Seed starting for beginners: it’s all about timing

Plant enthusiasts start their own seed for a variety of reasons – to get many plants for the price of a package, to grow rare or unusual varieties and, if you save your own seed, to give your plants the genetic advantage that comes as each generation adapts a little better to the conditions in your garden.

Growing from seed also fosters a more intimate relationship with your plants. You learn to recognize a species or variety immediately, no matter how young the seedling. This can be very helpful when weeding. Not all weeds are undesirable; they may be future prize specimens that happen to be crowding out something else you like – if you recognize them, you can move them to grow on elsewhere.

If you’re a beginner, it’s best to go with the easier plants. These are the ones that need only moisture, warmth and light to germinate and start growing.

Seedy Saturday in Innisfil: Don't miss it!

Among the natives, two good ones are Anise Hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) and Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpureum). The Anise Hysssop starts germinating within a few days, the Purple Coneflower gets going at about the 10-day mark. These are both truly lovely native plants that are also major pollinator pleasers, attractive to bees, butterflies and hummingbirds. Butterfly Weed (Aesclepias tuberosa) and Bee Balm (various species of Monarda) are also easy starters. Check my seed list for other warm germinators.

If you are a true beginner, you won’t have some of the items you need for growing indoors, with a lights system being the most expensive. Without extra lighting, you will rely on a well-lit south-facing window-sill and you don't want to start too early or you will get plants that are weak and lanky (etiolated) because of insufficient light. Wait until April to start.

Here’s what you do: Sprinkle a number of seeds of the same species in a shallow pot with holes in the bottom (having first filled the pot with a soil mix). I use pots that are 15.5 cm in diameter and 12 cm high. When the little green shoots show up, place the pot in a saucer in a south-facing window and keep watered from below, with a daily squirt from a spray bottle if needed. Turn the pot every day so all seedlings get their share of prime daylight.

When the seedlings have grown to two or three centimetres and begin to look crowded, ease them out and plant each one in its own individual small pot. Keep well-lit. Mid-May, when temperatures begin to stay above freezing, you can start moving the pots outside to get them to transition to the outdoors, at first just for an hour, and then a little more each day.

Remember, strong sunlight can kill by burning young plants that have been indoors all their life, and wind can do the same by drying out tender tissues – so find a sheltered, slightly shaded spot and make the process of getting them used to outdoors conditions very gradual. Keep them inside on any day a sudden dip in temperature or frost is expected. For transitioning larger quantities of plants, a cold frame, or even a greenhouse, will protect against frost (the last frost date is May 28 for our area, earlier in recent years), but they are not necessary for the home gardener. What is needed is TLC – constant monitoring to ensure your plants are comfortable in changing conditions. They will tell you if they’re not, by wilting.

What items do you need for starting seed indoors?
-Pots with drainage holes.
-Trays without holes, or saucers, to hold the pots and allow you to water from below
-A soil or soil-less mix
-A spray bottle filled with water, for gentle humidifying
-A fan. If you don’t keep the air around the seedlings circulating, a fungus develops, cuts them off at soil level and they die. It’s called dampening off. I have a small fan for a table-top set up, and a larger fan for another location, when my seedlings move into separate pots and need more space. Even if you’re a window-sill grower, you do need to ensure you have air circulation. Note that the fan might be too vigorous if aimed right at the seedlings early on; instead bounce the air off a nearby wall. Later, a gentle breeze that induces a slight motion will increase their vigour and prepare them for the world outside.
-Lights (optional). Many gardeners are starting their seed now so they have larger plants to move outside (some, growing seed with complicated needs, started before Christmas). If growing indoors for four weeks or more, you absolutely need grow-lights. You can get individual light bulbs, and different-sized kits with LEDs or fluorescent tubes that hang above flats (trays) of plants. This is one I bought last year from Amazon, it costs $102, and it has room for two flats, which don’t come with it, so you have to buy those.

If you are ready to tackle native plants that are more finicky in their needs, read these tips on germination.

Some are really finicky, but for the most part, the main requirement is winter, from one to three months' worth. It’s not too late, even for the seeds that need 90 days of cold treatment (many require only 30-60 days). You create winter either by placing the seed in a growing medium in a plastic bag in in the refrigerator, or by seeding into pots that you place outside right now.

This year, I have adopted Robert Pavlis’s method of fashioning incubators from plastic jugs. He cuts the jug in half, makes drainage holes, fills the bottom with potting mix, adds seed, and covers it with the top half, minus the lid. The advantage is moisture retention and some measure of protection against mice and squirrels that like to dig through the pots and filch the seed.

Here’s a video on the plastic jug method, and here's another on the fridge method – for which he uses paper towels as a growing medium. Both work.

Where to get the seed? I have a list of seed that I have gathered here in Huronia, and Wildflower Farm is another local source. Local seed is preferable (your own seed is best!), because it has the genetics of plants adapted to conditions in this area. I am also a big fan of Gardens North (which sells both native and non-native seed).

There's a lot of contradictory advice online on methods of getting different seeds to germinate. I find the Ontario Rock Garden Society to be the most reliable.
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