As long as people have been gardening, they’ve been trying to find easier ways to do it all. The first few times you try to grow seeds, you’ll inevitably be bad at it: not enough light, leggy starts, mildewed roots. But eventually you’ll find a system that works. Even so, we’re all looking for ways to make it faster, more efficient and cheaper. I had stumbled upon the trend of snail seeding or seed snails on TikTok and was curious if it was a viable cheat for seed starting. After four weeks, I can say that while seed snails work, they’re not more efficient, cheaper, easier or faster than traditional seed trays. I can’t find a good reason to choose this method over regular methods. 

What are seed snails or snail seeding? 

Seeds need three things to sprout: heat, moisture and a medium like soil to grow in. For home gardeners, it’s pretty simple. You just have to put the seed in some soil, keep it warm on a heat mat, and keep it watered. Some seeds need to be buried deeper than others, some need to go through a period of stratification where they’re exposed to colder temperatures that simulate winter, and seeds germinate at different rates. Cucumbers sprout in days, while snapdragons take weeks to germinate. Still, the process is mostly the same.

Snail rolling gets rid of the seed tray (sort of—more of that in a moment). You just lay out paper towel, roll it up packed with damp soil—an earthen cinnamon roll of sorts—and then stand the roll on its end and plant seeds in the exposed soil, which will look like a spiral. Once seeds have sprouted, you carefully unroll the snail, and pluck your seedlings out and plant them outside. Seems simple enough. 

I was pretty sure this method would work, since it consisted of putting seeds into soil and watering them. The challenge was whether it worked better than traditional methods—specifically regular ol’ seed trays. So I planted one tray of zinnia seeds and a few snail rolls’ worth of the same seeds to see what would happen. 

How to set up a snail roll

I used standard, unprinted paper towels, and folded them in half lengthwise, resulting in a double ply length of paper towels about three feet long. Using seed starting mix (which is not the same as potting soil or compost), I ensured the mix was damp enough to hold together when I squeezed it in my hands. I packed it onto the paper towel from edge to edge, flattening it, not unlike making a sushi roll. Here is where you need to use some judgment, because how thick that application of soil is depends on how big the seeds are. Small seeds like marigolds need less thickness than pumpkin seeds, which are quite large. It was clear to me that packing it all the way to the top and bottom edge was folly—the soil was already falling out a bit. Then you start at one end and carefully roll the paper towel onto itself, forming a jelly roll, and keep rolling until the end of the paper. Here’s where this process hits some snags. 

Paper towel is delicate

First, even though the paper towel was doubled up, it still tore, because that is what paper towels are designed to do, and so rolling was frustrating. You could keep going, if the tear happened in the middle of the roll, because subsequent parts of the roll would keep things together. But if it happened at the end of the roll, you were out of luck— the roll fell apart. As you roll, soil falls out, so you lose a lot of it. You want the soil damp enough to stay put, but not so wet the paper towel is destroyed; it’s a delicate balance. You want to keep the thickness of soil consistent, too. At the end of the rolling process,  I was surprised how easy it was to take the entire roll and upend it into a tray. It’s helpful if you do a few, so the rolls hold each other up—a deep tray helps. I used a standard 1020 tray—that’s a tray that is 10 inches by 20 inches, comes in many depths and designs, and is incredibly common. While making a roll certainly didn’t take long, it did take longer than filling a seed tray, which takes less than 10 seconds. You just spread soil over the top, tap the tray on a hard surface, top the soil off and wipe off any excess soil. 

Harder to seed

To seed the roll, you insert seeds of your choice into the snail from the top, as it’s standing in the tray. Depending on the kind of seed, you plant it shallower or deeper—the instructions are always on the seed packet. This part wasn’t hard, but it was harder than using a regular seed tray. Generally, as you plant, you go row by row, and since everything is flat, you can see where you’ve seeded and where you haven’t. This was much harder in the messy snail rolls. It was also less efficient. If you’re seeding an entire tray of one kind of seed, then you don’t need a seed chart to understand which seed cell of the tray holds what kind of seed. For instance, an entire tray of pink Benary’s Giant Zinnia—easy. But usually, home gardeners don’t need a whole tray of one seed, so a tray can hold many kinds of seeds: a row of pink zinnias, then a row of green zinnias, red zinnias, yellow, etc. One of my brassica trays will hold 20 different kinds of seeds, and a chart helps me understand what is in each cell. In a snail roll, there is no way to tell what’s what; it’s just all jumbled together. This means you also can’t tell which seeds didn’t sprout, which is much easier in trays—you just see which cells have no sprout in them and then consult the chart to see what failed. In a snail roll you wouldn’t even know something failed to sprout. I also didn’t like how much soil was used in the snail roll process, which was much more than I used for the same number of seeds in a tray. 

Can’t regulate moisture easily

Once the roll is seeded, you have to keep the seeds moist. While you start with damp soil, you have to keep it moist, but not so wet it mildews. There are a few ways to do this—n a traditional tray setup, you’d use a humidity dome, a clear plastic shell over the top. As water evaporates, it condenses on the lid and then falls back down onto the seeds. There’s very little water loss. Eventually, once the seeds sprout, you remove the dome and water the seeds from above with a water mister (they’re too delicate for a watering can) or from below, which means you give the tray the seedlings sit in a shallow amount of water (the soil will suck up the water as it needs it). The snail method doesn’t really allow for a humidity dome since the rolls are so tall, so I loosely tented the snails with plastic wrap after a good misting. I placed the trays onto my heat mat, the snails on one side and the traditional tray on the other side, and just watched. Ten days later, my zinnias in the tray had sprouted consistently, and were well on their way to forming their first true leaves, which is the signal to remove the humidity dome. The snails had sprouted inconsistently, and the paper was growing some mold from the humidity. One snail had collapsed partially. The plastic wasn’t doing much to keep moisture in; I had to water them far more often than the trays. Still, at three weeks, I removed all the plastic and started bottom watering the snails just like the trays. 

Poor germination rates

Because I had kept track of how many seeds were in the rolls and the trays, I could calculate precisely how much loss I had in each. Out of 50 cells in the trays, only two did not germinate. Of the 50 seeds I planted in the snails, 18 seeds did not germinate. We had a clear winner. 

The zinnias in the seed trays could chill in the trays until it was time to plant them, which was weeks off. They need a strong root system to survive transplant shock, and seed trays allow them to build those roots, without those roots getting too tangled with their neighbors’ roots. The snails were deeper than the trays, giving them more vertical space to grow roots, but not as much horizontal space, since the cells of the seed tray were larger. So, I began adding plant foot to the bottom water of both the seed tray and the snails, and gave them another 10 days. While under usual conditions I’d have let them go a few more weeks, for the purpose of the experiment, it was time to see what was going on, root-wise. 

Transplant shock

To pop a seedling out of a seed tray, you just use your finger, from the bottom, to push the seedling up. The roots will be contained in the soil around the seeding, and you can easily transplant it into the ground. For the snail rolls, you have to delicately undo the roll. This proved hard, since roots had grown through the paper. As you unrolled, you tore roots. The roots of each seedling were enmeshed in the roots of all the other seedlings in the roll, which meant you had to carefully pluck apart the roots to do the least damage. The soil, which would have been held onto the seedling by the roots then fell off, mostly, so you were now planting bare root seedlings, which would surely struggle. 

While it’s too soon to tell how each seedling will do over the summer, it’s likely that the seed tray transplants will do better. The snail roll transplants experienced a lot of root shock. Again, while snail rolling clearly works, there wasn’t a single part of the seed starting process where it was easier, cheaper or more efficient than regular old seed trays. While seed trays might cost more than paper towels, they’re reusable, and once you calculate in the cost of extra soil for snail rolling and loss rates of seeds, you come out ahead using seed trays.