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In the Garden: Timing is everything when it comes to planting seeds

Sun., March 2, 2014

Deep-root flat inserts are perfect for starting large-rooted crops like peas, beans, corn, melons and squash. (Susan Mulvihill)
Deep-root flat inserts are perfect for starting large-rooted crops like peas, beans, corn, melons and squash. (Susan Mulvihill)

Last week, I discussed the joys of starting your own plants from seeds indoors. Let’s continue with a look at the process.

The timing of planting seeds is very important: too early and you’ll end up with leggy, sprawling plants; too late and they’ll take a while to hit their stride. The best source for timing – along with planting depth, spacing, warmth requirements and so on – is right on the back of the seed packet. If it says to start the seeds eight weeks before the last frost date, that’s the middle of March for our region.

Here are some rough guidelines on the indoor planting schedule I use. In early March, I plant artichokes. In mid-March, I start my tomatoes, celery, peppers, eggplants and most annual flowers. In early April, I plant peas indoors; they will be transplanted outside a week later. I also start basil since it takes a long time to get going.

In early May, I plant corn, beans, pumpkins, and summer and winter squash to give them a couple of weeks’ head start before planting them outside.

One useful tip I picked up a while back was the importance of properly orienting seeds for better germination results. I learned that seeds only contain enough energy to send roots downward and its seedling upward.

For round seeds, it doesn’t really matter which way you place them in the ground: they should sprout without any problems. But for seeds that aren’t round, if you don’t orient them properly in the soil, they’ll waste their limited energy stores on orienting themselves and often die before they see the light of day.

For oblong seeds like those of melons, squash and cucumbers, plant them with the pointed end facing downward. Corn seeds are also planted this way. For bean seeds, which are kidney-shaped with a little scar in the middle of the curvy side, plant the scar facing downward.

Once I learned this, I’ve had excellent germination rates so keep this in mind as you plant your seeds. It’s a little extra effort, but well worth it.

Now you are finally ready to plant. Fill your growing container with about 2 inches of lightly moistened germination mix, which is a sterile, soil-less mix sold at garden centers. Plant the seeds at the correct depth and properly oriented. Sprinkle a very light layer of finely-milled sphagnum moss to prevent the fungal disease called damping-off. Mist the surface of the soil lightly with water.

Label your container and cover it with a clear cover or place it in a plastic bag and tie it shut. This will raise the humidity in the container. Place it under a grow light or in a sunny location.

Once the seeds have sprouted, remove the cover or bag and monitor the soil moisture so it doesn’t dry out. As soon as the seedlings have a pair of “true” leaves – not the initial seed leaves – feed them with a half-strength solution of fish emulsion; feed again every couple of weeks.

The seed packet should indicate when to transplant the seedlings into a larger container, if necessary. As the weather warms up, you can start taking the plants outside for an hour the first day, two hours the next, and so on. This is called “hardening off.” Watch the weather forecasts carefully.

Before you know it, you’ll be a pro at starting your own seeds, which in turn will open up a whole new world of gardening possibilities.

Susan Mulvihill can be reached via email at her blog at susansinthegarden. or her Facebook page at for more gardening information.

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