Seeds 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
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:
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.
After 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
Preparing Your Seeds Before Planting:
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
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
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.
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
Starting Seeds Indoors
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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