You rarely get something for nothing, but the next best thing — at least, when it comes to annual bedding plants, vegetables, herbs and many perennials — is seeds. By spending just a few dollars on a packet of seeds, you can reap hundreds of dollars worth of prized plants. For gardeners who want to expand their plant selection, it is an offer too good to refuse.
You can purchase seeds from online or brick-and-mortar retailers, seed-swap with gardening friends or shop at the Cherokee County Master Gardener plant sales. One advantage of acquiring seeds locally is that the plants are likely to do well in your garden, since they are accustomed to the same climate.
Starting plants from seeds also will give you the opportunity to grow plants that are difficult or impossible to find in a nursery. Commercial nurseries are limited in space, and often carry only plants they know the public will buy. But, seed companies carry a diverse stock.
Annuals, including most vegetable seeds, often are the easiest to start, and they usually don’t require any special treatment. In contrast, some perennials have mechanisms to keep their seeds from sprouting until the time is right, and a gardener will need to employ methods to overcome these obstacles to germination.
Seeds can be sown directly in the garden, if you time it right, but you’ll be at the mercy of weather conditions and digging varmints, such as squirrels and chipmunks. I prefer to start most seeds indoors, where I can keep an eye on them and don’t have to wait for the soil to warm. I just time everything properly, so the plants are ready to go outdoors when conditions are right.
Seeds should be sown in sterile pots (I often use plastic six-pack cells), filled with a moistened seed-starting medium. Be sure to label your pots if you are starting multiple kinds of seeds. Then, create a humid, greenhouse-like environment for the seeds. You can achieve this with sealed plastic bags or clear plastic containers. I purchase large containers of mixed greens at our membership club, and the plastic containers are ideal for seed-starting.
A general rule of thumb is to sow the seeds at a depth equal to their thickness. However, some seeds require light for germination, so these should be sown on the surface of the soil.
Once the seeds have germinated, you don’t need the greenhouse anymore, so you can take the top off the container or remove the pot from its plastic bag. It’s best to do this gradually, to avoid shocking the seedlings by changing the humidity level too much at one time.
Upon germination, it’s very important to give seedlings ample light. This will create strong growth and prevent them from getting leggy. Light from a windowsill is insufficient, so you must use artificial lights, the approximate wavelength of sunlight. The most reliable way to achieve this is to purchase light bulbs specifically designed for growing plants. Place the light source close to the seedlings, and move it up, if necessary, as the plants grow.
Once they have developed several sets of leaves, you can start giving the plants a weak fertilizer. Recommended most often is a fertilizer concentration that is a quarter to half of the normal amount. A higher concentration is likely to burn the tender seedlings.
As the plants grow, you don’t want them to become root-bound, which may necessitate potting them in larger containers. When you do this, you can use regular, high-quality potting soil, rather than a medium specific to seed-starting.
Finally, before transplanting them into your garden, you will need to accustom the seedlings to outdoor conditions by exposing them to brighter light and wider temperature swings. This is called “hardening off,” and is done by taking them outdoors for a few hours each day for about a week. Check them carefully during this period, to be sure they don’t dry out or get too much sun.
For more information, the University of Georgia’s Bulletin 1432, “Starting Plants From Seed for the Home Gardener,” can be found online. Also, be sure to watch Cherokee County Master Gardener Mike Lloyd’s seminar on seed-starting, which is available on the UGA Extension Cherokee County’s Youtube channel: https://bit.ly/3F2eDMO.
– Mary Tucker is a North Carolina native who has lived in Cherokee County for more than 25 years. She is a Lifetime Master Gardener whose special interest is gardening with native plants.