The truth about seeds

What happened is that yesterday Max and I got out the garden seeds and went to work with the outcome being a few little hopeful pots on heat in the greenhouse and a couple rows of peas in the ground unless the birds have already eaten them.

This exciting day of seed-burying made me think that I might ambush you now with a bit of wisdom from my in-process gardening book, a reading experience which goes well with quite a lot of beer or possibly some straight whiskey. (The book does have a working title but with a four-letter word in it so today I’ll just call it my gardening book.)

Okay here we go-

Of course plants have their own ways of making more plants. Without putting too fine a point on the issue let me just say that you should think back to your childhood and that birds and bees discussion you saw on Leave It To Beaver or some other science documentary. Really plant sex is more like bug footprints or maybe like dusting furniture than it is like real sex but plants don’t know what they’re missing so they don’t whine about it plus what they do works, seedwise, and also gives us a lot of pretty flowers.

If your stock portfolio is doing well or you are a member of that family who owns Walmart, why then you might want to order lots of flower seeds from a catalog. I actually did this recently to test drive a new VISA card (which is a lot like the situations above except you have to pay it back) and when I went to plant the seeds I was so impressed with how there could be only 7 seeds in a packet and most of them could be hopelessly stuck in the folds of the envelope and not come out even in the face of my normally powerfully-magical profanities.

full seed packet

Plan B: Every summer your already-established purchased (or possibly stolen) garden plants bloom and have pathetic plant sex and then in about late summer the result will be free seeds everywhere, waiting for you, in tidy little packets that look like suitcases or hatboxes, and all you have to do is get out of your La-Z-Boy and collect them.

Not that you can just get up one Saturday morning after sleeping until ten and having your coffee and maybe a croissant or two in your jammies and then announce to the dog, “I guess I’ll gather all the seeds today from every plant I’ve grown all summer.” This will not work. Instead you must become the air traffic controller of seed pods and monitor their development from day one. It’s tricky. They can be early and blew away weeks ago or they can be late and still green at Christmas or they can be never if you mindlessly cut off every last dead bloom.

balloon flower seed podsBut when it goes well  it is difficult to convey the sense of treasure a gardener experiences as she gathers free ripe seeds into little carefully labeled envelopes to be nurtured the next year into vivacious new plants.

It is a teensy bit addictive, and eventually you may find you own billions of tiny nicotiana seeds, from every year for the past five seasons, and there are rooms full of jars that are all full of little envelopes that is each full of seeds, so handy–and it’s even better if you didn’t get confused and put the wrong names on the labels. (Trust me I know.)

A time comes, like about now, when you have endured miserable winter for some months and you wonder if you will ever again see anything but mud and dead sticks in your garden. This is the time to go to your greenhouse or to your window greenhouse or to your actual window and get some seeds started there.  (If for any reason you happen to have some grow-lights in your attic or basement well you can use those too.)

You will need small containers that can function like little plastic pots. (I use little plastic pots.) There are all kinds of packaging you can recycle for this use but egg cartons and paper cups from a good espresso café are the best because I love omelets and coffee. (You keep forgetting this is my blog.)

So you make little holes in the bottoms of the egg cartons and cups and you put about 25 cents worth of a bag of fancy potting soil in each container. Then you put in the seeds following instructions on the seed envelope…But of course if you are planting seeds that you collected yourself well then there will BE no instructions on the envelope unless it was an old AT&T billing envelope that you reused in which case maybe there’s a tiny ad, perhaps “Get a new phone right away because your friends are starting to make fun of that thing you are using.” But this doesn’t help you know how deep to plant the petunia seeds does it?

At times like this it is important to have a gardening resource library of several hundred volumes to thumb through all afternoon or alternatively to have a smart phone so you can search and find the information in maybe twenty seconds and in which case the only gardening book you need is this one I’m writing.

Now I will confess that even I, the Garden Queen of All Knowing (as I sometimes call me), even I once thought that no matter what you were planting the process was always the same: sprinkle the seeds, put soil on top of them, water, sit pot in window or on heat mat in greenhouse. But I am here to tell you that this process is only good 99.9% of the time.  Because some seeds make strange and ridiculous demands upon you:  they desire six weeks in a dark, cold refrigerator, or to be planted without being covered at all, or to be abused with a knife and then drowned in a glass of water for 24 hours. [In professional plant nursery jargon these requirements are termed the ‘Red Room of Propagation’ and are not often discussed in polite company.]

Some kinds of seed simply prefer to be carried over to someone else’s house and grown there for you by a person who actually knows what to do and which, in my experience, is a very workable seeding process and it also leaves quite a lot of time for watching The Walking Dead or other educational tv.

So you’ve planted the seeds and then in a week or two or three or in some cases in six months or five years you are thrilled to notice that the world’s tiniest plants have grown in your little pot! You watch them for a few days and then you must toss most of them out.

This need to be selective with seedlings is a common source of stress for the gardener, because typically the seeds will grow like grass and result in a pot filled with maybe 75-1000 little seedlings of for example hollyhocks, when you wanted just three plants to grow by the kitchen door. This can be a terrible moral dilemma for the gardener as she tips up the pot and has to select and transplant the three who shall be allowed to live. This is not as fun as being the Rain Goddess at watering time, no it’s more like being Death Incarnate.

But if you can get beyond apologizing to each discarded seedling, which in itself is progress from the stage where you cry and perform tiny funeral rituals, then you are doing well. If after two planting seasons you are still lighting candles and humming dirges well you might need some professional help on this, or alternatively you could nurture every last seedling and then go into the staggeringly lucrative business of selling your extra plants at outdoor markets. (Hahaha.)

See, you learn stuff here.

xo L

About linniew

Unpublished novelist seeks therapy in gardening. Westie assists.
This entry was posted in actual plants, from Linnie's Garden Book, greenhouse gardening, propagation and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

28 Responses to The truth about seeds

  1. kininvie says:

    Ah Ha! Now I know what the secret project is….and very good it looks so far, I have to say. How far have you got to go – and do you think some very helpful commentary from a renowned expert in neep growing might enhance the text?

    • linniew says:

      Hi there Kininvie
      I’ve quite an accumulation of chapters already I’m afraid. Your kind encouragement is appreciated and I will be looking for your endorsement on the back cover. Or maybe you will want to hear the title before you commit to that…

  2. Peter says:

    Hail Garden Queen of All Knowing! What a funny and educational post ! I knew it was fiction the moment you mentioned getting off the La-Z-Boy. I mean, really, who does that?

  3. Alberto says:

    I guess Her Majesty the Queen of All Knowing could stop wasting money in seeds catalogues that only sell 5 seeds per envelope!
    I usually leave all my free seeds to ripen on the plant and then I sprinkle them around the garden where I’d like new plants. This usually works better than collecting, putting on envelopes, seeding in a greenhouse etc etc. I learn that they know when you have premeditation and so they don’t spring.
    I am actually watching the walking deads on telly while my last summer’s seeds are growing in their final places in the garden. Cool, hu?

    • linniew says:

      You have psychic control over your plants? This is a gift, Alberto, and I just hope you appreciate it. In my garden I have of course flung seeds around like confetti a few times but nothing resulted. So I go through the greenhouse processes for them–really I think they just want the attention. PS: At least I labeled my rose cuttings.

  4. Alistair says:

    Linnie – you do learn stuff here and in a much more entertaining way. From now on she/he will think of you when sowing their seeds. Now, what about those Columbine seeds which I collected from my daughters garden last year, did I see somewhere that they should be placed in the fridge for a while. Off to do my googling or binging.

    • linniew says:

      I’m so sorry you are dealing with difficult seeds. There is a very scholarly book, called Tiny Villains: When Garden Seeds Have Personality Disorders by Phoebe Smart, PhD. (I think the PhD is in Russian history but still.) It is a must-read for gardeners and it sounds as though you might desperately need it with the columbines… Good luck Alistair.

  5. Katie says:

    Now, if you had a good head for business, you could package those free seeds up and sell them seven to a packet. Clearly the seed company is getting the best of this situation. I like the title “Free Seeds Everywhere” for your book.

    • linniew says:

      I’m afraid someone else with a better head for business already did that empty seed package thing Katie –I was on the wrong end of the deal. But I do learn.

      Now I hugely appreciate your title suggestion, but really the parameters of my garden book are much wider. I need a title which would encompass cuttings, greenhouses, neighbors (and other garden pests), compost, bird baths, landscape design… a true know-it-all kind of book you might say, sort of like having your most pushy relative advising you all the time. (I bet you can’t wait to get a copy.)

  6. My mother never got beyond her botanical introduction to sex. I remember wondering why the atmosphere was so highly charged when we looked at pictures of flowers after breakfast.

    • linniew says:

      Georgia O’Keeffe syndrome. And after breakfast! I’m always impressed with how difficult it is for poor innocent children to deal with poor innocent adults.

  7. b-a-g says:

    Are you going to tell the public that those carefully collected seeds don’t always grow up looking like their parents? … or will you let them find that out for themselves.

    • linniew says:

      Honestly b-a-g, you always have to get all Science-y on me. You should know by now that I approach gardening as an art–mystical, mercurial, possibly haunted, and subject to the Rules of Reality as seen through thick ice. It works okay mostly.

  8. Lookie, lookie! A picture of my garden buddy Linnie girl! You look so pretty. I am glad to finally see you.

    You had me chuckling all the way through this entertaining seed-starting lesson. However, I must say that anymore, if the seed can’t be direct-sown “in situ” I don’t bother. In other words, I need to be able to toss it around on the soil like a maiden feeding the chickens, humming some kind of classical melody and whispering to my feathered friends. A lot of times, I’ll just shake the seeds out of the pod and let them fall (and hopefully germinate) where they land. This is the Lazy Lady’s method. If you need to consult me for this chapter, should you feel the need to write it, feel free, although being the Queen of All-Knowing, you have probably undertaken such an enterprise yourself a time or two, correct me if I’m wrong? I bow to you O Knowing One. You rock and you’re very funny too. 🙂

    • linniew says:

      Gravatar deleted me recently but I’m trying to not take it personally.

      I think you just want some chickens to sing to Gracie dear, seeds or no! (Yes I’ve tried the tossing and no it didn’t work.)

  9. You sure have explained the seed starting process in a straight forward and entertianing way. I used to start all my plants from seed, but now I buy little plants in 6 packs that cost a couple of dollars. I don’t get to select the varieties but the results are almost guaranteed and no plants are murdered in the making of my garden. Plus a garden actually gets planted.

    • linniew says:

      Well. There are just a few issues here, Carolyn, issues. To begin, are you certain you aren’t mixing up your plants with say a six-pack of beer? Okay fine. Second, what about how the little roots are all growing around in circles, trying to get out, so sad, and depressing, and therapists cost A LOT. And don’t you want to grow some variety that is weird I mean rare and never before heard of by your gardening relatives especially that one woman, you know who I mean. Fifth, or maybe fourth, did you make inquiries of the whereabouts of the nursery staff on the night of the murders, or how do you know they didn’t do it? And some last numberth, do your six-packs come with staff to do the planting or what keeps you from letting them die on the porch like everyone else does?

  10. Roberta says:

    Well, fiddlesticks. The comment monster is running amok and gobbled down my last meticulously composed contribution to your blog. There wasn’t a typo to be found, plus it was flawless, grammatically speaking of course. Anyhooo…..

    I was sitting at my table obsessively stacking and sorting, arranging and rearranging my seed packets the other day when what did I see but the hollyhock seeds from last spring! You know the ones – they’re tucked away in miniature little manila envelopes with their names very neatly printed on the front.

    I felt so bad about having them die on me last year that I could hardly look them in their beady little black eyes. It was awkward to say the least. I swear, I think the little envelopes tremble a little bit whenever I reach for them. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to coax them out of the little creases and into the soil. Afterall, news travels fast down through the stems and roots. There’s an entire information superhighway just under the soil, tiny to be sure but it’s there.

    If you ever think your plants are talking about you amongst themselves it’s because THEY ARE! All of mine are convinced that I have it in for hollyhocks and pumpkins but really, I don’t. They just have a case of “once bit, twice shy” is all. I’m going to prove them all wrong this year, Linnie. I”m going to find the perfect place with the perfect light and the perfect ph and all of the other things that seedlings insist upon. I’m not above grovelling. If I can ever get a hollyhock to stand more than 6″ out of the ground I’ll stick my spade in the ground and call it a day!

    • linniew says:

      Dear Roberta,
      I am so sorry the comment-thing ate your comment. I hate it when that happens! And it seems to happen to me too, a darn lot. Regarding your planting stresses– I did recently plant some pea seeds outside, but I kind of think of them as the ‘expendable ensign’ on Star Trek, doomed to die but it’s okay because I kept some back to plant in pots in the greenhouse maybe next year. Honestly I can get almost nothing to grow directly out of doors except weed seeds. I’ve found it best to use indoor pots even for the plants where it says right on the golden plates I mean on the packet that you should NOT start them inside no they will not survive transplanting. They say this of cucumbers and I start cucumbers inside every year and transplant and they are fine. And that’s how I grow hollyhocks too. Now pumpkins, they die no matter what I do.

  11. Too funny! I’m starting my seeds this weekend or maybe tomorrow night if I can’t wait. Actually I’m only starting my pepper seeds because I’ve never grown them from seeds before and I’m not really sure what to expect. They’re called Sweet Chocolate and are guaranteed to help protect me from hungry walkers better than a knife or badass sword. I’ve also bought seed packets only to discover they contained microscopic amts of seed. What the heck is up with that? Whoever packed that packet should be zombie chow!

    • linniew says:

      Who knew that peppers were the answer, as opposed to, say, a machine gun? On the other hand, maybe all those packets are empty because ZOMBIES ATE THE SEEDS.

  12. Cynthia says:

    The “killing seedlings” part really grabbed my attention, though it did not address my usual situation. See, if I ever do start seeds in pots, the seedlings do emerge. Then they either die in the pot or after I put them in the ground. I cannot live with the guilt of killing these baby plants, and so have ceased starting seeds in pots. I enjoyed your post, but feel it best if I refrain from killing any more seedlings. It’s bad karma.

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