Every gardener, whether a first-time grower or a seasoned veteran, knows the joy and pride of telling anyone who will listen that they grew those flowers, vegetables or anything else from seed.
"Starting plants from seed offers not only a sense of accomplishment but also allows gardeners a chance to grow things that may not be available at the local garden center as transplants," explains Greg Stack, a University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator.
According to Stack, you can usually find some long-standing favorites, but if you want the very latest types or want to try some of the heirloom varieties, you often have to get the seed from mail-order sources. Once the seeds are in hand, you'd have to get them to germinate and grow so you had useable transplants for the garden. This is where many gardeners face frustration. At some point in the process, the seed either fails to germinate, or once germinated, it just doesn't grow as it should, often resulting in poor quality transplants.
"Growing plants from seed is not complicated if you know a few basic seed germination tips."
First of all, know when to start the seed.
"Many gardeners pick dates at random when it comes time to sowing seed indoors," Stack adds. "This often results in very tall, overgrown, poor-quality seedlings because they were sown too early."
Sowing schedules are based upon knowing how long it takes to produce a useable transplant from seed (number of weeks) and when you can safely plant the resulting transplants outdoors (based upon frost-free dates for your area).
For example, zinnias or tomatoes take about four to five weeks to produce useable transplants for the garden from seed. They are also tender plants, preferring to be placed outdoors after the frost- free date. If your frost-free date is May 15 and it takes four to five weeks to grow transplants, the seed needs to be sown between April 5 and 12 (four to five weeks ahead of the frost-free date).
"Once you have that information you can go on to step two: assembling your seed-starting materials and the germination process," he explains. "The container needs to have drainage holes, or if you recycle and use old nursery flats or cell packs, make sure they are washed clean with a 10% bleach solution (one part bleach and nine parts water). The germination medium needs to be sterile and well drained, yet retain some moisture for germination and be well aerated."
Once your container is filled, place the container in a shallow tray filled with water. This allows the medium to be pre-moistened by drawing water up from below. Once the surface is moist, remove the container from the tray and sow the seed. Cover seed lightly with media.
The best germination is achieved when the media stays uniformly moist and warm. Cover the container with a piece of plastic or insert the container into a plastic storage bag and set it so it receives some type of bottom heat to keep the medium at about 70 to 75 degrees. Light is not critical at this point for most seed. Keep an eye on the container for both moisture and the first signs of seed germination. Once they start to come up, you need to go to step three.
Once the seedlings can be handled easily, they should be transplanted to containers. Use similar types of potting soils to fill these containers and similar conditions of bright light, cool temperatures, moderate watering, and good air circulation. Fertilization during the growing on process can consist of general purpose liquid fertilizer used at half strength.
Step four is getting the plants accustomed to the outdoors in a process called "hardening off." About two weeks before moving the plants into the outdoor garden, get the plants acquainted with these conditions gradually. Place the plants either in a cold frame or set them outside on the porch, patio, or balcony during sunny days and move them back inside at night when it gets cold. With a cold frame, the sash can be lowered to protect the plants at night.