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Basic Seedling Production

How to get your garden off to the best start possible!

Seeds are the stored genetic potential of the plant world. Seed holds the potential for change and adaptability inherent in DNA. There are other forms of plant propagation, but it all begins with the seed.

Humans have been selecting desirable traits in plants and animals since agriculture began – about 8000 years ago. We’ve been “messing about with life” for a very, very long time. This “messing about” increased at a dramatic rate starting around the turn of last century and really started to ramp up just after WWI. The really dramatic changes (like GMO technology, chemical fertilizers, all kinds of pesticides) got their start after WWII. Most farmers before the 1900’s saved their own seed. After WWII, more and more farmers would put their entire effort in to saleable production and would buy new seeds the next year from the rapidly developing seed companies. It’s only in the very recent past (25-40 years) that there’s been a resurging interest in “saving seed” and growing truly healthy food crops.

“The choices we make in our gardens in regard to fostering a healthy system of life in the soil are irrevocably bound up with our capacity to produce quality, life-giving food from the soil.

Food has been at the center of our decline into chronic dis- ease, and it is food that can be the best medicine for our return to vitality. As gardeners, we have the ability, and the possibility to grow food that can be a source of health for life above and below ground.” Sir Albert Howard, The Soil and Health

Now for the fun part – actually starting seeds off right!

Things you will need:

  • Clean pots (as long as it’s clean and has drainage – use whatever you have – great place to save money!),

  • Fresh seed (the best, heaviest and largest per variety) you can buy – like any young li

ving creature – the beginning matters),

  • Seed starting compost (not the area to be cheap – make your own or buy but make sure it’s the real deal – water must penetrate but not bog down –plants need oxygen, water and a place for their roots to look for minerals) – and NO

garden soil!!!!

  • Starting drench of liquid kelp (1tbl), humate(1 tsp) and molasses (1tbl) per gallon of water. Use lightly to bring quick energy to the sprouting seeds

  • Seed inoculant – multi -genus and multi-specie

  • Labels (and a garden journal if you can convince yourself to use one),

  • Humidity dome, plastic or some other way to control humidity,

  • A warm space

And patience!!!! This i

s not the time to rush…I put on some good music and zone into my seedling trays. Every time I rush it, I regret it ☺

Most warm season garden seed needs to be kept warm (60 -75 degrees – exceptions will be listed on the seed package), moist (but NOT wet), in light (but not extreme sun or heat) and in a soil (sterile mix, fresh active compost, seed starter mix [I make my own by adding a mineral fertilizer and compost to a professional mix] – but NO untreated garden soil inside!) that can support the growth of the plant’s newly developing roots. This is basic information. If you really get interested in germinating unusual seeds then all kinds of conditions change.

Now that you’re organized…

Make sure you’re seed really should be started NOW. Some seed needs a long time to get going (like impatiens) others can be started 7 days before you’re ready to transplant (like cucumbers and squash). If you have a lot to do – make a schedule of who comes first. If in doubt WAIT!

!!! If started to soon – garden plants will stretch in the home, on windowsills and under lights. If you have a greenhouse room, you’ll have more flexibility.

Fill your container with the starting mix you’re using. Start with it damp and wet it slowly to the point o

f just drip but DON’T BOG THE SOIL. Plants need air as well as water –and diseases love water.

Label your pot – sounds basic but it’s really easy to get confused if you have a lot going on.

Select the largest, fattest, heaviest seeds. Mix some seed inoculant (dry) into your seed inside the packet. That way there’s good contact between the seed and the microbes. If using a liquid inoculant then use it (at recommended rate) as the liquid to wet the mix and sow the seeds into the treated potting mix. Use a full or wide spectrum bacteria and fungi inoculant.

INNOCULATION is the critical beginning of the plant’s “digestive” tract (this is the start of the rhizosphere and that’s a great study in its own right) and the sooner it begins, the stronger your plants will be. You’ll be re-inoculating later as well but those first roots need to start the lifelong relationship that they will have with their partners (bacteria and fungi) in mineral absorption. If you don’t use all of your seed and you used the dried microbes, the microbes will be fine as will the seed – unless you get the package wet!!

Sow your seed. The g

eneral rule is the larger the seed, the deeper you plant it – usually to twice its size in depth. Some seed –actually quite a bit of seed- can be sown directly on the surface (portulaca, begonia, onion etc.). I use vermiculite to cover all but the largest seeds (squash, cucumbers etc.) so that I can keep an eye on the process but you can use the seedling mix LIGHTLY sprinkled if that’s what you have.

Use a misting bottle

(or misting nozzle if you’re in a greenhouse!) and get the surface of the seeding container moist but NOT SOGGY!!!! Use a liquid that has some energy in it. I use a mix of liquid humates, molasses and kelp – 1tsp humates, 1 tbl each liquid kelp and molasses in a gallon of water. DON’T bog the soil down.

Place in some kind of humidity setting – anything from a plastic bag to a humidity dome (great invention!) and set in your warm nursery where you can keep an eye on it. Lift the dome if the humidity gets to looking like rain, mist more water over the top if it looks like a clear day. Steady, gentle heat and humidity will do the job.

Once germination has happened – put the newly green plants in to more light (but not intense heat and sun – they’ll burn right up) and eventually harden them off and get them into the garden.

Just FYI -some definitions…

Open-pollinated varieties are those plant varieties that, if properly isolated from other varieties in the same plant species, will produce seed that is “true to type.” This means that the seed will result in a plant that is genetically very similar to the parent. Selecting the best of the harvest from each planting leads to stronger and stronger plants selected for growing on that particular patch of land, matching the needs of the farmer/gardener.

Heirloom Plants open pollinated varieties that are usually at least 60 years old (remember that WWII note

?) and have generally been developed by selecting the best of each year’s production and then sending those seeds on to others after the originator’s needs were met. These varieties tend to have the most aggressive root systems more adaptable

than modern breeding (conventional or otherwise).

The “new” heirlooms are the result of standard breeding techniques that work to bring back a concentration on flavor and other “heirloom” characteristics while holding on to some of the modern gains of disease resistance. Some are open pollinated and some are hybrid –read the descriptions carefully if you want to save the seed!

Standard hybrid seeds are the result of crossing two different “parent” varieties (male genetics from one variety an

d female genetics from another variety) in the same species. Seedlings from the direct cross (F1) should have the best of both parents but seed collected from those plants will not – those second-generation seedlings will have a mix of traits. Although there are some really great gains in productivity and disease resistance, the genes involved are still true to the plant species itself – no new genetic material from any other species has been added.

Genetically modified seeds (GMO’s) are the most talked about seed at the moment. This is new technology, born of our ability to splice one species DNA (a bacteria’s) into the DNA of another specie (like corn and soybeans). Some would say that this is just the next logical step in the plant selection process – and, in fact, that’s exactly what the plant breeders involved in this t

echnology do say. There’s also the very real fact that this “new” DNA is now introduced into the world in an entirely different package and the response to that DNA may be v

ery different in the combined package than it would be if the “new” DNA was in its original packaging. Current GMO seeds are limited to the commodity crops like corn, soybean, alfalfa, cotton, canola, squash, papaya, and sugar beets. GMO versions of tomatoes, potatoes, and rice have been created and approved by government regulators, but they

aren't commercially available. None of the seeds that you buy for your garden will have GMO technology in them – to be blunt – it just isn’t worth the financial inve

stment. Monsanto and others want the big dollars that come from the mass planting of commodity agriculture not the back yard gardener. Any company selling to small scale producers usually prides itself on NOT carrying any GMO seeds.

Some useful links:

John Kempf’s Plant Health Pyramid – read this if nothing else!

Refractometer grid

Excellent pollinator list


Advancing Eco-Agriculture

Acres, USA

Bionutrient Food Association


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