Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Improving Seed Germination

With spring right around the corner, the gardening "itch" is really starting to get to me.  I want to be out there in the garden!  We have a fairly large, fenced-in garden with enough room for a pumpkin patch, corn, and as many tomato plants as I want, among all the other favorites.  Over the past few weeks, I have started some of my plants indoors under our cellar grow lights, watching intensely for those first little green sprouts poking through the dirt.


I've been interested in growing plants from seed for a long time.  I've collected and saved seeds from many of my own plants and even belonged to a "seed swap" group so I could lay my hands on hard-to-find, native species.  For other plants, like tomatoes and hybrids, I order seeds from a catalog.


Despite the effort put into starting seeds either indoors or sowing directly in the garden, problems can arise.  Germination may be poor or seedlings can fail to grow.  Here are some helpful tips that I've learned along the way for improving germination and helping seedlings to thrive.


Start with good seeds.  You can save seeds from many garden vegetables and fruits.  Beans, pumpkins, squash, and melons are all easy to collect from.  Avoid saving seeds from any diseased plants.  And don't bother with saving seeds from hybrids; the offspring will not be true to the parent plants.

Storage.  I dry and store seeds in labelled plastic bags until spring.  Include the variety and as much growing information as you can.  I save the silica gel packets from clothing and the dessicant packets from medicine bottles to keep in with my seeds; they will help absorb any moisture.  I then store my seed bags in a plastic bin with lid to keep out any wayward critters.

Don't throw out last year's seeds.  The germination rate may be lower so plant a few more seeds in the
same space to compensate, then thin as needed.  You can also test older seeds through this old-fashioned method:  pour seeds into a glass of water; the seeds that fall to the bottom are probably good and the ones that float should be tossed.

Keep warm.  Many plants germinate quicker and grow faster and stronger at a warm temperature, usually between 65 and 75 degrees F.  Catalogs sell special heat mats designed for starting seeds; they can be expensive but may be worth the investment over time.  The top of a refrigerator is another warm spot good for seed flats.

Lighting.  Seedlings like bright light, so choose to start them by south-facing windows for the most direct light.  If using artificial lights, be sure they are labelled as "full spectrum" or "plant lights"; ordinary light bulbs don't offer the full spectrum that plants need.  If using fluorescent bulbs, try to hang them close to the plants.  We have a long bench in the cellar for our seed flats, with fluorescent lights hanging by rope pulleys.  The lights are let all the way down to start, then we gradually pull them up as the plants grow so they are always a few inches above.

Soil.  Use a good seed-starting soil mix or seed-starting pellets.  Be sure that soil has been sterilized.  Avoid fertilizers until plants have been set out in the garden; fertilizers can easily burn young roots or cause plants to become leggy.

Harden-off plants before placing in the garden.  Bring them outside during the daytime for a few days before planting.

Stratification.  Some seeds germinate better if stratified, including lupine, peony, phlox, day lily, bleeding heart, juniper, lavender, and peach pits.  Stratification helps seeds complete their dormancy cycle and begin to grow.  Soak seeds in water for 24 hours, mix them with damp peat and sand in a plastic bag, and keep in the refrigerator for one to three months.  When you remove them from the cold, plant them as normal and they will come out of dormancy.

Scarification.   Scarifying can help seeds with hard coatings to germinate better.  Large seeds can be filed with a nail file in one spot until the coating is broken.  Small seeds can be soaked in warm water for 24 hours and then immediately planted before drying.  Seeds that benefit from scarification include nasturtium, morning glories, sweet peas, and peaches and other stone fruit.

Our garden in early March.  Snow, go away!
Direct sow.  Some plants cannot tolerate being grown indoors and then moved to the garden, so direct sowing is best.  For others, starting in pots indoors is perfectly fine (and is sometimes needed to get a head-start on the growing season, especially in colder climates).  Do research on your plants' growing needs and your area's growing season to decide which planting method is best.








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