Posts Tagged seed propagation

Seeds vs. Plants: The Pros and Cons

If you’ve read much of this blog, you know that most of the vegetables, flowers, and even herbs I grow began as seeds germinated in my little greenhouse. Frankly, I get a little giddy every late winter when these arrive:

Some of this year's seed order.

Some of this year’s seed order.

I have my reasons for preferring this method, but there are plenty of good reasons to plant your flower and vegetable gardens with small plants you buy locally. Today, I thought I’d go over a few of the pros and cons for each method.

A few of the seeds of varieties I've successfully germinated so far this year.

A few of the seeds of varieties I’ve successfully germinated so far this year.

Starting from Seed: Pros

  • You can grow exactly the varieties you want because you order the seeds and grow them yourself.
  • Seeds are much less expensive than plants, so you can grow more of everything.
  • You control growing conditions for your plants from germination to transplantation in their permanent locations in your garden.
  • The big sense of accomplishment that comes from doing it all yourself is a great feeling.

Starting from Seed: Cons

  • Unless you can provide optimal indoor conditions for germination, you may get poor germination rates.
  • If you direct-sow in the garden, you are at the mercy of the weather. You can ameliorate a lack of rain with watering, but you must watch for soil crusting that can prevent seeds from emerging, and if you get a hard rain, seeds will travel remarkable distances, or disappear entirely.
  • If you direct-sow in the garden, you also must watch for raids from marauding voles, and if soil temperatures are too cool or too warm, some seeds won’t germinate.
From let to right: Dianthus 'Lace Perfume,' Italian 'Gigante' Parsley, Tuscan Baby Leaf Kale, and Italian Aromatic Sage seeds.

From let to right: Dianthus ‘Lace Perfume,’ Italian ‘Gigante’ Parsley, Tuscan Baby Leaf Kale, and Italian Aromatic Sage seeds.

  • Most herb seeds, many flower seeds, and even a lot of vegetable seeds are quite small. You’ll need practice to become adept at handling them, putting them where you want them, etc.
From left to right: Tyee spinach, Merlot lettuce, La Roma III tomato, and Etiuda pepper seeds.

From left to right: Tyee spinach, Merlot lettuce, La Roma III tomato, and Etiuda pepper seeds (click on the image to see a larger version of the photo.

  • Soil depth is critical when planting seeds. Many beginners plant seeds too deeply, which prevents their germination. Follow planting depth directions on the seed packets assiduously.

Starting from Plants You Buy: Pros

  • You save enormous amounts of time by not having to bother with seed germination, and transplanting and nurturing seedlings until they’re ready for your garden.
  • You can buy exactly the number of plants you want without spending time trying to find homes for extra plants you grew because of inaccurate guessing of seed germination rates.
  • You can see living plants before you buy them, rather than relying on often-overflattering catalog descriptions. This allows you to select the sturdiest, healthiest plants with the best root systems.
  • If you live in an area like mine, where farmers’ markets abound, you’ll be able to purchase healthy, locally grown plants ready for your garden. And because these folks usually sell the same varieties they grow for market, you’ll be able to choose from plants well-adapted for your area, grown by experts who love their work. And they often sell heirloom varieties of plants as well as hybrid choices.

Starting from Plants: Cons

  • If your only option for plant starts is a big box store’s garden section, you usually won’t get great plants. These are often grown in one place and shipped all over the country, so varieties aren’t necessarily the best for your region, and are usually limited to a few choices. Also, the plants are not treated well during shipping or even in the garden section at the store. Have you ever noticed how staff at such places leave innocent plants out in conditions that are too hot and/or too cold? And how they water the poor things? Find a better local source for your plants or suffer the consequences.
  • You don’t know if your purchased plants always grew in optimal conditions. Even if they look healthy, if they were exposed to temperatures below 50 degrees, studies have shown that tomato plants are never as productive as those maintained above that temperature.
  • Often the sizes of plants you buy are limited. Early in the season, they may all be small. Small plants don’t handle transplanting stress as well as larger ones. On the other hand, larger transplants can break during transplanting. As with seed sowing, transplanting takes practice and patience to perfect.
I grew these healthy tomato seedlings from seed. At this size, they require carefully handling during transplantation.

I grew these healthy tomato seedlings from seed. At this size, they require careful handling during transplantation.

  • Buying plants is more expensive than buying seeds, and if you lose plants during transplanting, you’ll spend more money to buy replacements. Most folks will buy fewer varieties when they buy plants instead of seeds because of cost considerations.

I hope this helps my fellow Piedmont gardeners as they contemplate this year’s growing season. Time, money, and experience all impact what you decide to grow. I hope this post helps you clarify how you’ll choose what to grow in your garden this year.

My seed-grown Italian parsley germinated better than I anticipated. I'm going to need to be creative about finding spots for all of them.

My seed-grown Italian parsley germinated better than I anticipated. I’m going to need to be creative about finding spots for all of them.

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Soil Secrets Revealed

Key ingredients.

Key ingredients.

The pile on the left consists of aged wood chips — all that’s left of the great Northern Red Oak that once grew in my backyard. The pile on the right is a load of mushroom compost that was delivered about three weeks ago. Both sit on thick black plastic (tarps work too) to prevent plant roots from invading my supply of soil-improving goodness.

I can tell by the search strings bringing folks to this blog that many new gardeners are hoping to grow vegetables this year. Hurray, I say! And welcome to the sisterhood/brotherhood of folks who grow at least a bit of their own food. It’s clear you have many questions, and today, I wish to address one of the key factors that separates successful growers from black thumbs — soil.

Clay soil challenges

In the southeastern Piedmont region of the US, our native soils are mostly clay. Here in North Carolina, we call it Carolina Red Clay, although I hear folks in Georgia put their state’s name in front of the Red Clay portion of the moniker. Contrary to common belief, clay is not low in soil nutrients. If it were, our Piedmont native forests and fields would not be so lush.

But clay is not ideal when you want to grow vegetables. Veggies prefer loamy soils rich in organic material. The organic material improves drainage and the moisture-holding capacity of the soil. It also provides a home for the zillions of beneficial soil organisms that facilitate the transformation of soil nutrients into forms accessible to the root systems of veggies and other plants. Soil organisms range from visible participants, such as earthworms (You can’t have too many!) to beneficial fungi and bacteria. Healthy soil is jam-packed with life.

Invest in raised beds

In my decades of experience, the only reliable way to create rich, healthy garden soil from red clay is to add as much organic material as you can. To make this practical, you must create raised beds. Yes, this is hard work in the beginning, but once created, you will reap tasty rewards for decades to come. Trust me on this. Raised beds improve drainage and help you build deep, rich soils suitable for growing root crops like beets and carrots.

The raised beds in my garden don’t look very raised, because they aren’t enclosed by boards or stone. Wonder Spouse and I created them by digging out the paths between beds, adding that soil to the beds to make them higher. We fill the paths back up to their original levels with wood chips. The chips suppress weeds and act as a moisture reservoir from which plants in the beds can draw as needed.


I am an organic gardener. I think chemical fertilizers are always a bad idea, because too much of what is applied — especially to lawns — washes downhill and into our streams and water reservoirs.  Most of what washes is excess nitrogen, which creates massive disruptions in the ecology of our streams and lakes. The resulting pollution requires considerable expensive treatment before that water is safe to drink.

Because I’ve been adding compost to my beds for twenty years, the soil is quite healthy and contains many nutrients. But vegetable production is nutrient-intensive, so I do add organic fertilizers to my veggie beds. For members of the Solanaceae family (tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, potatoes), I use a mix specially formulated for them. It seems to kick flower production into high gear, and since you can’t have tomatoes and peppers without flowers, I give these plants a boost.

For squashes, beans, and spring greens, I rely on a balanced organic fertilizer with a relatively low nutrient load. I’m looking for balance here, and just a bit of a boost to the soil already there.

Root crops — in my case, beets and carrots — seem to require a trace nutrient or two that my soil is low on. When I use an organic fertilizer specially formulated for these crops, I get much larger beets and carrots.

Follow instructions for these fertilizers. More is NOT better.


Mushroom compost

Mushroom compost

I do make my own, but it is never enough, not by a long shot. Resources abound with instructions for making compost. Your favorite search engine will tell you all you need to know.

Although I never make enough compost for my needs, a number of nearby suppliers offer excellent compost options. They will deliver partial truckloads, or if you have a pick-up truck (or a friend with one), they’ll load it for you. If you have neighbors, consider sharing a truckload.

The compost above is used by local organic mushroom growers. They mix a variety of organic components together for growing their mushrooms, but they discard it after one crop to prevent disease issues — much the way I rotate my crops annually, only they discard their growing medium.  This year’s batch seems a bit more fibrous than last year’s, so I’ve decided to use it to mulch my veggies. It’s fibrous enough to suppress weeds, while it retains moisture and slowly allows nutrients to seep into the soil.

Aged wood chips

Aged wood chips

I’ll use these wood chips to mulch ornamental beds that aren’t close to my house (termites love wood chips), and to top off any paths in the veggie garden that have low spots. In my yard, wood chips usually last about three years before they break down into soil.

Soil for container-growing and seed-starting

I am of the opinion that potting soil offered in bags at home improvement stores and many garden centers is lousy. Now such merchants are pushing potting soil that already contains fertilizer to “save you time.” Please, I beg you, do not be fooled. First, these fertilizers are not organic, second, one size does not fit all when it comes to fertilizer, and third, while you may get initial rapid growth, the poor quality of the actual soil provided will eventually cause your plants to suffer.

If you are trying to grow veggies in containers on your patio, I recommend that you make your own soil by purchasing top-quality topsoil and compost from a local provider. Find such a person through recommendations from seasoned gardeners. All providers are not created equal.

My seed-starting secret weapon

My seed-starting secret weapon

If you are hard-core and have the time, you can create your own seed starting mix by baking good soil you created yourself in an oven to sterilize it. Personally, I don’t have the time, and I think it’s probably hard to ensure you kill all potential contaminators. I rely on a professional-grade soil mix that I’ve been buying for years from a local garden store. They are going out of business, alas. So next year, I’ll pay the extra cost of having it shipped in. It will totally be worth it.

The Metro-Mix soil blends are ideal for seed germination. I am certain they are the reason I achieve almost 100% germination from every flat I plant. These mixes contain no added nutrients. You don’t want fertilizers in the soil when you sow seeds. Seeds contain all the nutrients they need to germinate and initiate plant growth. After a week or two, I start adding a dilute mixture of fish emulsion/seaweed when I water them. This is all the seedlings need to flourish until it’s time to transplant them to the garden.

These greens are ready to transplant as soon as their beds are ready.

These greens are ready to transplant as soon as their beds are ready.

This blog entry grows long, so I’ll stop for now. I hope this helps all you garden newbies out there. I can’t emphasize enough the critical importance of excellent soil. If you’ve put in the time and resources to create good soil, almost any plant you grow will flourish, whether you grew it from seed yourself or bought a flat of seedlings from a local garden center. But if your soil isn’t healthy, your plants will not thrive.

So get out there, and get dirty, people! 🙂

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Delusional Groundhogs?

Royal Star Magnolia blooming since mid-January

Word on the street is that Punxsutawney Phil — most famed rodent prognosticator of them all — saw his shadow today, thereby dooming us to six more weeks of winter. The groundhog seers in my home state of North Carolina — Sir Walter Wally chief among them — also saw their shadows. However, it’s my understanding that groundhogs in New York, West Virginia, and Ohio did not see their shadows. I’m thinking those are the rodents that got it right this year.

Who are those shadow-seers kidding? Winter has been a no-show in most of the United States this year, and the plants in my yard are colorfully testifying to that fact by blooming a month or more before their usual times.

The snowdrops usually show up in mid-February, so, of course, they are at peak bloom loitering under one of my Winterhazels. The birds “fertilize” them year-round, so they are looking impressively vigorous in the afternoon sunshine:

Snowdrops at peak bloom

I took my cue from the flowers and early courtship rituals of the cardinals, bluebirds, and hawks and sowed my first vegetable seeds in my greenhouse on January 25. I started a perennial rudbeckia in the germination chamber with the heating pad on to provide the bottom heat such seeds appreciate. I normally direct-sow all my greens — lettuces, spinaches, beets — right into my garden beds, but this year’s ridiculous winter got me thinking I needed to get a jump on spring by starting some in the greenhouse.

Here are seedlings of swiss chard, two lettuce varieties, and a spinach variety (Emu) 8 days after sowing.

Veggie seedlings eight days after sowing

It was actually too hot inside the greenhouse to put these in the germination chamber. They like cool soil. So I just plunked them right down on the capillary cloth, where they germinated in three days. Today I watered them with a dilute solution of fish emulsion/sea weed mix to give them a strong start.

In the vegetable garden, I’ve already prepared the bed for the peas, which I’ll be sowing next week. In years past, I waited until the end of February to sow sugar snap peas, but my gardening instincts are telling me that if I want any kind of spring vegetable garden at all, I’ve got to imitate the plants in my yard and get going now. When I weeded the pea bed, the soil was cool, but not cold, and it was not remotely water-logged.

It’s not just the warm winter that has me worried. I’m far more worried about our deepening drought. Last night’s “rain” put 0.04 of an inch in my rain gauge — a joke. My rain gauge hasn’t seen more than a third of an inch of rain at a time for so long I can’t remember. I am deeply, deeply worried.

So I’m planting my spring garden now. Those veggies can take a bit of chill, and I can always cover them if a serious freeze threatens. I’m pretty sure if I wait, I won’t get anything at all.

I’m not at all sure I’ll have enough water for much of a summer garden, but I’ve got the seeds, so  I’ll be sowing tomatoes in the greenhouse soon after I plant my peas. If I’m going to have any tomatoes at all this season, I’m thinking they need to get started sooner rather than later.

All the while I’m forging ahead on vegetable planting, I’ll be praying the groundhogs got it right. I’ll be dreaming of deep snow — silently luminous in moonlight, softening bare branches, melting slowly, slowly into thirsty earth eager for every molecule of H2O.

Dreaming of snows of winters past



Greenhouse updates

It was a busy week away from the garden, and now I’m paying for it. My to-do list is growing exponentially while my done list hasn’t changed. This happens to me every spring. In my defense, the insanely hot weather limits the time I’m willing to work inside the greenhouse. It’s just too hot in there for delicate work, and sowing tiny seeds in tiny pots constitutes delicate work in my book.

Theoretically, tomorrow morning will be cooler. I hope so, because I need to transplant the mesclun mix seedlings into their permanent beds in the garden. Thanks to a little watering with dilute fish emulsion/seaweed mix, they are raring to go. See for yourself:

Of course, the tiny seedlings in the top left corner are not ready for prime time yet. They are petunia seedlings. I’ve never grown petunias from seeds before. In fact, until last year, I’d never grown any petunias at all. They seemed rather uninteresting to me.

But last year, I bought a hanging pot of some electric purple petunias that looked fabulous all summer despite the searing afternoon sun that hammered them daily. The hummingbirds loved them too, so I decided to try my hand at growing them from seed. Thank goodness I started them early, because it will be a while before they’re ready for their hanging pot.

I started my chive seeds early too, because they are notoriously slow to germinate, and often germinate unevenly. Not this time. This time germination was nearly 100%, I like the way the long seedling leaves hold on to their now-empty seed hulls — like little sporty caps:

Chive seedlings

It’s not a great picture, but if you click on it to enlarge it, you can see the little black seed caps I’m talking about. This picture is 4 days old, and in that time, many of the chive seedlings have begun pushing out second leaves. It will still be a while before they’re ready for the garden, but I’m happy with their progress.

I also had room to plant two tomato varieties, so I started with the two that take the most number of days to produce fruit: Purple Russian and Ferline. The heirloom Purple Russian germinated first — 100%. Ferline was a few days slower, and also gave me 100% germination. Peppers always take longer to show up to the party. Finally today, all my Carmen seedlings are poking up. The Apple seeds — as of this morning — had not yet appeared. They may well have by now. The heat is really cranking up productivity in all the plants, regardless of their size.

I’ve also got Fernleaf Dill seedlings just up as well. The package says it’s best to direct-sow these in the garden, but I have better success and control using the greenhouse method. Tomorrow morning after I transplant the eager seedlings pictured above, I’ll be sowing as many more of the tomatoes as will fit in the germination chamber.

If room permits, I’ll squeeze in some basil seeds too. I like them to get to a good size before I plant them out. And I’ve promised some basil plants to several friends, so I need to plant extras. Frankly, I’ve found that there’s no such thing as too much basil in a garden.

In the vegetable garden itself, my only success is the peas, which are well up now. However, the heat and drought are starting to take a toll on their enthusiasm. There’s not much I can do about the heat, but I can continue to water — at least until the well goes dry.

I’m trying not to worry about that while spring is making all the plants and animals in my yard bright and busy.  One day at a time. One to-do at a time. And constant, fervent prayers for precipitation.

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Warm roots are happy roots

In previous postings, I’ve mentioned my greenhouse with its germination chamber and heat mat. This is not as complicated as it sounds, and you don’t actually need a greenhouse to germinate seedlings.

First, please note that my greenhouse is 16 years old and shows it. Most greenhouse operators will cringe at the state of my little hothouse. It is dirty; it is certainly not as sterile as my horticulture teacher from years ago warned me it must be. But for starting vegetable and flower seeds and rooting easy-to-root cuttings, my greenhouse serves me well.

Now on to germination tips. You need to meet two key conditions to ensure rapid seed germination: bottom heat and constant, fairly high humidity. If you provide these conditions, the seeds will sprout.

I use the germination chamber that came with my greenhouse. It’s a big plastic box with a clear plastic top that fits snugly on top of it. Here’s what mine looked like this morning before I removed the top:

Germination Chamber

Note the moisture beading inside the clear plastic top. The pink layer beneath is a piece of insulating foam that Wonder Spouse suggested we use to direct all the heat from the heat mat (the black layer between the insulation and the plastic box) into the germination chamber.

You can buy smaller similar propagation chambers at most garden supply stores or through catalogs. They usually consist of a plastic flat with a clear plastic top that fits over it. However, I’ve often managed simply by stretching clear plastic wrap over pots after I sow seeds in them. I use a pin to prick small holes in the plastic to allow a bit of ventilation.

Here are the Sweet Alyssum seeds I told you about inside the germination chamber after I lifted the top:

Sweet Alyssum seedlings three days after sowing

This is another propagation hack that purists will probably cringe at. I took an old plastic flat with a break in the bottom and cut it cleanly across at the break. I overlapped the two pieces to make a smaller flat that would fit inside my germination chamber.

After filling my smaller flat with potting soil, I created four shallow rows and sprinkled in the Sweet Alyssum seeds. These seeds require light to germinate, so I didn’t cover them with soil. Instead, I used my fingers to lightly press the seeds into the pre-moistened potting mix to ensure that the seeds were in contact with the moist soil.

How did I know the seeds needed light to germinate? The instructions on the seed packet told me so. Always read your seed packets, folks.

The green layer beneath the flat is capillary cloth. I buy mine from a greenhouse supply catalog. It holds water within the cloth and releases it — via capillary action — into pots as the soil dries. It allows me to maintain more even soil moisture levels.

Finally, here’s a closer look at the heat mat beneath the germination chamber:

Heat Mat

A regular heating pad is NOT acceptable. You need a water-proof heat mat designed for seed germination purposes. You can see the electric cord running from the mat. It’s plugged into a handy outlet in the wall of my greenhouse.

This is a relatively large mat, because I needed one big enough to provide heat to my germination chamber. You can buy smaller ones. Some have thermostats for finer temperature control. For the seeds I germinate, I’ve never needed more than what I have.

You’ll also see soil heating cables. You place these cables in the soil beneath your seeds. Although I’m sure these cables have their uses, they seem unnecessarily complicated for my purposes.

If you have a way to control humidity, a sunny window or excellent grow light, and a heat mat, you can start seeds inside your house. No greenhouse required.

Garden supply catalogs often sell these tools, but for more options, try a greenhouse supply company. Here’s one that I often order from.


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