When planting seeds, you want to start with quality seeds from a reliable dealer to ensure strong germination rates (we are pleased to offer seeds from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, Sow True Seeds, and Baker Creek Seed Co. at our various locations). Select varieties to match the size, color, growth habit and taste profiles you desire. Always choose varieties that grow well in your area and hardiness zone. We prefer open-pollinated seeds and heirloom varieties, which offer more diversity as well as the ability to use seeds formed by the plants when you’re ready to plant the following year.
Although some seeds can keep and be viable for up to six years, it is advisable to only purchase what you will be using in the current growing year in order to ensure high germination rates. If seeds are purchased far in advance of the growing season, store them in tightly closed or sealed containers in a cool, dry place (40 degrees in a low humidity environment is ideal). To keep all instructions with the seeds, we advise storing them in their original packets and placing them in the containers.
When thinking of germination, there are four environmental factors to consider: water, oxygen, light, and heat.
The first element to pay attention to is water absorption. Even though seeds have a great natural power of absorbing water due to the seed coat, the water in the growing medium determines the uptake of water during germination. After the germination process has begun, you want to avoid any dry periods, as that can cause the death of the plant embryo. Start with a moist, but not soggy soil medium, and keep your medium moist throughout the germination process.
Proper oxygen uptake is also vital to the seedling’s health, growth, and survival. Respiration takes place in all viable seeds, and if the oxygen supply is limited or reduced during the germination process, it will result in weak or inhibited seedlings that may not germinate. The medium in which you sow your seeds must be firm, but not packed.
The right amount of light is also crucial for stimulating or inhibiting germination, depending on your seed type. For instance, you need light to germinate lettuce, begonias, petunias, impatiens and similar plants. Some seed varieties such as verbena, ornamental sweet peas, annual phlox and calendula best germinate without light. Seed catalogs and packets usually give cultural tips for germination that are very helpful. If you are adding supplemental lighting as a result of starting your seedlings in your home, suspend your lights 6 to 12 inches from the seedlings. We can help you with the placement and type of lighting required for optimum germination. You can also purchase one of our humidomes, which is an already packed kit ready for soil, seeds, heat, light and moisture.
Heat is another factor that is very important to some seeds but can be detrimental to others. The right temperature is key in germination. Tomatoes, peppers petunias, impatiens and many other ornamentals require heat to stimulate germination. Brassicas, lettuce, strawberries and spinach enjoy cooler germination temperatures. The timeliness of your seed starts is of great importance. You can check your average last frost date by Googling your local county Agricultural Extension Office and searching for the average last frost date. Use the date to count back the weeks before starting your seeds. If you choose to plant earlier to get a jump on the season, have a frost cover available to protect your starts. Start your cool weather crops such as brassicas, spinach, lettuces indoors in February. Also start your peppers indoors as they take longer to germinate and grow, but don’t put them out until after the frost date!
March is the proper time to plant peas, potatoes and set out your February seedlings. March is also the time to start annuals indoors. Start your tomatoes and flowering annuals. Do not put outside until after the frost date to ensure survival. If needed, we sell heating mats and kits in several sizes for seed germination. Leave time in your schedule for fall crops started indoors in mid summer. Place these outdoors in September to ensure a healthy prolific fall crops. Please make sure to do your homework when starting your seeds. We carry several books and have staff members knowledgeable on all aspects of seedling growth.
When planting your seeds, it is vital to use a sterile soil that is free of weed seeds, disease, organisms, and insects. It is important to start your seeds in the appropriate soil to ensure germination, and early root and cell development. Seed starting media come conveniently packaged for gardeners. These soils are carefully prepared with certain factors in mind; pH, mycorrhizal fungi, humic acid and organic matter. They DO NOT contain N-P-K (nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium). Tender plant starts cannot utilize fertilizers until the second set of true leaves, and in most cases fertilizers can/will burn seedlings. When it is time to start fertilizing, organic fertilizers tend to be slower-acting and safer for young plants. We stock and regularly recommend these products for seed starting:
–Light Warrior – This premium product is ideal for delicate seed starting and propagation. It is especially good for hard to germinate seeds.
–Black Gold – This is a high quality seed starter for a wide variety of crops.
–McEnroe – This is a quality neutral soil that can safely be used for seedlings.
There are so many lighting, soil, heating and seed varieties available, a new world of opportunities will be open for your garden whether it is indoors or outside. Using the correct product will help ensure your success. Healthy plant starts make healthy plants, which will flower, fruit and nourish you, your friends and your family. So you can proudly say “I grow my own”
Pam, Jenn and Annette
Charlottesville Fifth Season Gardening