Starting Seeds

Mary Ann Ryan
Adams County Master Gardener

Have you ever started seeds? How successful have you been? One of the biggest mistakes in seed starting is timing. Often times we get anxious for spring, and we time it too soon. When buying seeds, be sure to look on the back of the seed packet for how long the seeds need to germinate. Count back from the time that you are able to plant seedlings outside. Allow for one to two weeks of growing time after germination and you'll have your start up date.

For instance, I have a seed packet of red and yellow pear tomatoes. On the pack, it tells me that it takes 7-14 days for the seeds to germinate. In our area, you can safely plant out tomatoes by mid-May. Counting back two weeks for the transplants to grow and another two weeks for the seeds to germinate, I'm looking at starting these seeds in mid April. Giving a little time for mistakes or possible replant, the seeds should be started indoors by early April. How often we hear "What do I do with my tomato plants? They're getting so tall and I can't plant them out for another month!" If you time properly, this can be avoided.

After determining when the seeds should be started, giving the seeds the requirements they need becomes most important. Seeds need four things: light, water, oxygen, and heat. Getting to know your seeds makes this an easy step. Again, reading the seed packet will tell you the depth to plant the seed - this is the light requirement. Keeping the seeds evenly moist and the soil temperatures between 75̊-85F should provide just the right environment for these seeds to germinate - this is the heat and light requirement. The oxygen comes from the soil. Use a light soilless mixture that is formulated for seed starting. This will give your seeds and roots the air that is needed for good germination and growth.

Before planting your seeds, find out it they need any scarification or stratification before planting. Scarification refers to breaking the seed coat. This is sometimes needed for quicker germination of some plants. For instance, morning glory and gourd seeds germinate quicker if you soften the seed coat by soaking overnight. This allows for the embryo to break through the seed coat faster. Stratification refers to the temperatures required for the seed to germinate. An example of this would be the acorn. It needs a cold period, winter, in order for the seed to break dormancy.

After the seeds begin to grow, they will send up what appears to be leaves. These first set of "leaves" are called cotyledons. Next to develop are the true set of leaves. The true leaves take on the identification features of the plant. At this point, the seedling can be transplanted into a larger container or planted into the garden.

Before putting the plant out, you may want to "harden-off" your plant. This means that the plant needs time to acclimate to the outdoors. This is done simply by setting the seedlings outside in a protected area for a few days to one week, then planting them in the ground. Be sure there is no danger of frost if you are keeping them outside overnight. You could bring them inside each evening if you are hardening off the plants during the time of possible frost damage.

Now you plants are in the ground, growing, producing flowers and seeds or fruit. You're thinking about collecting seeds for next year's crop or to sharing with a friend. If you are collecting seeds from vegetables, and you're hoping for the same hybrid that you grew this year, don't bother. Hybrid plants are produced by crossing the same two parent plants. Without this step, your seedlings will not develop into the hybrid it was collected from.

Also plants will cross-pollinate, allowing genes from parent plants to produce a different "hybrid". Insects, wind, or other pollinators will transport pollen from one plant to another plant of two different hybrids or varieties. This is often noticed in tomatoes and squash.

If it is a fruity vegetable like a melon, tomato, or cucumber, allow the fruit to ripen completely on the plant before collecting. Harvest the fruit when completely ripened, and separate seeds from the pulp as best you can. Then allow the seeds to dry completely. Store the seeds in a cool, dry place. Your refrigerator is a good place, as long as you don't store apples in it.

In late winter, you may want to check the viability of the seeds. This is done by counting out ten seeds, planting them, and observing what percentage has germinated. Then you will know what to expect from the seeds you've collected, and you'll be ready to go again in the spring!

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