Monday, August 30, 2010

Study on Seed Starting Finally Completed!

A month ago or more I received an e-mail from a blogger I'd never visited before wondering about the seed starting project I discussed last spring and whether I had published my findings.  Oh for shame!  What kind of researcher proposes a project and even contemplates government funding for it, but then never publishes her results?  Although I rejected the idea of asking for a public handout to support my research, I did want to share my findings with anyone interested for the general betterment of gardens everywhere.

If you missed my initial research proposal on starting seeds indoors, you can click here.  Or if you're short on time, I'll give you a brief overview.  After two years of less than successful results with indoor seed starting, I decided to document the various factors involved, in an attempt to determine how one might achieve more success in growing seedlings indoors.  Light, temperature, and potting mediums were all variables that were studied.  Unfortunately, by the time I had planted all my seeds and moved seed cells around to share light, the control groups were so mixed up that instead of Groups A, B, and C, I wound up with groups that could be more accurately called AC/DC or CRAP.   As if that wasn't bad enough, I used pieces of cardstock as labels which disintegrated after several waterings, and soon I wasn't sure if I was growing salvia or gaillardias.  (My son saw my set-up of trays under shop lights in the basement one day and was worried Mom was growing something else:) )

The end results were better than in past years, but still rather disappointing.  Some seeds didn't germinate, and of the many that did, some didn't seem to grow past a certain point.  But most discouraging was the fact that many of the seedlings that did survive eventually grew leggy and didn't survive transplanting.  If anyone has suggestions on tips for the final stage of seedlings, I would appreciate it.  One bit of good news--no damp rot this year!

The main reason I have waited so long to share my findings with you is because I wanted to see how the plants fared after some time in the garden.  So here are a few of my successes;

The tomato plants did very well, but I was disappointed that the seeds from 'Sugary Grape' did not germinate at all.  But wait--I do have grape tomatoes!  Not sure what happened here, but all the tomato seedlings looked alike to me.

'Victoria Blue' salvia, a favorite annual of mine, grew well with its start on the heatmat.  But a funny thing happened when I planted it--can you see it at the back of this planter?  No, and it's not just because it's a bad photo--the tall stem whose bloom is cut off in the photo is not salvia, but Verbena bonariensis!  Planted in several pots instead of the missing salvia, it adds a little more vertical interest than I had intended.

And those Zahara zinnias I drooled over in the catalogs last spring--'Starlight Rose'--somehow turned into Profusion Yellows!   The butterflies don't seem to care, but I'm still wondering what became of the 'Starlight Roses.' Obviously, proper labelling is one variable that needs to be corrected if this project is to be attempted again.

But the worse case of incorrect labelling has to be the seedlings I shared with friend Beckie.  I was so proud of the gray-headed coneflower seedlings I started and shared a few with Beckie, informing her that this native flower was so quick to germinate and surely would be easy to grow.  I began to have my doubts, though, a few weeks later when I noticed some similar seedlings beginning to grow in my vegetable garden.  Yes, you guessed it---the coneflower seedlings were actually . . .


Now, seriously, the kohlrabi, 'Crispy Colors Duo'  from Renee's Garden and the gray-headed coneflowers were a last-minute planting indoors, and I know I labelled them right.  I'm beginning to believe Carol's garden fairies have been visiting my house . . .

Seriously (or maybe not), here are some of the things I learned from this year's seed starting project:

Just a portion of one day's tomato harvest this past week.

1. Tomatoes are very easy to grow from seed.  That being said, I probably won't start any tomatoes again next year, unless there's an heirloom variety I really want to try.  I'm just too cheap frugal a person to make myself throw out excess seedlings, and I don't want 20+ tomatoes of the same variety again next year.

2. The newspaper pots inspired by Fairegarden seemed just the right size and worked quite well, especially since growing seedlings could stay in them until time for transplanting.  Since the investment has already been made in the wooden pot maker, this means no money needs to be expended on peat pots or trays with cells next year.  And I'll be recycling besides!

3.  Seeds started indoors need daily attention.  If you can't find the time for a few minutes of misting or monitoring the seedlings every day, then don't even bother planting them.  All it takes is one day or two for a seedling to dry out, and then it's a goner.

4. Related to #3, do not plan to take a one-week trip to Portland, Oregon to visit your youngest daughter and leave seedling care up to Mr. I-Don't-Care-About-Flowers-Just-Tomatoes.  To be fair, he did try, I think, but I'm not sure he remembered them everyday.

5.  And related to #4,  do not assume because the month of April was unusually warm that May will be the same and put all your seedlings outside to make watering easier for Mr. IDCAFJT.  Naturally, we had a couple nights of frost while I was away, and although I had placed a blanket within easy reach on the porch which Mr. I did use, some of the seedlings still died, though whether from frostbite or suffocation, I'm not sure.

6. Finally, LABEL, LABEL, LABEL all seeds with permanent markers!  Heavy paper or cardboard just doesn't cut it after being watered several times.  I'm still looking for something small and more durable next year; any ideas would be appreciated.  I'm thinking of using toothpicks with duct tape, kind of like little flags--what do you think?

At last!  I hate to have unfinished projects lying around, so it's such a relief to finally have completed this one.  Although completion of this project was unavoidably delayed, at least you can be reassured that none of your hard-earned tax dollars were used to fund this study.  However, I am thinking about looking for a little part-time work--do you think I can put research project coordinator on my resume??


  1. Thanks for the followup - I agree a lot of seeds are mislabeled. Every year I seem to have a 10:1 ratio of failure to success, but the investment is so tiny, I keep on trying! Your tomatoes are enviable!

  2. I about cracked up when I read that you gave Beckie kolrabi instead of cone flowers. What a surprise when those cone flowers started looking like a monster creeping out of the ground. This post reminds me that I will have to tell the tale of my winter sowing. I didn't have as much success as you did. Someone did mention that I started too late. Hmmm.

  3. Half to three quarters of the battle is getting the seedlings not to damp off so success there! A few tricks you can use to keep seedlings strong and growing well are these: begin applying a dilute fertilizer once they have germinated and are growing well, use a fan on low blowing across the seedlings to keep them strong and not damp off, use double flourescent lights. For instance, I use two 48" flourescent lights on my seedlings for a total of 4 48" bulbs. I have read where the shorter bulbs just don't get enough of the right light waves for seedlings to do well. I normally will keep mine on from about 7 am to about 10 pm for a total of 15 hours. Lastly, be sure not to start the seeds too early for your area. This is in reality much harder said than done since each seed germinates in its own time and some grow faster than others and are therefore prone to legginess. What I feel is it is better to plant to late than too early. The seedlings can always then be set outside during the day until they are ready-then no need for lights. Just be sure to harden them off by putting them in shade a bit at first. The kolhrabi is very pretty. I've done the same in my garden with some seeds germinating better than others. Sigh. A good label I use is cut up mini blinds. I just lay them across the flat until I remove the cover then stand them up.

  4. Due to so many failures, I have decided to stick with my tried and true seeds. Impatiens and purple wave petunias always grow and transplant well. This year I started pineapple sage inside and it has done very well. The hummingbirds love it!

    For the last two years due to family emergencies, I lost most of the seedlings after nurturing them during the winter. I plan to do it again, but on a much smaller scale.

  5. Dear Rose, it is so good to be back and that was such fun to read! I laughed out loud throughout and when I reached the Kohlrabis...well, I was in stitches :) That really was a wonderful scientific study and I enjoyed it greatly.

    I just had a peek at some of your previous posts and it was lovely to see the butterflies on your 'Too Many Distractions' post but I have to say that the last photo of the Swallowtail was absolutely stunning!!! Thank you for sharing it with us :)

  6. Kohlrabi looks like a spaceship--cool! Grrl, give it up and do winter seed sowing! :) That's my solution, anyway. :)

  7. Oh Rose! Too funny! Personally I think a job in quality control would be ideal--just as long as it has nothing to do with Kohlrabi or Coneflowers. ;-)

    When I label plants, I use plastic knives or forks from take-out. I write on the handles with permanent marker. Works pretty good for me.

    I am quite jealous of your bountiful tomato crop! They are beautiful.

  8. Hi I supposed to be laughing....that is just too funny.
    Especially like the kohlrabi and Mr idlfjt.

    I have to agree with Monica on this one....winter planting has worked very well for me.

    Such a fun post Rose......

  9. Funny! But full of info, thanks for sharing the results.

  10. I think you definitely had some sort of garden fairie running around in your seedlings.

    As far as labeling why not use plastic knives. Use a grease pencil to write on them. We use grease pencils at work for our labels and they do work pretty good.

  11. The legginess of seedlings makes me crazy too! I think the best way to avoid that is light, light, light. And you're right about seedlings needing daily attention. I find it's best to go for quality not quantity with seedlings.

  12. Rose, what a riot - kohlrabi! (at least they're beautiful kohlrabi!) ;-) Thanks for being humble enough to admit it. ha.

    Thanks for all the hints.

    I use paint markers for my labels (my permanent labels) and spray them with clear acrylic spray.

    I'll vote for you as seed researcher any day!! :-)

    Now - Sept. 1 is my post in honor of Grandparents Day... :-)

  13. "blogger" here. Appreciate the followup, government funding or no.. I too got some laughs and some good info out of all of this as well. This year I still plan to try some seeds for a bunch of things.. if that grant from the State comes in! ;-) And that paper pot maker thingy sure looks cool..

  14. You crack me up Rose! I giggled throughout reading this post.

    Something I tried this year that seemed to help the legginess problem - a fan positioned to gently blow air over the seedlings helps them develop stockier stems. I didn't run the fan until after germination, and watered a bit more with the additional air circulation.

    I used popsicle sticks and permanent marker to label my seedlings this year. It worked very well. I have to say, I really like the plastic knife idea though!

    I always start more seeds than I need, as insurance against at least a few inevitable casualties. I still end up with more plants than I need. I don't mind though, because I just give away the spares. There is never a shortage of takers for them, and I enjoy sharing them. It's fun to see my 'babies' growing in the gardens of family and friends, and in my case, clients too.

  15. Dear Rose, what a terrific post! Funny, informative and with plenty of surprises! Thanks for the linkage, I am glad you were pleased with the paper pots themselves, if not the seedlings. I have the same leggy problem, if only my own legs were so long!, with seedlings and use a fan and lights and fertilizer. The biggest problem is with getting the babies from the greenhouse into the ground at the proper time. We always mess up with the last frost or cold nights, too much rain, slugs, you name it. This year I am sowing in the fall outdoors with overturned nursery flats to protect the seeds from digging varmints. Hollyhocks have already germinated!

  16. Glad to see you had some success with your project Rose. Found this post pretty amusing as well as informational. :)

  17. Oh Rose this is such a wonderful post!~My own seed starting involves me throwing the seeds into the garden, crossing my fingers and waiting to see what happens! Last fall I scattered zinnia and cosmos but we had the rainiest fall ever and they all washed away! I'll try this year and again hope for the best! gail

  18. i do not do well with seeds and seedlings. flower seeds are no problem but my tomato seeds were either not sprouting or the sprouts were dying on me for no good reason. no good reason to give up on it forever though :)

    when i mark my plants i use popsicle sticks and perm marker. it does fade a bit though when they get too wet, but it's good for indoor plants anyways!

    loved this post :)

  19. Aha! So I'm not the only superstitious garden blogger. After several flops almost immediately after posting, I've begun to suspect there is something supernatural going on--fairies, garden sprites? Maybe it has something to do with reading The Good Earth again just recently. Thanks for the followup. I was beginning to wonder what happened. Those kohlrabi must have had the malevolent spirits dancing with glee. I wouldn't mind a mixup like that at all, though.

  20. A lot of seed companies probably sell us the "sweepings" off the production floor, hence the discrepancies when we plant. They are more meticulous when it comes to commercial growers I suspect.

    I think that kohlrabi was a fun switch. I learned a lot from this post. Thanks!

  21. Thanks, everybody for visiting me and chuckling a little at my silly attempt to see the humor in all this. And I do appreciate all your tips for more success next year, especially ideas for better labels. The seedlings were more successful than in past years, but there's still definitely room for improvement and learning, especially in proper labelling!

    Thanks, Mike, for spurring me to finish this topic and for checking in for the results.

  22. Oh, Rose.....I luved this post, as I've been wondering about your 'Starlight Rose' zinnias. You're not only a Master Gardener, but also a magician. It's not easy to change 'Starlite Rose' into Profusion Yellow.

    Your coneflower/kohlrabi story made me laugh and I needed that.



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