Wereham Sign Gary Trouton

Passionate About Plants

February 2008

Payl gives some practical advice on growing plants from seeds

Seed sowing (the secrets of success)

Not sure I can impart all the secret of successful sowing of seed as there are so many differences in each batch of seed from each variety of each species in the world, however, I can give you a professional propagator's guide to getting emergence of your more common seed.

Firstly let's get to terms with some terminology!

Viable - Seed needs to be this to germinate, having an embryo and food, (Basically when you cut a seed in half, there is something inside the seed coat). Good eyesight needed on small seed - not practical on all seed as some can be as small as dust!!

Germination - the swelling of the insides and the growing (multiplication of) cells inside the seeds.

Emergence - the seed coat splits and both root and shoot emerge - out of the seed coat.

Still with me - see it's easy really no need to despair of all the techno terms!

The difficulty is getting the conditions right for any one type of seed.

If you buy seed, the easy way is to follow the info on the back of the packet as they are pretty good, but where is the fun and challenge in that? Let's collect our own seed.

We collect a lot of our own seed and they don't come with instructions. We often get rare seeds from the RHS with a few hints on the packet, which is a good starting point. So we have to rely on experience. If you decide to have a go you will be surprised what you can grow with ease - many shrubs and trees from your garden! Why not save your own seed from the vegetable plot, (my grandfather did and Ken still does when growing vegetable in the walled garden.) and sow them when the time is right.

So are there any basic guides to follow and what are the right conditions for getting your seeds to germinate and then emerge?

Collecting seed

1. Select the best of the seed from the best plants. (strong and healthy).

2. When your Berberis sets seed or any other shrub for that matter collect it fresh and split the quantity in half. Now you have two chances of getting plants. You can always dispose of unwanted plants later.

3. Check viability. Cut a few of the seed in half. A magnifying glass can be helpful.

4. Sow half fresh in the autumn, and save the other half for sowing in the spring. Store in a cool place in paper bags or envelopes. Some seeds like Magnolia seed need to be stored in the fridge for 2 months till spring. Just put it in a container with damp sand.

Autumn sowing - if you have fleshy seed i.e. Mountain ash trees or Berberis take the

flesh off half and sow the other half with it on. Some of the flesh can have inhibitors

in it which will stop or slow down germination. Mother Natures way of protecting the

continuity of species.

Shrubs can be sown in seed trays. A good rule of thumb is sow to the depth of seed

i.e. seed is 1cm, cover with of seed compost over the top to a depth of 1cm. We

sometimes use sharp sand to cover seed, as this helps to remove the seed coat from

the first seed leaves when it emerges from the compost - i.e. Abutilon vitii folium

Some seed might need a cold period to germinate so sow the seed and keep in

a cold frame with protection from vermin! Others can be treated like Magnolia

seed. See above.

After sowing in the seed tray or small pots they can be placed in the greenhouse. We

don't use heat until the spring. Many shrubs germinate with out heat in the autumn

and then emerge in the spring when they will need frost protection!

Spring sowing - is done in the same manner as for autumn but we often use base heat

(on the more exotic types) of about 15c (not too hot) and frost protection at night. We

often cover freshly sown seed with glass or plastic until emergence as the trays can

often dry out quickly on sunny days.

General Tips

Don't sow seed too thick as when they emerge you increase the chance of damping


Don't over water - or late at night as seedlings will stay damp too long.

Make sure you give adequate ventilation just enough to keep the seedling leaves dry.

If you don't have a propagator you can use the airing cupboard but move the trays to

the light as soon as they emerge. When you do move them keep them away from

drafts be careful they don't dry out.

Pot on seedlings as soon as they are big enough to handle i.e. 2 - 4 true leaves


It is important to remember that with seed sowing the offspring can be variable compared to its parent and is used commercially for species and not varieties. This variability is often how new varieties are found/bred. So keep a good eye out on your young plants for any new exciting forms.

Good luck.

Paul Markwell, Quaymount Nurseries, The Row, Wereham. 01366500691

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