Sow Fearless

Growing from Seed: What the Packets Don't Tell You

When I first started growing from seed I relied heavily on the advice given by seed packets. Some packets are better than others, but the vast majority give you only the most basic information, namely when and how deeply/far apart to sow.

Sometimes, it really is that easy – plop the seed into a pot of soil or into the ground, give it a good watering and wait for the magic to begin. Other times, however, things may not go according to plan – the seeds don’t germinate at all or they do, but then keel over and wither away for no apparent reason.

I’ve had my fair share of seedy misadventures over the years and have learned (often the hard way) that a few simple steps can make all the difference when it comes to seed starting success.

1. Start with squeaky clean equipment. I’m talking pots, trays, tools and even the plant tags that you use to identify what’s in that cell pack.This is the most important step that you can take to help prevent disease, especially damping off which is one scourge that can take you from seedling bliss to seedling despair in the blink of an eye. I usually do a mass cleaning of all my pots, cell packs, trays and tools at the end of the growing season so that they are ready to go come early spring.

Fall Pot Cleanup

2. Moisten the soil. Most bags of seed-starting mix are pre-moistened but if it’s been sitting around for a while chances are that it’s on the dry side.If you think you’ll just water after you sow those seeds, think again – most seed starting mixes are heavy on peat which is almost impossible to moisten by simply pouring water on top of it – all that water will simply run down the inside of the pot and end up in the saucer. In order to thoroughly moisten the soil mix, I pour it into a plastic tub, add some water (not too much), then stir and stir – a long handled stirring spoon or your hands work equally well.I repeat, adding a bit more water each time, until the mixture is just damp, but not soaking wet. To test if it’s moist enough, grab a handful and squeeze – it should hold together. Now poke it with your finger – if it falls apart easily, you are good to go. If it stays in a lump, then you added too much water - simply mix in a bit more soil to help soak up the excess.If you are using a terra cotta pot, give it a good soak (about 10 minutes or so) before filling with soil so that the porous clay doesn’t wick up the moisture in your soil. Lastly, it’s equally important to moisten the soil ahead of time if you are sowing directly into a garden bed, unless Mother Nature has done it for you.

Moistening the Seeding Mix

3. Air circulation is important. Keeping the air moving around the seedlings not only toughens up those stems, making them sturdier & better able to cope with the elements once they are transplanted outside, but also helps minimize fungal diseases such as damping off. I keep a small fan running on low speed & position it a few feet away from the seedlings themselves – you want the air flow to resemble a gentle breeze not a hurricane.

4. Know the optimal temperature for germination. While placing a seed flat on that toasty area on top of the refrigerator may be a good idea for a heat lover such as tomatoes, lettuce may find that same spot a bit too warm and germination would suffer. Those same lettuce seeds, however, would do just fine in my 66°F (19°C) basement but I would likely get slow, sparse germination from my eggplants. The bottom line?You don’t need to be too hung up on precise temperatures but knowing whether your particular seeds prefer it warmer or cooler can help you choose a spot that will encourage better and faster germination.

5. Some seeds need special treatment in order for dormancy to be broken and germination to occur – this process is called stratification. When I first grew Echinacea from seed, the packet simply stated to sow 6-8 weeks before my last frost date. Sounds simple enough...a bit too simple, as it turns out, since only 1 out of 8 seeds germinated.Some research revealed that Echinacea seed needs to be exposed to 4-6 weeks of cold temperatures in order to germinate. I sowed the remaining seeds in a pot, covered it with a plastic bag and placed it in the refrigerator for 6 weeks. Then I took it out and left it at room temperature. Lo and behold, every single seed germinated. I could also have replicated nature by sowing those seeds directly into the ground in the fall, but I prefer to raise most seedlings in a more controlled environment, transplanting them outdoors once they are better able to fend for themselves.

Echinacea seedlings

Of course, you can do everything right and still have poor germination or growth – that happens to everyone, no matter how seasoned a gardener you are. Sometimes it’s our own fault – letting the cell packs dry out a bit too much, for example - while other times it’s not (I’ve received a bad batch of seed on more than one occasion).

Don’t let a bad experience or two discourage you from trying again. When it comes to growing plants from seed, it’s important to keep in mind that the goal is to maximize the chance of success, not eliminate the possibility of failure. So grab those seeds, scrub those pots and get sowing – nothing is quite so exciting as watching that first bit of green popping up from the soil while winter winds blow outside.