Minutes March 21 — Seed Propagation

Gardeners Exchange Group Meeting: 21 March 2015
Location: Bill Gregg’s Home
Topic: “Seed Propagation” with Dr. Bill Gregg

About Bill

Dr. Bill GreggFirst, a little background information about the speaker, Bill Gregg. Bill began his interest in gardening at the age of four in suburban Philadelphia and has been gardening continuously for almost sixty-eight years. He completed his doctoral studies in Ecology at Duke University. He worked for the Department of the Interior and the US Geological Survey and was fortunate to travel to many of the national parks studying the environmental impact of parkland plants. Bill has focused on the causes of vegetation change in abandoned farmland, especially invasive species such as oxalis, kudzu, honeysuckle, and “mile a minute” plants. He moved with his wife Julie to his current solar earthen home in 1980 where, among other things, he propagates plants for the Ranson Old Town Community Garden. The gardens were designed by master gardener Judy Ashleman and are free to the public. They serve to provide food for the homeless, an education facility, and to demonstrate a permaculture, an edible landscape which weaves beauty and utility into the urban environment, exemplifying the precept that“all conservation is local.”

Within the next few weeks, the Ranson Old Town Gardens Association expects to have surplus seeds and/or plants for many of the varieties in the attached handouts.  The Association will not be selling the surplus  seeds and plants, but will encourage donations  to help us defray operating expenses.  Vegetable Seeds; Annuals.

When, What, and Where

Seed propagation containersThe Seed Propagation lecture began with a warning regarding when to plant: “Don’t start your seeds too early — this will result in weak, leggy seedlings.” There are several reference sources which show proper indoor and outdoor planting times. Bill’s favorite book is The Propagation Handbook, Basic Techniques for Gardeners, by Geoff Bryant (available on Amazon). The West Virginia University Garden Calendar was also recommended. Another very inexpensive seed planting tool, called the “Year-Round Garden Planner” — kind of a paper slide rule — is available from Seattle Seed Co. Planting times are loosely based on last frost dates in your area for Spring planting and first frost for Fall planting, as well as whether you will be planting indoors or outdoors. Bill has also summarized the WVU-recommended planting dates in his own handout.

Seedlings-under-growlightAfter you decide when to plant your seeds, you need to decide what to plant. Bill recommended doing your research online, based on what you like to eat and what grows well in your area. He recommended several seed catalogs: Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, Vermont Bean Company, Totally Tomatoes, Irish Eyes, Jung seeds, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, Territorial Seed, Baker Creek (lots of heirlooms) and the HPS Seed catalog for flowers. You can purchase native shrubs and plants at the Shepherdstown Farmers Market on Sundays and from Middleway Growers (Peter Fricke) at the Charles Town Farmers Market on Saturdays.

Seedlings in tubsFinally you can decide where to start your seeds. Bill recommends using a sterile growing medium such as “3BRS sterile growing mix” available at Potomac Farms. Use no fertilizers when initially starting seeds, as fertilizers can inhibit germination. He grows his seeds in small plastic trays, peat pots, plastic plug starter trays, or anything else you like, such as egg cartons — all squeezed tightly into larger, lidded plastic storage containers available at Walmart. If you use peat pots it helps to wet them first because you can then squeeze them together to fit 54 pots snuggly into the larger lidded container. When you first start your seeds you want to keep them moist and warm by using a heating pad available from garden centers and online. Keep them covered with the lid on until you see the seeds germinating. When you see the first green leaves forming, remove the lids from your storage containers and avoid excess moisture to lessen the risk of “damping off fungal disease.”

Growing mixAfter the seeds have germinated, keep the covers off or just loosely cover and start exposing the seeds to more light. Bill uses commercial growers’ lights that expose the seedlings to the correct light spectrum. As the seedlings grow bigger, gradually increase the sunlight and outdoor exposure. He sometimes puts the original plastic storage container into a deeper container to allow the seedlings to get taller while still in their peat pots before transplanting into the garden — especially useful for taller tomato plants. The storage containers make transporting seedlings from inside to outside easier, and protect against drying wind. Once the seedlings are growing, Bill recommends watering with dilute liquid fertilizer which contains a higher potassium content such as a 10-30-15 mix.


Seedlings-under-skylightOther miscellaneous tips and advice includ avoid using nicotine, pyrethrin, and copper-containing formulas; despite being labeled as “natural” they can still be quite toxic.

Lightweight fabric row covers which allow 85% of sunlight to penetrate can be helpful to prevent damage from frost and insect pests. A heavier-weight fabric is available but only permits 50% of sunlight to penetrate. Frost causes damage by freezing the plant leaves which cause the plant cells to rupture when the plant thaws — fabric covers prevent the frost from forming on the leaves. Many plants can take the freezing temperatures but not the frost.

Bill labels seed containers using a “really” permanent marking pen available from Gardeners Supply online. See the Supplies for Seedling Propagation handout.

Bill explained this novel seed starting technique for tiny seeds: start with a roll of toilet paper, in a small bowl mix a small batch of water and flour paste, unroll your toilet paper roll, dab a spot of paste on each square sheet, dab on a few selected seeds on top of each paste spot, allow the paste with the embedded seeds to dry, reroll the toilet paper. Take your “seeded toilet paper roll” to your chosen garden spot and unroll. The spacing of the sheets/seeds and the rows will be nice and straight. Cover with soil as specified per seed packet instructions. The toilet paper itself will dissolve. Other version of this technique can be found online.

Submitted by Julie Neely, GEG Secretary