Starting Plants From Seed – Tips for Success

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Watering Plants

Ariel Fugate inside a greenhouse on Main Campus. Photo by Marc Hall

I think everybody is ready for warmer days! As the season changes from winter to spring it is time to start thinking about gardening. Whether you enjoy flower gardening, vegetable gardening or both, you may consider raising your plants from seed. Here are some tips to help you be more successful in your endeavors to go from seeds to beautiful plants.

First, you need to start with viable seed. If you purchase seeds, be sure they are from a reputable source so they are more likely to have good germination rates. Many seeds will keep for several years if handled properly, but it is best to buy seeds only for the year you intend to plant them. Seed packs should have the date of the germination test and the results as a  percentage.

If you are saving seeds from one season to the next be careful to store them in a cool (around 40 degrees F), dry place. You may want to do a germination test on seeds you keep from year to year prior to planting. You can do this by putting them in a moist paper towel and placing them in a plastic storage bag. Keep the paper towel moist and the bag in a warm location. This may vary depending on seed type. After a couple of weeks check the seed and determine what percent germinated.

Choosing a good seed starting medium (soil) is very important. The medium should be well aerated, disease and insect free, and low in nutrients (add nutrients as the plants begin to grow). Seeds need oxygen therefore your starting medium should not hold too much water, creating an anaerobic environment for the seeds. Moisture should be consistent. Do not allow them to dry out and do not keep them soggy wet.

Temperature is also a critical part of successfully germinating seeds. Most seeds have an optimum germinating temperature. Tomatoes, for example, will germinate between 50 and 95 degrees F, but they will germinate best at around 80 degrees F. A range of 65 – 75 degrees is a good germinating temperature for most plants. Heat mats work well for this process. Remember, it is the soil temperature that matters and not the ambient temperature. Like watering, consistent soil temperature will improve your seed germinating success.

Another important factor to consider when germinating seeds is the depth at which you plant the seed. As a general rule, the smaller the seed the less depth it will tolerate. Planting a seed 1.5 to 2 times the depth of its size is a good rule of thumb. Some very small seeds like begonia and petunia can just be pressed into the soil without any covering. Other small seeds may be buried enough by a gentle watering. Vermiculite is a great medium to use for covering seeds because it is light and air can flow through it easily.

Making sure the light requirements are met for seeds to germinate successfully is a consideration as well. Some seeds germinate better in the dark, e.g. vinca, verbena, and annual phlox; while some require light to germinate, e.g. begonia, impatiens, and petunia. Light requirements are usually indicated on the seed packet or in the seed catalog.

If you save your own seed, you may have to overcome seed dormancies using methods such as scarification and stratification. These are normally already met when you purchase seeds from a reputable source, so we will save these considerations for another article.

Other things to remember when raising your plants from seeds are labeling and lead time. Always label your seeds as you sow/plant them. Do not rely on trying to remember which seeds you planted in a particular container. Be sure to allow enough lead time for your plants to grow large enough to transplant into your garden. For example, it will take approximately 6 weeks for a tomato seed to germinate and grow big enough to set out in your garden, while most peppers will take 8 weeks. (Stepping plants up into larger containers may be necessary during this time.) So give yourself plenty of time to insure you start with quality plants that will produce well.

As you can see, germinating seeds require a lot more than just putting seeds in some dirt, covering them up and watering once or twice. In order to be successful there is a process to be followed but one that will be worth the effort and can pay big dividends.

Check out this video about planting small seeds on our YouTube Channel: .

For more information about starting seeds or other horticulture related topics please contact me. Granville County Center – 919-603-1350; Person County Center – 336-599-1195; or by email –