Starting seeds indoors is a great way to get your fingers in the soil when a blanket of snow covers the gardens and it feels like winter will never end. Just smelling that seed starter is enough to raise anyone's spirits!
Picking through my seed box with my mind on the glorious day I'll be out in the garden planting seedlings and sowing into the sun-warmed soil, I wonder how old some of these seeds are and will I get good germination.
Some seeds are better in the long run than others and of course when saving seeds it is always good to date and source your seeds--not so hard when you buy packets with the dates right on them but if you tear off the top and toss it and don't use up all the contents, you may have lost that important information printed on the flap.
Among the seeds that last longest in dry cool storage, 5 or more years , are some favorites:
Beets, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, cabbage, cilantro, cucumber, lavender, lettuce, melons, mustard, oregano, peppers, radish, sunflower, tomato, and turnips.
Then we have the seeds that can go up to five years such as:
Basil, beans, calendula, carrot, celery, chard, dianthus, dill, eggplant, forget-me-not, lupine, marigold, nasturtium, parsley, peas, pumpkin, sage, snapdragon, squash, sweet pea, thyme, and zinnia.
The most delicate seeds lasting only a year or two are:
Alyssum, aster, blanket flower, coleus, corn, cosmos, delphinium, leek, onion, pansy, parsnip, phlox, spinach, and strawflower.
It's not that these seeds won't germinate after the "use by" date but you will get a considerably smaller percentage that do germinate and possibly less robust plants. To ensure success, fresher is better.
Soilless seed starter is lighter and finer than regular potting soil making it easier for the little sprouts to make their way to the light. You can make your own starter mix with a combination of equal parts of peat, perlite and potting soil.
A lot of seeds do well with a bit of soaking (warm water, 8-12 hours) before planting though some are so small it’s difficult to handle them wet or even damp. Soak peas, beans, squash, pumpkin, corn and other larger seeds to give them a little boost before starting indoors or planting in the garden.
Keep in mind, you might have to "rough up" or scarify some seeds before starting them--they need help cracking through the seed coat in order to germinate. These are largely wild flower and perennial and flower seeds such as nasturtium, morning glories, moon flowers—ones with tough outer shells designed to pass through the digestive systems of birds and small mammals. Shaking them up in a bag with rough edged rocks will usually do the trick. Bigger, tougher seeds may need a more brutal approach—take a blade or hammer to these.
You may have to put some seeds through stratification--moisture and/or cold temperature for a designated period before germinating. Seeds for false sunflower, hardy hibiscus, catmint, evening primrose perennial sweet pea, lupine, rudbeckia and many wildflowers need a period of cold and moisture before they will germinate. Plant these in your starter trays as you normally would, then put the trays out into a cold shed or garage, away from exhaust fumes, for a few weeks before starting indoors. Be sure they are covered to keep out any little rodents looking for a snack.
I've learned the hard way that windows are not the best place for young seedlings. Windows can be drafty, the glass conducts cold, and nighttime temperatures can be downright chilling. Seedlings do best with consistent temperature and light. A cool, white fluorescent double-bulb hanging fixture suspended 2-3 inches above the seedling trays for 12 to 16 hours per day is ideal and not too difficult to manage. Fixtures are fairly inexpensive, especially if you can find them at a thrift store.
I always start seeds too soon so have to contend with leggy seedlings well before it is time to plant outdoors. This means I must transplant them into larger pots and get them as much light and breeze as possible to toughen them up for their adventure in the garden. Unlike trees, many seedlings such as tomatoes and broccoli can be transplanted with their stems buried. So a 6 inch seedling can be transplanted to be a 3 inch seedling, the buried stem will then start rooting. Plant these up to, but no deeper, than the first little leaves (the cotyledon leaves). Of course transplanting seedling into large pots will also slow them down as they will have to concentrate on adapting to their new digs. This can be good in that spring planting time may be well off yet and you want the seedlings to develop good strong roots before they go out into the garden.
Here is a handy guide to when to start your seedlings indoors (in our area April 1 is 8 weeks before last frost):
8 Weeks --cabbage, broccoli, eggplant, lettuce, peppers
6 weeks--perennial flowers, tomatoes, watermelon
3-4 weeks--cucumbers, squash, pumpkins, muskmelon
Let the ground warm up before planting your little seedling, else they may go into shock and take days or weeks to recover. Even though the days may be warm, plant after danger of frost. In plant hardiness zones 3b-4b our average last frost is May 24-30. Keep in mind when choosing seeds, especially when sewing directly into the garden bed, that our growing season here in NW Wisconsin is roughly 110 days.
Common mistakes when starting seeds
Do a Google search on “seed starting indoors,” there are lots of great YouTube videos and many, many great articles as well as.
Pam Davies MG Volunteer
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