Storing seeds: Store seeds in a small covered glass jar in the refrigerator. Keep them dry. One way to ensure dryness is to use a silica gel pack, which you can get from craft stores. You can also use a tablespoon or so of instant dried milk in a coffee filter to absorb moisture in the jar. Seeds kept cool and dry will remain viable for a couple years, although tropical seeds are sometimes very short-lived and only last a few months, if that. When you are ready to plant, you can test for keepers by putting the seeds to soak in water overnight. Throw out the ones that are floating after 24 hours.
Growing wild plants: Wild plants retain their wild characteristics, including germinating irregularly. Hybrids and long-cultivated plants like wheat or petunias, when planted, will all germinate at once. This is not so with wild plants. Irregular germination is beneficial in the wild, where conditions may not be right at all times; the plant therefore spreads out its chances of hitting a good time to grow. But this same feature can try the patience of gardeners. Just know that the seeds of “weeds” are not as regimented as those of cultivated plants.
Breaking dormancy: Some seeds are very protective of their life force and will not easily break dormancy. They have to be convinced that the time is right for them to sprout. Humans have found various ways to do that. Stratification is one of them. In this method, the seeds are put into a moist environment. You may do this by planting them in peat pellets, mixing them with a little moist sand in a baggie, or putting them between two moist paper towels in a baggie and then putting them in the refrigerator for a number of weeks. Soaking them in cold water that is changed for fresh daily also helps some seeds — I have found this helpful for belladonna, nightshades, mandrake, and henbane, and I am trying stratification on aconite now to see if it will help speed that laggard up. This process convinces the seed that it has gone through winter and that it is time to germinate when they are removed from the fridge
Other ways to help a seed break dormancy involve using chemicals that gnaw off the seed’s protective coating. Some that work are hot water, vodka, and gibberelic acid. Some plants even need fire to germinate.
General planting info: Plant on a full stomach, so your garden will be full. Each person has a plant family that is especially close to them. Do your best to discover and grow that family and then trade with friends for plant products in other families.
The Moon’s Phases: From New Moon to the Half, plant annuals or crops that will be harvested for their tops and that don’t produce what we think of as fruit. From Half to Full, plant annuals that have seeds inside their fruit. From Full to Half, plant roots and bulbs, perennials, trees, and shrubs. From Half to New, do other garden chores besides planting, especially pruning.
Avoid gardening on the full or new moon. Celebrate instead. Find out which phase the Moon is in.
Jiffy-7 and Kelp: I have had the best luck using Jiffy-7 pellets and liquid kelp solution to start seeds. Jiffy-7 pellets are compressed peat moss inside a fibrous cylinder that puffs up as it absorbs water. They are available at garden centers very cheaply. Get a small plastic “flat” while you are there to put them in (although a cake pan, disposable aluminum roasting pan, or plastic dishware from microwave meals will also work). Liquid kelp is available from garden companies that concentrate on organics; check the web. Mix the kelp in the proportions the label indicates, and soak the pellets in the solution. They will puff up.
Planting: When the pellets are thoroughly soaked, put them in the flat. Poke a very shallow hole in the top of the pellet with your finger tip. Sometimes they come with holes already in them, and these are usually too deep. Use the size of the seed to gauge the size of the hole. A small seed like a poppy seed should just very barely be covered by soil. I put about a flat dime’s worth of soil over most seeds. Larger seeds can take more; I don’t usually put my seeds very far down into the soil, maybe about a quarter inch at most. Really tiny seeds shouldn’t even be covered, just pressed lightly down. Planting too deep is the number one cause of non-germination. Second is watering too much.
Heat: If the plant is tropical or if you are growing the seeds in a cold room, they may benefit from bottom heat. Instead of spending a lot for a bottom heater (about $50 last time I looked), you can use a water-resistant heating pad. Take the cloth cover off and put the pad under (not in) the flat or pan with the pellets in it, and set it on medium. (Make sure the flat doesn’t have any holes in it).
Water: Seeds shouldn’t be allowed to dry out, but at the same time they cannot be sopping wet or they might rot or get fungus (known as “damping off” in which the tiny seedlings suddenly all fall over and die). This is a balance you have to learn for yourself. Some people mist seeds, but I have better luck bottom watering them. This means you put the water (water and liquid kelp, in this case) into the bottom of the pan instead of on the pellets themselves. The pellets draw up as much water as they need. Dump out water they don’t absorb. Pouring the water on the pellets can dislodge the seeds or seedlings. You can cover the seeds with a plastic cover, the kind that come with some flats, or you can use a plastic bag from the grocery store. Keep an eye on the seedlings so that it doesn’t get too hot or stale in the environment. If you live in a humid area, this process is not necessary.
Identification: Most seeds will first produce two leaves that do not have the shape of their normal leaves. In fact, seedlings all look pretty much the same until they get the second pair of leaves — their true leaves — and then you can tell them apart by leaf shape.
Strengthening. Once the seeds are up, you can get them to grow a little stronger by using a very gentle fan. This will give them stronger stalks. It will also dry them out faster, though, so keep an eye on that (although this can be helpful if you’ve got a heavy hand with the watering can). You can also just lightly brush your hand over the tops every day, like you would over a short haircut. I believe this also helps to build communication with the plant.
Sun: In terms of sun, most seeds do not need a lot of sun to start growing. Consider how they grow out in the wild–under the leaves of other already-established plants. Once the seedlings are up, you should get them used to the sun a little at a time or they will die. If you have covered them with plastic, uncover them at this point. Putting them in the sun with a cover on will bake the poor guys. Start them out with 1/2 hour of sun a day and work your way up.
Going outside (“hardening off”): Once the plant starts to get true leaves (as opposed to the first two leaves that come out), you can begin putting them outside for a little while each day, depending on how cold it is out. Keep them out of direct sunlight outside until they are good and tough. Just keep in mind, again, how they would be growing on their own–gradually working their way up in between the leaves of established plants, making their way to the sun little by little, and keeping warm under the leaves of other plants, which hold the warmth of the earth in and keep the frost off. I usually start my seedlings off on a porch outside where they get no direct sunlight. Then I put them in the morning sun starting with 1/2 hour per day. You can tell if they want more or less by the way they react. If they get leggy (stalks are long), they need more sun.
Potting up: When you start to see roots coming out of the sides or bottoms of the pellets, you will know it is time to pot them up. Get some good quality potting soil (I often use Black Cow composted manure) and put the pellets in a pot about a finger’s width bigger on all sides. Putting them in a too-big pot might mean trouble with watering (too much water too far below the roots creates a good home for fungus). A good way to gauge the size of the pot once the plant gets going is that the pot’s height should be 1/3 the height of the plant. I often use plastic cups for pots for seedlings. Stamp a hole in the bottom with a Philips screwdriver or nail. Be careful not to crack it, although if you do, it’s still usable and will just drain fast. Tamp down soil in the pot lightly and make sure you do not cover up any portion of the stem to avoid rot. However, do cover up the edges of the Jiffy-7, because some people believe leaving the peat exposed wicks out moisture.
Transplanting: Once you get the plant to a certain point of growth and the weather is warm enough, you will be able to plant it directly outside. Choose a spot where you have prepared the soil by digging a small hole and putting in compost. Water a freshly potted or planted seedling thoroughly (called “muddying in”) so that the roots take well. Again, make sure not to cover up the stem of the plant and do not tamp in the soil around the plant too heavily. What I find works best is to tuck plenty of soil in, water thoroughly, and then push more soil in to the airpockets that watering creates.
Fertilizing: I have found that liquid kelp solution and fish emulsion (drives the cats crazy — try the new “unscented” kind) work well as foliar feeding, the only kind of fertilizing I do. Fish emulsion is available from gardening places that sell liquid kelp. Sometimes they come in the same bottle, but kelp on its own is better for starting seedlings. Something in it helps break seed dormancy. Add fish emulsion once the plant is past the toddler stage. Get a pump sprayer at a gardening store, usually about $12, or you can make do with a plastic mister, although these break easily. Mix up a solution according to the package directions. Spray the plants with the solution on their leaves (make sure to get the undersides) in the morning when the birds are singing and the plants have their little mouths open (really). If you are growing inside, you can also play any music that has high, windy notes to get the plants to open their stomae (feeders) during feeding at other times. The plants will absorb the foliar fertilizer best if the stomae are open. Spraying regularly helps you keep an eye on the bug situation, too.
Growing inside: If you want to grow your plants inside, you need either a very sunny window or grow lights to get flowers. A good place to grow plants in the house is an enclosed sun porch. Plants need lots of air circulation or they will develop problems with fungus, gnats, whiteflies, spider mites, and so on. The air in a house in winter is especially problematic because it is very dry, and plants love humidity. Misting every single day is mandatory to keep your plants in good condition when the heater is on in winter. You can buy a mister that attaches to a faucet or use a tank sprayer. Stagnant air should be kept stirring with a light fan; the faint breeze will help keep the plant’s stalk strong.
Reprinted with permission from Alchemy Works Seeds & Herbs
3074 Lake Rd.
Horseheads, NY 14845-3102