Gardening vegetables, flowers, and care for trees, shrubs and lawns in a northern climate
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Seed Starting Terms
by Diana Roberts
Category: Propagation
Here’s an e-mail I received the other day: "I see a strange term (to me anyway) on a pack of Echinacea seeds. It says to “stratify”. I was told this means scratch or rough up the seeds, but the seeds are pretty small? Could you clarify this for me? PS. I enjoyed your pepper column and was glad to hear I wasn’t too early in starting them in the house. I do have a 20x30 unheated greenhouse that I will eventually transplant them to. Thanks Beth"
Sometimes gardening terms are confusing, especially when there are other similar terms used to provide similar results. Just to clarify what the seed packet is asking you to do; stratifying seeds is a process which simulates natural weather conditions which happen when a seed over-winters in the cold moist ground. Echinacea purpura, as well as lobelia and bleeding heart, need to be stratified before planting. You can stratify your seeds a couple of ways. One way is to mix small seeds with damp peat moss, seal them in a zip-lock bag which is labeled with the date and name of the seeds. Place this bag in your refrigerator for 1-4 months (or whatever is suggested on the seed packet). You can then sow the seed/peat mixture into flats or pots.
Scarifying is also a process necessary for starting seeds which have a very hard seed coat. Seeds such as sweet peas, lupines and morning glories should all be scarified. This is done by rubbing or scratching the seeds across course sandpaper to break the seed coat. Soak the seeds overnight in a weak tea or plain water, and then carefully nick the seed coat with a sharp knife.
Viability test
If you have older seeds you wish to use, it is a good idea to do a seed viability test. Sprinkle your seeds over a damp paper towel and cover with a second moist paper towel. Place the towels and seeds into a zip-lock bag out of direct sunlight. Check the seeds every couple of days and remove any moulded or rotten seeds. When the seeds have sprouted, plant them in a soil-less potting mix. If your seeds are too old, only a few may sprout or possibly none, in which case you may need to buy new seeds. Some seeds such as peas, squash and corn will benefit greatly from pre-sprouting.
Potting mix
Soil-less potting mix is normally sphagnum moss (a dehydrated bog plant, naturally acidic) mixed with vermiculite (heated mica rock, pH neutral) and possibly perlite (crushed heated lava which pops like popcorn, pH neutral). If you wish to make your own mix, add 1/3 of each.
There are very few nutrients in potting mix, so you will need to start feeding your seedlings with a weak fertilizer once they sprout. Seeds will sprout and grow at very different rates, so you should be careful of your timing. Celery, leek and petunia seeds need to be planted many weeks before they are put out in the garden, while cucumbers and sunflowers need to be planted only a few weeks prior to planting out. Carefully check your seed packets for recommended starting times.
If you don’t have seed-starting flats, save your cardboard egg cartons to plant into. These are great because they can be cut apart and planted directly into the ground. Over time, the cardboard will decompose and the roots will grow out of them. Most seed packets will tell you how deep to bury your seeds but if not, the rule of thumb is to cover the seeds with 3 times the diameter of the seeds. There are some exceptions to this rule as some seeds need light to germinate, so you wouldn’t cover them at all, just spread the seeds over the soil and mist. Other seeds need total darkness to sprout and should be put in a completely dark room. The best temperature to start seeds at is about 15-30 degrees C.
Once your plants start coming up, you should thin your seedlings to allow room for proper growth. This is done when the seedling get their second set of true leaves. It is best to use scissors to clip off unwanted plants at soil level, so you don’t disturb the roots of the plants you want to keep. Seedlings can be transplanted into larger pots if necessary before being planted outdoors.
The warmer your room, the faster the plants will grow but be careful that they have enough sunlight or light from grow lights, or they may get leggy before they are able to be transplanted outdoors. Plants which have become excessively tall and leggy will be almost impossible to correct. If you find this happening, try lowering your heat and reduce the amount of fertilizer they are getting. Seedlings will normally need 12-14 hours of direct light per day to grow strong and healthy.
Hardening-off is a process used to prepare seedlings to be planted into the garden. The best way to harden-off seedlings is to take them outdoors for a short time, to a cold frame or green house out of direct sunlight and wind. Each day you can extend the time they are outdoors until they are out all day, then overnight. This way, the plants adjust to the conditions outdoors and will do well once planted in the garden.

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