Seed Starting Instructions

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Asparagus fern seeds collected in the garden.

Introduction

There’s a lot of information out there about how to grow plants from seed so this won’t be a textbook about how to start each and every one of them. If you’re really curious and are just starting out in the wacky world of seed germination I suggest that you research each plant individually and really get to know their every want and need. The plants will benefit from this and ideally should thank you later by growing well—and that’s what gardeners all want, success! This post is here to help you succeed and if you have any questions please feel free to ask me below this post in the comments. Growing plants from seed is my passion and I hope to share that passion with you too.

There are tricks for better germination for nearly every plant. Depending upon where the plant is from in the wild, what matters most is that gardeners always do their best to mimic the natural environment to which the seeds are native. This requires getting to know some geography, and different growing regions of the world, but this will help you to better understand how to grow your plant on once it’s ready to grow.

If you’ve come to this page having purchased seeds from either Spiffy Seeds or Milton’s Garden Menagerie please follow the instructions on your seed packets and look for further explanation of those basic steps below. If you’ve stopped here just out of curiosity, welcome!

     Starting Seeds Indoors

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Always try to keep your work area tidy and your seeds clearly labeled. If you’re a cat owner, good luck. This can be very challenging work at times. 

The keys to success indoors are that you use a sterile soil medium and you pay attention to whether or not you’ll need to stratify your seeds. Some seeds can be planted directly, either on top of the soil or just beneath it. Very few indoor seeds will require sitting in the dark and there are others that will need to be nicked and soaked because of their thick outer shells. Most will simply need light and can germinate at room temperature. Additionally there will be those that need heat and this is usually bottom heat. (In my case I have seedling mats and my seeds are started in a warm basement.)

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Fern seedlings from spores. This is not an easy plant to germinate but with a little bit of practice you can do it too. 

More often than not the seeds that will require stratification are perennials, shrubs, and trees. Before I explain how to do this, let’s just say that you need to replicate the temperature changes of the seasons much as nature does it. Some seeds need cold followed by heat. Some will need several cycles of this. I’ll just simplify this by saying again that you’ll want to keep everything clean since you’re likely to be taking seeds in and out of the fridge. If this isn’t done well, your seeds and their growing medium may look a bit like a petrie dish. Using a bag with moistened material in it will help with this but I can post about that later.

Once I scratched myself and ended up with a rash that required a skin biopsy. All I can say is that working with plants indoors can be a bit unhealthy at times so be careful. Keep your workspace clean and if your hands are dirty don’t rub your eyes or eat any food until after you’ve washed your hands.

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The DIY light setup in my basement works well and I’ve been using it for years. 

Nowadays I stratify almost all of my more difficult seeds outside and that leads me to the next topic. If you live in what’s considered a mild climate like I do, (I live in USDA zone 8 in Portland, OR), then be laid-back like me and let nature help you out as much as possible. My biggest challenge now is wildlife when I plant my seeds outdoors but I’m thinking of building a seed cage this year to keep the squirrels and birds out. I’ll let you know how that goes!

Starting Seeds Outdoors

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Seedlings from my Italian cypress plants that are in front of my home. Cupressus sempervirens is an easy tree from seed. 

There are some annual wildflowers that benefit from stratification and can be fall sown in mild climates. (Sweet peas and poppies come to mind.) Some folks might want to plant perennial seeds outdoors in the fall as well since they’ll need stratification anyway but I’ve often struggled with that since I lose track of the many that I sow and I’m never sure when they’ll appear in my beds so I become overwhelmed. I purchase new things to plant and I don’t know where to place them. This drives me nuts so I tend to plant all of my seeds in pots—except for the wildflowers that don’t transplant well.

I’ve set aside areas in my garden for seedling pots and I only plant the plants out (or pot them up) once they’ve germinated. This is how we do this in the nursery business too so it seems like a good idea for home gardeners too. I call mine my “laboratory” with an emphasis on the “labor”.

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Sometimes you can get creative with your seed pots. This is an up-cycled vintage glass holder that perfectly holds a few plastic pots. 

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What used to be the big seedling nursery at my house. I learned so much by growing so many things at once. 

The problem with this is that it can begin to look a bit messy. You’ll usually need a bit more space than your average potting bench. You can use racks like these or else put them down on the ground but that system too can be overwhelming if you start as many things as I do. Springtime is already busy enough in the garden and when you start a lot from seed you might need some extra hands and some extra time.

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This is what my garden looked like last spring before it was remodeled for my open garden in September 2018. I won’t have this kind of space now but I’m making a new nursery space and will show it soon. Let’s just say that it’s in a much more hidden spot.

Collecting and Storing Seeds

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Showy milkweed or Asclepias speciosa seeds.

When I collect seeds I try to clean and store them as quickly as possible. Usually they’re easy to collect, sometimes a pain to sort, but it feels good to label them and store them in a cool place or fridge. Some folks feel comfortable with plastic but I tend to use coin envelopes since the seeds should breathe. In some cases though small zip-locked plastic baggies are just fine.

Thanks so much for reading my little introduction and good luck! Please feel free to write feedback or ask questions below!

Take care and happy sowing! Ann Amato, seedstress

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