This unusual warm spell has me itching to get out there and prune the raspberries, clean up the seed starting areas and turn the compost. I feel uneasy as I work outside in a T-shirt while listening to the tree frogs call and respond in the pond next door all on the 1st day of February. I am reminded that my role in this unfolding uncertainty is to steward the seeds and tend the plants we need now and into the future.
I am also reminded that cycles of nature and seasons, while unpredictable, still create patterns that I follow; rhythms that soothe me. Even if it were a more typical 40 degree day, it would still be an appropriate time to get out the lists and see what seeds want to be sown now, in this Imbolc time, a good 8 weeks (probably?) before the last frost.
Not all seeds want warm soil or the warmth and comfort of an indoor growing space to germinate. In fact, seeds for many perennial herbs and native plants are not used to such comforts. Many perennials and native plant seeds require a period of cold temperatures called Stratification to break from dormancy and germinate. In the natural world, stratification occurs when seeds fall to Earth from the mother plant in Autumn, live outside all Winter, and germinate, or sprout, when light and warmth collaborate in the Spring. This cycle protects them from germinating too soon and then dying as Winter sets in. You can mimic this natural process by placing seeds in the refrigerator for a few weeks before sowing or you can use timing to your advantage and sow these seeds outdoors now.
Today I started our PNW local Showy Milkweed (Asclepias speciosa), Echinacea (Echinacea purpurea), Lupine (Lupinus polyphyllus) and several colors of Breadseed Poppy. I also started Meadowsweet (Spiraea ulmaria) Blue Vervain (Verbena hastata) and Wood Betony (Stachys officinalis). I offer several native plant seeds and perennial herbs that can be started outdoors now.
It is quite simple to sow seeds outdoors, though I have a few tips to share. I sow seeds in 4" pots full of potting soil or seedling mix which I label right way so I know what I am seeing when they germinate. I put 5 to 10 seeds, depending on the size of the seed, in each 4" pot. I space them out so they aren't crowded and so I can more easily prick out the seedlings when it's time transplant. I check my resources (more on that below) to find out if the variety I am sowing should be covered with soil or if they are a light dependent germinator and should not be covered. You can sow seeds on the earth as well but typically many things will germinate around them and you won't know who's who when they sprout. Stick to pots to be more sure of what you're seeing.
I cover the flat of 4" pots so that birds, rodents, and insects don't find my seeds and eat them. Seeds are food for hungry animals and they will find them, especially this time of year when food is scarce.
I don't have a specific song or prayer that I sing or say each time I sow seeds but I always say or sing something while I'm hold each one in one hand, pinching out a few with the other. Marking the moment is what matters to me. Acknowledging that I am asking this seed to open and grow and that I will, in turn, do my best to give them a good life. I suggest creating a ritual or practice that suites you and your intentions.
Finally I leave them outside on a table that I walk be regularly so that I can keep track them and wish them well. Here is what the seed trays look like when I am done
My favorite Seed Starting Resources
Knowing what particular seeds want and need to germinate, then doing your best to recreate these environments, will greatly increase your success when starting your own vegetable, flower and herb plants. We grow plants in our gardens that originate from different climates all over the world. Sometimes we have to get creative to make the seeds feel at home and create the conditions in which they really want to germinate. At times this means warm soil sometimes not. Sometimes this means bury the seed beneath the soil, and sometimes it doesn't! When you see the words, "Light Dependent Germinator" this means that the seeds should NOT be covered with soil and instead be sprinkled on top of a seed bed or pot and left. Typically the smallest seeds like Poppies, Yarrow, Chamomile, are light dependent. How do you know what seeds to start when, what they want and need, and what to do to get the best germination results? Though I have been growing gardens and starting seeds for over twenty years I, like you, don’t carry all of this information in my head. I consult my resources and go from there.
My favorite trusted companion for vegetables as well as common herbs and flowers has to be the Tilth Alliance Maritime Northwest Garden Guide. I have a weathered dog eared copy I keep in my farm notebook every year, all year round. The guide is organized by month and the beginning of each chapter contains lists of what vegetables and flowers can be started that month in our region. Many plants will be listed in two or more months and that’s ok! It means you didn’t miss your window if you haven’t yet planted your crop. The Guide also groups plants together by Plant Family, which I love. You get to begin to see what plants are related to one another and what that means for starting and growing them. I make my lists and do my best to plan what I will sow and when and yet I still look at this Guide right before I put my basket of seeds together to head out to the greenhouse and start sowing to be sure I didn't forget anything.
The Second Seed Starting resource I love are the Vegetable, Flower and Herb Germination Guides (scroll to the bottom of this blog post to seed the Guides) put out by Siskiyou Seeds in Southern Oregon. I read their Blog post a few years back about getting the best germinate results and the post contains these three printable, beautiful Guides. I am grateful to Siskiyou Seeds for putting them out there for anyone to use for free. They contain deep details about what temperature and light requirements will support many different seeds to germinate. I printed them immediately and have used them ever since. They are beautiful, have so much helpful information about specific plants, and contain most crops I grow. I highly recommend printing them out and keeping them with your Tilth Garden Guide. They work well together.
Growing plants from seed is a dedication and a promise to their little lives that we will do our best to help them thrive. Sometimes we fail, and that's ok. But the more we take the time to learn the needs of the seeds we want to grow, the more success we will experience. Once we decode our resources and learn what each crop type needs we are better able to take our tub of seed packets or jars and turn them into healthy plants that thrive in our gardens.
Best of luck as you get your gardens going. Please reach out with any seed starting questions you have! And Please share any additional resources you love.