My first seed catalog arrived on Halloween!! That got me anxious to order my seeds and get back into the garden. Then the winter was very different and the clean up got done but we needed moisture. Recently we got a good snowfall and some nice rains that have perked everything up. Also the days are longer so that even the house plants have started to perk up.

          Some gardeners do very little clean up, leaving any seeds out fore the birds and believing the plants will catch the snow to protect any questionably hardy plants. They are correct of course but I have so much of it that if we have a wet spring to keep me out of the garden, I won’t get it done in time to plant the earlies.  I put cages around my hardiness zone 6 plants and fill with compost to keep the ground cold and prevent it from thawing and freezing. This freezing and thawing, and freezing and thawing, and freezing again sometimes cause the plant to “heave” out of the ground and thus expose the roots.

          Some of our seeds actually do better if planted in the late fall or early winter. Larkspur is already up and will do fine.  My poppy seeds do better if they freeze and thaw a few times.  The Oriental Poppies have been up for some time.  Peas and Sweet Peas need to be planted very early in the spring so the ground should be prepared in the fall if possible.  Beets, Carrots, and Radish seeds need to be planted early so I like to have the seeds I order from a catalog here in January so I can see any special instructions such as refrigeration for several weeks.  If you save your seeds, you need to know where to keep them during the winter.  Some you may need to plant in pots, and then bury the pots outside so they can freeze for a certain number of hours.  If you are dealing with wild flowers, you may have to wait until late summer to plant. There is a good NebGuide on how long you can keep seeds and the minimum and maximum soil temperatures for good germination. (See reference at end of article.

          There are some seedlings that resent being transplanted. Dill, cucumber, Melons, Fennel, Poppies, Flax, Mallows, Parsley, and nasturtiums are among these. Most can be done with extra care such as an individual pot so you can plant before the roots get too large and you won’t disturb them in moving.  Usually the seed packets will warn you about this.

          All of the BRASSICA species (COLE crops) can be started early so you get crops before the hot summer days, which they do not like.  They can also be planted late in the summer for a fall crop and thus miss the hottest summer days. These are BROCCOLI, BRUSSEL SPROUTS, CABBAGE, CAULIFLOWER, KALE, KOHLRABI, and TURNIPS.  The spring seeds will be better if started inside with soil temperature about 60 degrees F, Ion spring they do well in soil full or compost in order to drain well. In a clay soil and a wet spring, your plants are in danger of root rot.  I have never grown KOHLRABI but my neighbor does and brings me one. It looks like a space ship and I like to eat them in raw slices. Also, they go well with a number of dips.  Some people complain about CAULIFLOWER. If you don’t get it outside soon enough or there is a hot spell it may not develop a “head”. BEET seeds are not a seed but a cluster of seeds, so keep plenty of room between them for the bulbs to grow and thin out if needed. A few years ago I grew “Red Bull” beets, not for the beets but for the red leaves among my LILIES whose  stems look a little naked (especially after the rabbits have paid a visit).

          Another thing you need to know about your seeds is where to plant them. Some like it hot and dry and others like moisture.  My “dry” ones I try to plant on the parkway unless they grow too tall.  Among the dry ones are most DAISIES, BUTTERFLY WEED, CLEOMES (too tall for the parkway, COSMOS (there are short ones and tall ones), GAS PLANT, MORNING GLORIES (must have something to climb on), GAYFEATHER, EVENING PRIMROSE (my pink one did not like where I put it and seeded into the gravel path completely covering it), MOSS ROSE, CONE FLOWERS, SEDUM, LAMBS EARS, and the MEXICAN SUNFLOWER (Tithonia).

          The most fun about seeds is trying a new kind, a new species. Here it is very important to read the instructions on the packet.  Some have to be refrigerated for a period of time, some need soaking overnight, some need to be covered with soil, while others require light in order to germinate.  If you saved your own seeds, or you have some that are left over from a previous year, I would do a germination test. To do this, count out ten seeds, place them in a folded, damp paper towel or facial tissue. (You don’t want them standing in water.) Put them in a clear container so they won’t dry out. Keep warm. After a few days check to see how many sprouted to make sure you will have a good crop.  Some seeds die in the season after harvest if not planted, while others my live many years. (See the reference at the end on a NebGuide from the University of Nebraska for information on the average length seeds can be stored.) Seeds need to be kept in a cool dry place in order to survive.

          Some seeds are very slow to germinate such as the PRAIRIE GENTIAN (Eustoma grandiflorum) so it is probably too late to plant this year. Also, there is always the temptation to start too soon and have tall plants ready to go too soon.

          I start my plants in the 2 1/2 inch pots under lights, in the basement, in trays (as I like to water from the bottom most of the time), with seed starting heating pads under them, as seeds like to be damp but not wet, and warm to germinate. The lights are on 15 hours a day and within 2 inches from the tops of the plants. This is another reason to water from below.

          My first year I lost many of my plants to “damping off”. This is a fungous disease that causes new seedlings to flop. But I had planted them in potting soil and added too much water. So now I dampen the soil and fill the pots about 2/3rds full of potting soil and then fill the top 1/3rds with seed starting soil that contains fine sphagnum peat moss. Your seed packet will tell you how many days to germination. Some are quite long.  In fact I have read as much as a year on some tropicals.  7 days to 3 weeks is more common. 

          Soon after the seeds are up they need they need to be moved off the heating pad and do well in ordinary room temperature.

Copyright 2012

For more information go to: University of Nebraska-Lincoln NebGuide #G2090 “Vegetable Garden Seed Storage and Germination Requirements” (