March 13, 2009

Seed Germination

Greetings fellow Gardeners!
The following tutorial refers to tomato growing specifically, but can easily be used for most vegetable
gardening starts and annual flowers. Enjoy the following gardening tips.
The following information is for general germination techniques that work well for the majority of plant
seeds that don't require special care. For example, most vegetables, herbs, and summer type flowers. Of
course, there are lots of specialty seeds and plants that require specific techniques but as I am not a
professional horticulturist, but a home gardener like yourselves, I will stick with what I know!
For basic seed germination you need a few things. First of all your seeds! It is always a
good idea that if you are just starting out, to start with seeds that are forgiving and
germinate easily and quickly! We all want to be successful as gardeners!
I am basically a vegetable gardener so every year I start out with my tomato plant seeds in
late February to early March. I like to get a ten week minimum head start before it is
planting time outside. Once you have your seeds, then you need to gather up your pots,
bag of soil, a soil thermometer, a household fan, , an inexpensive outlet timer, a watering
can, plant tags and what else you think you need. Don't' worry, I will go over each item and
my rationale for having them in my arsenal!
LIGHTING: If you don't have a south facing window area like me, then you need to
consider investing in a shop light at your local hardware store and a couple of "grow light
bulbs". The shop light is around $10-$15 which is cheap lighting but the grow lights are
kind of spendy, but well worth it. They are specifically made to project the correct colored
light rays for the seedlings. Keep your lights just barely above the growing seedlings.
POTS: OK, so I am cheap! I reuse pots and flats from the previous year!
No biggie as long as they are cleaned out and dipped in a solution of 10:1 water to
household bleach solution before using. This kills any lingering diseases or fungus
spores from last year. Course, if you are using brand new pots, then skip this step!
SOIL: Always use new potting soil ! I know, garden soil can be used as long
as it is sterilized first but why bother ! Potting soil is cheap and already
sterilized. I personally like Whitney Farm's Germinating Mix (Ingredients: A
soil less mix consisting of fine-screened Sphagnum Peat Moss, Fine Perlite,
Fine Vermiculite, Sand, and Fine Pumice. ) for small seeds like petunias and
tomatoes. but any good brand will do. For larger seeds like squashes and
cucumbers, I use the cheapest generic soil mix available. It has coarser
texture and stuff like stick chunks but the larger seeds can push up through it
and the roots like the coarser texture to grow into. Makes transplanting easy
as the soil doesn't fall off the root ball like the finer stuff does.
Most commercial mixes contain : high-quality sphagnum peat, fine vermiculite
and often perlite, a very small quantity of limestone, a wetting agent and
enough fertilizer to last through two or three waterings For a home made mix
(per gallon) My personal home-made soil mix: 1 part store bought bagged
soil, 1 part peat moss, and 1 part perlite. You can also add as an option,1 part organic compost for an added
nutritional boost.
As for fertilizer, that would come later in the watering can when I water. Seeds do not need fertilizers or
additional nutrients until they are established and are growing leaves. The most important thing to remember
when using peat moss is that it doesn't retain or wick moisture well. Once you have it dampened, you can't let it
dry out completely or you will lose your seeds from dehydration! A good rule of thumb is to mix your seed
starting mix the day before sowing and dampen it. Recheck the moisture level the next day before you plant your
seeds, then keep the mix "slightly damp" until ready to transplant. Your seedlings will pop up quickly through this
mix and once established well, then you will be ready to "pot up" into larger containers with standard soil mix
(here is where the generic cheap soil mix comes in).
SOIL THERMOMETER: Why? So you know the temperature of your soil! Most seeds
don't like cold wet soil and will refuse to germinate, even rot! Now, this is more
important for starting seeds in your unheated greenhouse I admit, but I use mine
indoors to monitor the ambient general temperatures surrounding my seed
environment. Also since I use a heating mat to give my seeds a head start, I can make
sure that the soil isn't getting too hot. This first year I used a plant heating mat, I
couldn't understand why none of the seeds were germinating. I check the soil temp and
found out that the soil was nearly one hundred degrees! So, I use some wood slats and
raised the seed flats off the mats by an inch or two and within a few days, seedlings
started to emerge! I learned that since I start my seed indoors and the average room
temperature is around seventy, that the mats got too hot when in direct contact with the
flats! So by raising them, I got the temp closer to 75-80 and the seeds germinated!
Remember, this is tomatoes we are talking about. For general seed germination, the soil temp should be in the
60-75 degree range. If your soil temp is staying too warm, then the heat needs to be turned down or preferable
off in the room where the seed flats are at. Seedlings like a night time temp of 50-60 degrees so the plant can
harden off gradually. I had my heat mats plugged into my timer so at night when the lights and fan turned off, so
did the heat mats. Once the seeds have germinated, turn off the heat mats permanently. They don't need them
and you want your seedlings to grow up stout and ready to go outside in the real world!
HOUSEHOLD FAN: The number two reason for seed failure is a fungus called "damping off". The fungus
attacks the tender stems at the soil level and before you know it, your precious seedlings have fallen over and
are dying. Nothing you can do at that point. So, the trick here is prevention! This is where the household fan
comes in. By maintaining a steady low flow of air circulating in your seedling room, you help keep the top layer of
soil dry enough that the fungus doesn't grow. I have had no seedling damping off since I tried this years ago and
continue faithfully to use the fan every spring. Of course in the greenhouse setting, you have to provide a cross
ventilation through your windows, doors and fan system if you have one. I have my fan hooked up to my timer so
than when the lights come on, the fan comes on too! Works great!
TIMER: Onto the timer, this is where it gets tricky. Some plants are light sensitive such as marigolds while others
could care less. So for simplicity sake, let's stick with tomatoes. I start my seedlings in late February. I will start
out my daylight hours with the timer set to eight hours on and sixteen hours off. Then as the plants grow, I
gradually extend the daylight hours until I hit twelve and twelve. This seems to work great for tomatoes. By the
time they are ready for moving into my outdoor greenhouse in April, they are nice and stout, deep green and
look fabulous. Also by using a timer, I don't have to worry if we are out of town a few days. The plants will never
miss me!
WATERING CAN: Well, this is a no brainer. I use a gallon milk jug often times so I can mix my fertilizer correctly,
then pour that mixture into a watering can for individual pot watering. OK, here is the Number One Cause of
seed failure!: Over watering! Don't drown your seedlings. The soil should never be more than slightly damp. If
the soil feels damp, don't water! I finally broke down and bought a water meter. The soil may look dry on top but
the meter says it's plenty damp underneath! Great tool and one can be picked up for around $6.00. For
fertilizing, I use a liquid hydroponic solution that is balanced and has all the
nutrients that the plant needs. After all, hydroponic systems don't use any soil
and the plants are totally dependent on the nutrients provided. Of course, general
products such as Miracle Grow are just fine too. Dilute the solution to half the
recommended concentration. I add nutrients to my watering can every time I
water. I feel that the plants get a sustainable and constant feeding this way. After
all, you wouldn't want to go for three days on just water, then get a mega meal to
make up! Plants are constantly growing and need nutrients just like children!
Here is a great idea for conserving water in your outdoor garden! A Poor Man's
drip system, if you will. Fertigating: (See picture on right) Works great with any
type soil, especially heavy or gravel type soils like ours. Drill a 3/16 hole near the bottom on one of your plastic
bucket or gallon milk jug and you are all set. I like the idea of the gallon jug so I can put in the correct amount of
nutrients as stated on the packet and not worry about over or underfeeding. Just fill your bucket with quantity of
water you want per plant, add your nutrients if desired and walk away!
PLANT TAGS AND PERMANENT MARKER: A must have before you even start
planting. Believe me, you won't be able to remember what every tray has in it. Then
when you are ready to transplant, you already have the tag and it goes right in with
the plant in it's new pot! Nothing more frustrating than "mystery plants"!
Onto Planting! : OK, you have your premixed dampened
soil which you prepare the previous day. Your pots are
cleaned and sterilized. Your have your plant tags, pen,
seeds, and pots. Let's go! Lightly fill each pot or section 3/4
full of soil mix but don't pack down. Using your finger, or the back end of the pen, knife
or what have you and create a depression at least three times the diameter of the seed
or in most cases about ¼ inch deep. Drop in one or two seeds. I like to overseed
slightly so I have something sprouted in every section. I have no problem in pinching
off extras later! Gently tap the soil back over the seed and press down lightly but don't
compress! Gently water the section with tepid warm tap water, place your printed plant
tag and move on. When the whole tray is filled, then cover with a clear tray top or clear
plastic wrap and tuck underneath. There, you are done for now! Place under the light so that the light bulbs are
no more than three to four inches above the seed flat. The further the light is away, the less intensity the
seedlings will get and you will have weak, spindly plants that will probably die. I place the shop light fixture right
over the top of the seed tray cover. Not only do the seeds get the most intense light but the warm heat from the
bulbs help in germinating too. No need to take the cover off again until you see sprouts!
In a few days, you will start seeing seedlings appear.
Now, it is time to remove the cover so the emerging

seedlings can get the circulated air from your fan. No
need to fertilized until they have started to show true
leaves. See the picture to the right. Notice on this
pumpkin seedlings that the first two seed leaves are
rounded (fig 1). These are called the "seed leaves".
Then the "true leaves" start to come on. This is the
serrated looking leaf (fig 2) and notice the newly
emerging leaf in the center. The white arrow points to a new true leaf just
You will notice in the sprouts picture on the left, that three out of four seeds have sprouted so far. That's 75%
which is considered average for most garden seeds. I checked and found the final seed is sprouting but just
below the soil surface.
Probably in about a week, these sprouts will be ready to be transplanted into the outdoor garden. I am looking
forward to growing my first crop of popcorn (Japanese Hull-less popcorn)!
There, you've done it! You have now planted and germinated your own seeds for your garden!

When you judge that your plants are outgrowing their cells or section, gently remove one
from it's cell and look at the soil ball. Do you see white roots extending from the side of the
ball and maybe starting to curl around the exterior? OK! It's time to transplant up into a
larger pot and a more sturdier soil mix as described above.

Dozens of petunia plants for my garden and for selling at the Master Gardener's Fair this spring!

Congratulations, you are a true gardener! I hope you enjoy this quick tutorial on seed starting. All instructions
contained here are from my own personal experiences. Your situation may be different and your seeds may
need special conditions, lighting, temperatures and soils. Please consult some good gardening books for more
info such as American Horticultural Society Series including their excellent A-Z Plant Encyclopedia, Plant and
Propagation book and others found in your local library. For more specific planting help, please call your local
county Extension office and ask to speak to a "Master Gardener". He or she would be more than happy to help
you find solutions and be successful as a home gardener.

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