The Magic of Seeds For Your Garden

It’s no surprise that Jack (of fairy tale fame) was traded “magic” seeds for his cow. By their very nature, seeds are magical. They’ve laid dormant, just waiting for the right conditions to come along so they can burst forth with entertaining growth and continue the fanfare to a summer long display of flowers or vegetables.

Seeds let you start at the beginning. It’s a satisfying, personal involvement that starts with your decision of which seeds to grow. Seed catalogs and seed packet displays offer you a much wider selection of flowers and vegetables than you will find among started plants. You get to choose exactly which plants you will end up with – size, shape, color and even the name you like. Seeds are inexpensive, so you can afford to “try something new,” or go a little “crazy” and buy all your favorites.

Seeds are as “natural” as you can get. You can watch their life cycle from beginning to end. Even if you aren’t an aggressive recycler, seeds naturally lend themselves to being started in egg cartons or other “throw away” containers that let you feel good about what you are doing.

For most of us, seeds take only a little time each day to be cared for properly, fitting into even the most active schedules. They comprise the almost ideal hobby, needing little time, little money, and returning tremendous rewards in relaxation and satisfaction.

Decisions, Decisions

Perhaps the most difficult part of growing seeds is making the selections. If you are planning to grow vegetables you need to first decide what vegetables and then what varieties. A review of your personal and your family’s likes and dislikes will probably narrow the list quickly.

Choosing flowers requires a lot of decisions – but you can “mix and match and choose” to fit a wide range of options. Basically, you need to decide if the flower will ultimately be planted in full-sun, partial-sun or shady location. Seed packets and catalog descriptions will tell you the light requirements for a particular class and variety.

Starting Indoors

Read the packet instructions on when to plant indoors. Generally, you will want to start six to eight weeks before the “final frost” date in your area.

After the seeds, the first thing you will need is a container to grow them in. The best containers are those made for the purpose. There are seed starting containers made of plastic or pressed fiber, peat strips and pots, and peat pellets of different types, as well as growing cubes and even complete seed-starter kits available. You can base your choice on price, convenience and even curiosity to decide which to use.

If you use your own containers (even the ones you used last year), be sure they are thoroughly washed to make them as sterile as possible. A few days in the sun after washing is a good idea.

Drainage is important. Containers made for seed sowing will come with drainage holes. If you use recyclables such as egg cartons or cans, be sure to punch drainage holes in the bottom.

Germinating Media

For seed starting, the best choice is a sterile, soilless germinating mixture that you can buy at the store. Although garden soil might seem like a good idea for starting seeds, it isn’t.

Sowing Seeds

Dry growing mix is difficult to wet completely, so before filling your containers put the mixture in a plastic bag and thoroughly wet it by kneading to your heart’s content. Then fill your containers with the mix to about one-quarter inch from the top and let them sit for a while. Drain off any excess water. If you are using peat pots, water them thoroughly first, and then fill with the moist mix. Pat the moist mix down firmly, flattening it with a spoon or label. Nothing is perfect, and you will have to face the fact that not every seed will germinate. Plus you might lose a plant or two when you transplant, so you will need to sow more seeds (double is a good bet) than you actually think you want.

Large seeds can be easily handled and placed individually in the mix. Smaller seeds can be sown by snipping off a corner of the seed packet and tapping them gently out of the packet as you sow them. If too many seeds fall out at once, gently spread them with the tip of a pencil. Seeds need room to grow, so don’t plant them too thickly. Place two large seeds and two to three small seeds in each container where you want at least one plant to grow.

Check the directions to see if the seeds need light or dark to germinate. Those that need light should not be covered with the soil mix, but should be pressed down (not buried) so that they make contact with the moist medium. Those that need dark should be lightly covered with the mix (about 1 to 2 times the seed thickness) and can be placed in a dark place or covered with black plastic or something else that will keep the light out.

Labels are a must for keeping track of what’s what. All seedlings tend to look alike, and you might forget what you sowed where. Write the plant names on Popsicle sticks or unmarked labels available from your garden center, and stick them in the containers.

To give the proper humidity for germination and eliminate the need to water until the seeds sprout, place the container in a plastic bag and tie it shut. To keep the plastic from resting on the mix, pencils or those all-important plant labels placed at the corners of the container will do the job.

With few exceptions, containers should be placed in good light but not direct sun during germination. Keep the containers warm. Seeds that require high temperatures to germinate can be placed in a sunny location.

Germination

Germination times vary, so don’t get too anxious and think nothing is happening if your seeds don’t sprout “immediately.” For seeds with long germination times (seed packets usually give you some idea of how many days the wait will be), check the flat occasionally to make sure it hasn’t dried out. Water or mist gently if it seems dry. If the soil seems too wet (from condensation), remove the flat from the bag for a few hours and then replace it. Never let the growing mix dry out completely.

When most of the seeds have sprouted, you can remove the cover and keep the flat in good light, but out of direct sun. Keep the growing mix moist.

Transplanting

When seedlings have developed four true leaves, it’s time to thin them out. Where you have two or more seedlings growing together, snip off the weakest looking one with scissors, so the remaining plant can grow stronger. Gradually move them into more and more sunlight each day. Feed the plant with a water-soluble fertilizer once a week, using half the strength recommended. Keep your seedlings watered until the proper planting time.

About one week before you are ready to plant into the garden, place the young plants outside in a shady, sheltered area. After a few days, move them into more light, gradually working them up to full sun. If the nights are very cool, move them in at night and back out during the day. This gets the plant used to the outdoor conditions.

Getting Started Outdoors

While part of the fun of seed gardening is often said to be watching them get started indoors, you don’t have to start everything inside. Many flowers and vegetables are best handled by sowing them directly into the garden soil. But, the soil must be prepared to ensure success. This preparation is also necessary for plants that are started indoors and transplanted to the garden.

Soil Preparation

Outdoor soil must be loose and rich for most plants. Heavy soils will need the addition of organic material such as peat or composted materials, or incorporation of soil looseners such as gypsum or vermiculite.

Start by using a spade or fork to turn over the top layer of soil to a depth of 12 to 18 inches (6 to 8 inches is okay if that’s all you can do). Break up large clumps of soil and remove rocks, branches and other debris. If your garden is a large one, using a roto-tiller can make the job much easier.

Spread a one-inch layer of peat moss or organic compost over the top and rake it into the top two inches of soil. Level the garden surface as much as possible.

Soil pH (acidity) is very important. Most plants and vegetables do well in a pH of approximately 6.5. You can test your soil pH with a home soil test kit (available at garden centers or through catalogs) or check with your County Extension Agent who can tell you how to get this done locally. A soil test will also indicate the fertility of your soil as well. If your soil is too acidic or too alkaline, your garden center or County Agent can make recommendations.

Lastly, an application of dry fertilizer such as 5-10-5 is a good idea. Follow the directions on the package, but generally about two pounds should be applied to each 100 square feet. Level the soil after adding the fertilizer.

Sow seeds directly into the prepared soil as you would for container growing. Keep soil most until seedlings appear, then water regularly.

Enjoy. Enjoy. Enjoy.

It won’t take a lot of effort to keep your garden growing well. In extra hot weather you may have to water a little more, and of course you will want to watch out for weeds, bugs and pests, but the small effort will pay off in big dividends. Having started from seeds, you will appreciate the real magic of a garden.