March 2, 2014


Even though I am still ordering seeds, I am beginning to sow some that need an early start. At this point in the process, I need to organize seeds by the germination requirements, or I risk missing an important date, such as, when to remove a tray of Cuphea seeds from the fridge, or when to subject Tropaeolum seeds to 40º temperatures.

Even though I started ordering seeds in late December, there are still many to be ordered, but suddenly it's March 1st, and I am a little late with my seed sowing, so it's time to catch up. I did sow some little treasures in January and February that needed a good, head start such as  pink heirloom Italian Cardoon, some snapdragons and even some florist Gloxinia ( Sinningia speciosa), which are so hard to find anymore. Along with some onions, heirloom red celery and leeks, that's about it for seeds sown by Matt so far. Most of these need warm soil temperatures (above 80º F) in which to germinate well, but now that they are all up nd growing, I've relocated them to the cooler greenhouse, which makes room under my lighting system for more trays.

Click below for my list:

Here is my seed organization process:


 As orders arrive via the mailman, I create bundles of packets organized by sowing date. Tomatoes go all all together with a rubber band, so that I can keep track of how many I have ordered ( I already have doubles), Peppers and Eggplant, all together as these must be sown earlier, cucumber and beans, bundled together, as they will be sown directly into the garden once the soil temperature reached 60º in June. Annuals, greenhouse shrubs and plant, perennials, South African seeds, each are organized by sowing date or temperature requirements.( Cuphea species for example, may each need a different germination regimen, some require heat, others, a pre-chill dry in the fridge, others, may need a damp chill for 2 weeks, a brief warm period, and then cold again ). I say this only to remind you all that a seed packet may not provide all of the information you may need. Which leads me to my second bit of advice:

Sweet peas are best when started early, if you live in the north, they should be started in bright, cold windows in February and pinched, in zones 7 and higher, they could be sown in the autumn outdoors, and allowed to grow slowly.

2. DO YOUR OWN HOMEWORK ( it can be fun)

With hundreds if not thousands of blogs, Pinterest boards and Google+ posts on tricks about how to germinate seeds on paper towels or on a sponge, the best advice I can give you if to first do your own research first, before you rely on a a single post. Be especially weary of Pinterest pins that will advise you that "you can grow spinach on a paper towel on your window sill, and things like that. Common sense, my friend. Common sense.

I start my research with Google, trusting those university sites and specialty plant societies first. Use your gut, and always approach such research as a learning process, being wary of cute, seemingly too easy or novelty ways of growing things, as most likely, well...you know what I am going to say. Novelty methods are always a great way to get kids interested in gardening, but I would save the carrot tops and celery bases for kids kitchen projects, but not for raising your own food.

Check out this new podcast by Joseph Tychonievich entitled Grow ALL the Plants, A Podcast, which he calls MAKING THE CUT - where he interviews Riz Reyes, Debra Prinzing and myself where I share ideas on how I like to create a cut flower garden.

Try to find the most accurate sourced for information available. This means, university sites, research papers, plant society journals, forums and chat groups but always with an eye on who is providing the information. 

Vegetable seed - I highly recommend the seed site Johnny's Selected Seeds. Just go to the site, and then look growing details.  The folks at Johnny's provide excellent details about each vegetable, especially germination temperatures, and timing. 

Annual and Biennial seed - I recommend my go-to bible - the late Wayne Winterrowd's, ANNUALS and TENDER PLANTS for NORTH AMERICAN GARDENS (2004, Random House). This 500 page book is out of print, but worth investing in if you can still find one. I even bought a back-up copy in case mine becomes damaged. It's that good. Few photos, but an excellent source for the history of each plant, and how to grow it well. I have no ideas why this book isn't on everyones book shelf.

Perennial seed -I like the seed guide provided by the German seed company Jelitto Seeds (it's on-line, but you can get it printed if you order seeds from them). 

For most all other seeds, ( this is the geeky part), I go with the document that most serious garden enthusiast all know about ( but which most keep secretly stashed). It's called SEED GERMINATION, THEORY AND PRACTICE by Norman C. Deno which provided details on germination rates, temperatures and stratification techniques for 145 plant families, and 805 Genera, and 2500 species. it is a treasure, if you can find a copy, and although a bit technical, it is a must-have if you are seriously into plants. You can explore this thread on Daves Garden to see if any of the sources are still active for this document, some say that it is now available as a free download, others, as a $20 mail order item. I will admit that I prefer my $20. copy, as it is a hard copy, which somehow makes it easier to reference.

I would love to know what other sources you have on your book shelf.

Acacia tree seeds being subjected to a stratification method that involves boiling water, and a three day soak.

3. Follow Directions like a Nuclear Scientist

I always say STARTING SEEDS IS A SCIENCE, NOT A CRAFT, I'll start by saying - If it works for you - go with it, we all learn as we garden, after all, that's more than half the fun of gardening. But the science part, may help you get better results. For example, you may start your lettuce under lights, but did you know that lettuce seed planted out in the garden in March in Zone 5, might beat that lettuce that you started indoors? Lettuce germinates better and produces better roots if subjected to near freezing temperatures. It's always helpful to see what the experts have to say. We all can improve.

5. Be inspired, Be Confident, You can do it!

You CAN raise amazing perennials, hellebores, cyclamen, rare primroses, exotic tall grasses and unusual trees and shrubs from seed! I promise you, there is nothing like achieving success with a challenging seed, after you have completed your homework, and applied your new found knowledge. Sure, things don't always work the first time around, but undoubtedly, you will try again, and discover what you may have done wrong. 

You do need to know the basics, and you will find out quickly that each seed has a different and often unique need, and discovering this requirement is what will elevate you as a gardener, from others who are merely dabbling, as gardening is indeed a science. You are growing plants, and like animal husbandry, or raising kids, there will be advice coming from most everywhere, but you will discover that raising seeds is more like baking than cooking. A little knowledge about chemistry will go a long way. 

Seeds are living things, and inside each seed, a baby plant awaits, but if it is an alpine plant, it may need a winter of snow cover to stimulate the chemical shift inside, or, it may need to pass through a baboons' gut - either way, you will learn, as we have all experienced seed that has never germinated. I can't tell you how many time I tried to raise Hellebores or Cyclamen from a packet of seed from Thompson & Morgan only to discover that the problem was that all I needed was freshly picked, green seed directly from the plant, and not dried seed in a packet. Now, I sow my own hellebore and cyclamen seed as soon as it is ripe, and I have hundreds to share.

In the end, I won't lie, there are plenty of challenging seeds out there. But that's what keeps us all in seed raising 101. I like to think of raising challenging seeds as a video game, you just need to achieve each level before you can unlock the next.  Warm-Wet, Cool Wet, Warm Cool Warm Wet, or  Warm Cool Warm Wet Dry. And once you learn the secret (specific scientific) directions, you will ‘unlock’ the bonus ‘germination level. And win.


  1. Thank you for a very useful post. I use Dino but I did not know about Wayne Winterrowd's, ANNUALS and TENDER PLANTS for NORTH AMERICAN GARDENS. I will have to look for it.

    1. Thanks Alain. Yes, I love this book, and it looks like it is quite cheap on Amazon right now!

  2. Wish me luck with Primula japonica.

    1. Steve, I don't know if you know it, but P. japonica is supposed to be very easy to grow, but I sometimes have trouble with it ( everyone says that it is the easiest, if not weediest primula one could grow, but I would add that it is only easy if one has a stream, or a pond/wet area. conditions it thrives in, and self seeds in.

  3. Anonymous10:43 AM

    I love cuphea but have never grown any of the varieties by seed. Which are you growing?

    1. I am growing Cuphea lanceolata 'Firefly' and Cuphea viscosissima. Both from Chiltern Seeds. Any tips on germinating C. viscosissima? I have never grown it.

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. Here's the link to the PDF of SEED GERMINATION, THEORY AND PRACTICE by Norman C. Deno:

    First supplement:

    Second supplement:

    1. Oh, excellent. Thank you Barclay.

  6. One more comment ... where is tip 4?

    1. Oh Geesh! Well, at least you actually read the post! That's what I get for rushing. So, tip 4 is the secret tip. That's probably why I had to delete a paragraph after copying it in, I new something was wrong. I shall fix. Thanks!

  7. Stephanie1:56 PM

    Thanks for sharing your tips and favorite resources, Matt. In addition to garden vegetables, I grow native plants and here are two resources which I like: 1) Native Plants Journal, http://npj.uwpress.org/ it is open-source and often has germination or propagation protocols. The other is the Forest Service's 2) Woody Plant Seed Manual http://www.nsl.fs.fed.us/nsl_wpsm.html I find searching by genera an efficient way to get the information I am interested in. Happy Sprouting!

  8. You are so right about organization of your seeds. The starting season seems to take forever to get here, but then suddenly it seems to all happen so fast. One book I really like for seed starting timing and tips is "Seed to Seed" by Suzanne Ashworth.

  9. Read your recommendation for Annuals and Tender Plants for North American Gardeners, so I ordered it. The price was $7.50 for a book originally priced at $65.00, what a deal! Now I am reading it - it's a big book. It is comprehensive, informative, and very useful. It also has phonetic spellings of the plants' botanical names. I no longer call them sea lavender and nasturtium, but li-MO-nee-um sin-yew-A-tun and tro-pau-O-lee--um. Once I have the botanical names memorized, I will become totally insufferable to all my gardening friends, if I have any left. Thanks for the recommendation.

  10. Anonymous12:11 AM

    It is probably worth pointing out to beginners that not all seed for sale is of good quality- sometimes you just get a bad batch and it is worth trying again. Until you are producing your own fresh seed and seeing if it germinates readily you can't really be sure if your technique is the problem or the viability of the seed.

  11. Great tips I wish I had the patients to grow more from seed. My other big issue is zone 5 and I dont really have the room to start much from seed except for a few vegetables. I really enjoyed reading this and I just might try at least a handful more. Thanks!


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