Renne Shepherd with some of the flowers grown from her seeds.
Most of us buy most of our plants already started or start them from cuttings. Bloom comes much more quickly that way. But if you don't mind waiting, seed sowing can lead to many more plants at much less expense. It also can give you certain plants and certain varieties that you will not find in nurseries.
Watching seeds sprout and grow is entertainment to some of us. It fascinates us more the more we see it happen. The fun begins when we look through the catalog or website and make our wish list. This year I got quite a few seed packets from Renee's Garden (7389 W. Zayante Rd. Felton, CA 95018, www.reneesgarden.com).
Her list includes a packet of mixed string beans, green, yellow and purple, and mixed Asian eggplants in white, bright and dark purple. Her zinnias mixes come in hot or cool crayon colors.
I sorted the packets when they arrived: those to plant right in the ground, those that will sprout in containers, and those that go in the freezer until late summer for next winter's bloom.
The packets were so lovely that I put them among the fruit above my sink to enjoy from the time until I got them planted.
If you are planting seeds whose seedlings you will not recognize right away, or if you just want to give them concentrated care and attention, plant them in containers. These can be anything from clean pots or flats to bakery cartons that serve as miniature greenhouse. If there are no drainage holes in the plastic, make some with a small knife, nail, or ice pick.
Bakery containers, with holes made in the bottom for drainage, make fine miniature greenhouses for sprouting seeds.
Use sterile soil. There are several mixes at any garden center that will do. The ones recommended for seed starting will work the best.
Cover the drainage holes, if they are large enough that the soil could fall through, with a bit of newspaper, a used coffee filter or dryer sheet. Then fill the container with at least 1 ½ inches of soil that is damp but not soggy. Level it off and press it down gently.
Then distribute the seeds over the surface of the soil. For very small seeds, just patting them down into the soil is sufficient, no covering necessary. For larger seeds, spread just enough loose soil over the top to cover them.
It is best to plant one kind of seed to a container, but you can cheat on this. Seeds that you know are easy can go in separate rows in a flat. On the back of Renee's packets there is information on when to plant, sun or shade, depth of planting if in the ground (they can be more shallow in pots), how far apart to place the seeds, mature height, and days to germination. Sort your seeds for a multiple flat by the days to germination so you can uncover them row by row.
Label each kind and color of seed you plant. If you have room on the label, include the planting day, color of bloom, and height. This will save you time checking when you plant the seedlings in the garden.
Often you will not plant a whole packet of seeds at once. I gather these together, use a snap clothes pin to keep them closed, and then put them in a cool dry place for a short time or in a freezer bag to keep them dry in the freezer, where they will last until at least next year and often longer.
Water the seeds very carefully so the water doesn't shift their spacing. This is best done from the bottom. Be careful not to overwater. Seeds rot easily and seedlings can suffer from damping off, a disease that rots tender stems at ground level.
A loose covering of plastic will keep the soil moist until some seeds sprout. For slower ones, water again carefully as needed. Most seeds will sprout in shade or darkness. Put them indoors or out in a place where you will check them often. When they start to sprout, it is great fun to check them several times a day and watch the tiny stems unfold.
Once the first seeds sprout, uncover that row or that container and move it to the sun or close under a flourescent light that goes on for about 14 hours a day and off over night.
As soon as the first true leaves appear the seedlings can be transplanted to individual or divided pots. I wait a bit longer to transplant them to the ground. Use a label or a plastic knife to lift them gently from the group and separate each seedling with as little disturbance to the roots as possible. Then plant them at once. Keep them damp but not soggy until they send up new leaves. Then gradually adjust watering to be deeper and less frequent. If you have more seedlings than you have room to plant, pot some up and share them with your friends.
<<< A plastic cover keeps in moisture but should come off as soon as the seeds sprout.
>>> Seedlings about three weeks later. Zinnias are ready to transplant. Butterfly bush seeds are still not up.
- Share a few seed starting tips from the Rodale book Panty Hose, Hot Peppers, Tea Bags, and more for the Garden, 1001 ingenious ways to use common household items to solve problems, save time, and recycle to save the planet.
- Use the lid of a large plastic storage box to water those seeds flats and pots from the bottom. When the seedlings are ready to go to the garden, just wash the lid and return it to the box.
- Save and reuse plastic knives, forks, and spoons to make furrows in the soil, to separate seedlings before transplanting, and to label your rows.
- Use a pizza cutter to section young plants in a flat, each with a small cube of soil and roots for easier transplanting.
- Seeds sown in the ground can be protected from cat scratching with single layer of newspaper anchored with stones. Remove the paper in a few days when the soil settles and is less tempting to the felines.
- Seedlings need very little fertilizer, but you can save and cool the water left from cooking vegetables. Put it in a clean spray bottle and spritz it on leaves once a week for a light foliar feeding.