The following information on seeds and seeding comes from Five Acres and Independence by M. G. Kains. Five Acres and Independence is also available to purchase in print.
One of the hardest lessons for a beginner to learn is that cheap seed is the most costly to buy! Why is it cheap? It may be—probably is—not true to name! It may be old—50% to 100% dead or at least weak! It may have been—probably has been—cheaply and therefore carelessly grown and poorly “rogued” (if at all) or otherwise carelessly handled. In no branch of farming is it so true that the penny wise, pound foolish policy is so often or so strikingly illustrated as in the buying of cheap seed.
As no one can grow a successful crop of anything from poor seed, the time and attention devoted to the plants will be largely, if not wholly wasted. The difference in first cost between cheap and “costly” seed is so slight that no one who has his best interests at stake will hesitate to pay it; for the so-called costly seed will, or should meet all the requirements of “good seed”; namely, viability (ability to “come to life”) when conditions—moisture, oxygen and heat—are supplied; freedom from weed seed and debris, 100% true to name, disease- and insect-free, and ability to produce a crop of uniformity and excellence.
Since none but the best seeds are good to buy as much information as possible should be gathered about the seedsman and each lot of seeds before the purchase of any. When there is any doubt as to which is the better of two strains, samples of each should be grown under identical soil conditions and treatment to decide, then to order that strain which gives best account of itself. To be sure of getting such a strain it is essential to buy samples under guarantee that the same strain, either named or numbered, can be supplied the following year and for a series of years. For, contrary to popular belief, no seedsman grows all his own seed; he contracts with specialist seed growers, each of whom may supply only one variety or strain of a kind; for instance, Chantenay and no other variety of carrot; Metropolitan and no other variety of sweet corn. Thus both the seedsman and his patrons may be sure of pure seed.
It is highly desirable to conduct strain tests because, as the experiment stations have proved with practically every grain and vegetable grown from seed, there are wide variations within the limits of a variety as to time of maturity, yield, uniformity and many other important features which make one strain worth more than another. Hence the sooner the best strain is located the better for the grower. To illustrate this point, that old standby, Detroit Dark Red, my own favorite variety of beet, now differs so widely in its strains that some might well be called different varieties!
Each reliable seedsman makes a specialty of some one or other variety or strain of vegetable; hence the further advisability of “shopping around,” not for prices but for profits! This means that you may buy your cabbage seed from Jones, tomato from Brown, carrot from Smith and beans from Robinson.
Though the business plantings should always be of known standard varieties and strains, it is highly important to test the novelties in moderation the first year they are introduced; for thereby some genuine “find” may be located a year or even several years before the less alert growers find it and profits may be reaped before they wake up. On the other hand, no matter how reliable the seedsman, it is almost never safe to launch out extensively (and probably expensively!) with any of these novelties until after they have been tested on one’s own place. Stick to the old, reliable until the new have proved themselves better or at least as good.
With standard varieties of some kinds of seeds it is advisable to buy more than will be needed during any one year; for thus trueness to desired type may be determined by means of sample planting the first year and the balance of the seed stored for future business planting if of proper quality.
Some seedsmen hold certain kinds of seeds for a year so as to test their trueness to type by growing them for a season before offering them for sale. They, and others, often sell various kinds of seed left from one season to the next, provided its germination tests indicate that it should give satisfactory stands of plants. Some of these latter seedsmen stamp the percentage of germination on ounce and larger packages of seed so the buyer may govern the rate of sowing—thin for high, thick for low percentage of germination.
The grower, however, usually has no way of knowing beforehand what to expect. So it is advisable for him to conduct a germination test for himself. This is easy to do by placing a counted number of seeds (25, 50 or 100) between sheets of white blotting paper in a plate, covering them with another plate inverted to check drying and keeping them moist, not wet, until the test is over. In a warm room the seeds if “strong” will sprout in a few days; if “weak” in perhaps many; if “dead” not at all. Each day they should be examined, the sprouted ones counted, recorded and thrown away. Rapidity and uniformity of sprouting indicate strength; slowness and irregularity, weakness. High percentage recommends thin sowing; low percentage, thick sowing. Weakness suggests that the plants may fail to grow in the open ground. Radish and other members of the mustard family usually sprout well within a week; carrots and other members of the parsley family may take three weeks.
During the past 40 or 50 years countless experiments have been conducted to determine the difference in germination, sturdiness of plant, earliness, yield, etc. between plants grown from large or heavy seed and from small and light seed. Without going into detail let it suffice that large seed is superior to small of the same variety and strain. So it is advisable to buy greater quantities than necessary of most seeds, to sift out the small ones and either to sow them separately from the large ones or to throw them away.
The superior value of large seed over small is perhaps most strikingly illustrated by Country Gentleman sweet corn, one of the favorite varieties for canning. Bulk or general run seed produces such uneven stands and such variation in maturity of the ears that the Indiana Canners Association asked the state experiment station to develop better strains. The following are striking features and comments published by I. C. Hoffman in the Journal of Agricultural Research (Vol. XXXI, No. 11).
Large and small kernels were chosen from individual ears and from bulk seed, planted and grown under identical conditions with the results that the large seed germinated better, produced larger plants, more 2-eared stalks, larger ears and the ears were ready for gathering an average of 5 days earlier than ears borne by plants produced by small seeds. They also produced fewer barren and unproductive stalks.
When ears on the large seeded plants were ready for canning those on the small seeded plants were “so tender and watery that the corn was unfit for use.” These results were attained not only in experiments but were also proved upon an acreage scale by growers cooperating with canning factories.
The reason for such results is ascribed to the fact that large seeds contain more reserve food material than do small ones. Therefore, it is recommended that seed be graded before sowing, the large and heavy kernels being separated from the small seeded ones and each lot sown by itself in order to approximate uniform stands.
Just before I started to write today an amateur gardener told me that he believed “the best way to get reliable seed is to grow it yourself.” He is not so sure now! When one is merely interested in getting a radish or some other kind of vegetable, home seed saving may answer fairly well. But when it is important to have a specific type of product, to have it uniform as to type, earliness, color, size, and quality, in fact, to have it seem as if poured from a caldron into a mold—”well, that’s something else again!”
Seed growing and saving are such highly specialized forms of business and demand such intimate knowledge of the plant in question, the needs of the business grower and the demands of the public that the grower of vegetables for sale may well leave it to the specialists who devote their lives to it. There are too many risks to run. Yet after one has had experience in growing vegetables he may find it to his advantage to produce some kinds of seed; but this is a branch of work which, to get best results demands at least a working knowledge of plant breeding—a subject beyond the scope of this book.
Though* germination depends upon moisture, air, viable (i.e., able-to-live) seed and temperature we generally think of only the last two factors. No one expects dead seed to grow, but many people fail to grasp the importance of favorable temperature and of proper management of seeds and seedlings. [*Much of what follows is quoted from the author’s book Modern Guide co Successful Gardening.]
Some seeds (oats and shepherd’s purse—a weed) will sprout on melting ice; others (portulaca and pussley—a weed) do so only when the soil is hot. How foolish then to sow the former seed when the ground is dry and hot and the latter under reverse conditions! The former, not finding sufficient moisture, will usually remain dormant or if it does sprout the seedlings may shrivel and die; the latter in wet, cold soil will either rot or wait till the temperature rises and the moisture lessens. To prevent such experiences follow the seedsman’s directions.
The importance of sowing and planting at proper times is also emphasized by the fact that some plant species are killed by light frosts, others are not; and likewise that plants of even tender species when “hardened off” can stand light frosts without harm.
Seasonal and local conditions so greatly influence temperature that no rule-of-thumb as to sowing and planting is safe to follow blindly, especially that one which declares that the sowing and planting season advances northward 100 miles and up mountain sides at 500′ a week. For instance, Denver, Colorado, is 5,270′ above sea level; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (in practically the same latitude), is only about a tenth of this above high tide; yet because Colorado prevailing winter and spring winds are from the warm South and those of Philadelphia from the cold North the temperatures at Denver are often 20º or more higher than those of Philadelphia during February, March and April.
Again, localities vary as to temperature; one is “early” another “late” as explained in Chapter 7.
Such influences, coupled with character and condition of soil may make one or two weeks’ difference in the advisable date of sowing seed or setting plants of any specified kind. So likewise may the date the last killing spring frost normally occurs.
Commercial gardeners nowadays govern their spring sowing and planting largely by the weather maps and still more by the daily forecasts of the United States Weather Bureau. Isotherms, or lines of equal temperature, serve as guides to safe seedage and planting. For instance, the isotherm of 45º is the northern safe limit of transplanting hardy plants (cabbage and lettuce) from coldframes to the open ground; and that of 60º for tender plants (tomato and peppers). To have plants ready on the dates when these temperatures normally arrive the seed is sown under glass 5 or 6 weeks earlier.
Another popular, satisfactory way to govern seedage and plant setting is to follow natural signs, sowing hardiest seeds outdoors only after buds of the earliest shrubs and trees of the neighborhood swell—spicebush, forsythia, peach, red maple; those somewhat less hardy when juneberry, Japanese quince and plum are in bloom; the semi-tender kinds when apple, cherry, pear and sugar maple are flowering; and the tender ones when mock-orange, grape, raspberry and horse-chestnut are in blossom.
Ground temperature more than that of the air governs seed sprouting and plant growth. In spring only 3″ or 4″ below the surface the soil temperature may be 40º though that of air is 70º or 80º. So anything that will raise this temperature will favor germination, plant development and earliness. Good drainage and darkening the soil after the seedbed has been prepared for seeding both help to warm soil. Enough black swamp muck, to darken the surface will help in the latter case; it absorbs sun heat and thus raises soil temperature. It will also become humus after being turned under.
Properly managed hotbeds and coldframes produce superior seedlings and flats (shallow boxes) are better than flower pots or rows in hotbed or coldframe. For minute seeds shallow cigar boxes are fair substitutes for the pottery “seed pans” popular with plantsmen.
You may buy standard cypress flats or make similar ones yourself. As wet earth is heavy, avoid sizes larger than 12″ x 18″ x 3 3/4″ deep, preferably only 3″ inside. Standard sizes fit in hotbeds or coldframes without waste space. End pieces should be of 3/4″; bottoms and sides of 1/2″ material. In the bottom have five 1/2″ drainage holes arranged as on a 5-spot playing card.
To prepare a flat for seed sowing place pieces of broken flower pots, crockery or glassware over the drainage holes, next a 1/2″ layer of pulverized, thoroughly decayed manure, sphagnum moss or granulated peat to absorb and retain water but let excess drain off. On this spread sifted soil until the flat is level full while loose, but a 1/2″ below the edge when somewhat pressed down. To press it use a smooth board about 4″ wide, almost as long as the inside width of the flat and with an easily grasped handle.
As the roots are perhaps the most important parts of plants develop them as well as possible before transplanting. Therefore in the flats use a rather poor soil mixture—one about half fine sand, a quarter humus, and the other quarter only moderately rich soil, well combined and sifted free of lumps. This will make the roots forage and tend to develop them well but make small tops. When transplanted to open ground such plants take hold well and develop far better than those with more top and less root.
You may scatter seed direct from the seed packet in the rows; but may get it too thick and produce inferior (because crowded) plants. A safer plan is to pour it into the palm of one hand, pick up “pinches” with thumb and finger of the other and gradually work it out as the hand moves along the row. A still better way is to use a seed-sowing convenience offered by garden supply stores.
The seed may be sown either in drills (rows) 4″ to 6″ apart or broadcast. The former is better for medium-sized and large seeds (cabbage, beet); the latter for small to minute ones (celery, thyme). Drop the individual seeds farther apart in the rows than recommended by seedsmen to reduce the work and waste of weeding and thinning and to increase sturdiness. Merely press small seeds into the surface and cover the larger sizes with only once or twice their diameters by scattering finely sifted soil or sand over them and pressing somewhat.
To avoid errors in plant names follow the greenhouse and nursery rule to place a label at the front end of the left hand row and the next where the next variety starts. Thus you will always read from front to back and from left to right in each flat. If you follow the rule in the outdoor nursery rows you will know exactly what plants you are growing and will thus avoid mistakes due to lack of system.
When broadcasting small lots of seed divide your flats into two, three or four areas by pressing the edge of the firming-board hard enough in the soil to make a slight depression from side to side and thus mark the bounds of each “seedbed.” (Fig. 42.) Then scatter the seed of one variety thinly in each bed and press it down. Finally, label each area. On every label, starting at the square end write the date of sowing, then, writing toward the point, add the variety name, using 2 or more lines if necessary.
The best way to water a newly sown or planted flat is to place it in lukewarm water only an inch or so deep, let it stay until the surface shows wet spots then remove it, tilt it slightly to drain away excess water and when drainage is complete, place in a hotbed, a coldframe or on a greenhouse bench, cover it with a pane of glass to check evaporation and a newspaper to keep out light. When the seeds begin to germinate remove the paper and when the seedlings show well above the surface take off the glass. Repeat the watering when necessary as described or by using a fine rose sprinkler, taking care with the latter to avoid washing the seedlings out of the soil.
To avoid mixing, separate varieties of one species by at least one row (preferably two or three) of some different species so the differences in type of growth will show which is which. For instance, seedlings of cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli and other varieties of the mustard (botanical) family look much alike but differ widely from those of onion, carrot, beet, lettuce and tomato which belong to 5 other botanical families.
Instead of using soil for the surface 1/8″ or 1/4″ use finely sifted sand that has been cooled after baking to destroy the spores of damping-off fungi to prevent killing the seedlings. As this trouble is worst when the soil is wet and the air stagnant it may appear in spite of the sand. When the glass shows water drops on the under side remove it until the surface soil becomes somewhat dry, or if no glass is used avoid watering for a day or two, loosen the surface soil with a small stiff wire and dust the whole flat with finely powdered sulfur. On the other hand never let a flat dry out because though the plants might survive they might be checked and stunted.
Nursery beds outdoors are often used to start plants of hardy species (parsley, cabbage) to transplant later. Early beds, for this purpose, usually not more than 3′ wide, are best placed on the south side of a wall to benefit by reflected sunheat and thus force rapid growth. By sowing the seed thinly either broadcast or in rows, pricking out may be almost wholly avoided, only crowded plants being thinned out and placed in vacant spots. In order to prevent baking of the surface soil scatter finely sifted peat moss, or sphagnum moss over the beds or use burlap screens.
If you use a properly adjusted drill to sow the larger sized vegetable and flower seeds in the open garden the machine will do the work correctly; but if you sow by hand you must govern the depth by the size of the seed and the condition of the soil. Some gardeners say: “Cover the seed only 3 or 4 times its diameter.” But who is going to bother about measuring? I never have! This rule merely means make the seed furrow depth proportionate to the size of the seed—shallow for small and light ones (carrot, onion ) and deeper for larger ones (bean, corn).
In spring while the soil is moist (but not wet) make the outdoor drills shallow and merely firm the seeds a little in the ground with the back of the rake. After it becomes dry, even powdery as in summer, make them deeper and pack the seed in much more. If the seed is large (corn, bean, beet) tramp the earth over it to bring the soil intimately in contact with it, get rid of excess air and establish moisture connection between soil and seed.
Seedsmen and many gardening writers recommend sowing seed thickly to make sure of a good stand of plants. This is wise if the seed is old or weak, certainly not, in my opinion, if it is fresh and lusty. I practise and recommend thin—even sparse—seeding, not to make the seed “go further” but to reduce competition for food and water, to make the seedlings sturdier and to reduce thinning of plants.
Another point: Some seedsmen and writers advise relatively broad rows with seed scattered widely in them. I don’t because this increases finger and thumb weeding. When I don’t use a drill I always try to sow the seed in as narrow a row as I can by hand so as to reduce thinning and weeding.