Starting Seeds at Home with a Professional Seed Propagator, Former Seed Seller, and Seed Advocate

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First off, let’s just begin with the basics of what I do here at home. Long ago I started with a few packets, and then there were more. I disliked the disorganization, so I started a spreadsheet. Since I grow all categories of plants, this means that I have a library of most of what I’ve attempted to grow over the years. This also means that I can then toss away those seed packets, and you’d think this means my life would be more organized, but well, let’s just say that’s only sorta true.

You can see the basics of the sheets here. I have the botanical Latin name, the common name, the week they should be started, where they’re from, roughly how many plugs I’ve sown if they’re plugs, and roughly how many final plants I will have in the crop.

When you should sow the seeds is essentially found on the back of commercial seed packets.

In this case it’s at the Last Frost date, so I’ve written LF on the packet to help me know where to store them. (I should add that I typically start seed shopping early and sometimes seeds from last year, that have been stored in the fridge since spring, are pulled out and resorted in these drawers.)

Some of my seeds are stored here in my office, but others are in the fridge. Let’s just keep this simple though since these are basically where I store the seeds that most of you are growing and that are found at nurseries this time of the year.

The drawers are marked on their edges, and this is how I know which is which. I have them marked with Last Frost, 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12. Those numbers coordinate to (blank number) of weeks before last frost date. For me, that means that I usually begin with the 12 weeks before the last frost date drawer in January or February since my last frost date is usually around Tax Day. With our regions being different all over the country, this can confuse folks but once you’ve got it down it will make more sense with practice.

I mark my personal calendar and I keep track of what I’ve sown on my sheet. This year I’m wildly behind, but this seems to be normal for me.

Most seeds are viable for several years so long as they’re stored well. If I don’t sow things because I’ve fallen behind, I store them in the fridge. I even have a separate fridge just for this, and I’d recommend this if you can swing it, and are obsessed with saving and storing your own seeds. I know I am but it is not for everyone.

The seeds above are from NARGS. These are primarily bulb and perennial seeds although I think sometimes there are a few annuals. Most of these seeds I try to sow in the winter when they arrive, but if I miss that window, I put them in the fridge and then sow them in the fall. Where I live, our climate allows for perfect winter stratification so I use that too in my efforts to germination every seed I can as successfully as possible.

Most perennials will appreciate a period of cold to cool weather. If I miss the fall window I will rush to sow seeds just about right now. This means that some perennials will sprout in the coming weeks, but it also means that if they don’t, I will need to tend to them over the spring and summer.

For some folks this will make their garden space ugly, and will create extra work and watering, but I garden to germinate plants, and I like to observe this process, so I do it all year for the most part.

Sure, you see greenhouses that look nice, and you may think that would be fun to have in the summer, but if I left these in one of them, they’d cook. I won’t go in to all of that, but for many plants, it’s best to do this outdoors when it comes to perennials and trees, and keep the greenhouse for winter protection and seed starting in winter. For me, that means working in my garage but I like nice cool and crisp late winter days a lot so I can be outside with Felix.

So to review, start the perennials outdoors, during a cool season, and start the annuals, veggies, cacti, succulents, and a few other things indoors using the 12 week to LF date method.

And just to confuse you more, fern spores, tropicals, and many other plants can also all be started indoors at any time of the year that you want under lights. I do that as well. I’m not kidding when I say, “I’m all seeds all of the time.”

During the pandemic I gave away free veggie starts from a table in my driveway. Folks donated to the effort and I had supplies and my time was covered for the most part. I learned by doing this that so many veggies can be started outdoors long before the last frost date here. You just need to be sure to protect them.

Birds and rodents can ruin all of the fun so be sure to cover your flats. You will be rewarded though for your efforts and if they do happen to get into your stuff, just resow the containers. I honestly was shocked at how easy and how much fun this effort was so I will do it again this year.

While I wish I had my own professional greenhouse to be doing this in, I don’t, but maybe someday I’ll have that little boutique nursery at the beach.

There are so many ways to do this kind of gardening work. It’s so much fun to grow seed crops and to transplant them and then watch them grow in the garden. There is not one right way, what is right is what works for you. If you can perfect it, then so much the better! None of this should be complicated or frustrating. If it is you’re expecting too much, and might be trying too hard. There really can be such a thing. Try to have fun with it and experiment.

You must be patient though, and you must wait sometimes for 2-3 years for seedlings to emerge. If you find seeds for a hard-to-find plant that is often why you can’t find the plant for sale. Nurseries simply do not earn enough to care for difficult crops for years and years. There’s only so much labor that’s worth it and crops can be lost so easily the longer you sit on them. It’s why you see so many of the same mass-produced plants at nurseries which are really just retail locations that have ordered plants in from other places. A lot of labor goes into just keeping plants alive and providing customer service. Many companies simply cannot add growing their own plants into their business model too.

While the new and the novel are fun, the truly rare to cultivation plants are out there. The waters are currently being muddied a bit by false claims in some plant marketing. A rare plant is not what it used to be and you need to ask yourself if it’s rare in the wild or rare in cultivation. It’s important for consumers to be aware of this and to be savvy shoppers. Ask how your plants are propagated and where.

Rare plants in the garden are not as interesting to me though as the overall feel and the benefit to wildlife. We all grow plants though for many different personal reasons. I grow them because I love to grow and save seeds so many of my plants are species plants and I grew far fewer cultivars and hybrids than most other folks—but I still have quite a few!

Lastly, there are the many systems for sowing seeds. While I WISH I’d been paid to say this, I wasn’t at all. Honestly though, I’m a big fan of the Park Seed Bio Dome seed-starting system. I only use it at home, and on shelves in my basement, but I love it for several reasons. First and foremost, it can be used for annuals, some perennials, begonias, gesneriads, and fern spores. Your starts are bottom watered and with the dome on you can go a week sometimes without watering. Lastly, I have reused the styrofoam inserts for years, and I purchase new plugs in bulk each year. I have a dishwasher to sanitize it, and it’s easy!

This is also a nice system and I use it for the slow growing cacti and succulents. It doesn’t take up a lot of space and I can grow a lot in it. Also, it too is a bottom watered setup.

Other than that, I only use seed starting mixes in containers outside. I don’t fill trays with containers and soil and grow plants indoors much unless they’re tomatoes, peppers, or eggplants. I used to grow more plants indoors, but then I realized it was just as easy to start them indoors, pot them up, and then keep them outside with some protection.

Hope this helps with some of the basics. Please feel free to comment with more specific questions about things. I wanted to keep this as simple as possible.

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So in closing, I’m going to share this park bench with you. Last week I stressed the importance of seeking out plant knowledge IRL, and plant people. There are many reasons to get away from what is being sold online—both literally and metaphorically. The most dangerous of which is the cult of celebrity and likes. It’s a recurring theme. Get out there and wrap yourself up in your own wild and creative intuition that can lead to all kinds of discoveries, improvements in your own satisfying projects, and build friendships, not followers.

Grow that wild inner garden! All it will take are a few packets of seeds and laughing through some dumb mistakes until you get it right. Grow and glow! I’m not kidding. Let that little damn light inside shine, and shine it hard out there into the dark unknown. That’s how to be seen.

Don’t “shine” to humble brag, but do it to try to help others who need to see a light to follow in darker times.

RIP Sweet Monabelle

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RIP Sweet Monabelle

Mona in the garden—her favorite place.

Before I get back to blogging more regularly this winter I needed to pay homage to Mona. She left us in late August after a short bout with cancer. I rarely mentioned her here on the blog because she was the mostly feral ghost cat. This meant she lived in my garden, but to be honest, she loved it more than any other creature.

I found her as a kitten in the parking lot of a large mall nearby. She may have been a feral kitten, or an abandoned kitten, I don’t know. She was alone under some bushes, starving, and it was a cold and rainy night. I had to bring her home. This was years ago when I first moved into this house.

A few years back she gave up the garden and moved into the house. Most of the time, she was in the basement, surrounded by my plants—or else sitting on a ledge looking out of the window. She was happy with us, but she just couldn’t always get along with the other cats. In her final months, she came upstairs more and spent time on the bed with them though. They developed an understanding. Like Maurice before him, Felix also bonded a bit with her. They’d often sit together in the basement.

It’s been difficult for me to write this. It was a complicated and quiet relationship I had with Mona. Part of me wants to say so much more, but another part of me wants to respect her privacy. She was my wild love, my garden cat, and sometimes we were a bit feral together. I’m going to miss that.