Texas Cooperative Extension,
Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas

April, 2006

'Great Gardeners Use Seed' Program Takes Mystery Out Of Gardening

National Garden Bureau

Sowing tomatoes from seed
Sowing tomatoes from seed

The National Garden Bureau, through its 'Great Gardeners Use Seed' program, will be distributing information that emphasizes the ease of starting flowers and vegetables from seed for home gardeners. The campaign will use information, instruction, and promotion through the Bureau and member companies to encourage gardeners young and old to explore the benefits of starting their plants from seed.

The Mysterious Seed

A seed is at once one of the simplest and most complex creations in nature. How does a watermelon seed that is smaller than a bean seed, grow fruit many times larger? How is a morning glory seed pre-programmed to produce flowers that open during the day and close at night? How can gardeners be sure their seeds produce the beautiful flowers and mouthwatering vegetables shown on the seed packet? The 'Great Gardeners Use Seed' program will help take the mystery out of starting seed and help home gardeners sow a better garden.

As a first step, the National Garden Bureau's program addresses some of the most common questions and misconceptions about the use of seed.

Can all flowers and vegetables be grown from seed?

All flowering plants reproduce from seed. However, some of the newest varieties are reproduced by cuttings. These plants are available only as bedding plants and not as seed. In addition, in some areas of the country the gardening season can be relatively short. In this case, the gardener has two options - either start seeds early indoors to give seedlings a head start or purchase started plants.

As a general rule, if the flower or vegetable is available on a seed display in your local area, it can be successfully grown from seed. All reputable seed companies customize their seed offerings to specific areas of the country and times of the season.

Should all seed be started indoors?

No. Many varieties of vegetables and flowers should be planted directly into the garden. Cool season plants (sweet peas & broccoli), root crops (carrots & radishes) and plants that grow very fast (marigolds, zinnias, cucumbers & zucchini) grow best when direct-sown outdoors. Root crops and cool season crops cannot tolerate the handling required to transplant seedlings from indoors to outdoors. Fast growing plants are stunted by transplant shock. When these seeds are planted directly outdoors, they will grow stronger stems and flowers and bear fruit faster. The best source of information for each variety is the seed packet. If starting is recommended on the packet, then go ahead. It can't be any easier.

Do purchased seedlings produce better plants than seedlings started from seed at home?

Not necessarily. Growing strong seedlings can be very successful if the home gardener follows a few simple rules.

  • Use the right growing medium. This means NEVER use ordinary garden soil brought in from outdoors. All soil from the outdoors contains bacteria, fungi, and other pathogens, which can be harmful to delicate new seedlings. Professionals use sterilized soilless growing medium to guard against disease. This type of seed-starting mediumis available from any lawn and garden retailer as "seed-starting mixture."

  • Maintain adequate growing medium temperature. The seed packet will list the best growing medium (not air) temperature for germination. Follow these directions. To ensure the greatest success, invest in a growing medium termometer and a seed-starting heat mat.

  • Do not over water. Over watering is one of the main causes of failure and often leads to diseased seedlings. Keep the growing medium moist, not wet. This often means watering more often using less water.

  • Provide adequate light. Once seeds germinate and the new seedlings beak the soil, they need consistent, strong light. In many areas this is easily accomplished by placing the seedlings in a south-facing window. If not, artificial lights are needed, preferably with bulbs specifically designed for growing plants.

    "Harden off" the seedlings to avoid transplant shock. All the gardener's fun in growing transplants can go for naught if the seedlings are transplanted directly from indoors to the garden. "Hardening off" seedlings involves placing them outdoors for increasing periods of time, moving them from shade gradually into full sunlight, over the course of several days or a week.

Do seeds need fertilizer to germinate?

No. The seed is one of nature's perfect creations and each seed contains the exact amount of nutrients it needs to germinate. Only after the seedling has emerged is it necessary to provide additional fertilizer. At that time, a starter fertilizer is preferred over general-purpose fertilizers. Better yet, before planting seed or plants directly into the garden, work a slow-release fertilizer into the soil. This offers two benefits: the fertilizer is always available when the plant needs it, and the gardener only needs to fertilize once a season.

This information and illustration courtesy of the National Garden Bureau, www.ngb.org.

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