In this fast-paced world, many folks choose to create their gardens with young plants, rather than taking time to grow their own from seed. The upside to this approach is that you invest less time in the process; however, the downside is that your choices are limited to only the most popular garden varieties. If you find yourself dissatisfied with plant-store selections, or want to take advantage of the thousands of flower and vegetable varieties out there, then you will need to sow a little seed.
Technically, a seed is an embryo-containing, ripened plant ovule whose function is to ensure that the species can survive in future generations. To the gardener, these miraculous containers of life provide an economical means for diversifying gardens, and all it takes to get from seed to healthy adult plants is a little effort and forethought.
Timing is everything
Planning is important because developing plants need space, light, warmth and room for their roots to develop. With fluorescent lights and a heated room, it is possible to germinate lots of seed at any time of year. The challenge is to keep all those plants healthy, especially as the seedlings grow and become more demanding.
The longer plants stay in shallow flats or small pots, the more root-bound, stunted and generally unhealthy they become. For the sake of efficiency, seed should be planted so that the gardener has healthy, vigorous young plants when the last frost date has passed but before the plant has to be transplanted into a larger container more than once. Timing also must take into account the realities of your lifestyle and climatic conditions.
If you are new to growing plants from seed, annuals are the ones with which to experiment. Basil, coriander, dill, tomatoes, peppers and all the flowering annuals can be sown in the same manner. Anywhere from six to 100 seeds might come in a single seed packet, depending upon the plant. We often order seed with others and share packets– since most of us don’t need 50 habanero, cilantro or even tomato plants.
Ready, set, sow
Many crops can be sown directly in the ground. Cool season annuals like peas and spinach can be planted as soon as the soil is workable in the spring. Other warm-weather crops like sweet corn should be planted as soon after the last frost date for your area as possible. Seed is ideally sown into well-prepared soil with a fine texture and good drainage. Seed-soil contact is critical for good germination, so once you plant your seed at the spacing and depth specified on the packet, you should gently compress the soil.
Seedbeds must be kept consistently moist but not soggy. Hard spring rains can wash seed away and compact the soil surface sufficiently to prevent plantlets from breaking through the crust. A floating row cover made from Reemay® (a lightly woven mesh of synthetic material) rolled out over the soil until the plants emerge will help keep the seed in place and the soil crust-free. If you don’t have Reemay®, a light cover of straw also helps control erosion, keeps the surface of the soil from becoming dry and hard and still allows seed to germinate.
For longer season crops, early season crops or simply to get flowers to bloom sooner, sow the seed indoors. For best results, sow seed in flats or small plastic pots (with plenty of drainage holes) filled with a seed-starting mix like Pro-mix™, which is a soil-less potting medium, or make your own by combining equal parts sphagnum peat with perlite or vermiculite. Thoroughly moisten your planting medium before sowing – be sure it isn’t saturated though. For the best economy, place one or two seeds in each pot or space seed evenly in rows in flats. Cover them lightly with a thin layer of dampened potting mix if the variety requires darkness to germinate. If light is needed for germination (such as with basil and lettuce), simply mist the surface of the medium after sowing. Cover the pots or flats with plastic domes or plastic wrap to preserve moisture. Keep them out of direct sun or they will quickly overheat.
Many seeds will germinate faster if the medium is kept at a temperature of about 70 degrees. You can use an electric heat mat to accomplish this, but consistent heat is not absolutely necessary for successful germination. Under ideal conditions, most seeds will sprout in a week to 10 days; some sprout in a day or two, while others, like parsley, take longer. Once the plants have sprouted, move all of your pots or flats to the light. A twin-tube fluorescent grow light will speed sturdy development, but a cold frame or south window will suffice. If new growth looks thin and the plants are stretching towards the light source, they need more of it.
Juvenile plant care
Water the young plants with a fine mist. Keep the soil evenly damp but not wet, and don’t allow it to dry out. With a little experience, you can tell when the flats or pots need water by the light color and weight of the medium. At this early stage, it is especially important not to over-water since too-wet soil promotes the growth of microbes that cause damping-off, a stem rotting disease that kills young seedlings.
When the seedlings are 1 to 2 inches tall, you can fertilize them lightly; we use kelp/fish emulsion. Once they reach 3 or 4 inches in height, and possess two true leaves, you should transplant them into individual pots for further development. Before subsequent transplanting to the garden, your plants should be hardened-off. This process gradually introduces the plants to ambient conditions. Over the course of a week or so, expose the plants to the outdoors in an opened cold frame, on the porch or other location that protects them from full sun, wind and extreme temperatures. Once they’ve adapted, set the plants in the garden – it’s best to wait until after the last-frost date for most plants.
Save your own seed
Once you get hooked on starting your garden from seed, you will want to consider supplying your own. Seed saving isn’t difficult or mysterious, but to achieve good success, you need to keep a few things in mind.
If you are interested in obtaining seed that will be true to the parent variety, you need to be sure that the parent isn’t a hybrid and you need to know something about the way pollination occurs for that particular species. Consider tomatoes, for example.
If you grew a hybrid tomato, its seed will yield a mix of plants with highly variable characteristics. However, since tomatoes are self pollinating (pollen from the male components of the flower fertilize female components of the same flower), non-hybrid tomatoes will produce seed that’s true to type. There is no problem with collecting seed from different tomato varieties grown near one another since the likelihood of pollen from one plant fertilizing another plant is pretty slim.
With plants like corn and squash, however, the male and female reproductive organs are borne by different flowers, so they depend on pollen moving reasonable distances for fertilization. If you have several varieties of corn growing near one another, the seed each produce will be a mixed bag. If you don’t want to manage the fertilization artificially, then it’s important to plant different varieties at least 200 feet apart if you want seed that’s true to form. As with tomatoes, seed from any hybrid corn or squash will not be true to type.
In general, seed should be collected from the healthiest plants (true to type) in the group (rather than small, deformed or diseased plants) after it is ripe. Gather the seed when the seed/pod/fruit has ripened. Fruit containing seed should be slightly overripe for eating.
For the best genetic preservation, collect seed from several plants rather than a single specimen.
Seed in pods should be gathered on a sunny day, after the dew has dried, by snipping the stem just below the pods and placing them in a paper bag. Winged seed, such as lettuce, will blow away in stages as they ripen. For best results, place a small paper bag over the top of the plant and secure it around the stem with a rubber band to keep the seed contained until the stem is cut. Be sure to label and date the bags. Store the bags, open at the top, in a well-ventilated area until you can clean the seed.
Cleaning most seed involves removing it from leaves, stems and chaff; a sieve is often helpful for cleaning small seed. Larger seed can be threshed and winnowed in moving air. The lighter chaff blows away and the seed falls down onto a tray or cloth. Spread the seeds on a screen, tray or newspaper in a warm dry place, away from light. Keep labels with the seed, and be sure it is completely dry before storing.
If the seeds have been removed from wet fruit, wash them in water. Place them on a screen or clean cloth until they are dry – they will stick to paper.
Keep cleaned and dry seeds in a labeled jar stored in a cool, dry place or in the freezer (see “A case for conditioning” below). For small amounts, put seed in small paper envelopes, label and place in the jar.
It is also helpful to write down as much information as you know about the plant on the seed packet or in a garden journal. Give both botanical and common names and plant family. Describe the type of plant: annual, biennial or perennial; its size; type of fruit, leaf and bloom. State growing conditions such as sun or shade, and soil type such as clay, loam, or sand. State where and when seed were collected. Note uses if you know them: medicinal, culinary, fragrance; and warnings, if necessary. Add any history that you have.
Planting the next season is pretty straightforward for most seed, but some require special treatment before they will germinate effectively.
A case for conditioning
When you consider that it is in a plant species’ best interest to keep seed from germinating in the wrong place at the wrong time, it should come as no surprise that some seeds need to be processed by the environment before they will germinate efficiently. For example, cherry pits are much more likely to germinate after passing through a bird’s gut and spending a winter on the ground. When you collect your own seeds, it is helpful to know how to condition them for optimal germination.
Most vegetable, herb and flower seed that home gardeners grow require a period of drying before they will germinate. When ripe seed is collected, cleaned, dried and stored, it undergoes chemical changes that prepare it for germination in as little as one month. For best results and a higher germination rate, home gardeners should attempt to plant dry seeds within a year of collecting.
Seeds embedded in fruit pulp must be washed and cleaned before use. Generally, the pulp contains germination inhibitors that are infused through the seed coat. Once the pulp is removed from apple, grape, lemon, sweet pepper, squash and tomato seeds, they will germinate immediately without a drying period.
If the pulp is particularly oily, use a mild liquid detergent to clean the seeds. In many cases, seeds embedded within a fruit require additional treatment for germination.
Extremely hard-coated seed such as those of the morning glory (Ipomoea species) will lie dormant in ideal conditions, unless it has been previously made permeable (scarified). The solution for the home gardener is to nick the seed’s coat with an abrasive so that it can imbibe water and hydrate the embryo.
Scratch large seeds with a file or piece of sandpaper but take care not to injure the embryo. Rub smaller seeds between two pieces of fine sandpaper to abrade their outer surface.
Some herbaceous perennial seeds like angelica and primrose need a period of cold (stratification) to break their dormancy. This is easily done by soaking overnight, placing seed in a plastic bag with moist sand or sphagnum and refrigerating for at least four weeks and no longer than about three months.
Folks don’t seem to agree on just how many years old or how much history a plant must have entwined in its roots to be officially considered an heirloom. Some people say that any open pollinated seed that’s collected, shared and grown in subsequent generations constitutes an heirloom – or at least an heirloom in the making. Definitions aside, if it weren’t for gardeners interested in collecting their own seed, many interesting old plant varieties would be lost forever.
And what better way to connect the past with the future than through the cycle of garden seasons.
We hope you will consider adding variety to your gardens this summer by doing a little seed sowing today. Even if you just start a few plants from seed and grow them this year, take some time to get to know them. If you like what you discover, collect some seeds and pass them along to your friends and family.
Next year, you can do it all over again in a cycle that is as natural as the seasons and as ancient as life itself.
Tina Marie Wilcox and Susan Belsinger are the co-authors of a number of books, writing from their respective homes in Leslie, Arkansas, and Brookeville, Maryland. Susan also penned Not Just Desserts: Sweet Herbal Recipes; visit www.grit.com/shopping/detail.aspx?ItemNumber=2436 for ordering information.
Resources for Heirloom Seed
Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds
2278 Baker Creed Road
Mansfield, MO 65704
18001 Shafer Ranch Road
Willits, CA 95490
The Colonial Nursery at Colonial Williamsburg
The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation
P.O. Box 1776
Williamsburg, VA 23187
2451 Kissel Hill Road
Lancaster, PA 17601
Seed Savers Exchange
3094 North Winn Road
Decorah, IA 52101
526 N. Fourth Ave.
Tucson, AZ 85705
Nichols Garden Nursery
1190 Old Salem Road NE
Albany, OR 97321-4580
SandHill Preservation Center
1878 230th St.
Calamus, IA 52729
Seeds of Change
Gila, New Mexico
Skyfire Garden Seeds
1313 23rd Road
Kanopolis, KS 67454-9225
The Victory Seed Company
P.O. Box 192
Molalla, OR 97038