"Starting Seeds Indoors," Ann Reilly

Pros: Cheap; handy; detailed; quick read
Cons: Narrow focus; some information of limited value
Rating: 4 out of 5

First published 5/1/2003

I picked up “Starting Seeds Indoors,” by Ann Reilly, at my local Agway. It’s hardly larger than a glorified pamphlet (just over 30 pages), but then, it does cover a very limited subject. It’s a quick read, so it won’t take you long to learn what you need to know.

When you live in an area with a short growing season, starting seeds indoors is one way to make sure you get to grow the things you want to grow. It can also seem like mysterious and unattainable alchemy if you’ve never done it before. This “bulletin” starts out with a few words about why you might want to grow plants from seed instead of from nursery stock. For instance, you can try a wider variety of plants this way, including some unusual strains. It’s more economical, and some plants do well only when grown from seed. From there it moves on to a bit of information on “what is a seed.” There’s interesting stuff here about cultivars, varieties, and hybrids. There’s also handy information on the special treatment some seeds require, such as soaking and “scarification” (or nicking the seed coat).

There’s a good primer on what you’ll need in order to get started, and a guide to various types of germinating media (the stuff you grow your seeds in). I like the fact that not only do they go into proper germinating media, but they also address why some options (such as sand, and soil from your garden) aren’t a good idea. The bulletin covers proper germination temperatures, including the difference between the temperature in the room and the actual temperature of the germinating medium (which will be cooler than room temperature). It discusses various methods of heating the medium, from putting your seeds on top of the refrigerator to using a heating cable or tray. Moisture, humidity, light, and various other needs are also addressed. There’s also a discussion of the differences between annuals, biennials, and perennials, and how this affects when and where you should germinate your seeds.

The Process

Now that we have all of the background information, it’s time to sow our seeds! The bulletin walks you through the process, from assembling your containers and making sure they’re clean to soaking peat pellets or pots and sowing seeds. There are plenty of hints on sowing seeds properly, including how to sow them to the proper depth. My only problem here is that when the author reminds us to check the germination time before planting, she doesn’t bother to mention that specified germination times on packages (and in her handy charts) don’t take into account the warmth of indoors germination. I was quite surprised when most of my seeds took about a quarter of the stated time to germinate.

There’s information on lighting, caring for seedlings, and transplanting into larger pots and into the garden. Note that due to the very narrow scope of this bulletin, the author stops pretty much exactly where the subject of the book ends. For example, when addressing the subject of transplanting to the garden, she merely says, “The soil must be well prepared in advance to get the most from your flowers, vegetables or herbs.” But she doesn’t go into any detail on “well prepared.” So if you don’t already know this stuff, another gardening book would be handy.

Also, as seems to be a theme in gardening books, I occasionally found that this booklet made things sound harder than they need to be. There was material about soil thermometers, lighting height, and so on that got a bit complex. But even though I decided to ignore some of this stuff, my seedlings came out just fine.

Finally you’ll find the lists:

  • Seeds that need light to germinate
  • Seeds that need darkness to germinate
  • Seeds that require soaking before sowing
  • Seeds that need stratification (cold treatment) before sowing
  • Seeds that must be scarified before sowing
  • Seeds that need cool temperatures to germinate
  • Seeds that should be sown as soon as possible
  • Hardy annuals (can be sown as soon as soil can be worked, before last frost)
  • Seedlings that don’t like to be transplanted

There’s also a long chart of species with germination time in days, when they should be sown indoors or outdoors (with respect to last frost), when they should be transplanted outside, and how far apart they should be transplanted. The first chart is annuals, followed by perennials, then vegetables and herbs. They’re aren’t alphabetical by common name, which can be a bit annoying if you’re going by the names on your seed packets, which sometimes only include the common name. And as always, different varieties of a plant may require different sowing and transplanting times than those given in this bulletin, so the information is of limited value.

Do you need this?

If you’re already experienced with indoor germination, obviously not. And if you’re just starting out with gardening, a more comprehensive book (like Better Homes & Gardens’ “New Complete Guide to Gardening”) would probably do you more good than this little pamphlet. I think it’s most useful to someone who has experience as a gardener, but who has mostly used nursery stock up until now and hasn’t done much indoors germination. It’s a narrow-purpose booklet, but it certainly does its subject justice!

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