Starting from Seed


Real gardeners, compulsive gardeners, are up to their elbows in seedlings this time of year.  We (I qualify at least as compulsive) have a number of rationales for starting from seed.

To begin with, it’s economical, the only way we can afford all the plants we want.  For the price of a packet of a few packet of seeds, I can (and do) start hundreds of plants.  I remember once at the wonderful public garden Wave Hill seeing an amazing planting that the staff there advertised as “a $16.00 dollar garden” or something like that because the gardeners had secured all the seeds they needed to fill the whole big bed for that price.

Lettuce seedlings — 72 salads for the price of one packet of seeds

An even better reason for starting from seed is that by doing so you can have plants you will get no other way.   I do most of my vegetable gardening on a chilly hilltop in the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts, where it is too cool to ripen fruit of the mass market tomato seedlings found at local garden centers.  By starting from seed, I can have plants of tomatoes such as ‘Stupice’, ‘Glacier’ and ‘Siberian’ that will produce a harvest, quite a tasty one, even in my garden.  And when, years ago, I took care of an old estate for Columbia University, I used to grow all sorts of unusual things thanks to the seed exchange program of the Royal Horticultural Society.

The best reason for starting your plants from seed, though, is that you will get to know them more thoroughly and intimately that way than in any other.  What you have to do, for example, to bring the seeds out of dormancy, tells you much about the conditions in which the plants evolved.  “Physical dormancy,” for instance, in which the seeds of plants such as morning glories and moonflowers are prevented from germinating by a hard, impermeable seed coat, indicates that in nature the seeds would be subjected to the stresses of high or fluctuating temperatures, perhaps exposure to fire or cycles of freezing and thawing, or would be passed through the digestive tract of some animal.  Incidentally, you can produce the same effect by simply rubbing the seed over a sheet of fine sandpaper.

Other seeds from areas with cyclical drought must undergo a period of drying before they can germinate.   Some, which come moister climates, need to soak in water for a period of time before they germinate.  Still others, which originate in more temperate northern climates need a period of moist chilling to duplicate the effects of winter before they can sprout. I treat these by putting them in a handful of moist sand in a Ziploc bag and storing them in the refrigerator for 4-6 weeks.  Finally, some seeds will only germinate in the dark and must be buried when planted, while others, such as lettuce, must be exposed to light, which means that they are planted by scattering them on the surface of the soil.

In this way, even before I put the plants in my garden I learn much about what conditions they prefer and what they can tolerate.  All because I start from seed.


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My father was a compulsive tree planter, but it was my mother who taught me the finer points of gardening.

Her homeschooling was followed by two years in the New York Botanical Garden’s School of Professional Horticulture, and then ten years as horticulturist at an Olmsted Brothers designed estate on the Hudson River Palisades.

I’ve worked as a horticultural journalist for 35 years, contributing to publications ranging from Martha Stewart Living to the Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society and The New York Times.  My most recent book is Nature Into Art: The Gardens of Wave Hill, which is a tour of the lessons to be learned from that great public garden.  I’m currently focusing on my new podcast (at which features weekly interviews with leaders of environmentally-informed gardening.

My special enthusiasms include sustainable gardening, especially sustainable lawns;  heirloom chicken breeds; and recreating vintage New England hard ciders.


Contact Tom by email


  1. Everything you wrote is true. I started seriously growing plants from seed last year and expanded from veggie seeds to perennial flower seeds. It’s so much more economical. Here, one flowering perennial may cost between $5.50 to $8.00. I get 20 or 30 plants grown from seed for $2.50. I just transplanted my homegrown salvias and verbena in the ground two weeks ago (looking good) and am growing cone flowers, butterfly milkweed, foxgloves, violets, hyssop, and more verbena.

  2. Growing perennials from seed under lights in my basement every few years makes the winter months something to look forward to, and keeps me from running wild with the seductive pictures in the garden catalogs. After Allen Bush introduced me to Jelitto Seeds, starting seeds became much easier with their Gold Nugget and Jet lines of seeds that shortcut the germination process. I love the concept of getting to know your seeds through germination techniques, but have to admit that I’m just too lazy.


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