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  • Writer's pictureJulia Watson

Growing from Seed - Part 1

Seedlings in trays, under lights, in our garage greenhouse

If you want a lot of plants without spending a fortune at the nursery, start from seeds. Once you learn basic techniques and find the best seed sources, you’ll have more to choose from when growing flowers. Growing from seed begins with the most enjoyable part – browsing catalogs. It’s always fun to look at flower photos, but you’ll also need to buy a few supplies too, and those are often found from the same sources as seed. We’ll cover all that in this post. The second step is setting everything up, followed by the actual planting. The final, crucial steps are caring for seedlings and planting them outdoors. I’ll discuss all that in next week’s post.

Buying Seeds

Yes, this is the fun part. But please don’t be too overwhelmed by the photos and end up buying unsuitable seeds like Iceland poppies (tiny seeds that need babying) or worst of all, lisianthus (unbelievable slow to germinate and grow). The best seeds for a beginner are zinnias, cosmos, marigolds and sunflowers. And you might add basil to this list of reliable beginner crops - it can be used as a bouquet filler and for cooking. My favorite seed sources are Johnny’s, Floret, Swallowtail Seeds and Select Seeds – they all have paper catalogs and beautiful websites, so have fun browsing but don’t get carried away. Here are the most reliable varieties of the flowers I recommend: *

Zinnias – Oklahoma Pink or State Fair Mix

Cosmos – Cupcake Blush or Double Click Rose

Marigolds – Giant Orange

Sunflower – Teddy Bear, talian White, Starburst

Basil – Aromatto

Bean – Blue Lake (pole) **

bouquets of zinnias
All grown from seed! Most of these flowers are zinnias, including Oklahoma Pink.

Seed starting supplies – soil mix and containers

If you’ve never grown plants from seed, I recommend buying a seed starting soil mix from your local nursery. Potting soli is NOT the same - don’t use it for seeding. Seed starting mix is a blend of materials and will hold water well, but only after it’s been thoroughly watered. Add water to your seed starting mix a day before planting and mix it in well to let the soil take up moisture. If you skip this step the soil will repel water and you’ll be tearing our hair out trying to fix it. You might get away with only a few hours, but it’s really best to wet the seed soil mix a day ahead of time. Next you’ll need small containers, and the easiest is a seed tray from your local nursery. I recommend a 72-cell tray with a separate bottom tray and a clear plastic cover. But if you want to save money, almost anything will do, including egg cartons.

Seed starting supplies - lights and heat

Don’t let anyone tell you a windowsill will work – it won’t. You need lights, but the good news is that they don’t have to be expensive and you don’t need special wavelength bulbs. Because there are SO MANY videos on the web showing how to do this, I’m not going to go into detail. I’ll only say that here at Tiny Footprint Flowers, our lights came from Home Depot, they’re hung by chains and S-hooks on the underside of a “gorilla shelf” in the garage, and the seed trays are on the shelf below them. You need to mount your lights close to the seed trays, especially at the beginning; ours are about 4-6” above the seeds.

Direct seeding

Yes – there is a simpler way to grow plants from seeds – you can plant seeds in the ground right where you want them to grow, and that’s called direct seeding. Some plants do better that way because they don’t transplant well. Here at Tiny Footprint we direct seed some of our flowers, depending on how well they transplant and how much snails like them. We have trouble with slugs and snails - they LOVE seedlings, but they love some more than others. Sweet peas are an example of a flower that could be direct seeded, but the snails would come from miles around eat everything that sprouted, so sometimes I start seedlings indoors then transplant them when they’re bigger and less tempting to snails. (More about snails and other pests here). Flowers that are easy to direct seed are larkspur, poppies, calendula and tanacetum.

There are a few plants that I don’t seed at all because they re-seed themselves so well on their own. Omphalodes, Nigella and Cerinthe fall in that category – they shed seeds after flowering, then new plants come up every year in the same spot.

bouquet of flowers with cerinthe
Omphalodes is a bouquet filler that self-seeds well; so does Cerinthe.

*These are all summer flowering annuals that need to be planted after any danger of frost is past. I’ve grown all of them in zone 9, but all can grow in a wide range of climate zones, as long as you adjust for your local frost dates. The seed packages usually have information on climate zones and best planting times.

** This blog is about flowers, but if you want a quick veggie suggestion, I recommend Blue Lake pole beans. Nothing germinates faster than a bean!

Next Post – Adding Seeds, Caring for Seedlings

seed packs
Seeds from a few of my favorite places.

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