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Growing Almost Anything from Seeds 

© hazel proudlove - Fotolia.comSeeds are one of the best inventions found in nature.  Plants have thrived on this earth because of there unique ability to spread their descendents genetic code across the land. Many plants are designed specifically for this purpose. If a variety bears flowers, which when pollinated become fruit, the fruit is often times consumed by animals. This is a wonderful method of seed disbursement as the seed containing fruit is often taken away. Other plants use air to carry their seeds about by making them light enough to be carried on the wind. The Dandelion is a pesky reminder of this method.

Regardless of how it ends up on the ground, seeds can remain viable for many different periods of time. Each seed is different, as is the plant it was produced by. Some will germinate (begin to grow) rather quickly, while other will languish in the ground for some time before their biological trigger is turned on. Radishes can break the surface within days, while some trees can take a few months. There are even some plants that take up to three years to germinate. Luckily there aren't that many of those.

The size of the seeds can vary significantly. There are large ones, like Coconuts, and extremely tiny ones like the Chin Cacti whose seeds are smaller than a grain of salt. All that really counts is what plant the seed will become. Almost any species can be raised from a seed and gardeners of all skill levels have been doing so for centuries. In this article we'll examine the various techniques and ideas on growing plants from seeds. It's easier than most people think, and the satisfaction level of knowing you've raised it from a seed is tremendous. Ask anyone who gardens why they do it, and most will tell you it's because they not only enjoy the plants they grow, but grow to love the sense of accomplishment and the tasty delights that are their reward.

How A Seed Grows:

I'm thirsty! Is it cold in here to you?Moisture and warmth are the triggers that encourage most seeds to germinate. As the seed absorbs water, its interior pressure increases, then ruptures the seed coat. From there, natures plan begins to take over and vital growth hormones within the seed go into action and coordinate vital compound distribution to the needed areas.

These changes also depend on the temperature, as this is natures way of signaling plants that a new season has begun. Most garden seeds that are started indoors do their best when soil temperature is from 75 to 90 degrees F. They will also need air so a porous starting soil that is kept evenly moist (but not drenched) is best. Moisture and good drainage can be important as waterlogged soil can make your precious seeds begin to rot.

© Mélissa Bradette - Fotolia.comAfter a few days (or a few weeks for some types), some noticeable changes take place in our seeds. A root will emerge and begin it's growth into the nutrient rich soil. A stem pushes upward through the soil and unveils one of the prettiest sites most gardeners will ever see. Two little baby leaves, referred to as the cotyledons, will unfold toward the life giving sun. These two cute little leaves may bear little resemblance to the shape of the mature plant, but they serve a very important purpose as they are the initial means for the plant to begin photosynthesis (process of plants deriving food from sunlight, soil nutrients & air) and aid tremendously in its initial growth stage.

At this point, life has begun and there is no way to stop it unless you deny the seedling what it needs to survive. With the right moisture, warmth, light and air, the plant will continue to grow and thrive. Keeping it from receiving even one of these will at best dwarf the plants growth, or at worst, kill off the seedling entirely. Needless to say, the initial growth of your seed is a time to pay closer than usual attention to these types of details.

Most seeds have no particular light needs, but some kinds require it to break through their dormancy (natural period when seed wont germinate) and begin growing. Some of these seeds need to be planted just below the surface to that light will be able to reach them. Still other plants, like Dill, need light so much that they are best planted right on the surface of fine moist soil or seed-starting mix. They can be covered with clear plastic to retain moisture, or misted frequently.

A few types of seeds will need complete darkness to begin growth. You can fool mother nature with these types by beginning seedlings in a dark closet, or covering them with black opaque plastic instead of clear. Fewer still are those that require planting very shortly after being harvested. Specific techniques can vary from simple planting instructions, to details on how to break the dormancy period of a particular species. We'll attempt to cover the various methods used in the following section. The plant world is so varied, it is impossible to give exact germination instructions here for all plant types. It is for this reason that the seeds label needs to provide you with enough information to ensure your success. Although some seeds call for a few extra steps, these are usually done before planting and pose little problems for even the most inexperienced of gardeners.

Preparing Your Seeds Before Planting:

I was prepped before growing this well! For most varieties of seeds, this chore entails opening up the package of seeds. Not very tough. For other varieties it becomes necessary to trick them into thinking it's okay to start growing. Seed dormancy is Mother Nature's way of ensuring the new seedlings survival. Certain triggers must happen to make it think that the last killing frost is a distant memory, or that the dry period is over so there will be ample water. The following are some of the most common methods used to coax your seeds to life.


Plants native to climates with cold winters often times require a period of moist cold before planting. The method used to simulate the period a seed would spend in the cold moist ground is called Stratification. By exposing them to conditions that mimic those in nature, we break it's dormancy period and promote germination by later planting it in warm soil. Many perennials, woody plants, trees and shrubs require this type of pre treating to simulate winter.

Mother Nature can be fooled by placing your seeds in damp peat moss, sphagnum moss or vermiculite and storing them in a cold place with temperatures around 34 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Coincidentally, that's about the average temperature of most modern refrigerators. A plastic bag or old plastic containers work well for your fake winter storage. The stratification mixture should be labeled to avoid your spouse from making it a midnight meal, as well helping you to remember what it is. We also recommend you make a note on your calendar as to when you'd like to plant them. Most seed packages will recommend what period of time stratification (AKA "The Cold Treatment") is needed.

It is wise to take good notes when planning your garden, planting it, and also when reaping the rewards of beautiful healthy plants. These can help you in the future when planting similar types of seeds, or keeping track of when to plant and harvest. Every climate is different, even within specific growing zones. Winds will whip through canyons, light will be obstructed by walls or homes, slopes will collect drainage water, etc. There are many variables in anyone's garden environment. Taking good notes about your failures and successes will help you get a feel for your gardens specific environment.

Scarification:Don't worry about me. I'll grow just fine now!

Sounds nasty, doesn't it? Don't worry, it's not that bad. Scarification is a method used primarily on seeds with hard outer coatings such as sweet peas, and okra, which require a little assist to absorb water more readily. Simply put, this involves nicking or marring the seeds hard coating to accomplish this. Care must be taken not to damage the seeds inner embryo. On sweet peas, avoid nicking the "eye" part of the seed as this is where the plant and it's root will appear. Most seeds wont require as much precision though.

On very large seeds, simply use a knife to cut a notch in the seed coat, or make a few swipes with a sharp edged file. Remember, your seed will be breaking out of it's coat when germinating. Your only goal here is to help it along slightly. For medium sized seeds, a nail file can be used. For multiple seeds, medium-grit sandpaper can work quite nicely. By placing it rough side up in a tray and putting the seeds on top, you can roll them around on top of it until you wear down the seed coat a bit. You can also put them between two sheets of sandpaper and rub. For processing a lot of seeds, or for those that are small, try putting coarse-grit sandpaper around the inside of a jar, placing the seeds inside and putting on the lid. You can then shake your fabricated scarification jar until the seed coats have worn down a bit. Afterwards, soak your seeds in lukewarm water for a few hours before planting. This is the plant version of a Jacuzzi after a rough day. (sorry :)


Even seeds with thinner seed coats can often times benefit from a soak in lukewarm water for a few hours before planting. This is particularly true of larger seeds like beans and okra, which will germinate faster after a good soaking overnight. Drain them first, then dry them briefly on paper towels so they'll be easier to handle at planting time.


This method goes a bit beyond presoaking. Seeds such as squash and melons do well with this method as they tend to need warmth to germinate. Presprouted seeds are more tolerant of cooler temperatures so this method is used for planting warm soil needing seeds in not so warm places. A good method is to place seeds onto a moistened paper towel, making sure none of them touch each other, then carefully roll them up and place them in a plastic bag. Close it loosely as sprouting seeds to need their air. Then place this in a warm area like above the refrigerator or near a water heater. Check their progress in about 2 to 3 days and remove any that have sprouted for planting. Keep checking daily until either all have sprouted or enough time has past that you know the remaining ones aren't viable. Presprouting wont usually work too well with varieties that have long germination periods.

Care must be taken with presprouts as they are very delicate at this stage. Think of it as handling a new born baby and you'll be just fine. Fortunately, no burping is required. It is best to plant them before their roots have developed to the point of tangling together. Presprouts should be planted in individual containers of seed starting mix or pre-moistened potting soil. Gently cover their roots with the soil, and also most of the stem if it wouldn't have broken through the soil when planted at it's recommended depth. You can also plant presprouts directly into your garden, but using containers first allows them to develop their root system before transplanting.

Bottom Heat:

This is a method primarily used when starting plants indoors, in propagating trays or frames, or in greenhouses. Most, (but not all) plants will benefit from the gentle warming of the soil they are to be sown and germinated in. Called "bottom heat", this method stimulates the germination process, particularly plants who's native environmental origins are tropical. Cactus and Succulents also do well with this method as it mimics the warm soil temperatures of the desert. Heating the soil from the bottom up can be accomplished in a few different ways. The most elaborate of which is installing heating coils designed for such use under the bed where your seedlings are started. Some people have been known to pour boiling water into seed drills to warm the soil before planting, but caution must be taken that you allow for the heat to dissipate before placement.

A common and easy method is to suspend the seed flat (tray used for starting seeds) over two blocks and place a small 40 watt bulb under the flat. Be careful that the bulb does not come in contact with flammable material. We recommend doing a trial run first in order to determine the right soil temperature. This can be tested by pushing your finger into the soil and feeling the bottom of the flat. The right temperature is when you feel noticeable warmth, but not so much that it is uncomfortable.

Starting Seeds Indoors

I started life near my beloved owner!Starting seeds indoors can be a great method of propagating seeds. It is particularly well suited for climates with cold, freezing point winters as it allows those gardeners to get a head start and hit the ground running come spring. Indoor germination is useful for vegetables as it allows for your first harvest sooner, but it's also a great way to start most other seeds as well.

What Light Through Yonder Window Breaks,...

One reason that indoor seed starting is so wonderful is that you can take a ho hum sunlight situation out of the equation by using grow lights to supplement whatever window light they can get. As seedlings will thrive on 16 hours light (the ideal situation) you can use an automatic timer along with your lights to develop some very healthy plants. Fourteen hours of light is acceptable, twelve hours will work in cooler locations. As it's rather difficult to have the earth tilt toward the sun longer in your neighborhood, grow lights can give you a great start for your seedlings. Although you may be tempted to leave grow lights on all the time, don't do it. Most plants will not do that well under these conditions as you are creating an environment too different than the real world. Plants need their sleep too (sort of) in that they often have different biological cycles and functions at night.

Standard incandescent lights (standard light bulb types) can be used, but they don't provide a very wide spectrum of light and plants tend to know the difference. Another option is the often expensive "high-intensity-discharge lights like halide, mercury vapor and sodium which can be used to light from above or for large plants, but at $40 to $80 a bulb, few find them practical. Of the three, halide probably has the closest resemblance to natural sunlight so it is used more so to display larger plants. For best results with seed growing, we suggest you use fluorescent lights. They too use energy, but far less so than incandescents, and they are also much cooler, allowing you to place them closer to the plants. Standard soft white fluorescents are less expensive than the special "grow lights" that advertise a fuller spectrum just for plant growing, but the results are quite comparable so they might not be worth the extra expense. Standard shop fluorescent light fixtures with a reflector work just fine. Initially, you can hang them about 3 inches away from the soil for the first few weeks, then to about 4 to 6 inches above your seedlings there after. Never allow your plants leaves to come into contact with the light tubes. Also remember that the light will be weakest at the ends of the tubes so you may want to rotate your starting trays. Mirrors or reflective aluminum foil wrapped around cardboard make an effective way to give your small plants the fullest benefit of the light provided by bouncing wasted light from the side back onto the seedlings. This can also be an effective tool to use with your natural light source as well.

Although with proper light fixtures, you could start your seeds indoors without any real sunshine, the full spectrum and candlelight power of our suns natural light, even during winter, can be a great benefit as well. Many people use a dual system that utilizes both sources for optimum results, although many a winter garden was started on windowsills alone. If yours are wide enough already, you're set to go, if not, bookshelves suspended below the window, just out of distance from curtains or blinds can be wonderful sunny sprout stations. To minimize the tendency for the young plants to become spindly as they strain toward a winter sun, we recommend you turn them frequently. Of additional benefit is mirrors or home made aluminum foil reflectors to utilize as much light as possible.

But Where For Art Thou My Plant Seeds?

So now you know where you'll grow them and with what light source. At this point you have to decide what to grow them in. (Trust us, it will be worth it) Almost any kind of container can be used as long as it will hold 1 to 2 inches of soil and has provisions for drainage. Remember, you don't want waterlogged seedlings as this is an invitation for "damping off" (a plant disease born in soil that can kill seedlings) which can be usually be avoided by proper drainage and air circulation. Individual containers are preferable because they result in the least disturbance to the plants root systems when eventually transplanted. Square or rectangular "flats" do make better use of space and tend to retain moisture better. A very good compromise is one that uses inexpensive plastic pots molded from one sheet of plastic so they can be laid into a flat tray. Each mini pot forms it's own plant container, but they are all connected until it's time to break apart the individual thin plastic starter pots. Most nurseries use this type for their vegetable and bedding plants. A good example of a home seed starting kit complete with clear plastic dome is illustrated below.

Now all it needs are some dirty seeds! This plastic tray comes with the small thin plastic pots with holes in their bottoms to absorb moisture front he bottom of the tray. It has a raised bottom to provide for drainage. The same company also makes convenient peat trays and pots available that can be used inside as well. Peat makes for good containers as it is biodegradable and enables you to plant the little individual plants pot and all. Roots will then grow out of the peat containers and into the surrounding soil. You can keep these peat pots pliable before planting with frequent misting. It's best to slit the sides of pots toward the end and remove the bottoms unless there are many roots already growing through it. We also recommend you cut off the peat lips just above the soil. Just throw spare peat clippings into your soil as it will become part of it.

You don't always need to buy the containers you use for growing your seeds though. You can construct your own planting trays out of redwood and treated exterior plywood. Or other items as well, as long as you keep in mind what your seeds will need. Provide them with drainage, access to light, and air and your custom design should work just fine. With a little creativity, many common items can easily be used as planters. Most everyone has access to empty milk cartons or plastic soda bottles. Cartons can be cut in half and the bottoms used as a planter, but remember to poke some holes in the bottom for drainage. For a little mini greenhouse effect, take clear plastic soda bottle and cut them in the middle. Plant soil and seed inside and position the bottom of another bottle over the top. This design will maintain humidity for your sprouting seed, but make sure again to poke some drainage holes in the bottom as well as air holes in it's top.

Plastic containers and flats can be reused for next year by simply cleaning them in warm water and dishwashing liquid. The idea here is to prevent damping-off and other soil borne disease by disinfecting them before use. Wash off all remaining soil making sure to scrub off any old fertilizer salts that may be clinging to the sides. Then rinse off thoroughly and prepare a disinfectant bath of 9 parts water, one part chlorine bleach. Soak the items for 10 minutes, remove and rinse thoroughly again. You can use the bleach mixture on other items then with the same procedure. Clay or metal pots are best sterilized by immersing in boiling water or briefly baking them in a 180 degree Fahrenheit oven. After they have cooled, be sure to immerse the clay pots in water for a few hours before planting or they may actually pull water out of your plant mix soil.

From Whence Does Our Love Grow

The earth that is the home to all living things plays a vital part in the seeds development. Although seeds themselves contain enough nutrients to nourish themselves through sprouting, the soil that envelops them needs to be free of weeds and other toxic substances. It should also have the ability to hold moisture well while still providing a lot of air spaces. It's best not to use plain garden soil to start seedlings as it can harden enough that young sprouts can't penetrate through it.

Good planting mixes are available at most nurseries and garden stores, but you can also make your own using materials like: vermiculite, milled sphagnum moss, peat moss, perlite and compost. Mix two or more of these together for a good starting soil. Vermiculite is a mineral called mica that is heated and puffed up to form these lightweight, sponge-like granules capable of holding both water and air. Sphagnum Moss are those that are native to bogs and are used primarily as liners for hanging plants and when air layering of soil is needed. Milling it makes it fine enough for young seeds to use. Peat Moss is the partially decomposed remains of several types of mosses (including Sphagnum) and is a highly water-retentive, spongy soil amendment. Perelite is a mineral expanded by heat to form very lightweight, porous white granules (looks almost like Styrofoam beads) that enhance moisture and air retention in soil. Last but not least is Compost, which is what you're left with after your compost heap and decomposed the plant and animal waste you have piled into it for the last few months.

After mixing your potting mix together, moisten it before planting. Squeeze it in your hand to test, making sure it's not so wet that it drips and that it holds together when you release your grip. Depending on the design of your containers, you may want to cover the bottom with newspaper or a bit of paper towel to keep the soil from washing out of the drainage holes. Scoop in your moistened planting mix, tapping the container occasionally to allow the soil to settle. Spread the mix out evenly and flat, but don't pack it down tightly. Remember that the air within this moist soil is needed by your seedlings as well.

Reap What Thou Sows

By starting seeds indoors as described above, you are able to get a head start on spring and ensure a very healthy plant to start with. In some areas, winters are mild enough to sow seeds year round. Also, some people don't feel the need to get a head start and only start to think about their garden when the time is alright to plant directly outdoors. When the earth for your garden area is soft enough to dig and dry enough to crumble easily, then the time is right for planting Vegetables are probably the most planted gardens of all as it makes perfect sense to just about always start from seed. But before you plant, there is work to do.

Your garden soil should be be fertile, well drained soil that is rich in organic material like compost. If you're starting a new garden, extra effort should be taken to condition the soil before planting. Pre soak the area well with water about a couple of days before starting. Dig up the entire area with a pitchfork or large shovel and break it apart as much as possible while mixing in compost into the top 4 to 6 inches of soil. Remove any clumps of sod, weeds and stones in order to make it as fine as possible. Avoid stepping on the bed as you want to provide air in the soil as well. Think of this as you're toiling with your pitchfork and it may inspire you to condition the dirt even deeper. Very tough soil may require the power of a rotary tiller that can be gotten at equipment rental centers.

If you have mixed in a good amount of organic material (compost) then your soil may need no further prepping. If there are higher levels of clay in your soil, or if it still doesn't seem very fine, you may want to make your planting trough a bit bigger and put in some moistened planters mix in which to plant your seeds. When sprouted, they will quickly take hold into the thicker consistency of the soil around the planters mix trough. To make sure you plant your seeds in a straight line you can tie a string to two sticks and make yourself a planting guide by placing it across the bed. If left up until sprouts form, it will also let you know what's a seedling and what's a weed.

If your source for seeds seems reliable (like the GreenWeb's Seeds), use the information on the seed packets to determine proper depth and planting times. Good companies will also let you know if the variety you're planting require any special techniques like scarification or stratification that will better ensure your maximum planting success. You can plant with more uniformity and precision if you use seed tapes (biodegradable strips with seeds spaced properly that are stuck to it) and bury them to the prescribed depth for that variety. This can be a good method if you would rather not thin out your seeds or if they are in short supply. This is often the case with rare and Exotic plant seed species that are sometimes sold in limited quantities. Seed tapes let you get the biggest bang for your buck when planting outside. Some suppliers sell seed tapes, but selections are usually limited. It's just as easy though to make your own. See the GreenWeb Article on Making Your Own Seed Tapes for more information.

We hope you've found this to be a good overview of growing almost any plant from seed. Starting your selections from the very beginning of their lives can be quite rewarding and more fulfilling than just purchasing plants from a nursery. It also allows you to monitor what methods of gardening were used to raise it (organic versus regular pesticides) and prevents the unwanted infestation of insects that may hitch a ride with you from the nursery. There really is nothing like telling someone you "grew it from seed." The more impressive or exotic the plant, the bigger the prestige factor. Happy sowing!

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