Momma_S, EG says I'm crazy, but really, it takes a lot less time to make the mats than it does to plant a row of seeds and then have to thin out half of them. And the wind doesn't carry my seed away when I'm sitting in my kitchen!

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  3. Absolutely brilliant. Thank you so much for this post. You laid out the step by step process very clearly. I'm definitely trying this with some of my winter greens. Seeds are so expensive these days and it kills me to have to thin. I thinned my winter carrots the other day, ended up with a hand full of seedlings and felt sick to my stomach. Never again. I'm also considering using seed blocks next year for my transplants since I lost and damaged many this year trying to get them out of the trays.

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  4. You're welcome, Thomas. I'm also a soil block advocate. John Best http://www.jbest123.com/ made my soil block maker for me, and I got a lot of use out of it last spring. I consider it an invaluable gardening tool.

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  5. "I'm not listening, I'm not listening" Lalalalalala....

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  6. Says EG, who goes out to his garden with seeds and a tweezers, and drops one tiny carrot seed into each tiny hole in his square foot. *snicker*

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  7. Holy coolest tutorial EVER batgranny! Looooooove it. Bookmarking this for inspiration later. Thanks!

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  8. Hilarious! You must have KNOWN I was searching for your old post on the same subject today, lol!

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  9. LOL, Kate...I'm glad that hand surgery didn't take away your sense of humor!

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  10. This is great, thanks for taking the time to clarify the idea for all of us...

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  11. Erin, maybe we are kindred spirits...gardening, running the desert, seed mats. LOL!

    ********
    SB, you are most welcome :-)

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  12. This is great granny! It is almost tempting to have all my seeds set up and ready to lay out in my sfg for spring on napkins! I get too ahead of myself! I am all for getting good use out of each and every seed! I hate to waste!

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  13. That you Granny! This is great and I can use this method when I'm planting this weekend. Plus, I can get the seed mats made at night when I get home from the office this week :-) So it will be a good use of my time and I'll be ready to just cover the mats in the garden this weekend -- quicky and easy! And no thinning later!

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  14. Shawn Ann and Judy, I make mine in the evenings while watching TV. Fast and easy!

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  15. When you posted about this last year I though it was kind of crazy. But when you are bent over the raised bed trying to evenly space seeds it really makes sense. I think I am going to give it a go next year for little seeds. Your beds are so nice and neat, I love it!

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  16. Dan, I told you I wasn't crazy! (Shut up, EG). LOL!

    It's especially nice when a gust of wind comes up. It's easier to catch a napkin than it is to catch an entire handful of tiny seeds! And they don't mysteriously sprout up elsewhere in the garden. It works with newspaper too, but I think I get better germination with the napkins. I haven't tried toilet tissue, but that's also an option. I used a kleenex once, and that worked well.

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  17. Granny, I almost forgot to ask... will seeds like radish, broccoli and turnips work?

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  18. Judy, I've only tried it with carrot and lettuce, but I don't see why not. Broccoli maybe not, as it takes at least one entire square foot to grow that (I give it 18 inches), but turnips and beets could be glued 2-3" apart and radishes could be as close as 1" apart in all directions, which would be a lot of radishes! Of course, the larger the seed the deeper the mat would be covered. I really like using half vermiculite and half compost, as it is good for the soil and easy to see where I've planted.

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  19. Well done AG! I am going to give this a whirl next spring on some of the lettuce plantings.

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  20. KitsapFG, I'm probably going to give it another try on lettuce, spinach and carrots when I get to AZ. I'll have a whopping 3'x3' veggie garden there this winter!

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  21. Granny, I'm giving this a try with radishes and salad greens tonight. I can't even tell you have difficult it was to sow some of my winter salad greens. Wild arugula seed is the size of a grain of sugar!

    I've also read that some people use a mixture of flour and water instead of glue. Have you ever tried this? I'm sure it can't be as easy to work with as glue. I think I'm gonna try both.

    Final question though, when planting, do you lay the napkin seed side up or seed side down?

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  22. Thomas, I haven't tried flour and water, but did try cornstarch and water and it didn't work well.

    Napkin goes seed side up, although it probably wouldn't make a bit of difference. I never tried putting the seed side down.

    I'd be tempted to space the salad greens a bit closer....maybe 2". That way if they all germinate you can easily thin half of them out when they are large enough to eat the thinnings.

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  23. Thank you so much for posting this easy-to-follow tutorial. I will put this to use next year.

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  24. Rachel, I hope it works as well for you as it did for me.

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  25. Why did you put a board on top? Was that to keep birds away those first few days? I'm going to try this with carrots this weekend. Can't wait! :)

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  26. Anonymous, the board is to keep the seeds damp. There is so little soil over the tiny seeds, they dry out quickly. By dampening the seed bed and covering it with a board(s), germination is so much better. Some people use burlap bags instead of boards, but we get some pretty bad wind gusts here at times. I've never had a board blow away ;-)

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  27. Gran, I did my homework last night. :) I posted a pic of my first homemade seed mat. I hope it did your tutorial justice! I can't even tell you how excited I am about this as I rarely have time to get anything done before my son goes to bed at 7pm. Now I can at least "sow" my mats into the wee hours of the morning if I wanted to!

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  28. Granny, your beds looks so beautiful!

    Thank you for your detailed directions, I'm going to give it a go! And... I'm going to post your instructions in the reference section of my blog.

    You're such an inspiration!!! Thank you! Oh gosh... I still need to send you that little Basic-H sample! Sorry for the delay... life is in crazy mode right now...

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  29. Great tutorial -- I'm going to have to give it a try on my next round of planting. I linked here via Thomas's blog, and I'm glad I did!

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  30. Thomas, good luck! I haven't been over to see your mat yet, I'm on my way. Still trying to get over this flu bug, which has me completely worn out...I went to bed at 8 last night and slept eleven hours. I really need to get out in my garden and pick stuff, but feeling a bit zapped yet.

    ********
    Toni, you're welcome. I hope it works well for you. No hurry on the cleaner, I'm just going to let my house get dirty so I can give it a good trial....that's my story and I'm stickin' with it ;-)

    ********
    Merideth/Great Stems, welcome to my blog!

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  31. Hey! You could layout the seeds so that when the dots are connected, they would display a shape of some kind. Hmm...it would be alot easier than the birdhouse I talked about last year. I just may do it! Thanks, Granny!

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  32. I'm thinking that I would prefer seed tape, but I'm sure it would work just as well as the whole napkins. I'd just have to cut strips out first. I don't know why, but I like my carrots in rows.

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  33. I'm a seed mat convert for the little seeds. I'll definitely do it next year for the carrots and hope mine do as well as yours.

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  34. Oh, I hope so too, Cheryl. My greatest nightmare is that all these people use my seed mat method and nothing grows for them!

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  35. Fantastic idea, will give this a go. Thanks for the instructions!

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  36. ReapWhatYouGrow, good luck! I hope it works well for you.

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  37. Granny, what type of timber do you use to make your garden beds? I love the seed mat idea! I am going to give that a try next spring!

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  38. Mission Firefly, most of my beds are made of recycled 2x6 redwood boards from a deck we removed from our house, the newer beds are untreated pine. All have been painted with exterior latex primer and paint to hopefully extend their life.

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  39. Thanks for the tip Granny! I already planted one of my fall boxes but this will come in very handy when I do some successive plantings.

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  40. Hi. I found this post by following links. Great idea! Thanks for the tutorial.

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  41. Wonderful. Thanks for sharing such a fantastic idea!

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  42. Toilet tissue works great for narrower spaces. Just make sure you do the first step, the wet and rip test!

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  43. Fabulous. I just sowed lettuce seeds and am wondering how much I'll have come up. If it's a bust, I'm whippin' out the napkins!

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  44. Fuzzy, I only do napkins or toilet tissue for the small seeds any more, I've had such great luck with that method. I glued 132 carrot seeds on toilet paper last night.

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  45. I love it!! I cannot wait to try it. I am off to buy cheap napkins and washable glue. I fought and fought with some very small lettuce seeds yesterday, now I know for the carrots and radishes... Thanks for the post up!

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  46. PM, glad you found it to be of use, it's the only way I'll plant small seeds any more. The problem with it is the seeds last so long, one packet seldom gets used up before it's too old and no longer viable.

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  47. Thank you for the detail tutorial, I made the toilet paper carrot seed strips 2 days ago, and the planting went a lot easier, I'm going to plan some carrot strips in containers and see how they grow.
    My napkins did not passed the rip and tear test. I'll have to get some dollar store napkins for the seed mats later.

    Just wondering how deep are your raised beds?

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  48. Mac, you're welcome!

    Most of my raised beds are doubled 2"x6" boards, which means they are about 11 inches deep. Mine don't have anything in the bottoms, though. They sit on quite fertile sandy loam, so roots can (and do) go as deep as they want.

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  49. Thanks for this post! I got here from someone that was using this method due to reading this post - looks like this post has been here awhile, and is still going strong! I wanted to try this since I find that a lot of my plants come up in clumps due to being moved around after heavy rains (which always seem to come right after I plant!).

    I found a great way to pickup the small seeds was to coat the tip of the toothpick lightly in glue. I would just roll it through one of my overzealous dabs. I can pick up several seeds at once, yet place them one by one easily.

    I find that it is a great activity to do while watching television.

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  50. Sylvana, you're welcome! I use this method exclusively for my smaller seeds. Lately I've been making more toilet tissue strips than napkin mats.

    I use the glue dipped toothpick on larger seeds, such as radish and beets, but fine the "spit on a toothpick method" to work better for the tiny ones like lettuce. The glue jut doesn't wnt to release them very easily.

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  51. AG you crack me up! I still get the comments emailed when someone posts on this one - how does if feel the be the GrandMaster Seed Mat Lady?!! I still link to you about this, you are world renown :)

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  52. Erin, it is funny! I was reading GardenWeb one day, when someone pretty much took credit for this idea and someone else came back with "Granny did it last year". I must admit, it wasn't entirely my idea, I just took what I didn't like about using newspaper strips and flour paste and ran with it.

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  53. long winded, time consuming and boring, mark a cane with the right lengths and use it.

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  54. Anonymous said... "long winded, time consuming and boring"

    Yes, you certainly are that, Anonymous.

    "mark a cane with the right lengths and use it."

    And just where do you want me to hit you with it, Anonymous?

    LOL, I see why you sign on with "Anonymous". If I had your attitude, I wouldn't want anyone to know who I am, either.

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  55. Hi, This is a great idea. I am came up with a similar idea, for the same reason of not wasting seeds and not having to thin. I use toilet tissue,( about 5 squares together) and flour and water for my glue. My spacing is the same. Also, I'm cut the tissue length wise, to fit seeds in smaller areas.

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  56. Statia, I use toilet paper, too. In fact, I glued up three 4' long strips of carrot seeds this morning, and will be planting them this afternoon.

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  57. I use paper toweling that has a diamond design, plant one seed at each corner and use home made glue, flour and water...my rows are wider and get 50 carrot seeds to a sheet.
    have had great success with this.

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  58. I absolutely love this idea! I'm going to try it. Thanks Granny!

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  59. meemsnyc, toilet paper and cheap paper towels work well, too. Just be sure whatever you use falls apart easily when wet. I tried newspaper, but didn't have very good luck with it.

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  60. I just now found your tutorial and can't thank you enough. When I was out there trying to plant my carrots a few weeks ago I thought I would lose my mind. Thanks you for helping me keep my sanity, at least what I have left. :)

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  61. Chars Gardening, you are most welcome! It works well with toilet tissue, too. Just be sure, whichever you use, to to the "wet and tear" test first.

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  62. Granny - I was laughing out loud reading your comments when you responded to Anonymous -"long winded......cane" You split me up!! It must be really fun to be around you! lol!

    About seed mats, sounds like a great idea! I just came across this through another blogger's attempt to follow your tutorial. I'll try and let you know.

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  63. Random, good luck. Just remember to use CHEAP towels or CHEAP on ply toilet tissue. Blogger Toni used Bounty paper towels, and germination wasn't great! I've been using the seed mats for three years now, with only a few failures (wind blew the dirt off of my turnips last week, and blew the toilet tissue mat right out of the garden).

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  64. i know this is pretty belated but thanks for a clever idea! i love this (and your tomatoes in bottomless buckets, too)!

    it seems like a good sort of project to do with kids and/or when you are away from home & cant' garden.

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  65. Donna, it's never too late for a thank you! I'm still making and planting seed mats, as well as seed strips (or tapes) made with toilet tissue. They work great for me, I hope they work well for you.

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  66. Annie I love your napkin seed bed idea. After having half my lettuce seeds wash out this spring (careless watering) I am eager to give it a try.

    And just in time, as I am well past the fifteen day stage for a second crop.

    I like your presentations. I have a blog, but I get so involved with "doing" that I forget to take photos, and then I am so tired at the end of the day that most of the time I hop in shower then plop in bed, LOL.

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  67. Eltopia Frank, I've changed from napkins to toilet tissue strips for many of the small seeds. It takes less vermiculite/soil mix to cover them. Cutting the napkins in strips is another option. It certainly is a seed saver, I can make a single packet last for years, where I used to use a packet for one or two plantings!

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  68. Annie,
    i tried a seed mat for radishes with great success (seed-side-down, btw)!! i am on to carrots, mustards, and beets next.

    i like the technique because i garden at work, thus i have limited time. this minimizes the time i spend planting. boom--planting done.

    thanks again.

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  69. Donna, I'm happy to hear it worked well for you. I have really good success with this method too.

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  70. Annie,, I have a very small place to plant and this is a great Idea!! Thank-you!!

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  71. TiaKeas, you are welcome! For small spaces, you can use toilet tissue squares, or you can cut napkins into smaller squares or strips.

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  72. Now THIS is absolutely ingenious! I love it. Now I can't wait to get our raised bed gardens built so I can be ready for next Spring. Thank you for sharing this tip. You are awesome!

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  73. 1st Man, I usually use toilet tissue instead of napkins now. I like the narrower rows, but the napkins are still great if you're doing square food gardening.

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  74. I tried this and the napkin glued itself to the table as it was drying. What did I do wrong?

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  75. suzijac, first of all, I only do mine on my Formica counter top (never a table), I use very small dabs of glue, and I move the napkin slightly after each row...just give it a little tug, to make sure it's not gluing itself down. Once I've finished, I immediately hang them over a clothes hanger to complete drying. Make sure the glue spots aren't touching the hanger, too. I've glued them down there as well.

    I think if yours glued itself down so you can't lift it without tearing, you could probably slip a non metal spatula underneath and carefully loosen it.

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  76. Found you on Pinterest today and I'm going to try this method this weekend! I'm the tweezer, picker person!!! Geesh~how easy. Thanks for sharing.

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    1. Beth, I'm just getting ready to make my carrot mats. I switched from using napkins to strips of toilet tissue. Easier to roll up and store, as well as making nice straight lines in a non square foot garden.

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  77. This is giving me some inspiration today Granny! Thanks for keeping this in such an accessible location on your blog! First time planting carrots, and it's windy out today, so I figured I'll give it a shot!

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    1. Travis (I peeked at your blog, and your gorgeous sketches), this method has worked very well for me the past 4 years. I hope it works as well for you. certainly beats trying to plant carrots in the wind! Sometimes the seed mats get caught in the wind, too. That makes for an interesting planting experience ;-)

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  78. thanks for this tutorial, granny! i finally tried it with tp and will plant them tomorrow. it was so easy and actually a little fun!=)

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  79. You're welcome, Kelli. I'm going to start making mine this weekend.

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  80. This is fantastic Granny...thank you! Wish I had found it sooner though...LOL! We're in zone 9 so all my Spring Garden seeds are up, but look out Fall! We're trying the SFG this year too...hoping for great results. Found you on Tipnut.com!

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  81. Sorry...I meant to show you this...http://www.giverslog.com/?p=2484. It's the "gift" idea I told you about.

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    1. TFC, I tried newspaper strips once, but they just didn't disintegrate as well as I liked. Now I use cheap napkins or toilet tissue. If I'm doing a square foot, I like the napkins, otherwise I cut the TP into whatever width strips I want, or do an entire width. It's the only way I'll direct plant those tiny seeds.

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  82. So far this method has worked fantastic! Thank you for the tutorial. I put radishes in between my carrots and am harvesting them now- making room for the still growing carrots. I hope you don't mind but I added a link from my post about it to your tutorial.

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    1. Gardeness, I've always found it to work very well. I do usually use strips of toilet tissue now, sometimes full width, sometimes cut into narrower strips. It takes less vermiculite/soil to cover them. That being said, this spring I've used both....napkins and toilet tissue.

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  83. I just saw this over at GrafixMuse's and LOVE this idea so I had to come see how to do it. Maybe I will try this with paper towels...

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    1. Linda, if you use toilet tissue strips, it takes a lot less soil and/or vermiculite to cover them. Napkins are nice in a square foot garden though. Good luck!

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  87. What was the purpose of the board and what kind of board was used? Was it used to hold in moisture? Can cardboard be used? Can I use paper towel and fold it over seeds then plant? Will seeds grow through paper towel

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    1. I sometimes use boards (any kind) to hold in the moisture just until germination begins to take place. Burlap or an old throw rug would do the same. Once you see the first few green sprouts, it needs to be removed. Lately I've not used the boards (or anything else) to cover the seed bed, as I have had an attack of pill bugs eating the seedlings. I lost almost an entire bed of carrots this spring. Yes, you can fold the paper towel (or napkin, or toilet tissue) over the seeds IF the paper passes the test of disintegrating when wet. Whatever you do, don't use a tough paper towel like Bounty! Lately I've been using 2-ply napkins, separating them and gluing the seeds to one sheet then covering with the second sheet. For rows rather than squares, I cut toilet tissue into strips and do the same sandwiching of seeds between the plys.

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  88. I hope this isn't redundant what's the purpose of the board and what kind was it? Was it to retain moisture? Can damp cardboard be used instead? Will this concept work for celery and herbs?

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    1. I'm not sure the cardboard would stay in place, certainly not in our windstorms! The seed mats (or tapes) work great with any small seeds. I use them for lettuce, carrots, herbs, beets, radishes, parsnips, spinach....anything that's difficult to seed sparsely.

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  89. Thanks for help and suggestions. I thought I'd use small rocks or clay to secure cardboard. I live in Ks so I know what you mean about wind. lol

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    1. You are welcome! Just remember to remove it just as soon as you see the tiniest bit of green growing, or you'll kill the plants. Good luck!

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  90. What a helpful post Granny! I've been a gardener most of my adult life and always just thinned, but I hated the waste of good little seedlings. I'll definately use this method come spring!

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    1. Gammy Tammy, for rows I use cheap toilet tissue cut into long strips, and glue a single row of carrot seeds 2" apart. These can be made ahead of time, rolled up and stored in a zip loc bag. This also work great for lettuce seeds.

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    2. I read the comment conversations about the toilet paper too, but rolling and storing in zip loc bags is another great tip. Sooo smart! I think I found someone to come to for all my gardening question! Love your blog Granny.

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  91. btw... I also pinned it to my Pinterest board so I wouldn't forget it. I have a tendency to do that now-a-days. :)

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  92. THAT was an EXTREMELY helpful garden tip! I can't wait to see what happens!!!! These can be prepared in advance! THANK YOU!

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