Starting from Seed, How to Prepare for Spring Planting
The following post is written by Chris Smith, Communications and Marketing Manager for Sow True Seed. Sow True Seed is an open-pollinated, untreated, GMO-free seed company in Asheville, NC offering 400+ varieties of vegetable, herb and flower seeds featuring heirloom, organic, and traditional favorites. For the past few years, we’ve partnered with Sow True Seed and Buchi Kombucha for our annual Spring Seed Campaign. In this post, Chris outlines some of the steps to take to begin planning your spring garden.
Starting plants from seed can be extremely easy. After all, the seed is a container for a dormant embryo that wants to grow. George Bernard Shaw probably said it best: “Think of the fierce energy concentrated in an acorn! You bury it in the ground, and it explodes into a giant oak! Bury a sheep, and nothing happens but decay.”
There are many seeds that can be sown straight into the ground. Given the right environmental conditions, these seeds will grow and flourish with minimal care. You can direct sow lettuce, kale, spinach, radish, and carrots (to name a few) in late spring and they’ll be quite happy. You can direct sow corn, squash, okra, and beans (to name a few) in early summer and they’ll grow in the warmer soil temperatures.
This blog is going to concentrate on some techniques for starting seeds inside to create your own transplants for your garden. There are few extra steps to create the right conditions and baby your seeds, but if you remember that the seed wants to grow and approach seed starting with a give-it-a-go mentality, then you’re off to a good start.
Why Start from Seed?
- Simple Economics: One packet of Cherokee Purple Tomato seeds will cost $2.95 and give you approximately 50 seeds, with average germination rates of 90-95% and excellent longevity for tomato seeds, which equals a lot of tomatoes! One nursery-bough Cherokee Purple Tomato plant will cost $3.95. Yes, you’ll have saved on some basic materials and some time, but way fewer tomatoes!
- Excellent Choice: Sow True Seed currently offers over 500 varieties of seeds, 38 of which are tomato varieties. There are thousands of varieties of tomatoes alone when you start looking at different seed collections! Starting plants from seeds opens up a huge and wonderful diversity that you will never access from nursery bought plants.
- Sustainability: At Sow True Seed, we are very committed to the cycle of growing. In nature it is a complete cycle: a seed germinates, grows, sets flowers, fruits and seeds, then those seeds drop and start the cycle over the next season. For a sustainable and secure food system we need to mimic this system, which means we need to save seeds at the end of the season, and start plants from seed at the beginning of the season.
Germination happens when a seed moves from a dormant state to a growing state. Our job as plant starters is to create the ideal conditions for this magical process to begin. Seeds require oxygen and moisture to germinate, but they also have ideal temperature ranges and light requirements.
- Temperature: Most vegetable seeds will happily germinate between 65 and 75F but there are some exceptions (spinach needs cold, while watermelons need heat). Reference this excellent webpage on temperature and germination for specific seed types.
- Light: Some seeds need light to germinate. Some seeds need darkness to germinate. Most seeds don’t seem to mind either way. Lettuce is the most notorious vegetable seed for requiring light to germinate – you want to sow this seed on the surface.
Some seeds require extra steps to be taken before they will germinate. Two of the main methods are stratification and scarification.
- Stratification is the process of exposing the seed to a period of moist and cold conditions (this is to mimic a natural winter). Our seed grower for Milkweed did an excellent stratification trial that explores this process. Many perennials require stratification.
- Scarification is the process of breaking or damaging the outer coat of the seed (this mimics frost damage, animal digestion or general erosive conditions of nature). You can use a file or a knife to ‘nick’ the seed without damaging the internal embryo. Many hard coated seeds benefit from scarification.
Let’s continue with our tomato example. Tomatoes need a fairly long growing season to produce fruit, but they don’t like the cold. So, many people like to start tomato seeds inside during spring so they transplant a healthy plant into their gardens as soon as it is warm enough outside.
You will need:
- tomato seeds, planted according to the packet planting depth instructions. Your favorite
- A sterile potting medium – seedlings are susceptible to all sorts of fungal issues, so sterile potting mix is important.
- A clean container. Here is a great post on making your own seed starting pots!
- Heat – tomato seeds need heat to germinate. Ideal germination soil temperatures are 77F for tomatoes. This is best achieved by under special heating pads, which are very affordable on a small scale.
- Light – your seedlings will need light to be healthy and strong. Low light will result in seedlings that are reaching for the light and they become ‘leggy’ and unhealthy. Ideally you want a grow light for 12-18hrs a day over your seedlings.
- Air – to help with seedling strength and to prevent fungal issues, good airflow is essential. A simple table fan set on low can be enough to circulate the air.
- Water – your seedlings don’t want to drown, but neither do they ever want to dry out. It will take a little while for them to develop a good root system. Under-container watering can prevent damage to the seedlings, or a spray bottle can give even and gentle moisture.
This will get your plants started and pretty soon you’ll have something that looks like what you might buy at your local nursery. You’ll be able to fill your garden, furnish your friends with healthy plants and be overrun with produce in a few months.
The goal of Groundswell’s Annual Spring Seed Campaign is to raise awareness and funds for food and seed sovereignty. Sign up for our monthly e-newsletter to be notified with more details about the 2016 Spring Seed Campaign, including a sign-up for a free packet of Sow True seeds.