Sprouting Herbs & Vegetables from Seed in the High Desert

I started vegetable gardening from seed, rather than from nursery starts, when we lived in Mulberry House, in 2007. So I’m not an expert, but this is my third year doing it as the primary method of growing garden veggies, and I have noticed a few things. It is also worth noting, as my co-farm-stewards point out on a regular basis, that i grew up around all this stuff, in a household with a couple of very serious gardeners, and i have apparently picked up skills that are invisible to me along the way. so if you notice I’ve omitted information that would have been useful, please point it out!

Some general info to start. Most seeds like to be planted at a depth that is about 3 times the size of the seed itself. So for carrots, whose seeds are so small they’re barely visible, you simply scatter them on the soil and brush the very thinnest top layer of soil around ovre them, gently. But for corn, you stuff each seed nearly 3″ underground and then tamp the soil down to restore soil-water capillary action (which gets the water through the soil to the plant). For all seeds, water immediately after sowing, and then keep the seed bed moist but not soaked until germination. too dry and your seed won’t sprout; too wet and it will mold and then rot underground.

The first thing you need is information. You’ll find that the seed packets sold at most hardware stores, conventional nurseries, (even my favorite local nursery, Plants of the Southwest), rarely have much useful information on the packet. They talk about the grown plant’s characteristics & its fruit, and say something completely useless like, “sow as soon as the soil can be worked.” which is all the time, here; we simply don’t get the kind of deep freezes that prevent a person from putting a shovel in the ground. which does not mean we should sow that seed anytime. What you need to know is how deep to plant it, what the soil temperature should be when you plant it outdoors, or what air temperatures to keep it at if you’re starting it indoors or in a greenhouse, how many days it takes it to come up, and, if you can get this information, whether it likes to be kept in the dark, given a little indirect light or given a lot of light, and whether soaking, cold stratification, or scarfication will improve the germination rate. your average seed packet does not tell you any of that except maybe planting depth and spacing between plants.

so where the heck do you get that information? The best book I’ve found is Nancy Bubel’s The New Seed Starter’s Handbook, which includes a huge amount of information on seeds, germination, sprouting, growing, stratification, pre-sprouting, with annuals, perennials, vegetables, herbs and ornamentals, and about everything else you can think of, including an “encyclopedia” section at the end, which, while not encyclopedic in scope, is nevertheless fairly complete and exceedingly useful, with detailed information on all common (and some uncommon) garden veggies and many herbs. Like most garden books, it has a “wet places climate” slant, so the tree & shrub section is only about 1/3 useful for us here in the Southwest–she omits the common quince & pomegranate, for instance, in favor of linden & hornbeam. i don’t think i even know what a linden tree looks like. but since very nearly every garden book published in the US shares this problem, i won’t hold it against her. much.

at any rate, i really reccomend this book, or finding another book on seed starting, and getting some information about the plants you want to grow. Also, if you buy seeds from the Seed Savers’ Exchange, the packet comes with a ton of information on it, which is very handy:

We’ve also had great experiences with Seeds of Change and Native Seeds/SEARCH.

So where are you going to put your seeds? if you have a greenhouse, that’s clearly the place, but most folks don’t. A sunny window ledge in the house works just as well (in fact, possibly better if you have enough sunny ledges, as you’re less likely to neglect to water, and the house temperature is unlikely to get below 50, whereas a greenhouse can have a crazy huge daily temperature range, from practically freezing at night to 90 in the daytime with all the vents open, as we have some cause to know.) South-facing windows are best, as they get the most light, but east or west will also work. I would not put seeds in a north window unless i had no other option. they’re likely to get chilled.

Having acquired some seeds and some information about what those specific seeds require, the next thing you need is good dirt, usually called “planting medium.” I use my regular garden soil, thus:

mixed about 60-40 with grounds from starbucks coffee’s free “grounds for your garden” program. You can walk into any starbucks and ask for a bag of grounds and they’ll send you home with either one of these neatly packaged bags:

Or with a trash bag full, depending on what they have on hand. You can kind of see the open trash bag behind the neatly packaged one, there.

I use my regular garden soil, rather than an expensive prepared mix, for a couple reasons. Not only do i not want to spend the money, but i have observed that plants that won’t sprout in the soil i’ve got, won’t grow well in the soil i’ve got. i’d rather start out as i mean to continue. your mileage may vary. i mix the coffee grounds in, because coffee grounds are a seed meal (ground seeds) and seed meals are one of the most fabulous fertilizers you can give a seed to help it sprout. the ground seeds contain everything you need to be a sprouting seed—apparenly even after having been burned and had boiling water poured through, as coffee grounds noticably improve the soil. they are also spongy and friable in texture, and my soil is overall fairly clay-ey, so they help loosen up the soil and give it more organic matter.

Planting medium mixed in a bucket:

You can see that even with all the big chunks, many of which i’ll sift out just for convenience (they don’t make much difference either way), this soil is loose and dark. You want it fairly rich, for seeds.

Recently, we were given several bags of spent peat moss from a friend who grows mushrooms, so we’ll be mixing a little recycled peat moss into the next batch of potting soil, too. This also adds spongy-textured organic matter, and helps the soil retain water in a way that is accessible to the plant, though in and of itself, peat moss has very little nutritional value that the plants can use. compost is better—but mix the compost into your garden, not your planting medium, unless it is extremely well broken down. If it’s got chunks of anything not-yet-decayed or still-decaying in it, those will burn the tender roots of your seedlings.

If you’re going to buy something from the store, Black Gold Organics are very good.

Now you need pots. most anything will work, so long as it’s deeper than it is wide. If you want to use flats, the lids of copy-paper boxes work great, being pretty deep for a cardboard flat. They’ll deteriorate after one or two uses, at which point you can put them in the compost. Or you can get seed-sprouting pots at any hardware store or nursery. These are my favorite size, because the seedling can get medium-sized before it absolutely has to be transplanted, and they have a good amount of root space.

They come in trays of 36 or so. You can also make pots out of newspaper, toilet paper rolls, or anything about that size that occurs to you. Paper/cardboard pots will lose a lot more water to evaporation out the sides, so i have found them pretty far from ideal in my desert climate. if you’re in Oregon or Georgia (or anyplace where it rains regularly), where it’s actually possible to grow mold on your soil if you overwater, they might be fabulous. as well as thrifty.

Now, having decided what you are going to plant and filled your pots with your preferred soil mix, it’s time to plant. if you are planting something with teeny tiny seeds, you’ll most likely want to scatter the seeds on the surface of the soil, and brush the soil around lightly over it. I reccomend that such things, like parsley, tarragon, & onions, be started in flats, so that you don’t have to try to separate one or two of the nearly-invisible seeds into each pot. If you are starting something with a seed you can actually get hold of, like tomatoes or squash, then pots are better. Remember that your seed would like to be planted roughly 3 times as deep as the seed itself is tall. And read your seed packet or book, to find the precise planting depth for that plant!

i was putting in sweet peas when i took these photos, which have medium-size seeds, and like to be planted a half-inch deep in the soil. So i used my finger to poke roughly half-inch holes in each pot:

and then dropped a seed in each hole. You can put two, but then if two come up, you’ll have to thin. I use two if i expect poor germination (for whatever reason: it’s too cold to actually plant what i’m planting, there’s still risk of frost, it’s an experiement, or a notoriously difficult plant to grow from seed), but otherwise i use one.

Then gently brush the soil back over the seed, and lightly tamp it down with the back of your finger. you want to tamp it down a bit–not squish it, just a little bit–to ensure that the seed is surrounded by soil, rather than by an air pocket, and to engage the soil’s capillary action.

then water. we have gone through several iterations of waterers for seeds & seedlings. Spray bottles work, but it takes a ton of effort to get enough water into the soil, and once your seedling is up, you risk knocking the poor thing over and killing it with the blast of sprayed water. currently, we’re using a mason jar with holes poked in the lid, which we shake. this was ‘s idea, and it works very well. it allows the water to form droplets and fall more gently than just pouring it out of a cup (done that, too, and that one leads to waterlogging), but it gets enough water into the pot to moisten the top inch of soil without a ton of effort on our part. though the photo is not really great, since i was taking pictures with my right hand and operating this thing with my wrong hand. :)

that’s it! label your seeds:

water them every day (or check to make sure they are moist at least twice a day), keep them in a warm place (preferably 60-75 degrees), and watch them grow!

with the awareness that it’ll probably be a couple weeks till they’re up, and it could be as much as a month or more depending on if they’re warm enough but not too warm, moist enough but not too moist, and what their usual time is till germination.

Okay, so what about some of those fancy terms i threw around up there?

Soaking: many seeds will germinate better if they are soaked for several hours (or overnight) in lukewarm water before being planted. peas, for instance. do your research on this; some seeds, such as peppers, will just go moldy in the soil if they’re overly wet.

Pre-Sprouting: this is a great technique for getting a week’s head start on your season. A couple weeks or so before you would normally be able to plant a tender vegetable seed, such as squash, melon, tomato or pepper, you can take a paper napkin, get it moist, and put a line of the seeds along it. Roll up the napkin, tucking the seeds in gently but firmly so they are surrounded by moist napkin on all sides. Put the resulting roll in a plastic baggie (left open, not ziplocked–they need the oxygen to sprout), nad put the whole thing in a consistently warm place. Ours are in the house, rather than the greenhouse, since the greenhouse temperature is pretty variable this time of year.

Stratifying: Cold stratifying is placing the seeds in a very cold place, such as your refrigerator, for a day (or more, depending on the seed) before planting. Some seeds need a certain amount of winter chilling time before they can sprout, and cold stratifying gives them what they need. In some cases, such as pomegranates, it is helpful to soak the seed for a day before stratifying.

Scarifying: some seeds germinate better if they are lightly abraded, as with very fine sandpaper, before planting. Usually the seed packet will actually mention this if it is helpful. It’s not common in most vegetable seeds, but it comes around.

Next time I transplant starts into the garden, i’ll take photos of that process, too, and put up another post here.