Of Bugs, Blooms & Vittles

Sprouting off: how to buy seeds

Seeds are magical.

Every year I plant seeds of so many different sizes and shapes and sprouting preferences, and every year most of them grow. That's magic! That this tiny or large, hard or brittle, ivory or black or other color capsule can turn into a (usually) green sprout, a living thing.

But before I can plant those seeds, I need to collect them from existing plants, buy them off a seed rack at a local store, or order them from a seed supplier. I usually do all three.

The time for collecting seeds is mostly over (unless you want to pick up the persimmon tree seeds scattered on our front sidewalk and driveway) so I'll offer purchase and storage tips instead!

First is inventorying what you have on hand if you've stored leftover seeds from last year and want to use them this year. Many flower and vegetable seeds will keep for one to several years if stored in airtight containers (I use zipper bags) at a constant temperature (refrigerator.) Pelleted seeds are an exception, don't bother trying to keep them past the current season.

Once you know what seeds you have, you can check the germination rate: put 10 seeds on a damp paper towel, pop it in a plastic bag, and place in a slightly warm location. Check seeds daily. Once some have germinated, figure the percentage – if two sprouted, you have 20 percent germination; if nine sprout, it's 90 percent. If 70 percent or more germinate, those seeds are good to go, though you may want to plant any at the lower germinations closer together come spring.

Next consider what else you want to plant this spring and summer, and whether you want to put in the time and effort to grow flowers and vegetables to transplant. Garden-ready transplants can be purchased locally or ordered by mail and online. But beware the big box stores that treat plants with neonicitinoids, which remain in the plants and are toxic to honeybees and other pollinators.

If you want specific varieties or plants grown organically, you may need to order those seeds and start your own plants. Just be sure you have good lighting available. New seedlings should almost touch the lighting source, which can be placed a little farther away as the plants grow. I use both warm and cool florescent lights and my seedlings do fine, despite some experts saying sunlight spectrum lights are necessary.

So who are the best sources for seeds and plants? Customer reviews are available online at Davesgarden.com/products for more garden and nursery companies than I realized existed.

My favorite companies include John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds, which provides oodles of information, including the seed life for many of its products. The company has an email newsletter, and offers a seed-starting schedule under horticultural tips on its website. Our area is in Zone 5. Of course, I don't follow their schedule exactly: my first tomato seeds are in the cooler with hot water bottles now. But these eight or so plants will go in the tomato greenhouse come April.

That, by the way, is how I start all my tomato, pepper and eggplant seeds: pop them in four- or six-packs of an organic compost/vermiculite mix, water with hot water, then tuck them into a cooler (now a warmer,) changing the hot water in the bottles beneath them twice a day or so. Tomatoes sprout in five days; the others in about a week.

Back to seed companies, Pinetree has reasonable prices and reclosable seed packets. If I'm keeping some of the seeds, however, I also put them in a zipper bag, as the seed packets are paper.

Park Seed Company, on the other hand, often packs seeds in foil packets. The company has gotten some bad reviews in recent years, but I've always gotten my orders promptly and had good results with their seeds. I read its management has changed and service improved recently.

Burpee seeds are offered in local stores, and the well-known company has a good reputation when it comes to flower and vegetable plants. More varieties are available via the catalog or online than are on seed racks, of course.

A local company, Gardens Alive, Greendale, owns a number of businesses, including Audubon Workshop, Breck's, Gurney's, Springhill Nurseries, Henry Field's, Iseli Nursery, Michigan Bulb, New Holland Bulb, Thompson and Morgan, and Weeks Roses. The Gardens Alive catalog also lists organic seeds in addition to a variety of organic garden products.

In recent years I've begun getting catalogs from specialty nurseries, especially those offering only organic seeds. Those include Seeds of Change and The Natural Gardening Company, which bills itself as the oldest certified organic nursery in the United States. Prairie Moon Nursery offers North American wildflower seeds and plants, and Richters has one of the larger varieties of herbs. Baker Creek Heirloom has a good reputation for, guess what, heirloom seeds.

Some catalogs list the number of seeds contained in each packet, which can let you figure out how many plants you're likely to get from a packet of vegetable seeds. Other companies intentionally provide packets with only a few seeds at a lower price, perfect when you want to start only a few of that herb or flower.

Of course I also save seeds from a number of plants, including monarch caterpillar host plants butterfly weed and honeyvine. Just a few plants in scattered backyards could make a difference in monarch numbers, which were their lowest ever last winter. Anyone who would like some of these seeds, or persimmon tree seeds, to start themselves may contact me at cmattingly@registerpublications.com or by phone at 812-438-2011.