A BEGINNERS’ GUIDE: TIPS for STARTING SEEDS — POLLINATOR PLANTS. — Feb 20, 2022 by Sandy Carter
Seed starting can be a fun, rewarding and economical way to garden for pollinators! Providing nectar sources for pollinators is arguably just as important as providing milkweed for Monarchs and other butterflies. And seed planting can be exciting and productive! Growing will help you get more familiar with more plant species.
Before I proceed, I need to give you a disclaimer! I am not a Master Gardener (yet!), and these tips are based on my own experiences and research. Some years I have more time for gardening than others, and I garden much more consciously since discovering Monarchs. I enjoy the research and learning about growing native pollinator plants as much as I like growing them from seed. Even my “failures” are a learning experience and prompts me to do more research.
So if you’ve ever said something like: “Seeds scare me!” or “I’m intimidated by seed starting” or “I don’t grow them well” or “I have had no luck starting seeds in the past” hopefully this post will be helpful to you. So let’s get our hands dirty!
Sandy’s TIPS FOR SEED STARTING SUCCESS
Tip #1: Keep a log. Even if it’s just photos on your phone. Keeping notes will help you remember from year to year what you had success with and what didn’t work for you. We always think we will remember from year to year what we grew, but we all know that we won’t. Ha!
Tip #2: PICK YOUR SEEDS for your pollinator garden!
Choose TEXAS Natives whenever possible! NATIVE plants are those flowering plants we will always recommend first. They are those which naturally occur and reoccur in a specific ecoregion without human intervention. Natives are easier to maintain, require little protection in extreme weather, improve the environment, don’t require as much water, and are accustomed to Houston heat.
Learn more about easy to grow native plants here: https://npsot.org/wp/houston/go-native/. At the NSPOT website, under RECOURCES and PLANNING there are some very helpful lists that will help you get started.
Tip 3: DON’T FORGET HERBS!
Giant Swallowtails and Eastern Black swallowtails host on (among other things) fennel, dill, parsley, and rue. Gardening for Monarchs can often open you to a whole new world of gardening for other species of butterflies who also could use our help. For example, Bronze fennel is easy to grow, loves heat, and eagerly sprouts from seed. You can save yourself much time and the expense of purchasing host plants for Swallowtails by growing this easy host plant from seed while simultaneously adding an interesting, edible herb to your yard.
Tip 4. START SMALL
It’s easy to become overwhelmed with choices, and it is tempting to buy tons of seeds in your excitement and anticipation of starting your pollinator garden. But I suggest starting by choosing 3–5 perennial varieties (which will come back year after year from roots) to provide reliable nectar. Then you can add. more varieties as the temperatures warm. Providing nectar for pollinators is about the long game.
Some of my favorite flowering perennials are Texas natives:
Salvias- Salvia farinacea, ,salvia coccinea
Blue Mistflower -Conoclinium coelistinum
Poppy mallow aka winecups- callirhoe leiocarpa
ironweed — Vernonia missurica
and this year I’ve discovered Drummond’s phlox Phlox-drummondii.
Tip 5: BUY SEEDS from a reputable source.
While you can likely find some seeds on Etsy, Amazon or even eBay, those are generally not guaranteed, and some seeds lose viability as they age. Seeds can lose approximately 10%-25% less viability each year depending on how they are stored.
Freshness and storage from unknown seed suppliers can be questionable.
So choose seeds which are packaged for the current year, especially if you’re just starting out so you have the very best chance of success. There are inexpensive, quality seed sellers of organic, non-GMO products with reasonable shipping that we recommend:
Wildseed Farms https://www.wildseedfarms.com/
Native American Seed https://www.seedsource.com/catalog/
Prairie Moon Nursery https://www.prairiemoon.com
Joyful Butterfly https://www.joyfulbutterfly.com
Terrior Seeds ~ Underwood Gardens https://store.underwoodgardens.com
Everwilde Farms https://www.everwilde.com
American Meadows https://www.americanmeadows.com/
Even dollar store variety (American Seed) seeds have been known to sprout well and is a small investment!
TIP 6: RESEARCH your chosen FLOWERS! (to me this is the fun part!)
Once you pick a few varieties you’d like to grow, READ about your chosen species. The back of the seed packet is a good place to start, and is often overlooked. Research several sources of information online so you are aware of growing habits and needs. You’ll find some VERY important info to take note of:
HOW DEEP to plant seeds in the soil (more on that later),
how tall your plant can potentially get,
SUN and WATER requirements
and even info on average time to germination.
And read in groups! Join gardening groups and pick the hive mind.
Experienced gardeners can give you some tricks (like soaking certain seeds in warm water for 24 hours prior) that can greatly improve your success rate.
Tip 7: INDOORS V OUTDOORS? Decide where you will start the seeds.
I prefer to start seedlings outdoors to avoid the need to “harden off” (allowing them to acclimate to being outside-more on that later) and because I experience less “damping off” when they are outdoors in the breeze. Damping off is a common problem for beginners — it results in certain death of sprouts, and is caused by a soil-borne fungal disease which affects the stem. Seedlings do not recover when affected by damping off.
On the other hand, seeds started indoor will benefit from additional grow time and consistent temperatures.
Seeds started outdoors require protection from wind, rain and temperature fluctuations, but otherwise benefit from good circulation and natural sunlight.
Read more here about the ideal conditions for seed starting: https://homesteadandchill.com/start-seeds-indoors-vs-direct-sow-outdoors/
Tip 8: If you start seeds indoors, DON’T skip HARDENING OFF.
Hardening off seedlings started indoors is the process of acclimating your seedlings to outdoor conditions by slowly increasing time they spend outdoors. New seedlings can become sunburned and windblown easily and need time to acclimate to the change. Read about how to harden off seedlings when it’s time to move them outside here: https://www.gardeners.com/how-to/harden-off-plants/9479.html
Tip 9: Wherever you plant, correct LIGHT and HEAT are essential!
Seedlings require bright, consistent light immediately after they sprout, most needing at least 6–8 hours per day for growth. This is something even the most sunny of windows can’t provide. A window may be enough to get seeds to sprout, but plan ahead and know where you’ll be moving them to get the best light.
Indoors, artificial lights placed just a few inches away from seedlings can be used to get sprouts growing and ensure they don’t grow too leggy or spindly.
Inadequate light is one of the TOP reasons why seeds sprout but then become too leggy and become weak seedlings that then perish. You’ll see some experienced growers who share great success with their indoor set ups, using artificial lights and grow tents and heating mats to facilitate seed sprouting.
Tip 10: Before you plant: KNOW which seedlings don’t like to be transplanted
Some seedlings have complex, delicate root systems that do not tolerate being moved as young plants. These varieties will need to be planted directly into the soil instead of starting them in seed starting set up. These are best planted directly and later in the year once soil temperatures have warmed. These varieties include: gomphrena (bachelor buttons), larkspur and sunflowers.
TIP 11: MEANWHILE OUTSIDE: PLAN WHERE to put them
Some flowers need full sun, some do better with partial shade, some prefer more moisture, and some thrive anywhere! Some will grow to be quite tall (examples: tithonia, zinnias and other sunflowers) and often these taller varieties don’t tolerate transplanting and need to be placed in the back of the flowerbed to keep from crowding out other species. So you’ll want to grow them where they will thrive and will be welcomed where you put them.
Tip 12: PREPARE/ CREATE the space:
Decide where your new plants will live: in the ground soil or in a pot? This is something you can prepare while waiting for your seedlings to grow. Fill pots with quality soil. Section off new beds and add compost.
Tip 13 TIMING: Temperatures may not be quite right yet! I know it’s hard to wait, but waiting has it’s benefits. Temperatures need to be consistently above 50 — 60 degrees for even cool-temp loving plants to start (like carrots and onions), but ideally the very best temps to start seeds is between 70–80 degrees for optimal growth.
One of the biggest mistakes I’ve made is starting seeds too early, which sprout, but then experiences no growth. So while seeds may sprout in cooler temps, they will not experience good growth until proper temperatures are consistently warm enough.
Tip 14: SOIL MATTERS!
Tender new roots need a light, fluffy and medium where tender roots can develop. Using a quality seed starting mix will help so much. It is lighter than normal garden soil, and is free of contaminants. I usually get organic when I can find it. For native flowers, avoid self-fertilizing soils and start with a good basic bedding soil and some compost to facilitate growth. If the soil is too rich, you may end up with many leaves and few flowers.
Tip #15: CHOOSE your seed starting CONTAINERS — RECYCLE and REPURPOSE where you can!
You don’t need anything fancy to start seeds in! You can purchase seed starting trays with lids and peat pots. Some people like to purchase sturdier ones to use year after year.
But I use upcycled clean, plastic container with holes poked in the bottom. I love using repurposed washed, clean strawberry and blueberry containers, (which already have holes in them) and comes with a handy lid that can be folded back. I put a coffee filter in the bottom to reduce soil loss. I reuse them once seedlings go in the ground. I also use saved paper towel and toilet paper rolls cut into sections to separate seedlings to keep roots from tangling.
Tip 16: PLANTING DEPTH: How deeply you plant your seeds is important!
Be sure to carefully follow directions on seed packets. Measure how deeply in the soil it’s recommended to place your seeds.
Don’t just eyeball it.
Some seeds only require that you scatter them on top of soil, and then press them down so they make contact with moisture, because they need light to germinate.
Some should be buried more deeply to have constant contact with moist soil for sprouting to occur.
This is another common reason why seeds don’t sprout.
If seeds are buried too deeply in soil and they need light to sprout, they will fail to germinate. While waiting for sprouts to appear, keep a lid on the container to preserve moisture. This creates a mini-greenhouse effect.
Once sprouts appear, be sure to open containers, so condensation does not build up. Condensation on new leaves can invite fungus, which can kill a new seedling (see “damping off” below).
Tip 17: SPEAKING OF MOISTURE
Overwatering seedlings is another major cause of seedling failure. Tender roots sitting in too much moisture can cause root rot and overgrowth of fungus and bacteria. Older seeds planted in cold soil, planted too deeply and overwatered are those most susceptible to this occurrence.
Just remember: water does not equal love!
Read more about dreaded “damping off”, which is a fungal infection affecting new seedlings here: https://www.planetnatural.com/pest-problem-solver/plant-disease/damping-off/. (Note: this article recommends use of a fungicide, but not all fungi are pathogenic. I would not recommend a fungicide in a pollinator garden. I would just replant and learn from that experience. If you are a newbie, prevention is the best course of action).
Tip 18: AGAIN! Water is not love!
Once tiny seedlings appear, water with a squirt bottle or mist the top of the soil, avoiding getting water on the new leaves. Once your seedling grows, it will not be as tender, and will tolerate more vigorous watering.
An invaluable tool I use is a moisture hygrometer, (aka a moisture meter) which is a soil moisture measuring device. It will help you be more precise in your watering. They are inexpensive, and can be purchased on Amazon.
The soil should be damp, but not soggy or dripping. Better to slightly underwater than overwater. Sprouts may not need daily watering when temps are cooler.
Tip #19: BOTTOM WATERING for ROOTS:
Do this AFTER your seedlings are growing well. As the roots of your seedlings grow to the bottom of the container, (another reason to use a recycled clear container) you can begin bottom watering by placing the entire container of seedlings in another non-draining shallow container and adding a half inch of water as needed so it is absorbed through the soil from the bottom. Monitor and refill with water as needed. Use the moisture meter to check that it is not staying too moist.
This can be helpful to encourage root production after sprouting occurs and you’re waiting for your seedlings to grow large enough to transplant. Remember not to leave it sitting in very much standing water, or root rot will occur.
Tip 20: Provide air flow:
As leaves grow, ensure there’s good air flow to your sprouts. This. not only helps to prevent fungus, it will also help to strengthen leggy stems. A small fan placed nearby, blowing gently on your sprouts is all that’s needed.
Tip 21: TRANPLANT once your sprouts grow 2–3 sets of true leaves and have a strong central stem, (the first set are called “seed leaves” or cotyledons, and will die back as true leaves form) — they will be ready to transplant. Disturb roots as little as possible and water a little more frequently during the first week in it’s new location.
I hope this seed starting guide helps you realize that seed starting takes a little practice, and some research. It can be fun and rewarding and economical.
Please share your seed starting successes and questions here in this thread.
Below is a list of supplies (which you can start gathering now!) that I’ve found to be helpful to me in seed starting:
Recyclables or things you already may have:
• Plastic take-out sporks or forks — for scooping small amounts of soil or separating seedlings with complex roots
• Disposable take out bamboo chopsticks: for gently poking roots into place or making holes in soil to place seeds
• Empty plastic food containers with lids that salad comes in: use as planters (poke holes for drainage) or remove lid and use for bottom watering
• Washed plastic strawberry and or blueberry containers as seed starting containers: As perfectly sized clear container for starting new seeds
• coffee filters: placed in bottom of berry containers to prevent soil loss when watering
• empty paper towel or toilet paper rolls: to cut into sections. Used to prevent roots from tangling and separating seedlings.
• Old Mini-blind slats: to label your seedlings (cut into sections and write on them with pencil. Lasts for YEARS and doesn’t wear off. Lasts longer than Sharpie
• sharp utility knife or sharp pointed scissors: for poking holes in the bottom of plastic containers to provide drainage
• Seed starting mix, large bag (any variety, but I usually get organic)
• compost and good quality (organic if possible) garden soil for pots or flower beds
• small watering can or pitcher with a narrow spout (to control water application) or
• A sturdy spray bottle with an adjustable light>strong stream (for watering)
• inexpensive hand spade for scooping soil and seed starter and digging (I have several). Wash and sanitize before using each season!
• sturdy gardening or work gloves with reinforcement (they last longer)
• a portable soil hygrometer (moisture meter or sensor) — Available on Amazon
• Seeds! (see list of recommended places to shop in article)
HAPPY PLANTING! — Sandy Carter