By Jim Janke
Editor’s note: This is the first of a three-part series on growing plants from seeds. Today we talk about the benefits of growing plants from seeds, and what seeds need to germinate. Next week we’ll discuss how to get them growing. And we’ll wrap up the topic in 2 weeks with examples of plants that are easy to grow from seeds.”
I started a packet of dianthus seeds on a whim almost 30 years ago. The plants grew well indoors and bloomed profusely the first year outside. I was hooked. Now I start 30 or more types of seeds indoors each year, including annuals, perennials, vegetables and herbs. This series of columns will help you grow plants from seeds yourself. It is easy and fun.
Why grow plants from seeds?
If you want several (or more) plants of the same variety, starting plants from seeds can save you money. A packet of 30 tomato seeds might cost $2.50, from which you can reasonably expect to get at least 20 plants. Including growing media, containers, and the electricity to power a grow light or two, those 20 plants are likely to cost less than 50 cents each. What you are going to do with all those tomatoes, though, is a topic for a cooking column.
Or if you need two dozen marigolds, you can grow them from seeds for less than $10, when those same plants would cost $30 or more at the home center or nursery.
Another big advantage for growing plants from seeds is that you have access to many more varieties of flowers and vegetables. Home centers and nurseries typically stock only the most popular varieties. Seed catalogs have a tremendous selection.
For example, Stokes Seeds’ online catalog lists 127 different petunias in as many as 31 different colors and color mixes. They also list 100 different tomatoes, including beefsteak, cherry, plum, heirloom, greenhouse, and novelty types. Other seed companies have similar offerings.
What seeds want
(No, this isn’t a Mel Gibson film on horticulture.) The conditions both inside and outside the seeds must be favorable for germination. All seeds need water and air. Most have a specific temperature range that they like best. Lettuces like cool temperatures to germinate, while tomatoes do better in the 80° range. Many seeds — especially smaller ones like petunias and begonias — require light to get started.
Some seeds benefit from a dramatic change in the internal or external environment to help break dormancy. For example, parsley germinates better if you soak the seeds for a week before planting. Snapdragons and carnations benefit from putting the seed packet in the freezer for a day or two. Geraniums need to have their seed coats cut (although many geranium seeds come with this already done.)
In order to germinate the potential for producing a plant must be contained within the seed itself. This seems obvious, but seeds can lose their viability through age, or exposure to moisture, cold or heat. Each seed packet should indicate the year for which the seeds were packaged. Some seeds can be stored for many years, while others lose their viability quickly. Until you get some experience, using fresh seeds will improve your chances.
All of this sounds a lot more complicated than it really is. Seed packets have guidelines for when to plant, planting depth, the best temperature range, and if any assistance is needed to break dormancy. Catalogs from Stokes, Johnny’s and Territorial also have detailed seed starting information.
Jim Janke is a Master Gardener Volunteer in Haywood County. For more information call the Haywood County Extension Center at 828.456.3575.