Seed Starting - It's That Time Again

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There are many advantages to starting your own seeds. Everyone has their own reasons, not the least being that watching those green babies grow helps many of us get through a long New England winter. Some of the many advantages of nurturing your own plants from seed include it being less expensive than buying them, you can choose which varieties you want and choose from a much broader selection. You can grow your own seedlings organically, and have healthier and more nutritious food for you and your family. Starting seeds yourself also minimizes the chance of introducing soil born diseases to your garden, and your individual, loving attention will yield healthier and higher quality plants. You can also time planting to your own schedule and needs. You can start your tomatoes extra early for the first ripe tomatoes in the neighborhood, and start broccoli for a fall planting.


It's always best to start with fresh, high quality seeds. Mail order seed catalogs and seed packets can provide important information. First look for hardiness for your area and days to maturity, to make sure you have enough growing days. You'll also want to get information about each seed's germinating needs. Do they need light or dark, cool or warm temperatures? Some seeds need soaking, some stratification to break dormancy, and some need to be scarified. You'll also need to know how many weeks before planting outside sowing is advised, usually between four to ten weeks.


There are only two requirements for containers to start your seedlings. They must be scrupulously clean, and afford proper drainage. There are two main styles, seed trays or flats, and individual seed containers. You can buy them new, clean used ones, or recycle empty yogurt, milk and similar containers. A solution of 1/8 cup bleach to 2 gallons water can be used to rinse used or recycled containers after a soap and water cleaning to prevent disease.

Growing Medium

No one perfect medium exists. Seedlings thrive in a moist, spongy growing medium. "Soil-less" mediums work really well here, and usually contain a blend of vermiculite, sphagnum moss and/or peat, and Perlite. They work better than garden or potting soil, as they retain moisture, provide good aeration, and reduce pest and disease problems. You can mix your own using 1/3 to l/2 sphagnum moss or peat, and the remainder vermiculite or Perlite. Ready-made mixtures like Pro-Mix work great and are readily available. Whatever you use, it must be sterile.


In order for a seed to germinate, it must be mature and viable, and receive the proper combination of moisture, temperature, light, and air. Most annuals, vegetables and herbseeds germinate easily. However, there are some that need special attention. Perennial seeds, in general, need more attention than others. Some seeds may need either complete darkness (Calendula, Bachelor Buttons, Larkspur) or constant light (Snapdragon, Petunia, Yarrow) to germinate. Some need to be soaked (Parsley, Asparagus, Morning Glory) because their seed coats are very hard, preventing moisture from getting through. Some seeds may contain a chemical substance that inhibits germination. Soaking is then needed.

Some seeds need stratification, a cold treatment, before sowing (such as Echinacea, Lavender and Columbine). Some seeds need scarification (Lupines, Sweet Peas), by nicking or filing, before sowing. Some seeds need cool temperatures to germinate. Examples include Rosemary, Lettuce, California Poppy. Some seeds do not transplant well and should be planted in peat pots, examples being Nasturtium, Dill, and Poppy.

This information is usually provided in the seed catalog, on the seed packet, or in a good gardening book.


Very fine seeds should not be covered with medium, but merely pressed into the surface. All other seeds, except those that need light to germinate, should be covered with one to two times their thickness, then watered carefully. To provide consistent moisture, some gardeners cover flats with clear plastic, which should be removed as soon as germination occurs. Make sure you label each flat, row, or container, and place in a warm area. Most seeds germinate best at about 75 degrees unless otherwise stated. Check your seeds daily for germination and soil moisture. Soil should be kept moist, not wet. Use tepid or room-temperature water.

Care After Germination


Seedlings prefer a temperature around 60 degrees F. Sturdier plants will be produced at this moderate temperature. Some recommend a 5 to 10 degree temperature at night. Toomuch warmth can produce tall, weak, spindly plants. 


As soon as seedlings have sprouted, they should be placed in a bright location, but not strong sunlight. A South facing window will do, but it may not be ideal. If that is whatyou are doing, try turning your plants daily and insulating the windows at night. Plants may become spindly from too high of a heat to light ratio, or stressed by the drastic dropin temperatures at night.

If you aren't lucky enough to have a greenhouse, fluorescent lights work very well. You can use four foot shop lights using regular (cool white or warm) or special grow light tubes. Special grow lights are necessary only when you wish to start plants for indoor flowering and fruiting. Otherwise, use one cool and one warm, or all cool, per light fixture. Avoid using all warm as this could make for spindly plants. Lights should be placed 3 to 4 inches above the seedlings. As the plants grow, maintain the 3 to 4 inch distance between plant and light. Lights should remain on for 12 to 15 hours a day. Timers are well suited for this.

If you're planning to start small, with just a few trays, you can create a light stand with a wooden plank with bricks holding it up. Attach a light fixture to the plank. You will need to be able to either lower and raise the fixture, or raise and lower the plants.

My first made stand used 2 x 4s and plywood shelves. It held 12 four-foot lights on chains. Now I'm using 4 foot long baker’s racks, which are easy to assemble, and the wire shelves are perfect for attaching the fixtures. You can find them at some used restaurant supply stores, or stores going out of business.


Once seedlings have developed their first set of true leaves (the second two leaves),you'll need to start feeding them. Water them once a week with a fertilizer that you've mixed half strength for roughly two weeks, then gradually increase to full strength. Fish emulsion, seaweed fertilizer, or a mixture of both work well here.

Damping-Off and How to Avoid It

Damping off doesn't give you much warning. The first sign that you have a problem is the total collapse of a few seedlings, green leaves still intact, but the stem has withered away at soil level. Young seedlings are most vulnerable, and once they have been attacked by the damping-off fungus, they can't be revived, as the lifeline between root and stem has been cut off. Prevention is best.

Avoid damping-off by using sterile growing medium only. Also sterilize all containers and tools used in the sowing process. Sow seeds thinly to allow healthy air circulation, and thin to avoid overcrowded containers. Watering seed trays from below is best, but not always possible. Avoid over watering, keep medium moist, but not wet. Maintain good air circulation, and fertilize only after seedlings develop their first set of true leaves.

If the problem occurs, immediately remove tray to a more open area. If soil appears too moist, let it dry up a bit. Remove all dead plants and the surrounding plants from the tray.


Seedlings grown from very fine seeds will probably need thinning before they are large enough to transplant. Thin to one plant every one and a half to two inches by snippingoff at soil level.


Seedlings not planted in individual pots need to be transplanted when they have developed their first true leaves. Plants that take well to the transplanting process are usually greatly improved by the experience. Fine roots are broken by the transplant process, and as a result, a new, bushier network of feeder roots is formed. Repeated transplanting, three to four times, before planting outside, produces stocky, well rooted plants, but it is not necessary- I'm lucky to be able to do it once!

First prepare your flats or containers you'll be transplanting into. Use a transplanting medium, potting soil mixture, or your own blend, it need not be sterile. Prick out seedlings gently, loosening a small clump from the tray using a small knife, Popsicle stick or similar object.

It is very important that the roots never dry out. Using a pencil as a dibble, make a small planting hole for each seedling. If transplanting to flats, holes should be placed at least two to three inches apart, and at least three inches if they are not likely to be transplanted again before planting outside. If using separate containers or six-packs, put one seedling per container or compartment. Carefully separate individual seedlings from the clump, when possible, each with a clump of soil around the roots. It is better to hold seedlings by their first leaves rather than their easily bruised stem.

Position the plant to be the same level in the soil or slightly deeper than before transplanting. There are exceptions, such as tomatoes, that you can plant all the way up to the true leaves, as roots will grow off the stem. Tamp lightly around each seedling, moisten immediately. It is recommended that you moisten the soil by placing the containers in a shallow dish of tepid water to allow absorption, or mist until thoroughly moistened, using water that has set to room temperature. Water that is straight from the tap can shock the delicate seedlings.

This is the time to start lightly fertilizing with a weak solution of seaweed and/or fish emulsion. Always label the containers with plant variety and the date they can be safely put outside.

Hardening Off

Once the weather has warmed up, it is necessary to harden off your plants. You do this by gradually exposing them to the outdoor weather. One week before transplanting outside, start the process by moving the plants outside into a sheltered, shady area, such as a porch, cold frame, or under a tree. If it gets cold at night, or windy, move them back inside. Gradually increase the amount of sun each day, making sure they are well watered.

Cold Frames

Cold frames are very useful things. They are similar to a miniature greenhouse. They can be as simple as just bails of hay and an old window. They are great for starting seeds in early Spring or late Fall. Perfect for hardening off your seedlings, or extending your season by protecting from frost. A southern exposure is a must, with some protection from cold winds, and as close to a 90 degree angle to the sun as possible.

How to Read a Seed Catalog

By George Kingston, Master Gardener 

It's January and the seed catalogs are piling up faster than the snow drifts.  With all those gorgeous pictures and lush descriptions, how is a gardener to choose?  Here are some tips.

First, do NOT dive into that pile and start filling out order forms.  DO put on a coat and take a walk around your gardens.  Even if there's a foot of snow on the ground, take the time to look at your annual beds, your vegetable garden, and the places where you want to put containers or hanging baskets.  Make notes on how much room you have and what kinds of things might work well in each location.  Consider where you have sun and where you have shade.  Now, go back inside, fix a hot beverage and begin.

No, don't begin with the catalogs.  Start with your garden diary.  You do have a garden diary, don't you?  If not, at least collect those old order forms and half empty seed packets from last spring.  Make a list of what worked and what didn't, which varieties you want to plant again and which you want to banish from your garden forever.  Also make a list of things you want to try for the first time.  I make it a policy to plant at least one new species or variety each year, just for the fun of it.

Now attack the catalog pile.  As you page through, make a list of possibilities noting the catalog name and page.  Look for catalogs that give you lots of information.  A great catalog will tell you all of the important things you need to know, but you may have to look the variety up in several catalogs to find out everything.  Here are some of the terms to look for:

  • Open Pollinated (OP) or Species:  This is a variety that will  come true from seed.  If you want to save seed from your plants from year to year, look for these.
  • Hybrid, F1 Hybrid, or X in the name:  This is a cross between two pure-bred parents.  Seeds from these will not come true the second year.  Note that all hybrid seeds are F1, or first generation hybrids.  Some plants may be F2 or second generation.  These can only be propagated vegetatively.
  • Height:  How tall the plant will be.  This is important for planning beds.  You want short flowers in front, tall ones in back.
  • Days to bloom, or bloom season:  How long it will take a plant to flower or what month you can expect flowers.  Note that this is based on the seed company test gardens.  If they're in South Carolina and you're in Massachusetts, you may get different results.  Still, this allows you to compare different varieties.
  • Days to harvest:  This is the same thing for food crops, and bears the same warning.  For plants that are started indoors, this is the number of days from when the plants are set out into the garden.
  • Disease Resistance:  The term "disease resistant" is relatively meaningless if they don't tell you what disease they mean.  Look for specifics, like VFN for tomatoes, which means resistant to verticillium and fusarium wilts and nematodes.  Good catalogs will explain their disease abbreviations.
  • Start Indoors:  These are seeds that need to be started under lights or in a greenhouse before the last frost date.  Think about how much seed starting space you have before buying lots of these.
  • Direct Sow:  These are seeds that can go straight into the ground.  Check for the recommended planting date.
  • Determinate/Indeterminate:  Describe tomato plants.  Determinate plants grow to a certain size, fruit all at one, and stop growing.  Indeterminate plants are more vining and continue to grow and fruit until frost.
  • Number of Seeds:  How many seeds are you getting?  Some catalogs will even tell you how much area or how many feet of row a packet will plant.
  • Light Requirements:  Does the plant need sun?  Will it tolerate part shade, or does it need shade?
  • Special Cultural Requirements:  Some varieties need high or low soil pH.  Some prefer dry soils, some like it damp.  Some tall plants are fine on their own, others need staking.  Decide if you can handle these special requests before ordering.
  • Scientific Name:  This is really important for flowers and herbs.  With all those cutesy names out there, it's sometimes hard to tell what the plant actually is.  Good catalogs give the scientific name, which will help if you want to look the plant up in a reference book or on the web.

Finally, watch out for those shipping charges.  Consolidate your orders with a few suppliers, or better yet, put together a joint order with your friends.  And don't throw those catalogs away.  It's fun to compare the pictures with what actually comes up and decide if a particular supplier is a better photographer than a seedsman.

Christmas Trees in New England
By Jennifer Tufts, Master Gardener

What is a garden?  Julie Moir Messervy describes a garden as "a state of mind; a site that resides in your imagination."  (The Inward Garden: Creating a Place of Beauty and Meaning, Little, Brown and Company, 1995)  Each year in December, families create a garden inside their homes when they select a tree, load it onto the roof of the car, rearrange the furniture, pull out the boxes of lights and ornaments, and generally savor this horticultural focal point of festivities.

We're surrounded by evergreens in western Massachusetts.  Pines, firs, spruces, hemlocks, hollies, junipers all can be found in our biologically diverse, Zone 4-5 landscape.   We might not even think much about these beautiful trees, except perhaps in December when we carefully select the perfect Christmas tree! 

Snowy Morning by Ann Marie Popko

I love the idea of trees almost as much as I love the reality of trees: the smells, the feel, the green, the decoration, the majesty, and the way trees symbolize both connection to the earth and reaching for the heavens.  So, I still get excited about bringing a tree into my home every year for the holidays.  I'm not the only one. 

In case you are interested in the origins of this particular custom, the Germans were the first Europeans to initiate a tradition of Christmas trees. In 1846, the popular British Royals, Queen Victoria and her German Prince, Albert, were pictured standing with their children around a Christmas tree. Victoria was so popular with her subjects that what was done at court immediately became fashionable, not only in Britain, but with fashion-conscious East Coast American society. The English Christmas tree had arrived! 

On this side of the Atlantic, Franklin Pierce, the 14th president of the United States, in 1856 was the first chief executive to place a Christmas tree in the White House. President Coolidge started the National Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony on the White House lawn in 1923. In 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt wanted to teach his children the importance of conservation and reportedly forbade them to have a Christmas tree, saying, "It's not good to cut down trees for mere decoration. We must set a good example for the people of America." However, he was convinced otherwise by Gifford Pinchot, cabinet member and founder of the Yale School of Forestry, who assured the president that forests actually benefited from thinning. 

I spoke recently to Master Gardener John Barry from Gill about his experience growing Christmas trees.  I asked John what he liked most about the business.  "The best part of growing Christmas trees is the pruning part . . .taking an otherwise unruly looking tree and turning it into a well-shaped plant is great.  I do this usually in late October/November when it's cooler and the bugs are gone. If you are growing pines the pruning must be done between June 15th and July 15th. Sooner, you get erratic growth or later, you get straggly growth.  I fertilize in April with just a simple 10/10/10 application."  As for what he likes least about the business: "Harvesting and/or selling the trees is my least favorite job." John's favorite tree: the fir.  "Among the firs, Balsam and Fraser are the best.   They look good, smell good, and are easy to prune."

The best-selling Christmas trees in America are Scotch Pine, Douglas Fir, Noble Fir, Fraser Fir, Virginia Pine, Balsam Fir and White Pine, all evergreen conifers from the pinaceae family of plants.  Abies (Fir), Picea (Spruce), Pinus (Pine), and Pseudotsuga (Douglas Fir), as well as Tsuga (Hemlock) are all in the pinacaea family. Joel Fowler, Master Gardener Intern, gave a talk on conifers at the October meeting of the Northfield Garden Club and explained that conifers are gymnosperms, which means they propagate from cones or berries instead of flowers.  Instead of leaves, they have needles or scales.  Joel also notes that not all conifers are evergreens (e.g. the larch or tamarack), and there are evergreens that are not conifers; the holly, for instance.

Descriptions of some of the favorite Christmas tree species follow, grouped by genus: 

The White Pine, Pinus strobus, is the largest pine in the U.S. and has soft, flexible needles.  It is bluish-green in color, its soft needles are 2 - 5 in. long in bundles of five. White Pines have good needle retention, but little aroma. They aren’t recommended for heavy ornaments. However, White Pine is known to provoke fewer allergic reactions than some more fragrant trees. Scotch Pines, Pinus sylvestris, have needles about 1 in. in length that stay attached even when dry - something busy homemakers might especially appreciate when considering which tree to pick. The tree is a bright green color, has an excellent survival rate, and for all the Teddy Roosevelt admirers out there, is easy to replant.  Its open, stiff branches provide lots of room for ornaments, and Scotch Pine keeps its aroma throughout the season.

Fraser Fir

Fraser Fir

Fraser Fir Needles

Fraser Fir Needles

Fraser Fir, Abies fraseri, branches turn slightly upward. They have good form and needle-retention, are dark blue-green in color, and have a pleasant scent. The flat needles are ½ to 1 inch long.  The branches are pyramid-shaped and strong. The tree was named for John Fraser, a botanist who explored the southern Appalachians in the late 1700s.  The Noble Fir, Abies procerais, is known for its beauty and long-lasting freshness.  Stiff branches make it a good tree for heavy ornaments, as well as providing excellent greenery for wreaths and garlands. It has 1 inch bluish-green needles with a silvery appearance.  The word balsam is enough to evoke a contented sigh in any New Englander.  In addition to its renowned aroma, the Balsam Fir, Abies balsamea, has much to recommend it for your home. Balsam needles are 3/4 - 1 ½ in. in length, round tipped, flat, and long lasting. Its dark-green, silvery appearance and pleasing fragrance will grace your holiday decor. (History buffs might like to know that Balsam resin is used to make microscope slides as well as sweet-smelling pillows, and was used to treat soldiers' wounds during the Civil War.)  Concolor Fir, Abies concolor, or white fir, is gaining in popularity as a Christmas tree variety.  Native to the western United States, concolors can grow to 130-150 ft. in height and 3 to 4 ft. in diameter and may occasionally survive to 350 years of age. It produces a spire-like crown with a straight trunk, small, narrow bluish-green needles which occur in rows (1/2 to 1 1/2 inch long).

Douglas Fir, Pseudotsuga menziesii, has soft, dark blue green needles (1 - 1 ½ in. in length) radiating in all directions from the branch. Douglas Firs have a good conical shape and are known to live for as much as a thousand years.  The crushed needles have a sweet fragrance. They are one of the top Christmas tree species in the U.S. 

Blue Spruce

Blue Spruce

 Last but not least, there is the popular Blue Spruce, Picea pungens, known for its dark green to powdery blue, very stiff needles and good form.  Blue Spruce will drop needles in a warm room but is best among this species for needle retention.  The branches are stiff and will support many heavy decorations. Another long-living tree, the Blue Spruce is known to live in nature for 600-800 years.

If you are planning to have a living Christmas tree this year, here are some helpful hints taken from the Iowa State University Forestry Extension Services website:

  • Plan ahead and prepare the site for planting before Christmas. Just like all tree plantings, select the species to match the site. For most conifers, good soil drainage and adequate space and sunlight are required for optimal growth. (Pick conifer species that do well, are native to the Massachusetts landscape.) 
  • Dig the hole before the ground freezes and cover with enough straw or mulch to keep the soil from freezing; also, protect the fill soil from freezing so it can be used for planting the tree after Christmas.
  • Base the selection of the tree on more than shape and color. Living trees can be balled and burlapped (B&B), container grown or potted. Small trees are almost always a better choice than large trees because they are easier to handle and move, and because you have a higher probability of the tree having a sufficient root system to support it after planting. Pay attention to the root portion of the plant; the pot or ball should match the size of the tree. B&B stock should have a solid ball. Potted stock should not be rootbound or too small to support the top portion of the tree.
  • Purchase or dig up the tree one to two weeks before Christmas, and store in a cool but not cold location. Keep the pot or soil ball cool and moist, but do not allow it to freeze; ideal storage temperatures would be from 33 to 45 degrees. A mulch of straw may be used to keep the soil ball or pot from freezing.
  • Plan to keep the tree in the home for as short a time as possible. The maximum time allowed in the house is five to seven days; the longer it is kept in the house, the greater the risk of failure. If kept inside too long, the tree begins to grow and is damaged or killed when planted outside.
  • Remember the tree will need adequate water inside the home. The soil ball or pot should be kept moist but not wet; wrap the soil ball or pot in plastic or place in a tub while it is in the house to avoid damaging the floor or carpet. Check the soil ball or pot daily, and water when it becomes dry.