Seeds come in variety of shapes, sizes and needs

February 19, 2004
Victoria County
Master Gardener

If you are like me, there are times when you just want to plant seeds. Maybe the plant you want is not available locally or you want to try a variety that is different from what you can find. Or maybe the attempt to just watch something grow from a seed is what you want to do.

I really like to plant seeds, to watch them sprout and then grow into a lovely flower - the end product from such a tiny beginning. There are very large seeds, such as the coconut with its own flotation device and ability to cross long distances by water to take root on a sandy shore and start a new colony of palm trees. Sometimes these stray seeds will start their own island by building on a sand bar. Then there are the tiniest of seeds, like the bedding begonia that simply look like dust - and if you sneeze, you've lost your whole crop.

Because of the amazing difference in seeds, you must learn about each one so that you can give it the proper planting and care and be able to recognize the seedling, its "seed leaves" and its true leaves. There are books and catalogs that show pictures of seedlings and also many seed packets that also will advise you about the care of seeds.

Planting seeds is also a way to acquire a maximum number of plants at a minimum of cost. Study the seed packets for the information you need about when to plant, how to plant and the size of the grown plant. It will tell you if the plant needs sun or shade and if it is suitable for a border or background. There should be information about how to prepare the plant bed and the depth of planting, the germination rate and care about watering and fertilizing.

Seeds vary so much in size that you must consider their dimensions in their planting depth. Usually the rule is that you plant the seed by its own depth. The mustard seed is about the size of a comma in this paper, while a petunia seed is the size of the dot on the "i." Radish seeds are about the size of an "o," and some seeds are round while others are flat. The beet seed is different in that it is actually a cluster of four seeds, but you cannot separate them.

Some seeds need to be planted where they are to grow, but many can be sown in flats or pots. This is a way to insure you have early plants to set out when the weather is right. Much like cooking, you need a recipe to follow and need to assemble all of your ingredients before you start. You will need a container, the soil mixture and the place to grow the seedlings. You must carefully prepare all your plant containers and tools. Wash in soapy water, rinse well and spray with a diluted bleach mixture and let dry. Wipe dry any metal tools or pans to prevent rust.

It is best to get a planter mix that is sterilized to prevent "damping-off," a disease that will attack the new seedlings. There are methods to bake soil in your oven to sterilize it, but I find it less cumbersome to purchase the mix. Damping-off is not as prevalent in direct row planting. If it does occur, there are treatments available. In direct planting, your soil must be worked and smoothed and should be of a fine even texture. Very small seeds are rarely covered. Simply press them into the soil with fingertips. Little seeds are barely covered and larger seeds are just covered until not visible. Another general rule is to cover seeds with soil to a depth up to twice their diameter.

Moisture is most important and should be carefully monitored. Follow the directions on the planting mixture container before planting, or water your planting bed carefully before direct sowing. Plastic bags can be used to help maintain the moisture but should not touch the soil or plants. Strong light is needed, but prevent direct sun. Row covers on frames are great for outside plantings. After germination, watch carefully for the "true" leaves to appear. The first two leaves are the "seed" leaves and are different shape than the true leaves that follow. When the true leaves appear, you may begin watering with a diluted fertilizer and remove the covering. The plants may be moved to full sun.

As the plants grow, you can begin to transplant the larger ones to small pots to encourage more rapid growth. Use a spoon tip or plant label to move the new plant, carefully getting all the root system. These pots can be placed in a protected outdoor environment for even better growth. Do not rush these seedlings into the flowerbed until the weather is stable. Let these plants become "hardened off" before setting in their permanent location.

As the seedlings in direct planting become too crowded, you may begin to thin them by carefully snipping or pinching out the extra plants. It is best not to try to pull them out because the roots will be intertwined and you may damage the plants you wish to keep.

Trees and shrubs also grow from seeds, but patience is required. I have several small trees and a couple of large trees that were planted from seeds. I planted a bur oak from an acorn, also a pecan, mimosa, buddleja and althaea tree, and I also have a palm that a squirrel planted in a pot for me.

If you admire a certain shrub in a neighbor or friend's yard, ask for a few seeds and see what you can do. Remember that seeds from a plant in the open may be different from the parent plant. The commercial seeds available are selectively bred for specific color and size. Many of the seeds we get now are hybrids, and if they are allowed to re-seed, what they produce may not be the desired result.

There are other things I do with seeds. For example, especially with seeds like radishes, I plant them to mark where I have planted bulbs or other slow-sprouting seeds. Even if I mark the area with a tag, I can over-plant with an outline of radish seeds. They sprout quickly, are easily recognized and will be grown and easy to remove when the bulbs of other seeds begin to show. My vegetable garden is a small raised bed, so I use the "intensive" method of planting. I mix the fast growing seeds with the slower ones, and then as they emerge I can use the fast crop before the second crop is ready. This serves as reminder to me and any helper that the area is planted. This works well for companion crops like radishes and carrots, lettuces with greens, and onions with broccoli, each of which helps the other in protection from insects.

Study your yard. Notice the sun and shade patterns. Watch which areas stay wet and which dry out quickly. Notice the areas that get the hottest and the ones that stay cooler. You may be surprised. Fencing, paving, water, brickwork and metal all make a difference. After you have arrived at the little "micro-climates" in your yard, you may be able to try new plants in those areas, and seeds are a good way to start.

If you have a greenhouse or an area you can protect, you will find that many seeds are available for exotic or tropical plants that you have not thought about growing. The seeds can seem expensive, but the fun of growing them is the real joy. I'm sure most of us have sprouted an avocado seed. I even got a small tree to produce little avocados. Orange and lemon seeds are also easy to sprout, but could require years of care and patience before fruit production.

One last reminder - always date and label everything you plant. It also helps to keep a small notebook handy so you can keep track of different varieties and how they worked. It may seem tedious at first, but after a while it becomes a habit and is well worth it to be able to look back and see which plants do well. This is the old fashioned "five W's" we all learned in school writing class - who, what, when, where and why. It works in gardening, too.