Growing plants from seed can be extremely rewarding and the selection of seed available to us as gardeners is enormous. When purchasing seed to grow in colder climates, it is important to select varieties that have been bred and tested in cool climates or with a short growing season.
Usually, most seed packets display the “days to maturity”. This may be a good indicator as to how well the seeds may do in your location. However, it is not entirely reliable because more Northerly locations will naturally have different lighting conditions than cool climates in a more southern location. Also, on eastern and western coasts, both fog and overcast must be taken into account.
Luckily, these days if you look at the seed catalogues carefully you can often find information regarding very specific climate considerations such as “fogginess” or “short season”. It might be beneficial for you to select a reputable seed company that has an actual phone staff that can answer your questions. Often they may even have specific information regarding how well a specific seed variety has performed in your Geographical area.
Another issue that you may need to consider is whether or not you will use hybrid, open pollinated or heirloom seeds in your garden.
Hybrid seeds are usually more uniform and more vigorous than open pollinated varieties. If growing conditions are satisfactory, hybrid vegetable plants will likely mature all at the same time. This may be an advantage for some home gardeners who prefer to harvest the entire crop all at once for freezing or preserving. However, if the intent is to harvest fresh vegetables over a longer period of time, then hybrid seeds may not be the best choice.
Open pollinated seeds are seeds that were pollinated in a more natural way. This allows for much more plant diversity from within one packet of seeds. The end result is that many of these plants will mature at a different rate giving a more constant supply throughout the season. The other advantage of these seeds is that at the end of the season you can harvest fertile seeds fro the adult plants. These can be saved, and planted next year. Food + More seeds….hard to beat!
Heirloom seeds are seed varieties that have been bred from the same stock for hundreds of years (some even back to middle age Europe). Heirlooms tend to have the most variations in plants, and their edible parts tend to be not perfect. For example many heirloom tomatoes tend to look like odd-coloured dwarf pumpkins. The main reason that most of us (myself included) use heirloom varieties is that they tend to have a much more complex flavour than the the standard seeds that you will find at a big box store.
Regardless of the type of seed that you choose, it is important to buy them well in advance of when you need to start them. This is because every now and then, it is possible to get a packet of dud seeds where few of the seeds actually germinate, or the seedlings are week die off in a few days. This is rare, but it does happen. Alternatively, cats and stray children have been known to upset trays of seedlings. It’s nice to leave a little time to start over if you have to.
You have chosen your seeds. Prior to planting your seeds, it is important to do a little planning. You need to consider the following:
- How will you heat, light and water the seedlings?
Heat – Most seeds do not need much light to germinate. However, they do need heat. If you look at your seed catalogue, you might even find a minimum germination temperature for your seeds. Either way, your seeds need to be kept in a warm place until they germinate. Heating mats do the job nicely, however a shelf in a warm spot in your kitchen will do.
Light – If you are simply starting a plant a couple of weeks before planting out in your garden a window sill that points south should suffice. However, if you are planting something that must be started 8 or 10 weeks before you have to plant them in your garden, you will most likely need an artificial light of some kind. This is in part because there isn’t much sun in February, and the seedlings may become leggy (long and skinny) which isn’t a healthy start for any plant.
Watering – It is best to water seedlings from the bottom, especially when they are small and delicate. At this stage, even a small stream of water can break the main stems of the seedlings. The simplest way to water from the bottom is to use a container that has holes in the bottom. Place it in a tray of some kind and add water to the tray. The potting mix will soak up the water like a sponge, and your seedlings will never be at risk.
- What will you plant them in?
Your seeds should be started in a sterile seed starting mix. Depending on where you live, this may be purchased by the bag all year round. Big box stores usually have it. However, if you are in a more rural area you may wish to buy it well in advance during the spring / summer as smaller stores don’t tend to carry staring mix year round.Seeds are not particular. Any form of container will do. I have used everything from Dixie cups right down to old ice cube trays. That said, cell packs are great
- When will you need to plant the seeds?
In most cases you will not be able to start your seeds at the same time. This is because various types of seed take different times till they mature. Therefore some seeds may need only a week or two of growing time inside (such as corn), while others (such as onions) really benefit from being started up to 10 weeks before the last frost date.
Before you plant any seed, it is important to keep in mind that some types of seed require special conditions for germination. Some seeds will germinate best if exposed to light whereas some require complete darkness. Hard-coated seeds may benefit from overnight soaking before planting. Always read the planting instructions on the package before sowing the seed and resist the temptation to start seedlings too early. Six to eight weeks before the last expected frost is usually sufficient for most flower and vegetable plants. Most good seed vendors have information regarding this on their seed packets, catalogues, and web sites. You can also find some info regarding this on our quick fact sheets on this web site.
When it is time to sow the seed, it is important to begin with a clean soil mix. Sow the seed thinly at a depth of about three times its diameter. Immediately after sowing, water the container thoroughly with warm water and then cover with clear plastic. Most seeds require a soil temperature of 15-24 C for satisfactory germination – always use a thermometer to be sure.
As soon as the seedlings emerge, remove the plastic cover and place the plants in the natural light of a south-facing window. Try to keep the temperature slightly below room temperature. When the temperature is too warm and there is not enough light, seedlings tend to stretch. Artificial light can be used to supplement the natural light, especially early in the season. Use a 120 cm fluorescent fixture and keep the seedlings as close to the light as possible. Be sure to provide enough ventilation so it is not too hot underneath the lights and monitor the temperature of the soil surface with a thermometer.
Water the seedlings with a fine mist but soak the soil. Allow the soil to dry slightly between watering. By keeping the seedlings a little on the dry side you can prevent damping off, a common disease that causes young seedlings to rot off at the soil surface. It is best to water early in the day so that excess water on the seedlings can dry. If possible, avoid watering on dull days.
When the seedlings are big enough to handle, transplant them into a flat. If you can afford to buy them, use Cell-pak trays. These have individual cells for each plant, and give very good results. Cell-paks also minimize damage to the roots when transplanting because the seedlings do not entangle their roots with others. They just slide out with minimal fuss.
If you can’t get Cell-paks, ice cube trays work well. These can be found cheaply in dollar stores or in most cupboards. Just be sure to drill a hole in the bottom of each cell to allow water to drain out. It is a good idea to make the hole big enough to fit a pencil in. Should your seedlings get stuck, the hole allows you to insert a small piece of pencil or dowel in the bottom of your tray to gently pop the seedling out, without pulling on the seedling stem. Pulling on the stem can damage the plant and even pull the root ball right off. Avoid this.
A covered cold frame will allow you to put the seedlings outside as soon as possible in the spring. This way they can be properly hardened off before they are planted into the garden. If you take seedlings directly from a warm area and put them into the garden, they may have difficulty adjusting to the wind and the colder temperatures. Always cover the seedlings if a frost is forecast.