A Gardener’s Diary: Try germinating seeds at home

Gardening columnist Jocelyne Sewell shares her secrets for saving and starting seeds to get ready for spring planting.

With every passing day, I can really notice the sun being warmer and brighter. The days also are getting longer and it is not too soon for me. I had to open the door of my little greenhouse last week as it registered 20 degrees C inside. The next day we had enough snow to make us realize that winter is still with us.

For the last couple of weeks, I have been working with the seeds I saved last season. I like to test their viability by pre-germinating some between layers of shop towels which are heavy enough to be used a few times. I cut a piece which I lay on a foam tray (recycling) and put 10 seeds, spray with water, fold the towel over and insert in a plastic bag. This goes in a warm place like the top of the fridge.

If after three weeks, five of the seeds have not germinated, consider discarding them and buying fresh ones. If a few have germinated, the seeds can be sown thickly to compensate for germination failure. I do this with almost all my seeds prior to planting and this way I know how much space I need. On Feb. 13 I did 15 sunflower and 35 sweet basil seeds. They had roots on the 15th and I planted them in pots on the same day. On the 17th, two sunflowers were up. For the tags, I use pieces cut from old venetian blinds and waterproof permanent markers.

Properly gathered and stored, seeds are a cost-effective way to increase your plant stocks or ensure the survival of your favourite varieties. If you store your seeds in small airtight jars rather than envelopes, include a desiccant to keep them dry. Silica gel packets from pill bottles work very well. I do not like the use of plastic bags, as they trap moisture and could cause seeds to rot.  Avoid temperature over 70 F (21 C) and keep them in the dark. I had tomato seeds still good after 10 years.

Hybrids, the first generation offspring of two inbred parents, have qualities of vigour and uniformity that has made them popular with many gardeners and farmers. They are even more popular with many seed companies. This is not because of the cost but because the seed produced by hybrid plants is not worth saving and so gardeners and farmers must return to the seed company every year for a new supply.

Standard or open-pollinated vegetables and flowers on the other hand, will produce seed that grows into vegetables and flowers very much like the parents, provided cross-pollination among different cultivars is avoided. For beginners, it is best to work with self-pollinating plants like tomatoes, lettuce, peas and beans.

When you plant your seeds, small ones should be 1/8 inch apart, medium ones 1/2 inch and large seeds one inch apart. Last year I had some old lettuce seeds I thought would not germinate and I sow them very thickly. They came up and I had lettuce all over the garden because I cannot bring myself to throw away little plants. Some seeds need light to germinate and some need complete darkness, while others will need a period of cold temperature. With the Internet now it is so easy to find an answer to any questions that you have.

Some people still don’t have access to the Internet but some of these questions can be answered on March 3 in Enderby at the seed swap and sale. There is always a good amount of seeds for sale but some are free. This will be my fourth year at the sale, so see you there.

Jocelyne Sewell is The Morning Star’s new gardening column, who will be writing every other Wednesday.