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!
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.
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 in the spring.
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. 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.
Other Easy to Grow Perennials, Annuals and Biennials
Other easy to grow flowers for your garden include delphiniums, aubretia, foxgloves, candytuft, petunias, marigolds and calendula.