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


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.


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.

Growing Ferns from Spores

A photo from a private event at my home in February 2015 with featured speaker Richie Steffen, co-author along with Sue Olsen of The Plant Lover’s Guide to Ferns (The Plant Lover’s Guides). The presentation was ALL about ferns and it was after that talk I took the spore plunge. I’ve been quietly sporing ever since.

My first gardening job as a kid was to cut back Mom’s sword ferns each year. She had roughly 100+ of them. It was a lot of work but it ended up looking quite lovely once they’d all reemerged again. I never thought about how they were propagated though. They were just there with all of the other native plants. I took them for granted.

When Richie Steffen came to my house to give a talk to the underground Daisy Chain group, he really made me think about the wonders of hybridization. Many fern hybrids created during the Victorian era are long gone now. There are so many possibilities it seemed endless after this event so I decided to collect some spores at Cistus Nursery to see what I could come up with on my own.

My first crop of ferns at Cistus Nursery. This is Pyrossia lingua ‘Nokogiri Ba’ which came true from spore. Who woulda thunk it? You don’t know until you try it.

Several crops came up, and as they did so I observed them carefully. Sporing requires keen patience and some requisite knowledge as well as an understanding of how to coax fern babies along. After my first successful crops though, I’ve kept at it, and have tried a variety of different things. Each year I experiment with new plants to keep my skills sharp. This process takes a lot of time. At certain points it can feel frustrating, and you might want to just throw your arms up in the air and chuck the container. It’s easy to get the sporelings going, but growing them on has been the greatest challenge for me. You can ignore them initially, but you must keep an eye on them to make sure they don’t die out on you.

Clean containers are a requirement. I personally have fallen in love with the takeout containers of the pandemic. Many restaurants use ones now that are microwave and dishwasher safe. Whenever I can save time by sanitizing in the dishwasher, I’m a happy propagatrix.

As for a soilless medium, I tend to use whatever I have on hand. To be honest, you should sterilize it as well, but I often forget. You can do so in a microwave or oven.

Using a container with a tight lid is also important. You want the spores to be in a very humid environment and you do not want to open the lid frequently since it’s more like a Petri dish and can be contaminated far more easily than other seed trays. This can lead to sudden death so be cautious about sanitizing the area where you’re working.

Since I work with a nurseryman who also collects in the wild, I can collect at the nursery, and after Sean has collected elsewhere, I can prepare the spores after the fronds have been placed between sheets of paper.

(*I do NOT recommend that amateur growers collect in the wild. This honestly requires a license typically and we do this to keep plants in the trade to HELP prevent the poaching of entire plants. If you’re interested in purchasing spores, keep reading. I will get to that below.)

At the nursery, I collect spores as they ripen. Most ferns we grow though are primarily divided since it’s quick and easy, but not all ferns grow quickly.

When you collect in the wild—or even from the garden of a friend—you have to do what you can with what you have at the moment you encounter it. This might mean sowing them immediately, or you may have to press fronds by keeping them warm and dry for a few weeks more in a warm and dry basement.

I can’t say at this point that this part is an easy process. It takes observation and experience to understand when a fern is ready. I’ve collected many myself that ended up being duds. I have also collected from one fern only to have spores from another more weedy one appear. (Spores do float around on the breeze so it makes sense that there would be contamination.) It is not easy to isolate most ferns so you really have to simply wing it and try not to be disappointed if it’s not quite as exciting as you’d wanted it to be when you began.

Once I sow the spores on the surface of the medium I use a water bottle to spray them into the soil. (By the way, the medium is also moistened before I sow the spores.) After that, I slap the lid back on tightly and I wait. I usually leave them in a cool spot for a few weeks with a bit of light. You can stack them in a window and forget them too. It’s oddly that easy but it requires that leap of faith!

In the photos above, the two in the middle show what can happen when your soilless mixture has sphagnum in it. This is not a bad thing to have happen, but to a beginner, it might be frustrating and a bit confusing. Luckily ferns and sphagnum can coexist well together.

Additionally, notice how the gametophytes in the second photo look like liverwort. Folks might be confused by this I’m sure and at this stage the containers might be tossed hastily. But guess what? Before the sporophytes appear, you will have gametophytes. Be patient. Be observant. If you know liverwort, you’ll know it when it hits its next growth stage. Soon you will see antheridial and/or archegonium heads. At that point, you can prick that stuff out, but you need to wait.

If your ferns are to grow successfully, soon you’ll see those little tiny sporophytes. (They’re visible in the 3 photos above and to the right, but they may be difficult to see. The photo with the sphagnum has another kind of Pyrossia, and the photo on the far right is a tree fern.)

These are plugs I spored with spores from the American Fern Society. While many were very successful, I had a lot of spores that spread around, so pricking them out was a bit messier then expected. This Bio Dome system from Park Seed typically works well for me too when I have fewer spores to sow. Since it floats on water it is evenly bottom watered which allows me to spore them and forget.

Lastly, I want to help you to purchase spores by encouraging you to join fern organizations. I usually purchase from the Hardy Fern Foundation and the American Fern Society but remember that you MUST become a member in order to purchase from these groups. Individual collectors, independent growers, public gardens, and others donate their own time to collect and send in these spores and volunteers help to run these spore exchanges. Both are an incredible resource to us all, and we should support them as much as is possible.

I hope that this has helped a little bit. I skimmed over a lot of information but I know it’s available elsewhere and has been provided free online by expert growers if you search around. I’m just a propagator with knowledge acquired over years of practice at my craft at home and in the professional arena.

For a much more thorough description of all of this I recommend this article provided online from the Brooklyn Botanic Garden by Judith Jones of Fancy Fronds Nursery.

Thanks everyone for reading this and if you have any questions, please ask away in the comments section.