Success with Seeds

by | Feb 19, 2019

It’s around this time of year when millions of Canadians are leafing through seed catalogues or browsing through seed racks in garden centres. They are imagining all sorts of wonderful colour schemes for their garden and anticipating baskets of fresh produce, most of which are going to come from seeds. And while it all seems fairly easy, in reality, I would guess that less than 50% of all the seeds purchased actually grow to maturity. This is not because the seeds are defective, even though we like to blame them for our bad luck. It's most often because we need a little more information on how to have success with seeds.

Seed Struggles: Common Mistakes

succulent plant in ceramic pink valentine's day pot with heart centered
The next problem area is what to do with seeds once we have them. Some folks leave them in the kitchen, some end up in the garage, and many get misplaced or lost. The best place for virtually all your vegetable and flower seeds is in your freezer. Not only do you know where they are, but they are also being stored at a constant temperature and humidity. This stratifies them as well, which helps speed up germination when the time comes for starting.
Firstly, most of us buy too much seed. We keep thinking that vegetable seeds are such a great investment, so we buy a few extra, just in case some don’t make it. While it may seem like a great idea, that’s like buying a year’s supply of detergent when it’s not on sale. If you only need six tomato plants, why are you buying 100 seeds? As a guide, many seed companies are now listing the number of seeds contained in each packet, and seed catalogues are very good at indicating how many seeds there are per gram.
closeup of White Moth Orchid

When to Start Seeds

As the old saying goes, timing is everything, and this principle is especially true when starting seeds indoors. There has to be a natural progression from seed germination to planting outside, and unless you have a perfectly controlled environment or heated greenhouse in which to keep young seedlings, you must time the sowing of your seeds to correspond with the readiness of your garden outside. In other words, don’t start outdoor tomatoes until early April.

As a rule of thumb, a later start is better as our springs have been rather cool and wet the past few years. When the weather warms up to consistent day temperatures of 10°C, many seeds, like peas, broad beans, radishes and onions, can be sown directly outdoors into your garden.

I’m also convinced that you need a cool, well-lit area in which to place your young seedlings during the early stages of growth. Adjustable Power Smart lighting, adjustable heat and circulating fans (to help prevent fungal issues) are also important.  

How to Germinate Seeds

It takes a bit of trial and error to really achieve success with germination, but the basics are: use a good medium and clean starting trays, and provide bottom heat, good light and humidity. Professional starter soil mixes are probably the easiest way to go, and if you use these mixes in plastic cell packs or seed plug trays, your success will be far better.

Many seed catalogues indicate the best temperature each variety needs for maximum germination, and the easiest way to achieve that temperature is with a heating mat. They may not be cheap, but they are a worthwhile investment if you are planning to continue sowing indoors in the future.

white daisy bouquet
pink floribunda roses
Very few seeds need to be covered with a growing mix for optimum germination. In fact, most seeds need to be exposed to about 12 to 16 hours of high-intensity light per day. They must, however, be kept humid. After watering them carefully – using very hot water and a proper watering can, like the English ‘Haws’ watering can, or a misting bottle – be sure you place some clear plastic or glass on top of the trays to hold in both the warmth and the humidity. Seeds should be checked twice daily for moisture.
Germination time will vary with the type of seed, but as soon as they sprout, immediately remove the covers, cool them down, provide lots of light and keep the humidity up. A drenching with an organic fungicide, like Safer’s ‘Defender’, will help prevent disease. Maintain the soil on the dry side once the seeds are up and away.

Your greatest challenge will be to keep all your seedlings short and compact before they go into the garden. High light, moderate watering and cooler temperatures will help you achieve just that.

There is a lot of satisfaction in growing your own plants from seed, but germination takes a good deal of care and attention. Seeds contain a little magic, and like a good magician, we must learn our craft well to help them perform to our expectations.

Pink Anthurium Flower