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Seeding Tips

In the past 8 years (since this column began, we stopped growing Roma tomatoes and some pepper varieites for our salsa and we stopped participating in the Warner Farmer's Market so we could focus more on our growing capabilities. More later . . .

Seed Comanies

A geographic profile of the seed companies we use:  only one is located in the south (Parks), two are in upstate New York (Harris and Stokes), Burpee is in the mid-Atlantic region, and the remainder are in New England. 

Fedco Seeds (fedcoseeds.com), Johnny's (johnnyseeds.com), and Cook's Garden  offer excellent tips on growing and cultivating. 

Smaller companies like Vermont Bean and Seed (VG&S), Shepherds, and Cooks Garden have a greater selection of herbs and of heirloom seeds and plants.   

Another little-known seed catalogue company, Horizon Herbs (www.chatlink.com/~herbseed) offers "strictly medicinal seeds."  In 2001, they were the only source of Spilanthes.  It is an attractive plant used for treating toothaches, and, with Echinacea, for enhancing the immune system.  The results of our experience with this and another herb seed, Bishop's Flower, was excellent. 

Every year, seed companies abandon old reliables for a designer color, or a more robust or more resilient cultivar.  Our favorite single-flowered, taller Gaillardia is disappearing from catalogues.  So is  'Green Comet' broccoli, now replaced by 'Southern Comet' and  'McKanna Giants' columbine.  The old standby 'Ace' bell pepper continues to evolve into new cultivars. 

While surfing the National Institute of Health (NIH) and Johns Hopkins sites for the cancer-preventive qualities of broccoli, the editor stumbled upon another seed company that claims to be the oldest certified organic nursery in the country.  The Natural Gardening Company (www.naturalgardening.com) carries all organically grown seed, many of them open-pollinated.

The end result of all this hybridizing and genetic tinkering is the loss of natural plant resistance and diversity.   When a plant is bred to be resistant to certain diseases, it loses its natural ability to adapt to a particular area's soil, climate, and pests.  The same fungus that caused the Irish potato famine is back, threatening to overpower new hybrid potatoes.  (See Cobwebs Links)  Fedcoseeds and Stokes offer a good selection of open-pollination plants to counter the trend. 

Government agencies are only now looking at voluntary regulations of   genetically-engineered plant varieties in the mainstream marketplace.  (See Cobwebs n' Dust for more info.)   The only seed companies taking the Safe Seed Pledge   are Fedco, Johnny's, Cook's Garden,  Shepherd's.Cook's Garden sells only seed that is certified organic and has not been genetically treated.   Johnny's offers mostly untreated seeds and takes a "Safe Seed" pledge to not knowingly buy or sell genetically engineered seeds or plants.  Harris Seed uses hot water, chemical, and biological processes to treat their seed.  See Cobwebs Archive for more information on this subject.

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Seed Cultivars

See Planter's Favorites for more on our experience with different cultivars.

 Seed Germination  

*  According to one seed company:  "If you are storing seeds for just a year or two, no special packaging should be necessary if the sum of the temperature (degrees F) plus the relative humidity is always under 100. If the temperature and humidity sum consistently exceeds 100, store seeds in airtight containers with a desiccant to absorb excess moisture. Powdered charcoal, milk powder, and rice are effective desiccants. Dry desiccants at a low oven setting before use."   (Virginia Tech Extension, May newsletter)

*  Before ordering seeds, try a "rag doll" germination test of those stored from last year.  Roll 10-20 seeds in a moist paper towel and keep them moist in a warm location.  For most crops, viable seeds will germinate in about a week.  If half the seeds germinate and you have enough left to plant twice as many plants as you need, you should get an adequate yield.  Even under ideal storage conditions, some vegetable seeds will degenerate after 1-2 years from purchase.  These include sweet corn, beans,  onions, okra, and parsnips. (Virginia Tech Extension, January and February newsletters)

*Some seeds germinate more quickly than others.  Of the crops we grow, the following:

take less than a week

arugula (rocket salad)
mache (corn salad)
leaf lettuce

take more than week  

peppers, tomatoes
romaine lettuce
cole crops (broccoli, collards)
petunia, verbena, and other cool-weather annuals

This gardener has had luck in germinating purple echinacea, which should be stratified (cold-treated) in frig for 2 weeks.   Germination rate usually is about 50% and began almost 7 days after putting them under lights.  White 'Angustifolia' echinacea is much more difficult to grow, but I keep trying, because it is believed to contain stronger immunological properties than the purple. 

Lots of seeds require light for germination and many require cool temperatures. 

Using heating cables or a heat mat can speed up germination significantly.   Park Seed has a portable greenhouse for about $27.  Harris Seeds carries heating mats, the size of a plant tray, for $48;Charley's Greenhouse has them for $27.   Pricey, but ours are still going strong after over 10 years of use.   Leakproof growing trays with covers are cheaper and more environmentally-friendly than those disposable sets you can purchase at discount or hardware stores.  Harris Seeds has a set of 3 for $38, Johnny's Seeds sells sets of 5 for about $21.

In general, very small seeds should covered only lightly and larger seeds with about 1/4" of soil.    Read the seed packet instructions!  Beware of "tamping," or firming, soil over seeds too much.  This can cause a crust   that prohibits the seeds from breaking the surface of the soil.  (If germination doesn't occur when expected, use a fork or the pointed end of a plant marker to gently uplift the soil throughout and remoisten with a sprayer.  This technique has worked for this gardener, and, like the saying "A stitch in time saves nine," saves time in reseeding.)

Watering seed containers from the bottom up in a tub or sink of water (about 1") helps keep soil evenly moist.  Covering the container with plastic also keeps it moist, but care should be taken to provide some air circulation to prevent damping-off fungus.     

Care should be used in transplanting to avoid damaging roots. Use 2/3 garden soil mixed with the seeding mix. (We bring enough garden soil inside in the fall and store it in the basement for spring seeding.)

Late April is crunch time for Planter under the grow lights, when space is a premium.  It's too early to till and too cold to harden the plants.  (Night temps can still dip into the 20's.)   If outside temperature lows are above 46 degrees,  some cool-weather plant sets can be moved to a screened porch or other protected area that gets at least 5-6 hours of good light. You can even use a large garden cart (with three sides) to track the sunlight.

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Seeding Schedule (Zone 4)

Note in the seeding tables below that hotter peppers (e.g., jalapenos, habaneros, piquin, Thai, Tabasco) are seeded earlier than other peppers (cherry, Hungarian, cayenne, sweet).  They seem to have a longer germination and overall growing period than other peppers, and getting them to turn red in a short growing season requires some finessing!

Seeding Indoors - Early April

  Vegetables, Herbs:                   Ornamentals:                

lettuce (winter)
hot peppers
sweet marjoram

Seeding Indoors - Mid to Late April

Vegetables, Herbs:                                     Ornamentals:                 

lettuce (winter, summer)
greens, regular
greens, oriental
other peppers
morning glory
runner beans

*  Paste tomatoes should not be seeded till the end of the month, so they are timed to coincide with the maturity of peppers.  An essential for chileheads who can their own salsa! 

**Asparagus beetles, which appears when asparagus harvest begins, love tomatillos.   Seed them at the end of the month or early May to avoid the life cycle of this voracious larvae.

> Easter lilies and  forced bulbs may not survive if planted outside after they finish blooming indoors. 

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In the Garden

Mulching at right thickness throughout the growing season helps protect soil against freezing in spring or winter and against drought in summer.  In spring, leave just enough to protect tender lily, peony, asparagus buds against late frosts, but not enough to encourage rotting, or to provide critter hiding places.  

Direct Seeding

Vegetables, Herbs:               Ornamentals:             

dill, cilantro, and   parsley*


morning glory
sweet pea

* Cilantro and dill should be direct seeded, because these two biennial herbs resent transplanting.  Since both the seeds and the leaves are used in cooking in both plants, and since they each readily reseed themselves, let some flowers go to seed for a fall crop or for  next year's garden.  That's the kind of crop every gardener likes!  Cilantro readily reseeds, even after tilling.   Save a spot for succession planting in the same spot, so you will have some available for salsa when tomatoes and peppers have ripened.   

Seed Stratification

*Some seeds like  Echinacea should be stratified (pre-sowing cold treatment) for best results.  Johnny's Selected Seeds now has a variety of Echinacea that does not require cold treatment, but it has fibrous roots and may not be the type used in making Echinacea tincture.  'Angustifolia,' a white variety, is supposed to be better for tinctures, and is not recommended for growing by beginning gardeners.  If it makes it into the ground and survives early frosts, the meadow vole will love it.  One plant made it through last year, but it is surrounded underground by hardware cloth.   

Plant echinacea seeds in a small pot in moist soil, cover with plastic, and refrigerate for 7-21 days, depending on the variety (7 days for purple, 21 for white).  Be sure to keep it moist.  Germination of E. purpurea is about 75% and E. angustifolia, about 40%.  

Seed Storage

*  According to one seed company:  "If you are storing seeds for just a year or two, no special packaging should be necessary if the sum of the temperature (degrees F) plus the relative humidity is always under 100. If the temperature and humidity sum consistently exceeds 100, store seeds in airtight containers with a desiccant to absorb excess moisture. Powdered charcoal, milk powder, and rice are effective desiccants. Dry desiccants at a low oven setting before use."   (Virginia Tech Extension, May newsletter)