Tips for Growing Plants From Seed
Seed expert Renee Shepherd discusses seeds and the different ways to plant them.
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Looking for an inexpensive way to have more plants in your garden? Seeds are an easy way to add a variety of plants to barren beds without busting your budget.
"From one little seed packet, you can get 40 or 50 plants, and you're going to get things you'll never find in a nursery. If you go to a nursery and you want to buy nasturtiums, you'll find only two colors. But I sell 12 colors of nasturtiums," says seed expert Renee Shepherd.
While having a variety of seed choices is incredibly useful, there is also something special about growing plants and food from something that starts out so tiny. You develop a kinship with plants when you grow from seed, in a way that you'll never discover if you just set out transplants.
"Gardening for me is a process. It is a natural tendency for human beings to connect with the earth in this very basic way. It gives you the opportunity to connect with the whole process of growth, nature's cycles, in a very intimate way. It's very grounding and satisfying and makes you feel self reliant," she says.
Before you get started with seed-sowing, it is important to find a good seed-starting mix. Although several are available on the market, there's a lot of variability among them. Avoid mixes that are heavy; instead, select a mix that is light and fluffy and has a small, very fine particle size. Generally speaking, one that is labeled as a seed-starting mix will do just fine. Prepare the seed-starting mix by adding water to it until its texture feels like that of a wrung-out sponge.
Next, locate a container for starting seeds. You can start seeds in a variety of things, such as tubs from the deli, plastic fresh fruit containers, or any other small containers. Make sure to poke some holes for drainage. Here, Shepherd uses recyclable fiber pot flats. She prefers to use them because they can be recycled for about three to four seasons. Add the prepared seed starting mix to the container, and it's ready for sowing.
Renee decides to sow tomato seed. She has selected a seed mix aptly named "Garden Candy" for its mixture of orange, red and yellow cherry tomatoes that taste sweet. Before sowing, read the package instructions on planting depth and spacing.
Using a pencil, she makes two furrows side by side in the soil, each about a 1/4-inch deep. She pours the seeds from the packet into her hand. "Now these seeds actually are different colors, and they don't come that way. We stain them with vegetable stain so you can tell the yellow-fruited variety from the red-fruited and the orange fruited."
Because the tomato seeds are so small and delicate, Shepherd uses a trick to get them from her hand to the seed tray. Moisten the pointed end of a pencil, and the pointed end can now pick up the tomato seed quite easily. (You can also use a moist sponge in place of the pencil.) She places the seeds into the soil, about a 1/2-inch apart. Pinch the soil over the seeds, pat it down and water.
At this point, light is critical for seed germination and growth. "Tomato seeds are tropical plants, and the reason we start them, as with peppers and eggplants, indoors is that they need a really long season to mature fruit." A sunny window may not provide enough light for germination, so you may want to invest in a good fluorescent light.
Planting in the ground
When the seedlings have put on a lot of growth over a few weeks, they're ready for the garden. To get them ready for their eventual location, be sure to harden them off. "Hardening off" is a process where plants that have been grown indoors are gradually moved outdoors to get them used to hot and sunny conditions. First, give plants a few days in a location where they'll get a half day of sun. Then gradually increase the amount of sunlight the plants get until they have adjusted. Leaf scald is a sign of too much sunlight. If this is the case, keep plants in partial sunlight until they have recovered. When they're ready to plant, dig a hole about as deep as the plant was in the container, place it in the ground and firm the soil around it.
If you want an easier method, try direct seeding. Prepare soil as recommended for the plant. Poke a hole in the ground with your finger or create a shallow furrow in a straight line in the soil. Place the seed in and press the soil firmly over it. Space seeds apart as recommended on the package instructions. Don't forget to water when finished.
With some greens like lettuce, you can broadcast seed. Shepherd bends over the well-prepared, raked soil and shakes the seed out over the soil, much like sprinkling parmesan on a pizza. Once the seed has been broadcast, simply shake some soil in a similar fashion over the seeds and water lightly.
Thriving just about anywhere -- from deserts to roadsides and mountain tops -- wildflowers are tenacious plants.