Gardening 101

How to Start Plants From Seed

Starting plants from seed

For a gardener ready to jump-start spring, there’s nothing more enjoyable than growing plants from seed. The light levels have increased, and the outdoor temperatures are rising, yet spring (March 21) isn’t the operative date for planting outdoors, but it’s perfect for starting seeds indoors. We still have weeks to wait before it’s safe to do our spring planting. Our last frost date begins the outdoor planting season. In our area, the safe date is on or around April 15, but always pay attention to your local weather.

What To Do With All Those Plant Seeds?

Do you ever wonder what to do with 50 seeds in a small package when you only want to grow five plants? Seed viability diminishes each year, so saving is possible, but not always reliable. Instead, why not share the extra seed with friends through a propagation party!

This type of party works best with other like-minded gardeners. For example, if you want to grow tomatoes and have a few friends that also compete, err, enjoy rocking the best tomatoes on the block, here begins your invitee list.

As a wildlife gardener, I’ll be hosting a propagation party in March with the members of the Bee Better Forum. The best part is selecting the plants I believe each member would want to grow in their garden. This year’s propagation is for host butterfly plants — Milkweed common (Asclepias syriaca), Milkweed tropical (Asclepias curassavica), Dill (Anethum graveolens), and Parsley (Petroselinum crispum). Attendees can also bring seeds to share with others if they want.

Materials Needed for Seed Starting

Seed sowing basics are well documented with several approaches. For the Forum, we’re using plug trays. I find these trays are the easiest for those with little time and experience. This approach is almost foolproof. The trays, potting mix, and labels can be purchased at a local garden center carrying propagation supplies.

-One landscape plug tray. Each standard nursery liner trays holds 32 plugs, each 4-inches deep by 2.25-inches square.

-Seed starting medium. For one tray, we used about 12-quart bag. I used Jiffy Natural & Organic Seed Starting Mix.

-Labels. A label for each different seed type. For our example, we used five labels because we are growing five different varieties.

Hands-on experience teaches gardeners by trial and error, so if this is your first time, having others join in to share their knowledge is helpful.

Seed Starting Guide

Not to oversimplify it, but it is just poking seed in the growing media.

The Medium: Mix the peat-rich seed starting mix with water to absorb water before planting. Take a handful and squeeze. If water comes out, the mix is too wet, so add more medium. If the ball doesn’t hold its shape, it’s too dry, so add more water.

The Lighting: Good, multidirectional light is essential. Once a seedling emerges, the seedlings will stretch and be leggy without sufficient light. Instead of proper lighting, a warming pad will work.

The Growing: Keep indoors until after the last frost, on or around April 15. Water when the top of the soil is dry to the touch. Even after frost, you’ll want put the plug tray in a protected area outside so they can harden off. Once the weather looks promising, meaning, when the soil is 60 degrees F or higher, the plugs can be planted outdoors.

Testing Plant Seed Viability

Dampen 3-4 sheets of paper towels, making sure they are evenly moist. Place 10 test seeds on the moistened towels, making sure they are not touching. Fold over like an envelope, and place in a ziplock bag and seal partial way. You want the seeds to breathe. Set aside in a warm place between 65 and 80 degrees for about 7 to 10 days. Depending on the type of seeds testing, germination will be anywhere from 2-14 days, so it is OK to check their progress. If eight out of ten germinate, that is an 80 perfect germination rate. For the most accurate information, check the back of seed package; it will have the exact days, but generally 7 to 10 works well.

Helen Yoest is the executive director of Bee Better, an area non-profit 501(C)(3) designing and educating area homeowners about building better backyards for birds, bees, and butterflies.