Mistreating Seeds

Late winter is a good time to start seeds for planting outdoors. Garden centers and hardware stores are filled with colorful packets of seeds. Be sure to follow the directions on the packets carefully. Most seeds should be planted twice as deep as their diameter. That means small seeds are just dusted with soil and bigger seeds get planted deeper. Be careful not to overwater. The most common problem for growing plants in the classroom is damping off, when overwatered plants suddenly get weak just above the soil and break off. Make sure containers have drainage holes for extra water to leak out of the pot.

It can be fun to try starting seeds from fruits and vegetables bought from the grocery store. Sometimes starting seeds can be tricky. Some seeds will not grow until certain things happen around them or they are treated the right way. Remember, seeds from warm climates will have to stay indoors after they germinate.

Some seeds need to be cold for months at a time before they will grow. In nature, winter weather would be cold enough. Foresters and horticulturists (people who specialize in raising and caring for plants) have a way to treat these seeds. It is calledstratification. To stratify seeds, place them in moist soil, peat moss, or sand, and refrigerate at about 40º Fahrenheit. To keep them from drying out, they may be put into a plastic bag or closed plastic container. Seeds need to be cold stored like this for weeks or months before getting planted in soil and given normal temperature and watering. There are even some seeds that need to be warm for a while and then cold a second time.

Some seeds have a very tough outer layer or seed coat. In nature, these seeds lie in the soil for a long time before they weather enough to sprout. Some seeds have their seed coats weakened by the stomach acids of birds or other animals which eat the fruit and pass the seeds on to the soil when they go to the bathroom. Seeds with tough seed coats can be made to grow by scratching them with sandpaper, a file, or a knife, or by treating them with acid. This is called scarifying. Once the seed coat is weakened the seed can grow.

For more on getting seeds to grow, click here.

Here are a few common seeds you can try to grow or you may want to just experiment for yourself:

Apple: Apple seeds will grow right away if the fruit has already been in cold storage for two to three months. If not, they will have to be stratified in moist soil or peat moss in a refrigerator for two or three months. After planting, the temperature must not get over 75º Fahrenheit before the seeds sprout. If it does, the seeds will go back into dormancy since conditions are too much like summer.

Orange: Wash orange, grapefruit or other citrus seeds and plant them right after removing them from the fruit. Do not let them dry out first. Once they sprout, hang a 75 to 100 watt bulb about one foot above the top of the shoot to give them enough heat and light.

Peach and Cherry: Remove all flesh from the pit and rinse off any juice. Juice can ferment and keep the seed from growing. Stratify peach pits in moist peat moss for two to three months. Cherry pits need to be stratified for three to four months.

English Walnuts: Stratify walnuts in moist sand or peat moss for two to three months at refrigerator temperatures.

Pine Cones: The scales of most pine, spruce, and fir cones will open if warmed near a radiator or heat vent for a few days. The seeds can then be removed and stratified in moist sand in a refrigerator for a month or more before planting.

Oaks: The seeds of many oaks can be planted outdoors immediately or stratified in moist sand or peat moss. Acorns from white oaks will germinate right away. Acorns from the black oak group must be stratified two or three months.

For more detailed information, see The After-Dinner Gardening Book by Richard W. Langer.

See our page on Starting Seeds for more tips on planting seeds and New Plants from Old for more ideas for how to grow new plants.
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