The needs of seeds

Morning glory seedlings

Morning glory seedlings on my kitchen window last spring.

Last year at about this time, I had a tray full of seedlings–the promise of long twining, gloriously blooming morning glories. What I didn’t realize at the time was that they were doomed. Among other things, my kitchen window, sunny and inviting as it is, just didn’t offer enough solar power for my little green aliens. They grew ever more spindly, their stems thin and weak with long gaps between their pathetically small leaves. Once the weather was warm enough, I started the hardening off process in any case but they all died a slow and ignoble death in the end.

To be honest, I’m a buy-plants-already-out-of-the-juvenile-stage kind of gardener. I don’t have the patience for growing things from seeds (aside from my adventures in growing lettuce from seed and harnessing the powers of magic beans). But I got to thinking about the information given on a packet of seeds. There are some fundamentals that just aren’t there. I appreciate that the amazing botanical processes behind stratification and scarification aren’t going to be emblazoned on seed packets any time soon but, for the record, here’s what I think should be on them:

The amount of light that’s really needed: I learned the hard way that a sunny kitchen windowsill might not be enough for successful seedling growth. In fact, indoor light near windows can be a lot less intense than light outdoors on a cloudy day and a whole lot less than an actual sunny day. The University of Minnesota advocates the use of artificial light rather than relying on daylight from a windowsill. Needless to say, nothing beats a greenhouse.

How to tell if your seeds are too old and likely won’t germinate: First, let’s assume that most retailers selling seeds are offering only fresh packets of viable seed. But, if you have your doubts or you pulled out a packet of leftover seeds from a few years ago, there are two tricks to help you decide whether you should plant them.

  • Pour all the seeds into a glass of water. Chances are, the seeds that sink to the bottom of the glass are still viable. Those that remain floating on the surface should be thrown away.
  • Roll some seeds up in a damp paper towel and wait to see how many germinate. The percentage of seed that does germinate will give you a good idea of how well it’ll do in the garden. Follow this link for a good how-to.

The difference between treated and untreated seeds: Treated seeds have been processed to improve their performance. The treatment can be chemical or biological. The treatment may also involve a colorant and/or dust-reducing agents. And it can include an insecticide which could be a problem for other plants and beneficial critters in the soil due to off-target exposure.

What to do with leftover seed: Store them in an airtight container in a cool, dark place such as your fridge. You need to keep moisture away. One easy way to do that is to pop in one of those silica gel packets often found in pill bottles. For more tips on storage and other factors, try this excellent guide from the University of Minnesota, cited earlier.



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