Tips and Techniques
Growing plants from seed isn’t for the faint of heart, it takes skill, patience and plain and simple dumb luck. After collecting plants for many years now I’ve noticed it’s becoming harder and harder to find something new. I’m fortunate to live in a city with an incredible variety yet sometimes I just can’t find what I’m looking for. Luckily with the aid of the Internet, all you have to do is ask. If you look hard enough you can find seeds for almost anything online. While rare and exotic seeds can cost a little more than you’d expect, they’re still significantly cheaper than buying plants. That is, if you can successfully germinate them. While growing plants from seed isn’t rocket science it does take a little extra care to be successful. Here are some techniques I’ve learnt from study & trial and error.
An important step in growing strange and exotic seeds starts with good quality seed. For best results, the fresher the better. Some seeds loose viability extremely quickly, fresh seeds have the highest germination rates. Once collected remove the seeds from the chaff/debris and store in a dry location. If the seeds are in fruit, remove the seeds from the fruit, clean and dry out before storing. Increased longevity of the seeds can be achieved by storing them in the fridge. Large hard seeds will benefit from being soaked for 24hrs prior to sowing and on occasion nicked or scared so the seedling can break free. If you’re unsure of how deep to plant your seeds, the general rule of thumb is as deep as the seed is large. For flat seeds like lily / agave or yucca planting try them vertically, not flat. Tiny dust like seeds should be mixed with sterile sand so as to aid even dispersal over the soil medium. While one might be tempted to seed individual pots with individual seeds, I find it more successful to seed solitary pots. Seedling seem to thrive in the company of others.
I recommend investing in a good seed starting mix from your local garden center. If you can’t find a seed starting soil, cactus soil also works well too. The most important part being that the soil is well draining, often having a larger percentage of sand/perlite then other potting mixes. After one has acquired the proper soil you’ve now got to ensure it’s sterilized. Nothing’s more defeating then seeing your seedlings appear, only to rot off a day later. Most bagged soil is supposed to be sterile, but if you’re extra keen you can put it on a baking sheet and bake for 20 minutes in the oven. It will fill your house with a wonderful earthy smell reminiscent of dirt and home baking. After 20 minutes all bacteria in the soil should be dead, thus raising your odds of success. Now that you have the right soil, it’s time to make sure everything else is clean too. Giving your pots a quick bath in boiling water will ensure they aren’t harboring any bad bacteria. It also would be a good idea to wash your hands prior to sowing as well.
Fill your clean pots with clean soil and get ready to create life. If you have a fungicide on hand (garden sulfur works great) sprinkle some over the soil medium to prevent dampening off. Now gently wet the potting medium to dilute the fungicide dust and also settle the soil. If the soil has settled lower then you had expected top it up, fungicide it again and wet until perfect. Wetting the medium before sowing your seeds will prevent the tiny seeds from floating off to the side of the pot.
Now that the soil is moist, sprinkle your seeds evenly across the pot. Not knowing the specific growing requirements of the plant, I find it best to make sure some seeds are exposed in the light, and some are below the soil. Agitating the surface of the soil will make sure the seeds find a little bit of both environments. Some seeds require light to germinate while others darkness. Now that your pot is seeded place it in a zip lock bag or put a clean plastic lid over it. What we’re trying to do here is increase humidity. The tighter fitting the better, you’ll know you’re on the right track if you see condensation collecting on the walls of the plastic. Humidity is key. Plastic sushi containers & to go sandwich packaging make great sealing seed starting trays. Place your seed tray on a warm sunny windowsill, or under grow lights and wait. Many seeds will germinate within the first week others two or three. Some take much longer. Patience is key and you shouldn’t throw away failed seeding projects for at least a year. Over the days and weeks, check your trays for signs of growth, if the soil dries out make sure to give it a drink. To water once seeded, place your seeding tray in a larger container of water and let it absorb via capillary action.
Once seedlings appear and begin to grow, cut a few holes in the plastic to let fresh air in. Over the course of a week you can slowly but surely adapt them to the outside world, eventually removing the plastic all together. If germination was successful and the tray is looking overcrowded, avoid the urge to transplant your seedlings. I don’t know what it is about over crowded seed trays but the little newborns seem to thrive in these close conditions. Premature pricking out sometimes leads to failure, I find it much safer to transplant once the seedlings start to look like little plants. Even though they might look deformed in these tight conditions, once you transplant them they’ll correct themselves. Another thing to keep in mind is to avoid changing the environmental conditions of your seedlings too quickly after they sprout. I often don’t heed this advice and move my freshly sprouted tray of plants only to shock the poor little guys and loose half the litter. The plants sprouted on that window sill and will do their best in the same location.
For succulents and bulbs a thin layer of sterilized crushed gravel on the top of the soil is a nice touch that should increase your odds. If you notice moss or algae growing a spray of diluted rubbing alcohol will eliminate them without hurting your seedlings. Some seeds from cold climates require a cold period to sprout properly, others need a smoke treatment. A quick research into the plant’s native habitat might give you some clues.
Last but not least, properly label your pots. We might like to believe we have a good memory but 3-6-9 months later you might not remember. Sometimes I use codes and write my info inside a book.
Granted this is a pretty thick manual on seed sowing and you can change the recipe however you see fit. Depending on what I’m growing I skip a step or two, but have known to regret such decisions. Pansies, petunias and parsley might not require such rigorous methods, but if your sowing the strange and unusual, why not give yourself the best chance of success. Having just paid $1.00 a seed for some Dendroseris litoralis seeds and I don’t see a point in taking shortcuts.
Over the years I’ve definitely asked this question more then once. “Is my plant dead?” All the leaves have dropped, the stem broke, or the plant straight up exploded on impact when I dropped the pot to the floor. Whether you forgot to water, a cat got adventurous or you accidentally left a shade lover in the blazing sun all day, a lot can go wrong when caring for plants. “Here’s a little water, not too much, and not too little, there ya go little buddy.” Unlike collecting stamps or antique toothpicks, plants are living, breathing creatures and require the same respect as you’d give to a house cat or child. I know this sounds like a daunting task, but it’s easier then it sounds, after-all a ficus is significantly less work then a toddler. Don’t despair, we’re all capable of growing gorgeous healthy plants. It might just take a little bit of trial and error, and a better understanding in how plants work. Not all dead looking plants are in fact departed, sometimes they’re just asleep or set back, waiting for their chance to flush out once again.
I think the biggest concept amateur plant geeks don’t understand is that plant’s generally live seasonally and in turn transform and change throughout the year. Some plant’s like a common philodendron or spider plant stay the same nearly all year round, just add water, and your plant will happily grow from January to December. Other plants live for a specific season and/or condition, waking up to the right weather and light, and then sleeping for the rest of the year. While the cute little florist cyclamen you have in your windowsill flowers it’s heart out for 3 months in early spring, it doesn’t die after flowering, it just rests so as to gather energy for next year’s floral display. The plant will show all signs of death, a decrease in growth and sometimes no foliage whatsoever. It’s best to do a little research for before tossing out a dead looking plant. A cyclamen in it’s native habitat has evolved to flower at the right time of year to meet it’s pollinators. My cyclamen outdoors flushes it’s foliage out in winter and early spring, thus gathering energy from the sun without the competition of the now leafless deciduous trees above. Plants are opportunists and while this might not be conducive to your year round floral display, they often maintain the time table they acquired while evolving in their natural habitat.
Last fall I went to inspect my euphorbia griffithii only to find a hallow dead cane. The good news is unlike other euphorbias in my collection, E. griffithii is deciduious and dies back every season. A lesson in plant cycles and more importantly a better understanding of this plant’s personality. Look at it flowering now (april 8th 2012).
Many of the exotic plants I have from the southern hemisphere still think they’re in Africa, growing in the winter and flowering right as we’re getting our first frosts. Crazy stupid plant, don’t you know you live in Canada now. Some plant’s can be tricked into growing outside their natural cycles, but often with disastrous results. The common Venus fly trap often sold at grocery stores and other quickie plant stops, will inevitably die in your kitchen as they need a winter dormancy to chill out and regain lost resources. While you might be able to trick it into living for a couple years by providing non-stop awesome conditions, eventually they burn out. Every single plant in my collection has a specific habitat and condition it thrives in and for the best results you should do a little research. If you don’t want to look it up or read it on the internet, the best thing you can do is observe. After-all there isn’t a tutorial on every plant variety out there, the more time you spend with your plants the more you’ll learn about their idiosyncrasies.
“You’re telling me the tulips outside live their entire existence to flower no more then 1 week a year, then go dormant again for 10 months. I’m afraid so Billy, plants are strange bunch indeed”.
Beyond the natural cycles of plants, a mistreated plant will sometimes look dead but is really just waiting for more suitable conditions. Case and point I recently had my Acacia pravissima drop all it’s leaves this winter and dry up to a crispy shade of dead. While I had worried that the frost had finally become to much for it, it turns out the pot dried out under the eve and the plant didn’t have enough to drink. Upon snapping branches, depressed and dissapointed I noticed the cambium underneath the plant’s bark was still green. A true sign of life, while this plant is still knocking on death’s door, there is still hope. Given the right conditions, and a little luck my Acacia might flush out again when things get a little warmer. A simple thing like transplanting is sometimes enough to put a plant to sleep for the year. You’ll often be surprised to plant something, watch it die within the week, only to pop up next spring. An unfortunate cold and wet winter might set back some plants and have them skip an entire season all together. Plant’s are a difficult bunch, and sometimes it’s hard to tell what they’re up to. If I really love a plant I often will let it’s dead looking self sit in a unseen corner in hopes of recovery. More often then not, I’m surprised with the results. Have you ever grabbed hold onto a leafless tree, only to feel the roots fight back and not relinquish the branch from the earth. It looks like your still alive little fellow.
A couple tips on checking if your plant is dead.
First of all, inspect the parts of the plant that are above the soil. If you make a small scratch on a branch and still see some green, the plant is still alive. If your plant looks dead, ask yourself why? Does the soil look waterlogged, what’s it smell like? Rot stinks like a sewer, and can often mean true death to a plant. If you feel soft spots in the branches of your plant, but it hasn’t spread everywhere, sometimes a simple surgery can save it’s life. Removing rot, applying fungicide, and crossing one’s fingers might make a difference. If the plant isn’t doing so well, is there any sign of life? Removing the pot and inspecting the roots can sometimes help. A plant that is alive will often have a healthy root system, sometimes a dead looking branch will hide healthy growth buds under the soil.
If i find myself with a truly miserable looking plant I sometimes try to gauge how good a life it had before it declined in health. If you have a plant that has grown flawlessly for 3 years, then suddenly dropped all it’s leaves, it might have enough energy stored to grow back. If it’s barely limped along so far, and it hit an unfortunate leaf drop, it might not bounce back this time. I often think of plants as little machines with their leaves acting as little solar panels. Even if a plant looses 97% of it’s foliage, I figure the 3 leaves it did keep are still generating some energy for it, and best left undisturbed in hopes of a slow recovery.
When a plant isn’t doing so well, relate to it as a sick friend. When you get a cold you aren’t looking your best. Decrease watering, place it in a protected area, and be extra cautious about bug infestations. I don’t know what it is about a sad plant that attracts aphids and other critters, but they smell the weak one’s in the herd. Most of all have patience. I won’t tell you how many times I’ve got fed up waiting for a plant to regain it’s health, only to rip it out of it’s pot and see new buds forming. At this point it’s often too late, having damaged it for the last time, it won’t have enough energy to fix this impatient mistake.
Remember… All gardener’s kill plants, but most of us have more successes then failures. Happy growing.