February is a time to fantasize about this year’s garden. I enjoy looking at newly arrived seed catalogs and hoping that this is the year my garden will look like that. My hopes are seldom fulfilled. Here are few tips to get your garden off to a good start.
Discard seeds that are older than 3 years old. Germination decreases as the seed ages. Generally, seeds older than 3 years are not viable. You can do an internet search on specific seed or do a test. To determine seed germination, place 10 seeds on a moist paper towel then fold the paper towel over the seeds and place in a zip lock bag. Place the bag in a warm location for 3-5 days. After that check to see how many have started to sprout. Some seeds may take 10 days to germinate.
Buy seeds that are suited for Brunswick County’s hardiness zone, 8b. I prefer to purchase seeds from local nurseries or order from nurseries in the southeast region. Heirlooms seeds are noted for producing vegetables with better flavor but lack resistance to disease. Hybrid seeds are the product of two different by compatible plants that are crossed by breeders to create a new variety. The goal is to produce plants with traits like early maturity, disease resistance, improved vigor, or a larger yield. You never know what this summer’s conditions are going to be. Some plants do better in hot dry conditions, and some can tolerant wet conditions. Plant a variety of the same crop to improve your chances of having a successful yield no matter what the weather is.
Germination begins when seed dormancy is broken. Dormancy can be regulated by environmental conditions such as moisture, temperature, and light. It can also be inhibited by the seed itself. This type of dormancy can be external, seed coat, or internal.
Some seeds have a hard coat to prevent water from entering and beginning germination before environmental conditions are conducive to growing. Any process of breaking, scratching, or mechanically altering the seed coat to make it permeable to water and gases is known as scarification. Seeds such as sweet peas, beans, spinach, and summer squash will benefit from scarification. This can be done with a nail file or sandpaper to nick the coating and reveal the lighter colored innards of the seed. Soak the seeds overnight. After they swell immediately plant them in a growing medium.
Internal dormancy is regulated by seed tissue. Many vegetable seeds have shallow dormancy, and no special treatment is necessary. Seeds for many perennials need a period of cold moist conditions to break dormancy. This is called stratification.
Start seeds in a fine well aeriated growing media. Moisten the media before planting. After planting seeds, water from the bottom so the seeds are not disturbed. The soil should be moist but not overly wet. Place the container in a plastic bag to keep the soil moist and place away from sunlight. After the seeds have germinated, move the flats to a well-lighted location; the temperature should be 65 – 70°F during the day and 55°F – 60°F at night. This prevents soft, leggy growth and minimizes disease problems. After the seedlings germinate place them in a south-facing window or under a grow light lamp. The light should be 6 inches above the plant and provide 16 hours of light daily. Plants under these conditions can become long and stringy. To promote a sturdy stem, use an oscillating fan to blow sweeping air across the plants. After the threat of frost has passed, gradually harden off the plants by placing them outside for 2 hours on day 1; 6 hours on day 2; overnight on day 3. After they are hardened off, transplant the plants to the garden and watch your fantasies come true.
More information. More information on seed propagation can be found in the NC Extension Gardener Handbook which is available at NC State Extension Publications..