Tag Archive for seeds

Starting Seeds

I don’t start too many vegetable plants indoors. That’s because houses are great for humans but are very unnatural for vegetables, herbs and annual flowers. Most homes are too dark, dry and hot. As a rule flower and vegetable plants do better if they are started in a greenhouse, cold frame or in a hot bed. The only plants that I do start indoors are geraniums, tomatoes, green peppers and sometimes melons.

Geranium Seedling

Geranium Seedling In Peat Pellet Pot

Here in northwestern Pennsylvania we have a fairly short growing season. There will be another 4 or 5 weeks before cold sensitive fruits and vegetables like tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers or cantaloupe can be safely planted in the garden.

It never makes good sense to start bedding plants early.
Seedlings that are started too early can be subject to damping off and are often leggy and unhealthy by the time they are set in the garden. Pumpkins especially shouldn’t be planted until the weather is downright hot! Early planted pumpkins never do as well as late planted pumpkins.
It’s better to direct sow seeds into a garden a little later rather than set unhealthy bedding plants in a garden  too early.

Zinnia Seedlings

Direct Sown Zinnia Seedlings

I’m an old school gardener and subscribe to “planting by the signs”. I always try to pick a favorable day for sowing seeds if possible. If you are interested in moon sign gardening, any good current geocentric almanac will have tables or charts for the moon’s phase and position in the zodiac for any given day with some basic information.

When I start seeds without the benefit of a hot bed or cold frame, I usually will use  egg-shell seeding pots, peat pellets, peat pots or plain old-fashioned terracotta flowerpots. Some plants like squash, watermelons, cucumbers, eggplant and cantaloupe will do best when started in its own pot. And some annual flower and vegetable plants like marigolds, petunias, lettuce, cabbage, onions and tomatoes don’t resent being started as a group in a single pot and are easily divided and transplanted.

Starting Marigold Seedlings In A Clay pot

Marigold Seedlings In a Pot

In general, smaller seeds can be planted as a group – and large seeds do best when planted alone.
I like terracotta pots for starting annual flowers and some vegetable bedding plants because terracotta retains moisture, drains well and can “breath”. Clay pots work very well in hot beds or in a cold frame.
Terracotta pots are reusable year after year and are easily scrubbed out and cleaned. Because I often use an old pot, I always make sure that the pots are well scrubbed in hot soapy water before I sow seeds.
It’s important to kill any bacteria or fungus that may have been held over on the pot from the prior year.

Clean Terracotta Pots For Seeds

Terracotta Pots Scrubbed Clean Before Sowing Seeds

Young seedlings grown indoors are susceptible to damping off and other troubles. When possible I use a commercial sterile seed starter mix. I find that it works best to wet the potting mix with very warm water before covering the seeds. But when I’m pinching pennies I don’t always want buy ready mixed starter. It’s expensive! Sometimes I’ll just mix 1/3 sand with 2/3 ordinary garden soil. Any soil can be made sterile by placing into into a 200°F hot oven until the soil’s temperature reaches about 170°F.

Many seeds only need heat and not light to germinate. Once seeds are up they can be moved to a warm sunny window during the day and removed to a warmer location at night.
Cantaloupe, eggplant, basil, peppers, watermelon and pumpkins all benefit from a source of steady bottom heat.Those types of seeds grow best between 65°F-80°F. In fact all cold sensitive plants do well in a hot bed that is heated from the bottom with horse manure. Some people use electric grow mats with good results. But I’ve always been too cheap to spring for an electric mat or pay for the extra electricity. My reasoning is that I garden to save money – not spend money!

The top of most refrigerators is a good warm place to start bottom heat loving seeds. That’s what I mostly do now days. But a make-shift hot bed is easily constructed with an old window sash and cinder blocks or straw bales. Just form a square or rectangle and then fill the interior with a load of about 18″-20″” of fresh horse manure on the bottom. Tamp the manure down firmly; then wet the manure with either water or urine and cover. Wait a about a week and topped off the manure with 4″- 5″ of good screened garden soil and cover again. Wait a couple of days for the soil temperature to start to rise and then plant. Be sure to vent the hot bed on warm days or you’ll cook the plants. Pretty simple really.

And just so you know, one way that you can tell if the weather is truly settled enough to plant cold sensitive bedding plants in the garden is by the size of oak leaves.

Safe To Plant When Leaves Are As Big As Mouse Ears

Oak Leaves As Big As a Mouse Ear

If the leaves on an oak tree are the size of mouse ears it’s safe to plant tomatoes, beans, some squash, cucumbers and corn.
For eggplant, pumpkins, peppers and cantaloupe it is better to wait for oak leaves to be more fully developed before setting them in the garden.

Soak Hard Seeds For Easier Germination

Sometimes hard seeds need a little help. Did you know that if you soak hard coated flower seeds like Morning Glories, Sweet Peas, Four O’clock or Moon Flowers in water for 24 hours before you plant them that they will germinate easier? It’s true. In nature hard seeds are usually dropped in the autumn. The hard coating is naturally worn away by moisture and the freeze/thaw cycle during the winter and early spring months.

Moring Glories Have Hard Seeds

A Morning Glory Vine

Adding a little milk, lemon juice or vinegar to the water helps to break down the hard seed coating and allows for an easier seed germination.

Soaking Hard Seeds

Soaking Morning Glory Seeds For 24 Hours Before Planting

Another trick is to nick the bottom of the hard seed with a nail file or sharp knife before it is soaked.
With Morning Glories I will usually nick about half of the seeds in a standard package before soaking them in water.
With Sweet Peas, Four O’clock s and Moon Flowers I soak them in water but seldom bother to nick them.

Filing A Hard Seed

Using A Nail File To Cut Through A Hard Seed Shell

When To Plant A Garden

Sometimes new gardeners need help interpreting and deciphering the back of a seed pack or a garden catalog. It seems like the information or directions should be forthright and easy to understand but that’s not always the case.
There are a few terms and concepts that may be encountered in garden catalogs and on seed packets that can leave the novice gardener befuddled and in need of a more detailed explanation.
The statement below is most often found on the back of seed packets for early spring flowers or vegetables like peas or pansies that are typically direct sown into the garden.
The expression “as soon as the soil can be worked” can confuse an inexperienced gardener.
“As soon as the soil can be worked” is a statement about soil condition and not about any particular day on the calendar.
Soil can be worked and seeds planted when it’s no longer wet or sticky. When your garden can be worked will depend upon what type of soil you have. Your soil maybe different from that of your neighbor’s. So just because your neighbor’s garden is being planted does not mean that you should plant yours too.

Garden Soil Ready For Planting

Soil Is Ready For Planting

Sandy type soil will always be able to be planted sooner than clay type soils. Whatever you do don’t disturb the ground before it is ready.You’ll ruin the soil structure.
To test if your soil is ready for planting,  grab a fist full of soil into your hand. Squeeze it together into a semi-conical or oblong shape. If the soil is a little crumbly and will readily fall apart, then it’s ready to be planted with seeds or bedding plants.
Sometimes soil can be on the borderline between too wet and dry and it’s a flip of the coin whether or not to chance planting. The photo below shows soil that is almost too wet. So whether or not to plant that day would be determined by the weather.If the weather looked like it was going to be warm and dry for the next few days I would plant.

Soil Is Maybe Ready

If The Soil Clumps Together It Is Borderline Ready

But if the weather look like it was going to be cool and rainy absolutely not. Seeds planted under those conditions would probably rot in the ground and have to be replanted.
Now if the soil sticks together it’s too wet. More time is needed and it’s best to wait for it to dry out more.

Soil Is Still A Little Wet

The soil is too wet

With gardening as with most things in life, no harm ever comes from waiting and working with Nature.
If you jump the gun and disturb the soil too early you and ruin the soil structure and you’ll pay the Devil to get it fit again.

The Difference Between Hybrid & Non Hybrid Seed

New gardeners are sometimes confused by the terms hybrid, non- hybrid or heirloom when shopping for vegetable or flower seeds.
Here’s a quick primer.

Corn Seed Sprouting

Corn Seed Sprouting


Hybrids are the result of breeding two distinct varieties of plant or animal. The offspring of such a mating produces a new variety of the same species that incorporates certain desirable characteristics of both parents.

There are many good reasons for using and breeding hybrid plants or animals.
Hybrids whether they be plant or animal, are usually more vigorous and healthier than their parents.

Hybrid Puppy

This Puppy Is A Crossbreed. He’s a Hybrid

Fruits and vegetables from hybrids will often out produce their parents, with more size and shape uniformity.
Many hybrids show more resistance to pests and disease and often will ripen sooner or set fruit earlier.
This increase in hardiness and productivity is known as “hybrid vigor”.

Hybrid Cucumbers

Hybrid Cucumbers

The first generation of a hybrid cross is referred to as the first filial generation or F1 for short. Hybrids don’t necessary have only 2 parents. Many hybrid animals and seeds are the resulting cross mating of 3 or 4 different individuals.
Seeds or offspring from hybrid vegetables or animals will not produce the same type of plants or offspring as the parent.
Hybrid seed saved from hybrid parents at best will come true to the parent less than 30% of the time. Often saved seed from hybrid plants will be sterile. The non-performance of saved hybrid seed, or F2 generation seed, is an important economic and environmental adaptation consideration for those who wish to save seed over from year to year. F2 seed normally will have lost the hybrid vigor from the true hybrid parents. If planted the following year the seed will begin to revert back and exhibit undesirable characteristics that may be part of the genetic makeup of one or both of the parents.
Hybrid seeds must be purchased every year and they are not cheap. Because hybrid plants by their nature cannot produce a dependable and predictable seed, they cannot over many generations adapt to specific environmental needs or situations.
Another way that seed can be made hybrid is by genetic modification. Such seed is often referred to a GM seed.
GM seed is created by introducing the DNA from one species or organism to another. GM seed has attached proprietary rights, and has been known to contaminate open pollinated crops.
The Center for Environmental Risk Assessment maintains a database of GM plants that have regulatory approval for sale in the US (though not all are commercially available).
.The use of GM seed and the cross contamination of crops by GMO ‘s has become a worldwide hot button agricultural, economic, health and environmental issue. The use of GM seed is one of the reasons for mass suicide among small farmers in India.

Winter Wheat

Winter Wheat In The Spring

Non- Hybrid seed is often known as “open pollinated” or OP. Open pollinated plants are crossbred varieties that have often been passed down by gardener to gardener for many generations. The seeds from these crossbred plants are very stable and they produce plants that grow true to the parent with few sports or mutations. Plants from open pollinated seed over many generations have the ability to adapt to a specific local environment or growing conditions.
Non- hybrid seed can be collected every year from open pollinated plants and stored for the next growing season. When collecting seed for future use it’s important that only seed from the most superior plants be saved for future use.

Seed Marigold

Seed Marigold

Unlike hybrid seed, seed saving from open pollinated plants is free and incurs no yearly cost. This is an important economic consideration for gardeners and to small traditional farmers. Keep in mind that if you are growing non-hybrid, open pollinated plants for their seed, they must be kept well away from other plants of different varieties so they don’t cross-pollinate.
It’s the wind rather than insects that most often carries pollen. Distance is the most effective tool and insurance against cross-pollination. A distance of 250’ to 300’ between different types or varieties of plants will insure seed that comes true to the parent. A distance of about 600’ – 700’ will give a complete isolation and is only used for scientific or plant breeding purposes.
Heirloom or Heritage Seed is a type of non-hybrid seed.
There is no general agreement on the use of the terms – heirloom or heritage – when describing seeds or plants. Heirloom seeds are always open pollinated and non-hybrid. The term is generally used to describe seed or plant varieties that were grown prior to WWII. It was the time before what many consider the beginning of big industrial agriculture or “The Green Revolution”. Some growers feel that the term heirloom should only be applied to seeds or plants that have been passed down in one family to the following generation of family gardeners. Many people believe that heirloom seeds always produce a tastier, superior and more nutritious fruit or vegetable.
This is simply not true and has not been my experience.
Modern hybrid sweet corn is my favorite example. It’s my opinion that any variety of modern sweet corn is far superior to the common heirloom sweet corn varieties – such as Golden Bantam or Sunshine.
I plant a couple of different types of sweet corn in my vegetable garden. Bodacious and Silver Queen are two of my favorites.

Holding Fresh Picked Corn

Holding Fresh Picked Corn

What I do love and appreciate are the many different varieties of heirloom tomatoes. Amish Paste, Ox Heart, Abe Lincoln, Brandywine, and Old German Striped are some of my favorite heirloom tomatoes.

Slicing An Heirloom Tomato

Slicing An Heirloom Tomato

There is no question that open pollinated heritage and heirloom seeds help to insure worldwide plant diversity.
In fact plant diversity and food crop genetics are the cornerstone of worldwide food security. As of late this issue has become more important than ever.
Which brings me to –
Do you know about the Svalbard Seed Bank?
The reality of limited plant genetics is one of the reasons for the Svalbard Global Seed Bank and has become fodder for modern-day apocalyptic global famine scenarios and conspiracy theorists. The Svalbard Seed Bank is also known as the Dooms Day Vault.
The vault is located 810 miles from the North Pole on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen and houses seeds from every continent.The concept of the seed bank was to provide insurance against the loss of plant genetics in the case of catastrophic regional or global crises.
The Svalbard Seed Bank cost over $9,000,000 U.S. dollars to build and was funded entirely by Norway. The government of Norway and the Global Crop Diversity Trust provides for the day-to-day operational costs. The Global Crop Diversity Trust is an independent international organization.
The seed vault has state of the art security systems but no permanent staff.

How To Test Seeds For Germination Rate

Germination rate is the term used to describe the percentage of seed from a particular plant species that will emerge when given the right conditions. The germination rate is important information to know ahead of time and helps the home gardener or farmer determine how thickly or thinly any given seed needs to be sown.
Germination rate is a consideration whenever you are ordering seeds from a catalog or if you have leftover seeds from previous years and you want to use them.

Early Butler Seed

Early Butler Seed Corn & Ear

Seeds will not last indefinitely and some seeds are more time sensitive than others. Keeping all seed cool and dry will go a long way in help to preserve its viability.
Most vegetable seeds will last about 3 years and some can last as long as 6 years.
Corn, onions, leeks, chives, green peppers, parsley and sometimes parsnip seeds are seeds that don’t store well and should be tested every year before planting if they were held over from the prior year.

Beans, peas, beets, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, kale, carrots, eggplant, squash, pumpkins, tomatoes, basil, sage, rue, borage, anise, dill, oregano and most herbs have a seed life of between 3 – 4 years.
Spinach, lettuce, cucumbers and most melons have a seed life of about 5 and sometimes 6 years.
For most common garden vegetables or flowers, seed germination rate is easy to test at home. It’s always a good idea to test germination rate if the seed is much older than 2 years old or wasn’t stored under ideal conditions.

The way that I test seed for viability is by first counting out 20 seeds.
I then place the seeds on top of small plate that has been lined with a wet paper towel or inside a paper towel where a little bit of potting soil has been sprinkled.
The paper towel or lined plate is then placed inside a plastic bag and sealed. The sealed test seeds are left on top of the refrigerator or in a warm room for about a week or 10 days depending upon the type of seed.
Some seeds take longer than others to germinate and some seeds require total darkness for germination.
Once the seeds begin to germinate I count seeds to find the percentage. By using 20 seeds for testing I’m able to get the percentage in 5% increments.

Corn Seeds

A Test Plate For Early Butler Corn

The Early Butler corn seed pictured above tested out at 90% – maybe 95% . I wasn’t going to wait any longer for one kernel that looked like it was maybe beginning to sprout.

To evaluate germination rates the following percentages are helpful:

100% – Great! You can’t do any better than that.
90% – Excellent. You can count on the planting rate information supplied with the seed.
80% – Good. You shouldn’t have too many problems as long as environmental conditions are favorable.
70% to 60% – Poor. If you want to use the seed better sow it thick.
50% or Less – You might not want to waste your time. Throw it out and buy fresh seed unless it is very rare.

Egg Shell Seeding Pots

Did you know that back in the days before commercial peat pots and plastic trays people used a half of an egg-shell to start seedlings?
That’s right. An egg-shell is a good container to sow a seed in.

Egg Shell Pot

Planting Geranium Seeds In Egg Shell Pots

Egg shells are small, lightweight, porous, earth friendly and readily available. In fact egg shells are free if you own chickens.

Here’s the way to use egg shells for seed pots.

  • Crack the egg high up on the small end. I use the dull edge of a knife blade to make the crack.
  • Empty the contents of the egg and rinse out the shell.
  • Poke 2 or 3 small holes in the bottom of the shell. I use a metal shish kabob skewer.
  • Fill the half shell with seed starter soil and sow a seed. Small seeds from plants that grow slow work best.Green peppers and sweet onion seeds are examples of seeds that are often started indoors but grow slow.
  • Bury the egg shells halfway in a container filled with sand. The Styrofoam top of an egg carton works well for a sand container.Cut the egg carton on the fold line to fit on a window sill.
  • Water the sand and then cover the container with plastic. Plastic wrap from a store-bought loaf of bread will work.
  • Set the container in a warm place until germination.Most seeds need warmth and not light to germinate.

After the seeds germinate remove the plastic and move the eggs shells to the light
Always water the sand instead of the egg-shell. Because egg shells are porous and holes were poked in the bottom of the egg-shell, water will wick up to the plant.

When it’s time to plant the seeding in the garden, gently crush the egg-shell or remove the seeding without disturbing the root system.
Dig a small hole, fill the hole with water, put the seeding in and fill the hole with soil.
Pretty simple.

Bird Bath With Flowers

Old Bird Bath Used As A Planter For Annuals In An Herb Garden