Seeds come in all shapes, sizes and colors, from the tiniest specks of white sand which are chamomile and lettuce seeds to thick and robust pumpkin seeds and corn kernels. All seeds, no matter how tiny, contain a combination of genetic material from two parent plants. For as long as plants and humans have co-existed, humans have worked with the variability and diversity of plants’ genetic inheritances to create different varieties (or cultivars) of a plant, such as a more vibrant or fragrant flower, tastier pepper or cold-tolerant tomato.
Seeds contain genetic memory in the form of a plant embryo encased in a tough seed coat. Many seed coats are designed to facilitate one of several methods of mechanical dispersal away from the parent plant to reduce competition and increase the plant’s range. Depending on their structure, seeds can be wind-borne, snagged and carried along in an animal’s fur coat, dispersed and buried by foraging birds, awakened by wildfire or carried along in river or ocean currents to distant shores. Many of our tastiest fruits and vegetables such as strawberries, tomatoes, melons, peppers, cucumbers and eggplants evolved to tempt passing birds and mammals to eat their sweet fruit and deposit seeds in the ground as scat.
Starting plants from seed is the simplest way to garden. You don’t need any special equipment other than a packet of seeds and some loose dirt rich in organic material. My method for direct seeding is to loosen compacted soil with a spading fork or shovel before layering about an inch and a half of homemade compost on top of the soil. I plant directly into the compost, which creates a weed-free seed bed full of fertility where seeds are quick to germinate.
If you are planting a larger area, it’s easiest to dig a shallow furrow to plants seeds and then gently cover them with soil to the appropriate depth. In a smaller space, you can also simply tuck each individual seed into the soil. The general rule of thumb is to plant seeds twice as deep as they are large, though seed packets typically have a more precise suggestion. There are also several types of seed which should not be buried, since they rely on direct sunlight for germination. This is true mostly of certain types of cut flowers, and those directions should be clear on the seed packet.
Once you’ve dug your furrows or tucked seeds into the ground, it’s important to press the ground firmly to slightly compact the surface. Firm seed to soil contact is an important trigger for germination. As you wait for seeds to germinate, ensure the soil remains moist so that a thick crust does not form to inhibit germination. I gently water the soil surface every two to three days depending on temperature and cloud coverage.
Once seeds have germinated (most veggies should take no more than a week, while certain cut flowers may take up to three weeks), it’s important to reduce watering to prevent soil-borne diseases and moisture-loving insect pests. Veggies and herbs that do well sown directly into garden soil this time of year include kale, lettuce, spinach, arugula, cilantro, dill, parsley, radishes, carrots, beets and turnips.
Many of our annual native flowers, as well as several cut flowers, germinate easily when broadcast on bare dirt just before rain for an effortless pollinator garden come spring. Flowers such as California poppy, phacelia, ornamental breadseed poppies, Queen Anne’s lace, love-in-a-mist and larkspur are all tough plants which grow quickly in cooler temperatures with some rainfall or supplemental hand watering.
Another option is to start seeds indoors. This is a good choice if you have a lot of bird or insect pressure in your garden or are eager to increase the speed of veggie production, since seedlings often grow faster in a more controlled climate. The same techniques of seed depth, soil compaction and moisture retention apply. Make sure to choose a high-quality potting soil with enough fertility to ensure your seedlings a healthy life. My top choice is E.B. Stone Recipe 420 potting soil, which is certified organic and readily available at garden stores.
Some of my favorite sources for vegetable seeds with excellent germination rates and detailed growing instructions are Johnny’s Seeds, Siskiyou Seeds, Uprising Organics, Wild Garden Seeds and Plant Good Seed (based in Ojai). These are small to medium-scale growers saving and selecting seed on their farms and working toward a more diverse, sustainable and food-secure future. If you are curious to learn more about spring garden tasks such as building soil, preparing seeds beds and planting seeds or transplants, be sure to tune into the Garden’s upcoming Spring Gardening 101 Zoom class on Saturday, Feb. 20 at 10 a.m.