House & Home

Sowing success: Look to spring by starting plants from seed

Basil is a good plant to start from seed.
Basil is a good plant to start from seed. The Kansas City Star

Get a jump on the season by starting your own annual flower and vegetable seeds at home. It’s easier than you think.

Gardeners do it for all sorts of reasons: Organic and heirloom vegetable enthusiasts grow hard-to-find varieties with unique flavors. Others just want to grow their favorite flower for the summer garden.

Start your own seed for the perfect plant, and you will get exactly what you want.

Joe and Lori Arri of Leawood got hooked on the seed-starting routine six years ago. “A brother-in-law who is a professional gardener supplied us with some annuals for a few years, and we loved the flowers. When we wore his kindness out, we decided to give it a go ourselves,” Lori said.

Once they caught the gardening bug, the Arris bought the basic supplies needed to get the job done. The original risk, they say, was small, as they spent only about $10 on seeds, four flats and cell packs and used a shop light they already had.

To this day their favorite flowers are Lemon Rocket snapdragons, gomphrena and “Leilani” ageratum.

A modest start

When you start seeds at home you first have to think about the basic needs of the plants: water, food and shelter from the cold. These are also the basic needs of a pet. If you can keep a cat or dog alive, then you can grow seeds.

Starting out small with easy plant varieties keeps expenses low and spirits high. Experienced gardeners typically invest in special equipment such as adjustable shelving, grow lights and seed heat mats.

Brian Chadwick-Robinson, operations manager for the local garden group Gardeners Connect, stresses that seeds need to be grown as sterile as possible. There is no need to purchase new pots and flats every year though: A solution of 10 percent bleach and 90 percent water will disinfect reusable items.

Most gardeners grow with standard plastic flats and cell packs. Others like to recycle household paper tubes and fill them with soil and seed.

The one place not to scrimp in growing your own seeds is the soil. Since sterile soil conditions are necessary, using a special seed starting mix will keep seedlings happy and healthy.

Your local nursery is the best place to find seed-growing tools and materials, such as flats, fertilizers, soil mixes and even the seeds themselves.

The least expensive way to provide light for seedlings is to use a fluorescent shop light. By hanging it with S-hooks on chains that can be adjusted, you can move the light up as the plants get bigger. The closer the light source, the less spindly and leggy the seedlings will be.

High-quality shop lights can start at $80, but they can be used for other household lighting whenever you aren’t starting seeds.

Also, “Studies have shown that air movement helps the seedlings have stronger stems,” Chadwick-Robinson says. He keeps a small fan near his plants to increase airflow and decrease the ability of harmful fungi to grow on delicate seedlings.

Trust the packet

Malia Hatley of Overland Park started growing from seed about 10 years ago to save money and get as many varieties as possible. Her hobby turned into a business opportunity as she began selling her overflow plants through her Stone’s Throw Greenhouse.

Hatley begins by taking notes about what plants she wants to grow. Then she amasses her annual flower and vegetable seeds in late winter.

Her advice to local gardeners: “Do your research before opening that seed packet. Will the seeds require a cold period? If so, how long? Some seeds will only germinate in darkness. Know what you are dealing with.”

Getting seeds to sprout is called germination. This happens when the inside of the seed receives the message that it is time to start growing. For most plants, these signals are water and warmth.

Following the directions on seed packets is important. Those who package the seeds want you to be as successful as possible, so they give instructions to ensure this.

If you’re a beginner, plants that don’t require extra steps will make the first-time experience more rewarding and enjoyable.

Both the Arris and Hatley plan for their plants to go out into the garden by mid-May, after the chance of damaging frost is highly unlikely. In mid-March, most of their summer annual flower seeds are planted in plastic flats or flats with smaller holes called seed trays.

Plant, water, feed

After you have your supplies, it is time to grow. Wet the soil down in a larger container before it goes into flats so the seed has a moist bed. This will make it easier to follow the packet directions on how deep to plant and keeps the seeds from being disturbed once they are in place. Keeping seeds at the right depth will ensure that they receive the proper amount of oxygen for germination.

Seeds such as lettuces and petunias can be very small, so gardeners like the Arris get inventive with their sowing.

“We use a piece of paper about 3 inches square, folded in half,” Lori said. “We distribute the seeds by tapping lightly on the paper’s edge over the soil to ‘walk’ the seeds into the cells of the flat.”

Once you have started the germination process, there needs to be a moderate moisture level at all times. Tiny seedlings can be watered with a spray bottle.

Some gardeners use inexpensive plastic lids that fit over the top of the flats to hold moisture. This “doming” technique keeps the seeds evenly moist longer and decreases the times you must water. The less you water before they sprout, the less you will disturb the seeds.

If everything goes well, then almost like magic the first leaves of the seeds — or cotyledons — will start popping out of the soil. Cotyledons collect the first light that your little plant will soak in.

Once you get into the groove with your seedlings, they may need water every other day, depending on air flow and how much they are growing. This is also the time to start supplying the plants with a diluted fertilizer. Many soil mixes already have a slow release fertilizer, so make sure that you aren’t overfeeding and burning the seedlings.

Most gardeners use traditional blue-powdered fertilizer. Local garden centers carry organic fertilizers for those who want to stay away from synthetics. Diluting fertilizer to a half or a fourth of the recommended rate will keep the young plants from getting burned.

Tending sprouts

Hatley recommends keeping plant records. “Seed-starting is an experiment even for the most experienced gardener,” she says.

She keeps a spreadsheet for all of her plants to learn from her mistakes and to repeat techniques that work. It’s important to keep track of information such as germination time, light and fertilizers used.

Not every seed you plant will germinate. Most gardeners sow more seed per pot than they need and thin out the crop once the sprouts start popping up.

Donna Covell, head greenhouse grower at Powell Gardens, is a proponent of getting plants into natural sunlight as soon as possible. You can move the seedlings into an area such as a porch or a cold frame just before your finish date.

A cold frame is a small garden structure that lets in light while giving the plants a few degrees of protection from the cold. You can have a lot of fun using recycled materials such as old windows and leftover lumber to fashion a cold frame. Covell uses this technique at Powell Gardens with early spring annuals such as pansies, violas and snapdragons.

Water safely

Covell cautions gardeners to be mindful of watering practices when near electricity.

A nearby table with a shallow tray for the flats to drain onto will serve as a convenient watering station. Simply place the flat in the tray, water, let it drain, and put the plants back under the light. This way you are completely safe from getting water near any supplemental lighting.

If you follow these and packet instructions, by summer you should have a great crop of unusual plants, ready for your garden.

Easy-to-grow seedlings

▪ Ageratum (Ageratum houstonianum): Also known as the floss flower, this Mexican native loves the sun and is attractive to butterflies. Most ageratum are a sea of tiny, bright blue flowers, but pink and purple are also available.

▪ Basil (Ocimum basilicum): Not only is basil found in delicious culinary dishes, but it can also be an attractive ornamental plant in the garden. Malia Hatley of Overland Park recommends starting these seeds with a lot of light. Spicy purple varieties and the traditional large sweet basil make this crop a must-have.

▪ Tomatoes (Solanum lycopersicum): This staple of Italian cooking originated in South America and has a rich history. Hundreds of varieties of tomatoes are available thanks to the efforts of heirloom seed enthusiasts. The plants can be “determinate” or indeterminate,” which means some stop at a certain height and others will grow like a vine. The tomatoes themselves vary by taste, shape, size and color. You can find bright yellow fruits, striped, dark purples and, of course, the traditional red.

▪ Zinnias (Zinnia): Zinnias are well-known garden favorites for good reason: They come in a wide array of colors and sizes, ranging from ankle-high to above your head. They are irresistible to butterflies.

Steps for starting from seed

▪ Calculate when to plant your seeds by starting with the last average frost date for your area. From that date, count back in one-week increments the amount of time the seeds need to germinate, according to the seed packet.

▪ Containers should be 2 to 3 inches deep and have drainage holes; sterilize recycled ones. You can make biodegradable containers out of toilet paper and paper towel rolls as well as newspaper.

▪ Fill containers with moistened soil mix designed for seed-starting.

▪ Sprinkle a seed or two in each container and cover with a light layer of soil, unless the seed packet requires a deeper seed depth.

▪ Lightly pat the soil.

▪ Place containers in a drainage tray and water the soil gently to avoid displacing the seeds.

▪ Place beneath a bright, warm light that is hung by an adjustable chain. This can be either a fluorescent shop light or special grow light.

▪ Water every other day, or when the soil looks almost dry; feed seedlings with one-fourth to one-half strength liquid fertilizer after they germinate. Seedlings like moderate, constant moisture. Being too wet is just as damaging as being too dry.

▪ As the seedlings grow, raise the light, keeping it as close as possible to the plants without touching them.

▪ After a few weeks, gently pull a seedling or two out of their pot. If the roots seem crowded and the soil dries out daily, transplant the seedlings into a slightly larger container. Use a soil mix that contains a blend of equal parts compost, sphagnum moss and perlite or vermiculite so they have access to soil nutrients and get ready for life in the ground.

▪ Acclimate seedlings by moving them outside to a protected location a few weeks before your finish date. Cover plants or move them indoors when it freezes.

▪ Plant when the chance of frost is over, which is usually about May 1. Check the long-range forecast to be safe.