I used to begin every winter flipping through the pages of my favorite mail-order seed catalogues, and dreaming dreams of horticultural bounty. Then, reality would set in. Who was I kidding? Me, grow plants from seed? I knew huge numbers of rare and exotic plants were only available if you grew them yourself from seeds, but I forced myself to be contented with the same mundane species everyone else was bringing back from the garden center. A few years ago, I started working on the public television series “The Victory Garden.” Slowly, being exposed to so many wonderful new plants instilled in me a newfound courage. Maybe I could buck up and give seed sowing a try myself With Michael Weishan, our host, and Kip Anderson, our Victory Garden gardener, as my guides, I decided to enter the world of growing my own plants from seed.
Some definitions If you are venturing into the world of seeds for the first time, start, with annual flowers and vegetables. While other plant types including perennials (even trees and shrubs for that matter) can be started from seed, the process is often more complicated and requires a vastly longer time frame. Annuals are quick and easy, providing a wealth of color and bounty the first year. It’s important to understand that annuals fall into two groups: “hardy annuals”–such as peas and sunflowers–that can and should be planted directly outside; and “tender annuals” such as petunias, begonias, and peppers–which by and large are actually perennials in their native tropics, and need a much longer growing season to come to fruition than we can provide outdoors here in the North. Thus, we traditionally cheat by starting these plants early indoors. Here’s how.
Most annuals should be started beginning six to eight weeks before the last frost. This can vary considerably, however, and it pays to organize your seeds by planting time before you start. Here at the Victory Garden, Kip has created a customized box for sorting the hundreds of scents we start each year, but a simple shoebox might suit your purposes. To ensure the best possible germination, keep your packets away from heat and moisture until you’re ready to sow.
The Victory Garden method
Fill your sterile trays right up to the rim using soilless mix; water it heavily and allow to drain. This process helps get rid of air pockets, provides a firm foundation onto which you sow your seeds, and diminishes the chance that you will wash them away.
Next, using a pencil or your finger, make small depressions into which you’ll press the seeds. Seeds are generally sown at a depth two to four times the diameter of the seeds. If you’re planting tiny, almost dustlike seeds, such as wax begonias, simply scatter them on the surface of the soil without covering them.
Once the sowing is complete, create a greenhouse effect by immediately covering your flats using plastic–domes, bags, or wrap–to seal in moisture and prevent surface desiccation. Keep the growing medium warm, somewhere between 65[degrees] and 75[degrees]F. We use readily available thermostatically controlled electric “heating pads.” called propagation mats, but you could also keep your flats in a warm place such as the top of the refrigerator.
Let there be light
Consult individual seed packets or a reliable guide to see whether or not your seeds require light during the germination process. Some prefer total dark until the actual plantlets emerge from the soil. At the Victory Garden, we grow most of ore seeds in a small greenhouse, though fluorescent lights on a timer in a heated garage or basement will work equally well. Just make sure the lights are quite dose (about four inches) to the surface of the soil in order to discourage spindly plants. Lights must remain on for 14 to 16 hours a day, with a period of complete darkness at night. Remember to water occasionally, especially as the seedlings emerge. Don’t allow the trays to dry out completely.
Survival of the fittest
When your seedlings haw’ grown to an inch or so tall, carefully weed out any weak-looking ones to prevent overcrowding. As you pull out the weaker shoots, press the soil surrounding the stronger seedlings back into place. If you are growing your plants in six-paks, remove all but the healthiest one or two plants: if they are in a community container, remove or snip out enough plants to provide even spacing and room for growth. Remove the clear covers at this time as well, and continue to water as needed.
Time for the great outdoors
Once the seedlings have begun to mature, prepare them for the great outdoors. You can’t just throw them out into the cold, however–they need (as we all do) time to adapt to their new surroundings. If you haven’t used six-paks, you’ll need to transplant your seedlings now into individual containers. If you have, transfer the plants directly into a south-facing cold frame for a couple of weeks where they will have time to acclimate. If you don’t have a cold flame, you can build your own (for instructions, visit our Web site at clgardener.com) or jury-rig a simple one using four bales of hay placed in a square, with an old window as the cover. Prop the lid open during sunny days, or your young plants will cook. Gradually remove the cover for a few more hours each day until your plants are hardened off, and transplant them into the garden affect all danger of frost is past.
These days, I drink nothing of starting my annuals from seed. and this year I’m even thinking about venturing into the world of starting my own perennials. Isn’t it amazing what a little good information, and a bit of gardening courage, can inspire?
ON YOUR MARK, GET SET …
A good workspace
It’s important to have an area to work in with easy access to water, and where you’ll not be afraid of getting a little dirt on the floor.
Your seeds can be sown in almost any kind of well-cleaned pot or plastic tray for later transplanting into individual cells or pots, or directly into the latter. Here at the Victory Garden, we use plastic trays with 6-pak cell inserts that come with clear plastic domes; these can be found at most garden centers. This eliminates the need for secondary transplanting.
You’ll need a reliable brand of sterile soilless mix (so called because it doesn’t contain soil at all, but rather a mixture of peat moss and vermiculite). Avoid ordinary garden soil since it may contain spores of damping-off and other diseases, and also can easily become waterlogged and drown your seedlings.
You’ll also want to have a handful of labels on hand, so you’re not relying on your long-term memory. Inexpensive wooden labels, and an indelible marker, work well for this job.