How to Start Growing from Seeds

In our blog article, "Seeds or cuttings? Which is best?" we discussed the pros and cons of each of the two ways of starting to grow to help you decide which way to go. 

In this article, we are going to go a little more in-depth on the methodologies of starting from seed. How to grow from cuttings will be covered in a separate article.

Seeds are the end-result of reproduction by seeding (usually flowering) plants. They importantly contain (amongst other things) an embryonic group of cells, which carry the genetic information necessary to propagate the species. They also carry energy-containing compounds, which are only released and made available to the embryo when the surrounding conditions (like temperature and the availability of water and oxygen etc) are favourable.

The other important part of the seed is the seed coat. This is usually hard, and protects the contents of the seed from being damaged by such things as frosts during wintertime, or being trampled on by animals. The seed coat also protects the insides from bacteria and fungal infections. While the parent plant might die over the winter, its seeds will survive and remain dormant until the right conditions to germinate come around in spring. Think of seeds like tough little time machines for plant genetics!

What this means is that if we want to germinate a seed, we need to imitate nature and give it as close to ideal conditions as we can. If we provide seeds with water, oxygen and the right temperature (like springtime conditions) then the seed will sprout.

The right temperature will depend very much on the type of plant that you want to grow. Seeds created by plants that are native to cool or cold climates require a lower temperature than those from plants that are usually found in warmer parts of the world. For most plants that grow outside happily in the UK, a temperature of around 22C and 25C will usually work well. For more exotic species of plant, you may need to adapt any of the three variables listed above. An internet search will probably provide you with the right target temperature and any other specific requirements that they may have.

For the best and most reliable results when germinating seeds, make sure the equipment you use is scrupulously clean and preferably sterile. Silver Bullet Mist is a great product for disinfecting equipment. Where water is required, boiling it for 10 minutes and allowing it to cool down to the target temperature before use will help keep the possibility of infections to a minimum. When a seed pops, the emerging seedling is incredibly delicate, with a weak immune system. It is therefore rather vulnerable to pathogenic infections.

It is also considered wise to sterilise the seed coat as a precaution before carrying out the following steps to begin germination. The outside of the seeds carry bacteria and fungal spores.  Sterilisation, of the seed coat will reduce the likelihood of infection. Bleach is generally not a good choice as a sterilising agent as this can inhibit germination. A much better choice is a peroxide product. In our opinion there is none better than Silver Bullet Mist. Soak your seed(s) in a solution of water and Silver Bullet Roots at a concentration of 0.2-0.4ml/litre and leave for about day. This will also start off the process of germination.

Once the above step has been completed, there are several ways to finish the germination process. We will go through three of the most popular of methods.

1) The Glass of Water Method

Seeds can be sprouted by soaking them in a covered cup of water at the right temperature. However, most growers say that this is the least successful of all the methods. This is probably because of the lower availability of oxygen when a seed is completely submerged in water. Once a seed has sprouted it needs this vital resource to continue growing on into a seedling. If the sprouted seed is not moved to its next destination quickly enough then it could stall before it has even had a chance in life.

If you are able to check on the status of the seeds every 12 hours, you should be able to ensure that they are moved on to their next stage (a propagation plug or a small pot of medium, such as soil) before oxygen deprivation causes problems for the young sprouted seeds. Remember to maintain the target temperature as closely as possible for best results.

2) The Direct-Into-Medium Method

The Direct Into Medium (or propagation plug) Method is also popular. This method is also very easy. The seed is planted directly into a small pot of moist medium, such as seed compost,  about half an inch to an inch down, and very gently covered over and watered. As long as the temperature is close to the target temperature, the seed will sprout and the young plant will emerge from the soil. The advantage of this method is that no direct handling of the sprouted seed is required which minimises the chance of damage. The main disadvantage is that the progress of the sprouting seed cannot be seen until the seedling begins to grow vertically out of the medium.

3) The Paper Towel Method

The Paper Towel Method is very popular. It offers a number of advantages and it's a great compromise between the Glass of Water Method and the Direct Into Medium Method, offering many of the advantages with very few downsides.  This method is still fairly simple. Seeds are placed between a couple of layers of paper towel that has been well-moistened with (preferably boiled and cooled) water.

The seeds have access to plenty of moisture, but because they are not immersed completely, they also have access to vital oxygen as well (unlike the glass of water method). It also offers the advantage of allowing the grower to see when the seeds have sprouted (unlike the Direct Into Medium Method). To keep the paper towels moist, they can be placed inside a tupperware box or zip-lock bag and kept at as close to the target temperature as possible. The box or bag can be opened regularly and the paper towel peeled back carefully to check on the seed's progress.

With the Glass or Water Method and Paper Towel method , once the seeds have sprouted they need to be transferred into a moist propagation plug or a small pot of medium, such as soil. Bear in mind that the sprouted seeds are very delicate and need to be handled with the utmost care so as not to damage them. If you are transferring the sprouts into plugs or a pot, make sure that the emerged roots are put in with the sprout (root) facing down, not up. Remember to keep the medium moist and don't give any food until the second set of leaves appear. Keep the first feed very weak and increase the strength gradually with successive feedings.  It is always better to err on the side of underfeeding because it's much easier to feed an underfed plant than to try to rescue an overfed one.

A Very Important Decision to Make

So, you have sprouted seedlings that are vigorously growing roots. Like all plants they are vulnerable to diseases.  Root disease is one of the worst types of infection that a plant can contract. It can do its damage unseen within a propagation plug or a pot of medium. By the time the above-ground parts of the plant start to show signs of sickness (wilting, slow growth etc.) the disease will have become rampant and will probably have caused untold damage to the root-zone. To safeguard against root diseases, we very strongly recommend that you choose one of two avenues of action.

The Sterile Method

One courses of action is to keep the root zone sterile. This involves the continuous use of a quality germicidal product through the lifetime of the plant. If you choose the sterile method then there is no product better than Silver Bullet Roots, which  kills pretty much all microbial life, including root pathogens. This allows the plant to thrive without being hampered by fungal or bacterial attacks.

The Biological Method

The other method of protecting against root diseases is almost the exact opposite of the sterile method. Here, we deliberately inoculate the roots with a beneficial microbe product such as the excellent Ecothrive Biosys. As with most beneficial microbial products, Ecothrive Biosys contains spores of mycorrhizal and trichodermal fungi as well as a host of beneficial bacteria. The mycorrhizal fungi attach themselves to the roots and actively fight off other fungi (such as root diseases) that should attempt to set up residence.

Mycorrhizal fungi actively grow along with the roots and set up something called a mycelium network within the grow medium. A mycelium network is a mass of long filaments, from which the fungus draws water and nutrients. The mycorrhizal fungi works symbiotically with the roots of your plant, passing on water and nutrients while defending them from root diseases. In exchange, the plant sends some of the sugars created through photosynthesis down to the roots to feed its friendly fungi. Trichoderma fungi also set up a mutually beneficial relationship with plant roots and they are specialists in feeding on pathogenic fungi. The bacteria that are often included in beneficial microbe inoculant products are ones that are commonly found in soil. They do various different jobs such as fixing nitrogen and fight off pathogenic bacterial attacks. Using beneficial microbial products offers the grower other advantages too. Mycelial networks act like a second set of roots. Not only do they help protect against drought but they also also increase the plants' access to nutrients. The potential crop yield can be significantly increased because of this. Also, if you are growing organically, developing a good beneficial micro-herd is pretty much essential. The microbes break down complex organic molecules into simpler nutrients that the plant roots can absorb and will ultimately enhance yield and quality. A high-quality inoculant such as Ecothrive Biosys is a real no-brainer.

Whether you choose to go down the sterile or biological route, both methods will keep your root-zone healthy. However, it should be noted that they are completely incompatible: Silver Bullet Roots will destroy friendly microbes along with the pathogenic ones.  Choose one of the two methods and then stick with it through the course of your plants' lives.

Once the seedling has rooted through the plug or pot, it can be transplanted into a bigger pot to begin the vegetative stage.

Getting started