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your input, please: what do you want to know about growing from seed?

SEED-SHOPPING SEASON is upon us, and before too long seed-starting season—with those first onions and leeks and maybe some violas to sow indoors—will be here, too.  In the week ahead, Ken Druse and I will tape our first Urgent Garden Question Q&A show of the new year on my public radio program and podcast, and we want to know:

What do you want (need?) to know about seeds?

  • Do you experience failure with some particular crop, like spindly seedlings or poor germination, or need help with a better lighting set-up or watering method or something technical like that?
  • What’s the craziest thing you ever grew—or wanted to grow but didn’t dare?
  • Your biggest win—or total flop (like the collards I sowed a few years ago that sprouted instantly but then just sat there like dwarf versions of themselves the rest of the season).

You get the idea.

Shout out your questions here (in the comments box at the very bottom of the page) so we can address them, and really focus this episode on what you need most. Thanks for your input, in the name of the best growing-from-seed season ever in 2019. The seed-themed Q&A show will be part of my annual Seed Series, which begins in early January on the program. If you don’t already get the show, it’s free on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) and Stitcher and other apps.

  1. Becky says:

    My failure is mentioned above – radishes that fail to fill out. It keeps happening and I keep trying. Obviously I’m doing something very basic wrong. On the other hand, my Swiss chard was a roaring success last summer and produced until November- no need for a fall planting.

  2. Darci says:

    I’ve read it would help to blow air on my tomato seedlings with a fan. I’d love to know more about that. My tomato seedlings stand tall and strong in the basement but fall right over when I start the hardening process. It would be nice to hear your thoughts on hardening too! Are there some types of seedlings that need more or less time to harden? I fail at growing zucchini. Crazy but true. I’ll get one fruit and the plant dies. Obviously I’m not meeting a need.

  3. Colleen says:

    My lavender seeds never germinate. Not sure I didn’t water them good. The soil I used wasn’t potting soil but seed starting mix. Is it possible to grew lavender from seed or should I use stem cuttings?

  4. Mary Sue says:

    I love beets! They are delicious eaten hot out of the oven, warm in many dishes, or cold in salads. Besides being good for you. I have tried for 2 summers now to grow them. The first year I got a few of a decent size, wanted bigger, and the second year began great but then watched them just sit there never changing. Did not get any bigger than a half dollar in diameter. I ended up at the farmers market. I grew them in a new raised bed full of compost from the local garden shop and thought that would be a good beginning for them…..
    Thanks for any advice.
    Mary Sue

  5. Dianne says:

    I’m getting ready to get my seedling trays ready. I am looking for a good seed starting mix. I always have problems with skimpy anemic roots on my seedlings when I go to transplant into bigger pots. I’ve heard seed sprouting medium doesn’t need nutrients, but I can only think I would have better root development if I used something else. I’m just looking for a good seed starting mix. There are so many to choose from and I don’t know which to get.

  6. Linda says:

    I need help on the best way to water seedlings. I lost lost some pepper seedlings last year, death by accidental drowning.

    LOVE your podcasts and website. Made the butternut squash soup with Garam masala and it was delicious.

    Thanks, Linda

    1. Gene says:

      Hi, Linda, I’m no expert; but here’s what I’ve done.

      I have a couple solid bottom trays that don’t drain. I put my starter containers into them and pour water into the trays. The containers are watered from the bottom and seem to do well.

      Trying to water each little plant was pretty much hit-or-miss … some too much and some dry.

      1. Ken says:

        Like Gene, I water from below — if it is absolutely necessary. Since I usually top dress with a thin layer of chicken grit, I can tell when the medium is moist when the grit turns darker.
        Very often, the sprouted seedlings do not need any extra water until they have true leaves and are moved to individual cells or pots..

  7. Virginia says:

    Apple seeds rarely grow true to form — that’s what a lot of internet sources indicate but does I want to know about those rare incidents — do some apple seeds grow into apple (not just crabapple) trees? Would the tree be similar to one of it’s parents? Or could it generate a new type of apple?

    1. Darren says:

      Some apple orchards have crabapple trees around to act as pollinators, since they produce more abundant pollen than some of the premier dessert apples we favor. As a result, seeds from such an orchard may be more likely to grow into smaller, bitter, crab apples.

      That said, saved apple seeds can definitely produce new, large, edible apples. They won’t be the same as what you saved the seed from, instead each seed will grow into a new variety. They may or may not be similar to the parent apple, but are likely to be usable.

      Professional apple breeders screen through thousands of seedlings to find the one that will meet the criteria they think it needs, including marketing, disease-resistance, and shipping concerns. As a home grower, your criteria will be quite different and you likely won’t have to screen through anywhere near the number of seedlings to find one you like.

      If you have the space and time to grow a few seeds from your favorite apple, you may find one seedling produces something you really like after a few years! (Don’t feel bad about chopping out any seedlings that produce fruit you don’t like. It gives you more room to grow new ones.)

  8. Kathleen Gross says:

    I had success in propagating dozens of seedlings from one flower of the volunteer native woody Spiraea Tomantosa, but as they grew, they got spindly, I moved then into more sun…then the leaves seemed to bleach almost white…so I need more information about how to nurture seedlings. I am adding mostly local natives to my new construction moonscape and I need to propagate for budget reasons and lack of available stock at local nurseries.

  9. Edward Null says:

    I’ve been having the devil’s own time with leeks and onions–poor to zero germination. Basement is 60ish, standard flats with cover, potting soil. Lights, no lights, surface sown or covered, no luck. At wits end!

    1. Gene says:

      I grow less than an acre of onions; but I do have a cool basement in the winter for starts.

      For seeds that seem to care, I take a small string of low-power Christmas lights and place them under a shallow cardboard box or lid. My starts go on top of that and eventually under the lights. About a dozen lights per square foot will raise the temperature 5-10°F. You can go up/down from there depending on how cool you are.

  10. Victoria says:

    Hi Margaret,

    I have poor success rates with starting flowers that need light to germinate. My vegetable, zinnia, and cosmo seedlings have no problem – they are sturdy, stocky starts that thrive in the garden. But snapdragons, lobelia, alyssum, etc. barely germinate and if they do, they limp along. Starting many of my annuals and container plants would allow me to save money and get step outside the limits of what the local nursery has to offer, but I just can’t nail it. I’d love if you did an episode on starting these flowers from seed.

    For context, I use a T5 light fixture, keep adequate space between the fixture and starts (2-3″), water from the bottom of the tray, and keep plastic over the top to ensure the top layer of medium is evenly moist. I also use an organic seed starting mix (I love Coast of Maine products).

    Thanks so much,
    Victoria from Gloucester, MA

  11. Jamie says:

    We have grown veggies and cutting fliers from seed for several years. We also have a wood stove in our basement with shop lights close to the concrete floor. The bottom heat has been great for starting seeds in trays of sterile medium covered with plastic wrap. However, we learned the hard way that lettuce seeds will not germinate in this warm environment. Same in summer when we try to reseed directly.

  12. Mary says:

    Like your collards I’ve had trouble getting spinach to grow well. It just sits there with no energy to grow. Fresh seed in fertile soil at the right time but still it’s missing something! Is there a critical nutrient for spinach that I may be lacking?

  13. Tracy says:

    Five years ago, I started seeds from a supermarket lemon. The resultant tree is now about five feet tall and very healthy and bushy. It lives outside in full sun all summer and comes indoors from fall to early summer in my zone 6b area. The tree is healthy, and I know the supermarket variety of lemon is probably not ideal to fruit in my climate, it I’d be interested to know if you feel there is any chance it will fruit. I feed it weakly with Miracid. Thoughts?

  14. Kathy Adams says:

    What is the best temperature to grow seedlings. My setup is on the first floor. It’s probably 70 to 72. If I put it in the basement (55-60), I would probably forget it. Are those advertised seed starting trays worth the money? Now, I use clean recycled 4 or 6 packs. I read your posts faithfully. Thanks so much

  15. Ann Bergquist says:

    I’ve not been very happy with the seed staring mixes I’ve used in the past. A lot seem too dense. I’m just looking for a good seed starting mix. I really would rather not have to mix my own and would like to purchase a good mix already available. There are so many to choose from and I don’t know which to get.

  16. Nancy Mellen says:

    I have very little luck growing the old fashioned hollyhocks which I love, not the powder puff ones. They don’t reseed when I buy a plant, and when I start from seed I probably only have 30 percent germination . The second year when this biennial should flower, only 30 percent of last year’s plants survive the winter, and only 30 percent will flower but not reseed. I’m in eastern Massachusetts and garden on the town’s old grazing area along the town brook, and the soil is fertile. In addition, I regularly add compost and composted manure. Any ideas?

  17. John says:

    Fresh, clean potting mix is often recommended for starting seed; but when I have old soil, from failed attempts, what do I do with it? Can it be refreshed? Composted? Disposed of in the garden?

    John, Honolulu, HI

  18. Lorie says:

    1. I’d like to understand how these plug seed-starting systems can work that sit right in water 24/7. Why don’t the seedlings rot and drown like they do if I overwater my soil trays or peat pots? Is it the porosity or composition of the “plug” medium? I’d LOVE to know how I could rig up some sort of a wicking mat so I could start seedlings even if I will be going away on a vacation after they germinate.
    2. Can’t resist this input: sprinkling shredded ( I used my blender!) sphagnum moss on the soil surface works wonders in preventing damping off of delicate seedling stems.
    3. I don’t think I have EVER gotten any thing to grow well in those pressed cardboard-type disposable pots. Maybe it is just me but I will never buy them again.

  19. What are your favorite Turtle Tree Seeds for Zone 5?
    At your workshop last year I learned grow lights are not really strong enough…what can I use instead?
    THANKS
    Karen from the Coop

  20. Keith says:

    The most unusual plant that I’ve grown is plumaria in upper New York State. I acquired a small piece from Hawaii a few years back.Since it is tender tropical plant, I have to bring it in every winter. It is now so big that I don’t know what I’m going to do with it next winter as I barely got it inside this winter. It is about 7′ high & about 5-6′ wide. I may have to take cuttings from it & start all over again.

    Another fun thing I grew is peanuts. I start them inside early in peat pots & then transplant them outside in early June after frost. It’s fun to watch them send down tendrils into the earth. The peanuts from under the ground. They require a lot of sun, heat & a long growing season so I wasn’t expecting much but I was really surprised. They did very well.

  21. Alisa Huckaby says:

    I love growing plants from seed. As the seeds are reluctant to germinate, I am proud to say that I’ve grown paw paw trees (which are the host plant for the zebra swallowtail caterpillar) from seed.

    Also, after unsuccessfully attempting to start fig bushes (from cuttings) for 2 years, I am happy to report that this year I’ve gotten fig bush cuttings to grow (after cutting branches lowest to the ground that had already established roots!). To my amazement though, I apparently “planted” one of the cuttings upside down and one of my fig bushes is growing leaves that initially point downwards and then bend/curve upwards towards the light as the leaf grows. I love that plant’s will!

    I have a question on how to prevent damping off of newly-sprouted plants (especially peppers and tomatoes). Also, I would like to learn which brand of potting soil is recommended for peppers and tomatoes. I have a big pepper year planned for 2019 and want to maximize successful plant growth.

  22. Dorrie says:

    I have a terrible time trying to grow beets. The seedlings do come up but the bulbs fail to produce and the leaves get a mottled hue to them. I’ve tried several varieties, but same result.

  23. Cheryl says:

    Can you grow seedlings in a warm basement with grow lights and carts? How does that work if you not there everyday to adjust lights? And don’t the plants on a shelf grow at different rates? So one tray might need the light raised and the others do not? I had a green house for 12 years where I could start seeds and then go to work in the city and they managed fine. I moved and have a no green house but have been gardening in my new location buying plants on line or a nursery. I feel restricted by availble seedling choices. But I can’t find alot of info on growing under lights like you see in catalogues. Advice please on how to grow like that?

  24. Jan says:

    What is your go-to reference book (or website) for information on specific germination requirements for many different kinds of seeds, both ornamental and edible ?

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Jan. Depends what you are growing. I have textbooks on propagation that I used in classes years ago (e.g., Hartmann & Kester) but generally I find that the key info on vegetables and common flowers is online at either one of the good big seed catalogs or Extension services. So for instance most veggies are here in this Penn State chart; Johnny’s Selected Seeds’ catalog had detailed growing info below each variety listing (e.g. here is the page for Ageratum) of flower or herb or vegetable including weeks and temperature.

      1. Jan says:

        Many thanks for your reply! Thinking of putting info on a spreadsheet so it’s all in one convenient place, rather than having to look it up every year. -J

  25. Mike Z says:

    I notice this every year as I go seed shopping hoping to stock up on favorite varieties: On many occasions varieties that I’ve come to really love aren’t available, or they’re sold under a different name. Or, the name is the same, but the description is markedly different than what I know of the variety through years of growing them. I expect that hybrid varieties are likely trademarked and sold under just one name. But, for open-pollinated varieties is there any body standardizing names and types so consumers can be certain of what they’re expecting? Other than saving seeds, which I’ll be more diligent about this year, any advice on sorting through the variety within a variety?

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