How to Start Seed From Scratch

Susan Glaese shares how to start seed from scratch to save money on starter plants for your garden.
March/April 1986
Diagram of the parts of a seed.


This was the goal to the leaf & root
For this did the blossom burn its hour
This little grain is the ultimate fruit
This is the awesome vessel of power.

— Georgie Starbuck Galbraith 

"Why should I go through all that trouble when I can just pick up a six-pack at the store?" I've heard that comment made in reference to my homemade beer, but it's never been repeated after the brew was tasted and the costs compared. And you've probably been asked that same question if you've ever told people you raised seedlings from scratch, as we do at MOTHER EARTH NEWS gardens. Of course, it's easy to answer by saying that seed starting gives us something to dirty our fingernails with when the view outside says spring isn't quite here yet, or that we enjoy being part of the whole process from seed to harvest, but those rationales are only the tip of the cotyledon.

How to Start Seed From Scratch

When stopping by the local nursery's "six-pack rack," I've typically found such "bargains" as trays of broccoli that are seven inches tall and already starting to head . . . or a total of three varieties of peppers — each of which, upon examination, has a mile of roots in one square inch of soil . . . or maybe five whole varieties of tomatoes, all so artificially stimulated with lights and fertilizer that it would take them weeks to recover from the shock of encountering sunshine and garden soil.

By starting your own seedlings, though, you can pamper the seed as well as the plant, because you'll have control over every stage of growth. In addition, your choices will jump from a meager handful of varieties to sometimes more than a hundred, including — perhaps — heat-resistant spinach for your Florida or Texas garden, heirloom beans whose historic roots grow deep in your own region's soil, subarctic tomatoes to try in Michigan, or even an experimenter's dream grab bag of vegetables from around the world. You'll also be able to nurture your infant seedlings with such fine first foods as worm castings, leaf mold, nettle tea, and "room to grow on." And for the price of six nursery-started ankle-highs, you can usually purchase a palmful of eager embryos — enough to grow a year's worth of plants and still share seeds and seedlings with the neighborhood. Finally, raising your own starts will insure that bed space or rows won't be left fallow for lack of available succession plants.

In MOTHER EARTH NEWS NO. 92, pages 48-51, Olivia and Walker Abel (former Eco-Village gardeners) provided a basic course in seed starting, using a soil mix made up of organic ingredients. In the pages that follow, I'd like to look into the secret life of seeds and describe some special touches that will help make your seed-starting ventures more productive of both healthy plants and personal satisfaction.

Magic Beans

Many a parent has grinned when overhearing a child brag on Mom or Dad's behalf, but it's my son Erik who smugly smiles when I begin a classroom gardening demonstration by saying, "Did you know that I can hold a hundred watermelons in one hand and a thousand carrots in the other, and that YOU can hold a meadow or 50 maple trees in yours? Yep, it's true." And I hold out a handful of seeds. "Magic beans are no fairy tale, you know, because there's magic in every single seed. There's a living plant-child inside each one whose parents packed it a big lunch box of stored food to hold it over until it was old enough to feed itself."

And, as is the case with those youngsters, there are genetic secrets locked within each seed that give it its uniqueness. This carrot may have a delicate grandma several generations back that accounts for its sweetness, and that lettuce perhaps had "weedy characters" in its lineage, making its taste spunky but its hardiness commendable. Our goal, then, is to coax out of dormancy the special fruits and vegetables hidden within each seed.

A Closer Look at Seeds

You may not hear sighs from your seed packets or jars over the winter, but the embryonic plants are in there "breathing" just the same; oxygen is being taken in and carbon dioxide is being released. They are alive. However, it takes different degrees of moisture, light, darkness, oxygen, and temperature to bring each type of seed to germination, and therein lies more magic. The seed coat softens, water is imbibed, enzymes are activated, and the easily stored starches and proteins are converted into the simple foods of glucose, maltose, amides, and free amino acids needed by the emerging plant. First to burgeon is the primary root, "dowsing" ever downward. The stem (hypocotyl) follows, breaking ground and surfacing with the mission of carrying the first true leaves into the sunlight where they can begin to photosynthesize. Eventually the plant matures and makes seed of its own, and the cycle begins again.

Remember in grade school when you grew bean seeds in cutoff milk cartons? If you soaked them first, your teacher may have pulled a swollen seed apart and showed you the first true infantile leaves, the protruding tap root (or radical), and the cotyledons, or seed leaves, that would provide the nourishment for early growth. Beans, like the majority of garden vegetables, are dicots. That means that they have two cotyledons. Corn, grasses, and onions are called monocots, and have one cotyledon along with endosperm to provide "breakfast" for the seedling. In either case, the guardian of all this inner life is the seed coat. It regulates the intake of water, oxygen, and light by the seed and holds things in check until the right conditions are present for growth. In many seeds, the latter task is handled by chemicals that inhibit germination. This can seem counter-productive to a gardener's wishes at times, to be sure, but it keeps seeds from jumping the gun and being fooled by a little warmth or moisture before the timing is right. So how, then, can we best control all of these factors in order to get seeds off to an early, and healthy, start?

Critical Considerations and Potential Problems

Moisture must be removed in order for seeds to be stored for any length of time; by the same token, it must be added if germination is to take place. Now the swelling of a seed with water (imbibition) isn't an accurate sign of viability. As is the case with a sponge, this can be a purely physical reaction. But when a living seed drinks in water, the seed coat softens, allowing the root to emerge. Respiration speeds up, the embryo starts to grow, and enzymes are activated to break down nutrients and make them available.

Because of this, you must never let already-watered seeds and young seedlings dry out; it will mean almost certain death. Too often, small seeds are sown so shallowly that their survival depends on the moisture held in that thin layer of surface soil . . . which is the first soil to dry out. To protect seeds, I use a Haw-stype watering can to moisten the tamped-down soil mixture to the correct consistency before I sow seed. Then I sift a thin layer of the same mix, with perhaps a bit more sand, over the top of the seeds.

MOTHER's gardening articles frequently mention Haws-type watering cans, and many of you may be wondering what sets these apart from the more common garden-store rainmakers. Well, the British Haws can and the French Schneider both have detachable heads (called roses) that are angled skyward so the water sprays upward, is aerated, and then falls with only the force of gravity. They're also balanced for comfortable transporting and pouring when being held at any point along the handle. Many excellent companies carry them, including Gardener's Supply Co., Winooski, VT, and Green River Tools, Brattleboro, VT. Green River Tools also offers a Fine Spray Hose Attachment for $4.50 that saturates, yet ever so gently. We use it in the greenhouse with excellent results.

Light can have a subtle influence on whether or not some seeds will sprout. Since seeds are in darkness when underground, it would seem that absence of light is a natural condition for sprouting. Some seeds, though — including lettuce and celery — show improved germination when exposed to light before planting.

If you must start seedlings indoors and don't have a sunny window space, fluorescent lights provide an effective — and inexpensive — alternative to commercial "grow lights."

Oxygen: Vegetables will, of course, die from lack of water, but let too much water enter the picture and oxygen can be excluded to the point where rot is invited. (This often happens in spring when the ground is cold and saturated and seeds are planted too early.)

Soil temperature is one of the strongest factors influencing every stage of a vegetable's life from "planted seed" to "gone to seed." After all, our common garden crops originated in various climates around the globe, and they inherently want to sprout when temperatures and light hours are in their favor.

Timing, therefore, is extremely important. Use the frost dates for your area to determine planting dates. Seedlings that are planted too early in a pre-spring fervor will be spindly, root-bound, and beginning to wane when the ideal transplant date arrives. Cool-weather crops, if planted too late, will mature on into the radiant summer and will probably suffer premature bolting. On the other hand, warm-weather and long-season varieties, when planted too late, will not have enough heat or hours of sunlight to mature.

Depth: In nature, seeds fall off parent plants and hitchhike or are windborne to a new home. They are rarely buried very deep, if at all. A "rule of green thumb" is to cover each seed type to a depth of about three times its width. Very fine seeds, such as lettuce, can simply be pressed into the soil's surface.

Damping-Off: If you check a flat of seedlings and find that some or all of them are lying wilted on their sides, looking for all the world as if they'd been squeezed between a dirty index finger and thumb, damping-off is the culprit. This fungus attacks quickly, so prevention is the key. I generally sprinkle about one-eighth inch of clean coarse sand over the soil once my seedlings come up. This gives better drainage at that critical area where stem meets soil. A tea made from chamomile or stinging nettle can also be added. These herbal concoctions are said to inhibit damping-off and to give the youngsters added vim and vigor. If compost is used in the soil mix, it should be strictly vegetative, incorporating no manures. Trays, flats, and tools must also be kept clean. You can wash them with soap and disinfect them in a one part bleach to ten parts water solution . . . or leave them outdoors to dry in the sun for a day or two . . . or do both.

If damping-off strikes down only a few seedlings, you can try — as I have with success — picking out the affected plants, washing your hands well to avoid spreading the disease, adding a sand layer, thinning if necessary, moving the whole flat to a sunnier or airier place, and watering with chamomile tea.

Birds of a Feather: Sow seeds with similar requirements in the same flat. When peppers and tomatoes are next to one another, for instance, the tomatoes may come up and be ready to prick out before the peppers have even broken the surface. This leaves half the flat torn up, which is no great disaster, but does make watering uneven and isn't an efficient way to free up growing space. Whether you're using flats or individual growing containers, grouping plants with similar germination rates and requirements permits easy adjustments in light, heat, and moisture.

Presoaking: Don't soak large seeds in water too long or they may split. The moist cloth/paper towel "mummy" method is safer. Dampen a few layers of paper towels — or cloth of about the same dimensions — and lay the presprouting candidates on them, allowing an inch of separation for larger seeds and a half inch for smaller ones. Roll the material into a tube (you can fold over the edges if need be), put the whole thing into a plastic bag, and set it in a warm place. The heat from just the pilot light in my oven is the right temperature. Be sure to check often to see if germination has occurred.

Practice Prudence: It's a good idea, especially when dealing with heirlooms or rare seeds, to never sow all of one variety at once. Instead, hold some back in case the crop doesn't make it for some reason.

To Bag or Not to Bag: While a lot of people cover whole containers of planted seed with plastic bags in order to retain heat and moisture, remember that you can do this only if your soil is sterile. To do so with soil containing live organisms would encourage damping-off and other diseases.

Make a Little Magic!

There is a Jack within each of us, a true believer who longs to plant those mysterious beans. I hope that my suggestions give you the urge to try sprouting your own seedlings this coming spring. Remember the words of Thomas Rain Crow, from his poem "Seed":

". . . how wonderful that this small round seed could grow into the majesty of a great tree! Into the face of a flower or the sweet taste of something to eat . . . WE ARE ALL SEEDS . . . "