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. 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.
Step 4: Sprinkle the seeds evenly over the compost
Sprinkle the 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 seed 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 important to uncover the seedlings and expose them to light once they germinate, otherwise they will rapidly become straggly. You can place the seed tray on a windowsill where it should get enough light. 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: Plant 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. If the plants are half hardy annuals (e.g. marigolds, petunias, asters), wait until the danger of frost has passed before planting out.
What Flowers are Easy to Grow From Seed?
- Annual poppies
- Canterbury Bells
- Oriental poppies
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.
Questions & Answers
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.
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.
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!
© 2014 Eugene Brennan