Friday, May 9, 2008


January 1 signals the arrival of seed catalogs in the mail box. The photography in these catalogs is amazing, surely everyone can grow these gorgeous flowers. Just order the seeds and scatter them on the ground.

Not really. Over the years I have learned the hard way that there’s a tricky science to seeds, something the seed catalogs fail to mention, at least fail to emphasize. Not all seeds are created equal.

Some seeds need light to germinate. Who would guess the tall, white, regal foxglove seed starts this way, or the vigorous nicotina? I have to start these indoors if I want summer plants. If I planted seed outdoors they’d never survive my zeal of mistakenly pulling them with the weeds. The packet directions say scatter the seed on top of the soil because these seeds require light to start the process of germination. I make sure after filling the pots with soil that I water the soil before scattering the seed, otherwise the watering may bury the seed with soil, and they would not sprout. New gardeners need to be warned that it seems all weed seeds germinate with light. They can be buried for centuries in the earth, and within days that your shovel has turned over the soil, bringing these weed seeds to the light, they burst into growth. I really try never to walk on the garden, which packs the earth. So I then seldom need to dig and turn over the soil. It’s wise not to disturb garden soil if you don’t have too. Weed seeds see the light and activate.

Some seeds need darkness to germinate. They need to be buried. These are the dependable seeds of tomato and squash. Everyday you stare at the black earth hoping to see sprouts. There is no sign of life until they peek through the soil.

Some seeds need coolness to germinate. I’ve never had success with starting pansies by seed. Some say it’s easy. Not for me. I think the house is too warm. They must have a cool place to start.

Some seeds need it really cool - I mean refrigerator, freezer cold, to germinate. I couldn’t figure out why the phlox seed just wouldn’t grow. I never thought I would need to read the small print that the seeds first need time in the refrigerator to fool them that they’ve gone through a winter. That’s why some spring bulbs won’t bloom either. They need to have a time of being really cold to perform.

Some seeds need warmth to germinate. They have to have heat. You can buy heating blankets for these tender things. I’ve given up trying to start zinnias. They have to be near baking before they’re happy. The impatiens too are tricky. I’ve never bought a heating blanket. I’m not very tolerant of seed that must be coaxed to grow. I’m doing it the favor of selecting it for my garden. If it won’t cooperate, it’s not on the order list for next year.

Some seeds need to be soaked overnight. Don’t put dry parsley seed into the ground. Or malibar spinach. You’ll never see much of anything from your efforts. You need to soak the seed overnight in warm water. Some wisdom says even rough it up first with sandpaper. These seeds need a good drink of water before they will start.

Some seeds need to be started indoors. They are too delicate to be started outdoors. I guess we’ve hybridized them to the point that they are dependant on us to survive. These are off limits to me.

Some seeds should only be started outdoors. They just don’t like being transplanted or moved at all once they’ve started to grow. There must be motion detectors in their root systems that tell the plant to go into shock if they are being moved. I just plant them where they will bloom and put signs reminding me not to weed there.

Some seed seems happy to cooperate. I always knew marigolds were in this group. I plant the whole seed packet and give away the extra plants in May. All marigold seeds cooperate. Squash and beans do too. I’ve just discovered that coleus is in this happy group. I’ll never buy another coleus plant at full price. I can get two dozen coleus plants, guaranteed, from seed. So is feverfew. One plant in the garden will produce hundreds of seedlings that season. They come up everywhere. I let them volunteer all through my English garden. They are just happy to grow. I wish the catalogs would put a star next to happy seeds. Not all seeds are happy seeds, there are seeds that are annoyed because they are expected to grow. It takes them weeks to respond, if they ever do. Maybe they have another secret germination code I haven’t yet learned about. The seed catalogs should mark these, "do not attempt at home."

Some seeds die with too much water. These are often my tender need-light-to-germinate seeds. They are small and tender things. And sure enough before they are strong enough to barely stand with the weight of two tiny leaves, mold from wet soil will kill them off. It’s a lot of work to know when to water these seedlings. If you can keep the surface dry the mold won’t take over. Bottom watering helps - putting the pots in trays and filling the trays with water. But then take the pots out of the water bath after five minutes, or they get too much water, and then you get the mold problem.

Some seeds have no expiration date. Geologists have found seeds in tombs and they grow. But not all do. I only need a couple tomato plants each summer. But you can’t just order 4 or 5 seeds, a packet comes with a dozen or more seeds. So either I plant all the seed and give away the extra plants or I try to save the extra seed for next year. I’ve tried air tight jars and all the ways to save seed. But by the next year, not all the seeds germinate. Some tell me they put their old seed between wet paper towels for a week or so. Some will germinate, and you can plant those and discard the useless dead seed. But by then it’s late April and what if all the seeds were dead that year? How am I then to place an order to get seeds here in time to start indoors? No, I’d rather have seed that’s reliable every spring when I want to start the tomato plants. So I plant the whole packets, and I will always have plants to give away. People seem glad to get them. I don’t tell them I didn’t grow the plants with them in mind.

You really pity the novice who wants to plant their first garden, and do it all from seed. They eagerly read the seed catalogs as if all the seeds were happy seeds and as if they all were the same. Gardening by seed takes a long time, and a lot of failures and loads of patience.

I am so grateful that with spiritual seed, we are only to plant and scatter it. It’s God that brings the increase. It’s only God that can make happy or unhappy spiritual seed grow. Yes, we try to be all things to all men, we don’t want to bring unnecessary offense to the gospel. Yes, we pour out our hearts in prayer to God for the salvation of souls. But at the end of the day, we only plant the seed. We just keep bringing the Word of God, His seed, to bear to people’s hearts. He has to prepare the soil to receive the Seed, He must cause it to germinate and grow. I am so relieved that germinating spiritual seed is not up to us. I can’t get half my garden seed to respond.