inter in Muskoka is normally long and cold. Not so this year, and we didn’t get a lot of snow either. Spring is not far away….February arrives, and with that comes boxes full of seed packages. All tables in the house are converted to organize the packages. The first step is dividing them – annual or perennial. Next they get sorted alphabetically.
I use old photo albums, the ones with separate sheets, 4 pockets to each side, to organize the packages after they have been alphabetized. The whole works then gets sealed in plastic bins and stored in a cool place.
Next, I go through all of the packages again and look at the different requirements for germinating. Each seed has its own germinating requirements. Many common seeds such as tomatoes and marigolds are straightforward. Others, like many of the native plants, require stratification in cold or freezing conditions, so in the fridge or freezer they go for a certain amount of time. These seeds will only germinate after alternating periods of cold and warm. Someone looking for a snack in the fridge at my house in February would be in for a surprise. Likely the first thing to greet them would be zip lock bags filled with seeds.
Some other seeds, such as Baptisia, need to be scarified, rubbed with sandpaper or nicked with a knife. This mimics the seeds being ingested by an animal and passing through its intestinal tract. Make sure to read the instructions on the seed packages.
It is hard to believe that all of those little seeds will grow into thousands of big plants, filling up all of the greenhouses at Brackenrig Nursery ….and hundreds of our customer’s yards. Every spring I have my doubts again, but it never fails, the seeds will germinate and the seedlings will grow into big, strong, and healthy plants.
Finally, the time has come to start seeding, and I hook up my HID lights in the basement and set up extra heat. I now spend many weeks planting all those tiny seeds. I use a Gro Mor vibrating hand seeder to help me spread the seeds more evenly in the trays. The trays I use are made of plastic and are re-usable for many years. The trays are divided in 10 long strips which make it easier to separate the different varieties. The trays are filled with a good, sterile seeding mix, and the mix gets packed down gently. This is mostly to prevent the seeds from disappearing in the cracks and getting lost. I then spread the seeds carefully by putting them in my hand seeder or sometimes I just shake them out of the package gently. Either way works well, it just depends on how many seeds I’m planting. I usually prefer to use the hand seeder for the smaller seeds. For some seeds, I use trays that have separate cells, e.g. 288 cells per tray. I mostly use those for my pelleted seeds, and drop down 1 seed per cell. This method is more time consuming, but saves time later when transplanting.
Some of the seeds need to be covered up with a bit of soil; others need absolute light to germinate. Read the instructions on the seed package carefully as it has valuable information on it. Next the seeds need to be watered in carefully. I use a fine misting nozzle, which helps the seed get settled down into the soil, but doesn’t make them disappear into crevices. Lukewarm water is best for this. A plant mister will work just fine.
Next a plastic cover goes over the trays and under the HID lights they go. The most important thing now is to keep them consistently moist and warm. If you don’t have any special trays for seeding, any tray will do as long as it drains properly. One of my staff uses her oven to germinate her seeds. The oven light alone provides enough heat to help germination. Just don’t turn your oven on and forget about your seeds!
After a few days, or weeks, for some seeds, they finally pop their little heads up above the soil and that is the most exciting thing to see! Year after year, the same miracle happens and it still amazes me.
If the seedlings are crowded, you may want to snip a few out to make space for the strongest ones. The first leaves appearing are the cotyledons which are not the true leaves yet. The next set will be the true leaves. I wait till after the first true leaves appear and then I transplant the seedlings into larger containers. This is also the time to start applying a mild transplant fertilizer.
When you are doing this at home, you may want to move your seedlings to a windowsill with the proper lighting. Expose your seedlings to the sun gradually, so they don’t get burned.
Once it is warm enough outside, it’s time to harden your plants off. Take them outside to a sheltered spot, protected from wind and sun, and leave them out for an hour or so to start. The next day, you can leave them out a bit longer. Make sure that the outside temperature is warm enough, similar to your indoor temperature to minimize plant stress. Remember to shelter your plants on cold nights. Finally, when all danger of frost is past, it’s time to transplant your plants to the garden.