By Ryan Dorn, SouthernSeeds.com

In the vast tapestry of gardening, nurturing a plant from a humble seed might seem trivial to seasoned gardeners. But at Southern Seeds, we witness a different story daily. Numerous budding gardeners approach us, dipping their toes into the world of seeds for the very first time. The mix of excitement and apprehension in their eyes says it all: "Is this as easy as it seems? What if I get it wrong?"

The beauty is, while there's undoubtedly a learning curve to starting from seeds, mastering it is a rewarding journey. Once you've acquainted yourself with the basics and embraced the nuances, this skill becomes an invaluable asset in your gardening arsenal. And for those still wary of potential missteps, here's a comforting thought – seeds are incredibly cost-effective. So even if there are hiccups along the way, it's a small, economical step in your broader gardening journey. Embark with us as we unravel the intricacies of seed-starting, transforming these tiny wonders into vibrant, thriving plants.

Transplanting seedlings

The Golden Rule: Lifelong Lessons in Gardening

After a lifetime dedicated to gardening, I have seen countless techniques and methodologies designed to boost your growing. But if there's one resounding lesson we've learned at Southern Seeds, it's the power of observation and imitation of nature. No amount of gadgets or advanced techniques can substitute the profound wisdom embedded in nature’s processes.

When you’re planting a seed or nurturing a plant, take a moment to consider its roots, not just the physical ones, but its historical and geographical roots. Where did this plant originate? What are the natural conditions it thrived in? A basil, hailing from the tropical and sub-tropical regions of Asia, relishes the warmth and humidity. On the other hand, rosemary, with its Mediterranean lineage, thrives in conditions that are dry and arid.

Asian tropics would have vastly different growing conditions than Mediterranean

 

Many gardeners, both seasoned and novice, often group varied plants together, providing them identical care. This approach, though common, overlooks the innate differences and preferences of each plant species. Each plant has a story, a native habitat, and an environment it considers home.

As we set off on this gardening guide, I want to start by saying that our time-tested "gardening rule" is simple yet profound: the closer you can align your gardening practices with a plant’s natural growing conditions, the more bountiful and robust your results will be. By honoring and mimicking these conditions, you're not just gardening; you're co-creating with nature, understanding its rhythms, and ensuring that every plant feels 'at home' in your garden. Knowing that... let's get started!!!

The Advantages of Growing from Seeds

The journey of cultivating plants begins with a choice: to buy established plants or to venture into the world of growing from seeds. If you're on the fence, let's shed some light on the numerous benefits of choosing the latter.

  1. Cost-Effectiveness: Seeds are a fraction of the price of mature plants. With just a small packet, you can cultivate numerous plants, making it a value-driven proposition. Instead of purchasing a single mature plant, less money can potentially yield dozens, if not hundreds, of seedlings.

  2. Variety: Commercial nurseries often focus on the most popular, and sometimes the most generic, plant varieties. Growing from seeds offers you access to a broader spectrum of species, many of which might not be readily available as full-grown plants. This means a richer biodiversity for your garden without the premium price tag.

  3. Personal Connection: While it might not be a direct economic benefit, there's an undeniable satisfaction in witnessing a plant's life from its inception. This emotional connection can inspire greater care and attention, leading to healthier plants that might need less maintenance and investment in the long run. Simply put, whether you're young or old, there's nothing better for the soul than seeing that first seedling pop up and creating life. It's ingrained in our DNA and it's one of the few things in this world that universally brings us all happiness.

Little girl smiling holding a seedling in her hands.

    In essence, seeds are tiny packets of potential, waiting to be unlocked. Their economical nature, paired with the vast array of options they present, makes them a compelling choice for both novice and seasoned gardeners alike.

    Choosing the Right Seeds

    Venturing into the world of seeds can feel like entering a vast library – each seed packet akin to a book with its own unique story, requirements, and rewards. Making the right choices is crucial for a successful growing journey.

    1. Purpose & Preference: Start with what you want from your garden. Do you envision a colorful bouquet of flowers, a hearty harvest of vegetables, or perhaps medicinal herbs? Your goal will determine the types of seeds you choose.

    2. Plant Hardiness Zones: Before buying seeds, understand your USDA Plant Hardiness Zone. This helps in selecting plant varieties that will thrive in your specific climate. We recently wrote an extensive blog post that can help with this and you can find your zone by using the United State's Department of Agriculture's calculator.

    3. Seed Longevity: While seeds might seem timeless, they do have a shelf life. Some seeds, like parsnips, lose viability within a year, while others, like tomatoes, can remain good for several years if stored correctly. In general though, most seeds will lose about 2-3% of their viability per month, so it's often best to remember when you purchased them. Here at Southern Seeds, we generally state that you'll get about 18-24 months of shelf life if you store them in a dry spot out of direct sunlight. As they age though, you need to calculate how much viability has been lost. After a year, you're probably looking at having 60-70% the original germination rate, so use that knowledge to calculate your sowing rate. If you would normally plant one cucumber seed per plant, sow two. This will put the odds in your favor.

    4. Heirloom vs. Hybrid: Heirloom seeds are often favored for their traditional characteristics and the seeds can be saved and replanted year after year. Hybrid seeds which are a mixture of two different plant varieties are bred for specific qualities like disease resistance or color, but might not produce consistent offspring if their seeds are saved and replanted.

      Labradoodle dog laying down in a town landscape

      Think of hybrids in terms of dogs. If you bred a Labrador and Poodle together, you would get a mixture of the two... the Labradoodle. The same thing occurs in plants. The difference though is that if you bred two Labradoodle together, you would expect to get another Labradoodle. That's not the case with plants as the offspring will often revert back to the traits of the original Labrador or Poodle or a myriad of combinations. It's this complete randomness outcomes that often prevents us from saving seeds from hybrid plants.

      If you want to read further on this topic, you can read more here in our blog post Heirloom, Open Pollinated, and Hybrid: Understanding Seed Varieties and Their Benefits.
      .

    5. Disease Resistance: Especially important for beginners, selecting seeds that are naturally resistant to common plant diseases can give you an edge and help ensure a successful harvest.

    6. Germination Rate: This gives an indication of how many seeds out of a packet can be expected to germinate. While high germination rates are desirable, remember that nature is unpredictable and germination rates can vary greatly between plant varieties. While the vast majority of seeds will be close to a 90% viability rate, there are plants that are naturally closer to 30% such as Stevia. This is important to know and something we state on our listings at Southern Seeds because it will affect your sowing strategy. For example, if you want to grow 2 stevia plants, you should sow 3-4 seeds per plant to put the odds in your favor. 

    By considering these factors and doing a bit of research, you can select seeds that align with your gardening goals and increase your chances of success. Remember, the seeds you choose play a pivotal role in defining your gardening journey. Choose wisely!

    Soil & Planting Medium Essentials

    The foundation of any successful gardening project is the soil. It’s not just dirt; it's a living, breathing ecosystem teeming with microorganisms, nutrients, and a unique texture that plays a crucial role in plant growth.

    Person holding soil in hand

    1. Understanding Soil Texture: Soils can range from sandy to clayey. While sandy soils offer excellent drainage, they might not retain sufficient moisture and nutrients. On the other hand, clay soils can hold onto water too tightly, which might suffocate plant roots. The ideal soil, loamy soil, strikes a balance, offering good water retention and drainage.

    2. Soil pH Matters: Most plants thrive in slightly acidic to neutral pH levels (6.0-7.5). However, some plants have specific needs. Blueberries, for instance, prefer more acidic soils. It's essential to test your soil's pH and amend it if necessary. Adding lime can raise the pH (make it more alkaline), while adding sulfur can lower the pH (make it more acidic).

    3. Choosing the Right Planting Medium: For starting seeds, it’s often recommended to use a seed starting mix. These mixes are usually finer and lighter than regular potting soil, ensuring delicate seedlings can push through. They also often contain a balanced pH and are free of disease pathogens.

    4. Enriching Your Soil: Organic matter, like compost or well-decomposed manure, can be mixed into your soil to improve its texture and nutrient content. Worm castings can also be a beneficial addition, providing slow-release nutrients to the plants.

    5. Avoiding Soil-Borne Diseases: Ensure that the containers and tools you use are clean. If reusing pots from previous seasons, it's a good idea to wash them out and consider sterilizing them to prevent any disease spread.

    In the gardening world, the saying "It's all in the soil" holds profound truth. Giving your seeds a solid foundation to start can significantly improve your chances of a fruitful gardening season.

    Planting Depth and Spacing: Getting It Right

    Pea seed germination from seed to seedling

    Proper planting depth and spacing are fundamental to ensuring healthy seed germination and growth. Getting these two factors correct can mean the difference between a thriving garden and one that struggles. Here's what you need to know:

    1. Understanding Planting Depth:

      • Why It Matters: Seeds have varying light requirements that heavily influence their ideal planting depth. Some seeds require sunlight to germinate and should be sown right on the soil surface, basking in the sun's energy. In contrast, others can germinate in complete darkness and need to be buried deeper. Seeds contain a limited amount of stored energy to push through the soil. If planted too deep, they might exhaust their energy reserves before reaching the surface. Conversely, seeds planted too shallow might dry out before they can germinate.
      • Reading the Seed Packet: Almost all seed packets provide recommended planting depths. It's crucial to adhere to this guidance. It will also indicate if the seeds require light or darkness to germinate.
      • General Rule of Thumb: If you're unsure and without specific instructions, a general guideline is to plant seeds at a depth approximately two to three times their width. However, always factor in their light requirements.
    2. Spacing Seeds and Seedlings:

      • Importance of Spacing: Proper spacing ensures that plants have adequate room to grow, access nutrients, and are less susceptible to diseases that thrive in crowded, damp conditions.
      • Thinning Seedlings: After germination, you might find that some areas of your garden are densely packed with seedlings, especially if seeds were sown liberally. It's crucial to thin out seedlings to prevent competition. This is done by carefully removing excess plants, ensuring the remaining ones align with the recommended spacing.

    Understanding and respecting a seed's natural requirements are the keystones to successful germination. By ensuring the right planting depth and spacing, you're setting the stage for a robust and bountiful garden.

    Light and Temperature: Pillars of Germination

    Seedlings growing in cups in a window.

    When it comes to kickstarting the life of a seed, light and temperature are two of the most influential factors. For a beginner, understanding these elements can feel overwhelming, but with a little knowledge, you can master these essentials and optimize your seed-starting journey. Here's a breakdown:

    1. The Light Factor:

      • Light-Dependent Seeds: Many seeds require light to germinate. Such seeds are typically sown on the soil surface or lightly pressed into it. Using a grow light or placing them in a sunny window can help meet their light requirements in most cases.
      • Darkness-Loving Seeds: On the flip side, some seeds prefer darkness to sprout. These seeds are typically buried deeper in the soil. It's essential to ensure they are shielded from light to meet this need.
      • Intensity and Duration: Once seeds have germinated, they need adequate light intensity to grow strong and healthy. Leggy seedlings, those that are tall and spindly, often indicate insufficient light. It's not just about the brightness; the number of hours the seedlings receive light is equally crucial. Using grow lights with timers can help regulate this.
    2. Temperature Essentials:

      • Thermal Range: Every seed has its own optimal temperature range for germination. While some might sprout in cooler temperatures, others might need a more tropical environment. Always refer to the seed packet for specific temperature guidelines.

    Incorporating the right balance of light and temperature is a dance every gardener gets to perfect over time. With observation, patience, and a little bit of science, you'll be on your way to mastering these vital components of seed germination.

    Watering Your Seeds: The Delicate Balance

    Water is the lifeblood of plants, and when you're starting from seeds, achieving the right watering balance is paramount. Too much can cause seeds to rot or invite diseases, while too little can hinder germination. Here's a guide to help you strike that perfect moisture harmony:

    1. Pre-Planting Soak:

        • The Initial Boost: Some seeds benefit from a pre-planting soak in lukewarm water for several hours or overnight. This softens the seed coat and can hasten germination. Beans and peas are common examples, but always check specific seed recommendations.
        • Floating Seeds: While soaking seeds, it has become somewhat gardening lore that floating seeds are not viable. That simply is NOT true. In fact, there's many varieties where the floaters will actually have higher germination rates. There are many factors that dictate whether a seed floats such as surface coating, shape, etc. and seed viability almost never plays a role in that. Now, that said, there are a handful of varieties that the float test will work if the seeds are at a certain age, but overall, this is a myth that needs to be busted. Trust me, I would love nothing more than to be able to just float test seeds here at Southern Seeds to test for viability instead of having to send them to a lab, but it simply doesn't work.
      Seed float test in a glass of water
    2. Post-Planting Care:

      • Moist, Not Soggy: After sowing, ensure the soil is consistently moist but not waterlogged. Think of it like a wrung-out sponge: damp to the touch but not dripping. Overwatering can deprive the seed of oxygen, causing it to rot.
      • Misting: For seeds that are surface-sown due to light requirements, using a mister can be a great way to provide moisture without displacing them.
      • Bottom Watering: This technique involves filling a tray beneath the seed container, allowing the soil to absorb water from below. It encourages deep root growth and minimizes surface disturbance, especially beneficial for tiny seeds.
    3. The Role of Humidity:

      • Humidity Domes or Plastic Wrap: These can help retain moisture in the early stages of germination. They act like mini-greenhouses, ensuring the seed environment remains humid. However, once seeds sprout, it's essential to remove these covers to prevent fungal diseases.
    4. Monitoring Soil Moisture:

      • Finger Test: The simplest way to check soil moisture is the finger test. Insert your finger about an inch into the soil. If it feels dry at your fingertip, it's time to water.
      • Observing Seedlings: As seedlings grow, their water requirements will increase. Wilting seedlings or those with slightly pale leaves might be indicating their thirst. However, ensure not to confuse this with overwatering symptoms, which can also result in wilting.
    5. Adjusting Watering Frequency:

      • Environmental Factors: Room temperature, humidity, and light intensity can influence how quickly the soil dries out. Be prepared to adjust your watering frequency based on these conditions. For instance, during hot or windy days, your seedlings might need more frequent watering.

    Watering is less about routine and more about observation. By paying close attention to your seeds and their environment, you'll soon develop an intuitive sense for their watering needs, setting them on a path to strong and healthy growth.

    Stratification and Scarification: Unlocking Seed Potential

    Different shapes and sizes of seeds

    Seeds are marvels of nature, each carrying within them the potential to burst forth into life under the right conditions. However, some seeds have evolved specific mechanisms to prevent premature germination in suboptimal environments. Two such mechanisms are the need for stratification and scarification. To truly understand these processes, let's delve deeper:

    1. Stratification - Nature's Chilling Requirement:

      • Why Some Seeds Need Cold: Many temperate region seeds have evolved to only germinate after experiencing winter's chill. This ensures that the seed doesn't sprout in the fall, only to be killed by winter frost. By undergoing a cold period (stratification), they are 'convinced' that winter has passed, making it safe to germinate.
      • How to Stratify: The process typically involves moistening the seeds, placing them in a sealed bag with a damp medium like sand or peat moss, and refrigerating them for a specific period. This simulates winter conditions, preparing the seed for planting.
    2. Scarification - Breaking Physical Barriers:

      • Tough Seed Coats: Some seeds have incredibly hard outer coatings that water and gases struggle to penetrate, preventing the seed from germinating. In nature, these coats might be worn down over time by microbial action, soil abrasion, or the digestive tracts of animals.
      • Methods of Scarification: Gardeners can mimic these natural processes by:
        • Mechanical: Using sandpaper, a file, or a nail clipper to nick the seed coat.
        • Hot Water: Pouring boiling water over the seeds and letting them soak until water cools.
        • Acid: A more advanced method, using mild acids to eat away part of the hard seed coat. However, this requires care and is not commonly used by home gardeners.

    For a deeper understanding of these intriguing seed processes and detailed step-by-step guidance, be sure to check out our comprehensive guide on cold stratification. These methods might seem a bit daunting at first, but with a bit of practice, they become a straightforward and essential tool in a gardener's repertoire.

    Transplanting Seedlings: Ensuring a Smooth Transition

    As your seeds burst into life and start their journey towards becoming robust plants, there comes a time when the protected, nutrient-rich environment of their initial container isn’t enough. That’s when transplanting seedlings into a bigger space or directly into the garden becomes crucial. However, transplanting can be traumatic for young plants if not done correctly. Here's a guide to ensuring a successful transition:

    1. When to Transplant: The ideal time to transplant seedlings is once they’ve developed their first set of true leaves (these appear after the initial seed leaves or cotyledons). At this stage, the seedling has outgrown its initial energy reserves and needs a larger environment.
      Seedling with 2nd set of true leaves.

    2. Preparing the New Home:

      • Containers: If moving to a larger container, ensure it's clean, has good drainage, and is filled with a quality potting mix.
      • Garden Beds: Prepare the soil by loosening it and ensuring it’s free of large clumps. Adding compost can provide the young plants with added nutrients.
    3. The Transplanting Process:

      • Water First: Moisten the seedlings before the move. This makes the roots more pliable and less prone to damage.
      • Handle with Care: Always handle seedlings by their leaves and not their stem. The stem is delicate, and any damage can be fatal.
      • Dig a Hole: Make a hole in the new location, ensuring it's spacious enough for the seedling's roots.
      • Place and Cover: Position the seedling in the hole, ensuring it's at the same depth it was in its original container. Gently firm the soil around the seedling.
    4. Post-Transplant Care:

      • Water Immediately: This helps settle the soil and minimizes transplant shock.
      • Provide Shade: Transplanted seedlings can benefit from a few days of shade to recover and adjust to their new environment.
      • Monitor Growth: Keep an eye on your transplanted seedlings. If they appear wilted or stressed, they may need more attention in the form of water, shade, or protection from pests.

    Remember, transplanting is a significant step in a plant's life. By ensuring you provide tender love and care during this phase, you're setting the foundation for a healthy, thriving plant. The rewards of seeing your young seedlings grow into flourishing plants make the effort wholly worthwhile.

    Common Issues and Troubleshooting

    Embarking on the journey of starting plants from seeds is a rewarding experience, but like any endeavor, it comes with its set of challenges. Here, we'll identify some common issues that gardeners encounter when starting seeds and provide solutions to get you back on track:

    1. Damping Off: A fungal disease that causes seedlings to suddenly collapse, wither, and die.

      • Prevention: Use sterile seed starting mix, avoid overwatering, and ensure good airflow.
      • Solution: If you notice seedlings affected, remove them immediately to prevent the spread.
        Seedling showing damping off fungal disease
    2. Leggy Seedlings: Seedlings that grow tall and spindly instead of short and sturdy.

      • Cause: Insufficient light. When seedlings have to stretch for light, they become leggy.
      • Solution: Move your seedlings to a brighter location or use artificial grow lights, keeping them just a few inches above the seedlings.
    3. Poor Germination: Seeds not sprouting or showing inconsistent growth.

      • Potential Causes: Insufficient light, incorrect planting depth, or unsuitable temperature.
      • Solution: Review the light requirements, ensure they’re planted at the right depth, and maintain the recommended temperature for germination.
    4. White Mold on Soil Surface: Indicates fungal growth.

      • Cause: Excessive moisture and poor ventilation.
      • Solution: Reduce watering frequency, improve ventilation, and if mold persists, consider repotting in fresh, sterile soil.
    5. Yellowing Leaves: Young seedlings developing yellow leaves.

      • Potential Causes: Overwatering, nutrient deficiencies, or poor drainage.
      • Solution: Ensure the pot has adequate drainage, let the soil dry out slightly between waterings, and consider transplanting to nutrient-rich soil.
    6. Seedlings Not Growing: Despite successful germination, seedlings stall.

      • Potential Causes: Lack of nutrients, inadequate light, or root-bound conditions.
      • Solution: Transplant seedlings to a larger container or garden bed, ensure they get adequate light, and consider a diluted, balanced fertilizer.
    7. Pests: Seedlings can sometimes attract pests like aphids, fungus gnats, or spider mites.

      • Solution: Check plants regularly. For small infestations, remove pests by hand or with a blast of water. For persistent issues, consider natural insecticides or beneficial insects like ladybugs.

    While these challenges can seem daunting, especially to a newbie, understanding potential pitfalls and their remedies can boost your confidence. Remember, every gardener, no matter how seasoned, has faced and overcome these hurdles. Stay patient, observant, and enjoy the learning journey that seed starting brings. Also, we have written detailed guides on both plant pests and plant diseases which you can use as a reference.

     Wrapping Things Up!

    Starting from seed and witnessing the miraculous journey from tiny speck to flourishing plant is one of gardening's greatest joys. Each step, from soil selection to transplanting, carries its own importance. While this guide offers you a foundation, remember that experience is the most valuable teacher. With every season, you'll develop a deeper connection and understanding of the delicate balance in nurturing life from seed.

    And as you embark or continue on this gardening journey, know that you're not alone. We at Southern Seeds are more than just a seed provider; we're your gardening allies. Whether you have questions, concerns, or simply wish to share your gardening tales, we're always here to listen, advise, and celebrate your successes. After all, gardening is as much about community as it is about cultivation. Happy planting!

     

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    Comments

    Doug Jones said:

    Thank you for all the info and advice

    Anthony parisi said:

    Great information.I have been gardening for over 75 years. Jam 84 now and my finger nails must be cut short to get the dirt out. Living in Sarasota Florida makes gardening all year round.

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