Sowing the seed

Sunday, 04 November 2012

Seeds of the belladonna lily, Amaryllis belladonna

Those who have seen the wonderful David Attenborough series Kingdom of Plants, screened recently on ABC TV, will have enjoyed the amazing time-lapse photography showing the growth and change of plants through the seasons. I particularly liked the sequences showing the germination and development of seeds. I have always been fascinated with raising plants from seed, from my very youngest days when I watched my father tend his wooden seed boxes set out on the tin roof of our wood heap. He grew many flowering annuals and vegetables from seed (as punnets of seedlings were not really available at nurseries in those days) and I can still picture him gently lifting up the sheets of masonite that covered the boxes after the seed had been sown to check their progress. It seemed a miracle to me then that the tiny, dust-like seeds he planted could transform into beautiful flowers and vegetables - and it still does seem miraculous. A few decades ago, I was madly keen on growing seeds of all different sorts, and used to send away to England and the USA for rare and unusual varieties. As a member of several plant societies, I was eligible to receive a quota of seeds every year collected from various gardens, including the Royal Horticultural Society garden at Wisley in Surrey. It was very exciting when the parcels of seeds arrived and I had visions of all the wonderful and exotic plants that would be mine as soon as the seeds germinated. I imagined myself introducing new plants to my gardening friends in Sydney that had never been grown here before!

Aquilegia chrysantha, which I grew from imported seed many years ago

Alas, not many of these seeds did ever come up and of those that did, few were very suitable for our climate: at that stage I was in my cottage garden phase and in thrall to cool-climate shrubs, perennials and bulbs. However, I loved the thrill of sowing and waiting for signs of life from my punnets, and still have a few specimens that I did succeed in growing from seed, and I treasure them greatly, both for their ability to survive in such a different climate and as a reminder of my younger, more naive gardening self. Some of them include the gorgeous golden-yellow Aquilegia chrysantha (in bloom at the moment), the delightful spired Campanula rapunculus (also in flower now and which has self-seeded through my garden), dainty Linaria purpurea in its pink, white and purple forms (also a keen self-seeder), and a quite unusual species Geranium which I haven't actually ever seen anywhere else: Geranium oxonianum 'Walter's Gift' (or at least a variation of it, with veined pink flowers and interestingly dark-marked foliage).

Herb and vegetable seedlings growing in some of Mr Fothergills kits, ready to be transplanted

Nowadays, I tend to grow herbs, vegetables and annual flowers rather than the rare and unusual - and it has become a lot more difficult to import seed from overseas, so I get my seeds from local sellers or from the plants of friends. I did learn a few things during the peak of my seed-sowing years. One was that seeds can have different requirements in order to sprout - such as needing to be left in the fridge for months on end, or to be kept in total darkness after being sown, or conversely needing light to germinate and therefore not needing to be covered by seed-raising mix. Some seeds need a high temperature to germinate; others need to be exposed to fire or smoke. Some have to be sown in situ in the ground, as they are almost impossible to transplant. I used to have a little handbook put out by the seedsmen Thompson and Morgan which listed many seeds and their individual requirements - that was in the pre-internet days and I am sure now all that sort of information would be readily available online. Luckily most herbs, vegetable and annual seeds don't generally require more than very basic conditions to germinate!

I found that it is best to use a proprietary seed-raising mix (as potting mix is too rich and can often contain fungi that attack the baby seedlings). I fill punnets two-thirds full with such a mixture then provide a top layer of a well-draining, stable, inert substance such as Vermiculite, Perlite or fine Kaolite. This seems to provide protection from damping-off problems that can occur if the top layer of the punnet is too moist or is invaded by algae. I water the punnet by placing the container in a water-filled tray until the seed-raising mixture is saturated. The seeds are sown and are covered with a thin layer of Perlite (or similar) - unless they need light to germinate - then the punnet is placed into a humid environment such as a clear, lidded, plastic box and placed in a shaded position. I have a little electrically heated propagating box that is useful for seeds that need warmth to germinate but it is not essential.

Basil grown from seed; Valentino variety from Italy

Once the seeds have germinated, the punnet should be removed from the plastic box and kept in shade for a few days. Gradually move the punnet into semi-shade. The seedlings should be fertilised with a very weak solution of soluble fertiliser (add a pinch to a tray of water and place the punnet into this tray until moist). I found this to be one of the most valuable tips, as without fertiliser the seedlings don't grow well at all. Once the seedlings have two to four true leaves, they need to be transplanted into bigger containers (I use my children's old school lunchboxes, with holes punched in the bottom!). I half-fill these with potting mixture then add a top layer of seed-raising mix, saturate it in a water tray then transplant the seedlings into it, spacing them pretty well, as they will never grow well if overcrowded at this stage. An old knife is useful for this procedure. You need to be ruthless and discard the seedlings you don't need! These containers are kept in shade for a few days and moved gradually into a sunnier position. The seedlings can be planted out into their final spots once they are well developed. They need to be fed regularly with a weak solution of soluble fertiliser.

Growing plants from seed is rewarding and much cheaper than buying seedlings in punnets. There is a range of seed-raising products available in nurseries for those who are just starting out, such as some of Mr Fothergill's kits that I have been trying out this spring: mini propagators with lids to keep in the moisture and complete with seed-raising mix that just needs water added, and jiffy peat pellets that can have seeds planted in them and then be planted out without the need to prick out the seedlings. My seeds have done well in these. Try a packet of seeds today!

Reader Comments

  • By Peta 2758 Monday, 05 November 2012

    Really interesting Deirdre. I"ve collected lots of seed this year - it"s getting it sown and started that"s the hurdle! Coddling the tiny babies out of intensive care then finally into the garden is quite a task. I"m currently thrilled to have poppy "Fairy Wings" opening in my "blue" garden. These poppies are in gorgeous pale shades and came to me as seed from a Mt Tomah garden. I scattered the seed and just love the result. "Woodgreen", my garden is open 10/11 Nov. for Open Gardens Australia. Thanks, Peta. I lobe that poppy - used to have it but it has disappeared for the moment. Hope all goes well for your open garden next weekend. Deirdre

  • By jade 2663 Monday, 05 November 2012

    Great blog! This year I"ve raised loves lies bleeding from seed but i think i was to early for zinnias and only a handful germinated. Yes, timing is important for some annuals as they need the warmth of spring to germinate. Hopefully more of your zinnias will germinate soon. Deirdre

  • By Ann 2076 Monday, 05 November 2012

    After three attempts to grow sweet peas from seed with very limited success, this year we planted in the suniest part of our vege garden. The result has been spectacular - weeks of pickable flowers for our unit and for neighbours. Is it seed quality or location, I wonder! Ann I know they do love sun! Great that you had such good success. Deirdre

  • By Peta 2758 Monday, 05 November 2012

    Deirdre, Peta back. I will deadhead my poppies to keep them flowering as long as possible. When they eventually go to seed I shall save you some! Thanks, Peta!

  • By Christine 2154 Monday, 05 November 2012

    Help needed please, I planted sweet peas first time this year and they have been spectacular but are really to pull them out now, but I was just wondering if the pods that are hanging on the vine can be saved for next year and if I use the green or brown pods to collect the seeds and do I put them in a brown paper bag and where do I storage them. Thanks for the help I really love it it keeps me gardening. Christine I would collect the brown seed pods as these are likely to be ripened. I would leave them out somewhere for a while (eg on a paper plate) till they are very dry, then store them in an envelope somewhere cool and dry till next March. Hope this works - it"s worth a try anyway! They may not come up the same colours as this year but that is all part of the fun of seed-raising! Deirdre

  • By Christine 2154 Monday, 05 November 2012

    Thankyou Thankyou you making me smile and what fun next March!Christine

  • By Libby 2093 Monday, 05 November 2012

    Hi Deirdre, I take a primary school gardening class each week and my greatest joy is seeing the kids faces light up when they see little seedlings pop their heads out of the ground. We grow most of our vegies from seed in egg cartons or polystyrene coffee cups. Not very technical but the kids love it.Libby The egg cartons are a great idea as I assume you can plant them out with the seedlings in them. It is great that the kids are having this opportunity to see how things grow. Deirdre

  • By Pam 3216 Monday, 05 November 2012

    Thanks Deirdre, interesting and informative as always. If you have a photo of the geranium oxonianum i would love to see it. It sounds quite like an unnamed one I have growing. I have to add that I get a thrill when I discover a desirable self sown plant and I coddle it more than anything I might have paid good money for. Pam Yes self-sown plants are exciting! I have sent you a photo of my geranium. Deirdre

  • By Judy 2111 Monday, 05 November 2012

    Hi Deirdre,A big pleasure is letting one plant from each of my ten or so varieties of lettuce go to seed and then sowing the harvested seed immediately. Germination rate is very high, including through winter. I now have various "designer" letttuce for which I could never find commercial seed. So instead of paying for the seed, I buy a punnet just once to establish my seed stock and then never again. Trying this with ornamental kale this year for the same reason. Judy That sounds such a great idea. I must try it myself! I"m trying to grow more vegetables these days and it is wonderful to be able to just go outside and pick enough leaves for a salad. Deirdre

  • By Jennifer 3796 Tuesday, 06 November 2012

    Dogs are the true enemy of seedlings. Presently I have a number of chicken wire constructs protecting the vulnerable seedlings that have the nerve to spring up. I used to buy seeds on ebay, and today I feel so proud of the successful plants that exist in maturity from these past efforts. To grow from seed is the most satifying garden achievement. If only dogs weren"t hell bent on digging, or trampling, when planted out. I look forward to the seedlings from my G. maderense. I don"t have a dog but I have chickens, who will dig up seedlings in seconds. I have to put guards over the top of any young seedlings if the chickens are out in my garden area. Sounds like you have grown some interesting things from seed! Deirdre

  • By margaret 2122 Saturday, 24 November 2012

    Great blog, full of encouragement. I have always grown many plants from seed, and just really enjoy it. To plant a tiny speck, and see it grow to a plant, whether ornamental or edible, is just the greatest feeling. I hope more poeple will try planting from seed - it is very rewarding.

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