Gardening for Beginners: 10 Easy Steps to Sowing Seeds
Growing Plants and Harvesting Seed
You can buy "ready made" plants in a store, but it can be much more fun to grow them yourself from seed. The magical phenomenon of seed germination and transformation into an adult plant is entertaining for both adults and children alike!
In this article I have concentrated on growing oriental poppies which produce lots of seeds every year when they finish flowering. They are herbaceous perennials, which die down in winter but regrow again, year after year.
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How to Sow Seeds
- Find some trays or pots
- Fill the seed tray with seed compost
- Moisten the surface of the compost
- Sprinkle the seeds evenly over the compost
- Cover the seed Tray
- Place the seed tray in a warm place
- Uncover the seedlings once they germinate
- Transplant the seedlings
- Keep transplanted seedlings in the shade
- Plant out into the flowering position
Is it Easy to Grow Plants From Seed?
Many flowers, trees, and vegetables are easy to grow from seed if you take a little bit of care while sowing, and provide the basic requirements for germination; warmth, moisture and oxygen. One obvious advantage of growing plants from seed is that it works out much cheaper than buying them. Also many plants produce lots of seeds which can easily be harvested and sown, and you can collect much more seed than would ever be in a packet bought from a shop.
The Essential Requirements for Seed Germination
Seeds are dormant once they "leave" their parent. This means that they do nothing and in effect are asleep as long as they are kept in a cool dry place. Some seeds have a "best before date" in the sense that they eventually deteriorate over time. However other seeds can be stored for decades before germination. In fact the oldest known seed was from a date palm estimated to be 2000 years old. This was successfully germinated in 2005.
A seed is an embryonic plant in a capsule, with all the DNA information present to eventually develop into a full grown "adult".
Seeds have three major requirements for germination; water, oxygen and warmth (the temperature depends on the specific seed). Some seeds also require light but others require dark conditions.
How to Sow Seeds
Steps 1 to 10
Step 1: Find Some Trays or Pots
You can sow seeds in a proper seed tray bought from a store. Alternatively you can make do, and use a cookie tin, flower pot, butter spread container or similar. If there are no holes in the bottom of the container, make some with a 1/4 inch drill bit or large diameter nail or hot knitting needle. This allows water to drain from the container and prevents it collecting at the bottom which would make the seed compost overly wet. Space the holes a few inches apart.
You can also sow seeds individually in plant trays like the ones which annual plants are sold in from stores. The advantage of these is that seedlings don't need to be transplanted.
Step 2: Fill the Seed Container With Seed Compost
Use a sterile seed compost if possible. You can also use a combined seed/potting compost.
Don't use soil dug up from your garden as this will be lumpy, contain lots of pests and diseases, and dry out quickly. Some plants aren't "fussy" about what they grow in, and if you have lots of harvested seed, you can try sowing it in soil which you have crumbled up so that it's nice and fine in the tray. From my experience however, it's best to buy proper compost to increase the chances of germination if only a small number of seeds are supplied in a packet.
Step 3: Moisten the Surface of the Compost
Moisten the surface of the compost with a mist spray. I just use an empty bottle from window cleaner, shower cleaner or similar. Make sure to wash it out fully before using. You can use a watering can but unless it has a fine rose, it will tend to flood the compost. Don't use a watering can to wet the compost pre-germination if it becomes dry, or to water delicate young seedlings, because it will wash away seeds or flatten the seedlings.
Check the Depth!
Check the recommended sowing depth in the instructions on the seed packet!
Step 4: Sprinkle the Seeds Evenly Over the Compost
Sprinkle small seeds over the compost from the palm of your hand using your finger. Don't cover small seeds as it can smother them. Larger seeds can be placed one by one on the compost and then covered with a sprinkling of compost. Much larger seeds such as sweet corn, sunflower seeds and nuts from trees can be pushed down below the surface of the compost (about 1/4" / 6 mm)
Step 5: Cover the Seed Tray
Cover the seed tray to prevent the compost drying out. This also keep the seeds dark, which aids germination. You can use a piece of glass and a magazine, a slate, a piece of plastic, plywood or whatever.
Step 6: Place the Seed Tray in a Warm Place
Seeds germinate best at a temperature above 64 F (18 C ). In the northern hemisphere, it's best to sow seeds in early spring around February or March so that plants can avail of the full growing season. If you live in a climate with cold winters, the temperature may be too low for germination. So you can place the seed tray in a plant propagator or alternatively locate it in a hot press close to a hot water tank, or near your furnace/boiler. Check the seed tray after a few days as some seeds can germinate quite quickly.
Step 7: Uncover the Seedlings Once They Germinate
It's very important to uncover the seedlings and expose them to light once they germinate, otherwise they will rapidly become straggly, with overly long, thin stems. You can place the seed tray on a windowsill where it should get enough light. Turn the tray each day so seedlings are evenly illuminated. Keep the compost moist with a spray mister. This is essential, especially if seeds have just been sown on the surface without being covered, as the tiny roots can dry out rapidly when exposed to warm sunshine or warm air in a room. In retrospect, I think it would probably have been better to cover these seeds with a thin layer of compost. If the plants are half-hardy, i.e. they are sensitive to frost, they will need to be kept indoors in full sun, in a greenhouse or under a cold frame. During severe frosts, seed trays should be brought indoors or covered with insulation to guard against frost.
Step 8: Transplant the Seedlings
Once the seedlings have a few pairs of "true leaves", they can be transplanted into individual pots or plant trays. Water the compost before transplanting, and gently tease the seedlings out of the compost using a popsicle (ice pop) stick, teaspoon or similar. Try to avoid damaging the delicate roots. Make a hole a with your finger or the popsicle stick in the compost in the pot, drop the seedling into the hole, and gently press the compost back around the roots.
Step 9: Keep Transplanted Seedlings in the Shade
This is important if the weather is dry and there is strong sunshine. If you didn't manage to keep a little piece of compost stuck to the roots and they became bare during transplanting, the delicate seedlings can dry out rapidly in strong sunshine. So keep them in the shade for a week until the roots grow into the new compost and have a better chance of absorbing moisture.
Step 10: Hardening Off and Planting Out
Once plants have reached the stage where roots are starting to emerge from the bottom of the pot, they can be planted out to their final location.
Plants that have been grown inside need to be hardened off over a period of about 7 to 10 days. This is a process where they are gradually introduced to direct sunlight, dry air, and cold nights so that they don't suffer shock from the sudden change in growing conditions.
Plants can be hardened off by placing them in a wind and sun shaded spot outdoors, exposing them to these conditions for an hour a day, then taking them back inside at night. Extend the time gradually by an hour a day so that they become accustomed to lower temperatures. Start hardening off half-hardy annuals (e.g. marigolds, petunias, asters), shortly before the last frosts so plants are ready to plant out.
What are Annuals, Biennials and Perennials?
- Annuals are plants that complete their growing cycle in one season between spring and fall (autumn).
- Biennials germinate and partially grow in size between spring or summer and fall. The next year they grow more foliage and finally flower.
- Perennials are plants that germinate and may flower the first season. They re-flower the next year and last indefinitely. Trees and shrubs are perennials as well as herbaceous plants (plants with soft green stems and not much wood).
What Flowers are Easy to Grow From Seed?
- Annual poppies
- Canterbury Bells
- Oriental poppies
What is Direct Sowing?
This is when you sow seeds directly in the ground in their final location rather than sowing them earlier indoors in containers and transplanting outside.
How Do You Sow Seeds Outside?
You can sow seeds directly in the ground. This is often done with vegetable seeds or hardy annual flowers. The best time to prepare ground is when it's dry, especially if it's clayey, otherwise you can end up with a complete mess and clumps of mud stuck to your boots!
- Seeds should usually be sown in early spring as recommended on the packet.
- Dig the ground and turn over the sod to a depth of about 4 to 6 inches. This is best done before winter so it can be left for several months for frost to break up the soil. Alternatively slice off the top inch of vegetation.
- Loosen soil with a fork or use a chopping motion with a spade to break it up.
- Rake the soil to a fine tilth so that it's fine and crumbly. Remove stones, weed debris, roots, sticks etc.
- Use a line as a guide if you're sowing vegetable seeds. This helps to keep things neat and it's easier to walk between rows. Space the seeds and sow to the recommended depth. A rule-of-thumb is that depth should be three times the diameter of a seed. Press small seeds into the ground with covering. If you've got lots of seed to spare, sow a few together at each spacing to maximise the chances of germination. You can thin and transplant excess seedlings later.
- If you're sowing flower seeds, you can scatter seed and rake in rather than sowing in rows.
- If sowing large seeds, use a pencil, lollypop stick or similar to make a hole. Alternatively you can make a long furrow or groove in the ground and sow into this.
- Use a fine spray mist to moisten the ground.
- Thin seedlings once they germinate
Alternative Methods of Propagating Plants
Some flowers, shrubs or trees are difficult to grow from seed because of the length of time or strict conditions required for germination. So sometimes it's easier to make new plants by taking cuttings. A cutting is a short section of plant that's rooted in a medium such as potting compost. You can read all about it in this guide:
The advantage of growing from cuttings is that the new plant is like a clone and genetically identical to the plant it came from. Plants grown from seeds don't necessarily "breed true", and just like humans can be somewhat different to either of their parents. Also it takes longer for a plant to grow from seed.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Questions & Answers
When transplanting seedlings to thin them out, if they are tall and straggly do you plant them deeper into the new hole to stop them becoming too leggy?
No, it's better to keep the stem above the ground/compost or maybe slightly lower to cover any delicate roots, otherwise it can potentially be damaged by soil borne diseases. As the seedlings grow bigger, cover any exposed roots. It's important to expose young plants to light as early as possible to avoid them becoming straggly. If you're growing inside, get them as close as possible to a window or onto the sill and turn daily. Don't over water young seedlings. More plants are drowned by the roots being wet or killed by fungi in warm moist conditions than from drought. Compost should be slightly moist, not wet (stick your finger down into it to test, as it can dry out on the surface giving the appearance that it's dry throughout). Good ventilation is also important to avoid fungal diseases such as botrytis (grey mould).Helpful 2
Is it ok to grow the seeds at home? How big should the container be? Should I leave it by the window with it open for some oxygen?
Yes, anyone can grow seeds at home, it's really easy.
The container size depends on how many seeds you want to sow. If you're going to sow lots as I did in the photo above, a tray, box or tin is best. If you only want to sow a few seeds, you can use a flower pot, yogurt carton, plastic cup, food container (wash it out first) or anything similar. Seed trays are usually about 1 1/2 inch / 40 mm deep, so seedlings need to be transplanted when they're tiny so that their roots have a chance to spread out and get bigger. If you use a deeper box, flower pot or container, you can allow the seedlings to get much bigger before transplanting.
You don't need to leave seeds near an open window to get oxygen! Oxygen is all around us. In fact, it makes up 19% of the air. And it'll also permeate down through the seed compost to reach the seeds. Seeds should be kept in a warm place at a temperature of at least 18 degrees C (64 F). Once they germinate, they need to be moved to a window, bright conservatory, etc. so they can grow properly. In dim light, seedlings rapidly become straggly as the stems grow long and thin as the plant searches for light.Helpful 5
I germinated some seeds on a paper towel. Do I plant the seedling with the pod down or the shot down?
The shoot should point upwards and the root downwards. Even if they don't and the germinated seed is planted "upside down" and before leaves appear, the shoot and root eventually reorientate themselves. So a shoot will turn around and travel upwards towards the light and the root will detect gravity and grow downwards.Helpful 10
I've planted strawberry seeds. They are in my home, on a table. I water them twice a day, but after 1 week, not even one has sprouted. What should I do?
You shouldn't need to water them everyday unless you kitchen is very warm and the compost dries out. Remember, the surface may be dry but wet under the surface. Wet compost can cause the seeds to go mouldy and die. Compost only needs to be moist. It's a good idea to cover with a piece of card, plastic, glass or wood to stop the surface drying out. It's recommended to just press the seeds into the compost and they can take several weeks to germinate. Some strawberry seeds also need to be stratifieed or exposed to cold winter conditions to encourage them to germinate.
Have a look at this link.Helpful 6
The seed packets sold in stores are dated. Do the seeds really "expire" after the date?
It's probably an estimate assuming that moisture in seeds, combined with bacteria and molds will eventually lead to their demise if they aren't given the opportunity to germinate. However, I've never really checked packets to see whether the expiry date on some is further into the future than on others. Everything now seems to have an expiry date, so maybe the seed packers are just covering themselves to avoid people complaining about seeds not germinating. Apparently keeping seeds in the fridge prevents them attempting to germinate and then failing and dying when there's no growing medium present, so that may extend the lifespan. Some seeds have a very long lifespan, perhaps hundreds of years. If you have a packet which has gone past the expiry date, all you can really do is sow them and see what happens!Helpful 7
© 2014 Eugene Brennan