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Seed Starting Seedings indoors in witner

Winter Family Activity: Growing Seeds

Starting seeds indoors is a wonderful way to teach your children about gardening while also providing them with a fun diversion from the cold winter weather. This simple activity can be completed with just a few supplies, and will give children a project that will last for several days or even weeks as they watch their plants sprout.

Seed Starting Supplies and Tools

Seed Starting Supplies

  • Trays with holes for drainage
  • Plastic lid for trays, or plastic wrap
  • Popsicle sticks for labeling seed trays
  • Spray bottle
  • Seed packets (for growing seeds with children, we recommend sunflowers, zinnias, beans, cucumbers or squash)
  • Seed starting media (we recommend Espoma Organic Seed Starter for an children’s activity)

Step 1: Select Your Seeds

Some seeds are more suited to growing with children than others. You can select just about any vegetable or flower that you want for this project, but sunflowers, zinnias, beans, cucumbers, and watermelon are a few favorites that are easy to grow. If you are planning to plant these seeds outdoors after they sprout, check the last frost date for your region and plant your seeds so that they are ready to plant outdoors at the right time.

Seed starting mix

Step 2: Sow

Place your seed starting medium in a bucket and add water to moisten it until the soil has a crumbly texture. Fill your seed trays with soil, pressing down on the soil gently to eliminate air gaps. Insert your finger into the soil at a depth of two to three times the thickness of the seed in a few places in each seed tray cell to make holes. Place a seed in each hole. Once you place all of your seeds, cover them with seed starting media, then mist with water. As soon as you finish one type of seed, label the tray with the plant name and date using your popsicle sticks.

Seed Tray with Dome

Step 3: Light

Cover your tray with the plastic wrap or the tray lid and set it under the light source or in an east or south facing window. For best growth, your seedlings will need at least 12 hours of light per day.

Step 4: Water

If you are using a grow light, place it a few inches above the seeds and raise it as they mature. Check your seed trays for moisture daily and keep the soil evenly moist using your spray bottle.

Step 5: Observe

Watch how your seeds grow by checking them every day and taking a photo or drawing a picture of what your seeds look like.

Pollinator Garden

Gardening for the Birds, Bees, and Butterflies

Who among us does not enjoy birds, bees and butterflies? By creating plantings that replace even small segments of these beautiful creatures’ diminishing habitats, we can contribute to their preservation. I personally had the opportunity to do this when a retention pond was built on the property bordering mine. The large slope between my garden and the retention pond receives 5-8 hours of sunshine daily, and is the perfect place for a sunny garden devoted to birds, bees and butterflies! Now that it is established, not only do the pollinators enjoy it – my family, friends and neighbors do as well!

Pollinator Garden, Rudbeckia, Echibeckia

Soil Preparation

I was determined to grow lavender at the top of my sloped butterfly garden, so I began my project by amending the top 3-4 ft. of the slope with course sand and perma-til and composted leaves to create good drainage. I mulch my lavender plants as well as the bearded German iris, asclepias and santolina with small gravel. All of these plants require very well-draining soil to thrive. To prepare the soil for the rest of my garden, I worked composted leaves into the clay soil to create better soil conditions for plants to grow.

Pollinator Garden

Seeding and Reseeding Annuals and Biennials

Many hardy annuals and biennials contribute heavily to a pollinator garden. I plant, seed others each year and allow some of the hardiest to reseed themselves. For plants that I allow to reseed, I mulch only very lightly after those plants begin to grow in spring in any areas where I want them to reseed. To lend a helping hand to their growth, I spread additional seed in August and September. Most of these plants will appear as tiny seedlings, and bloom the next spring or summer. These plants can also be seeded in March or April, but they may not bloom the first season. My favorite plants to seed in late summer or early spring are:

  • Bachelor’s Button
  • Cleome
  • Foxglove
  • Larkspur
  • Nigella
  • Parsley
  • Poppy
  • Rudbeckia hirta
  • Feverfew
  • Verbena bonariensis
  • Viola

For any seeds that cannot take the cold and frost, I direct seed after the danger of frost has passed and the soil has warmed. At this time, I also transplant any plants that I purchased, or started from seed indoors. Some of my favorite plants to seed after the danger of frost has passed are:

  • Amaranth globe
  • Calendula
  • Celosia
  • Cosmos
  • Dill
  • Zinnias
Zinnia, Celosia, Pollinator Garden

Seeds for the Birds

I remove spent flowers (deadheading) on some plants to encourage rebloom over the spring and summer, but as fall approaches I stop doing this in order to leave seeds for the birds through the winter. Providing food for the birds during this season when resources are scarce is vital to their health, and allows me to support our native bird population. While I clean up other areas of my garden for the winter, I do not give my bird, bee and butterfly garden it’s fall cleanup until February or March, just in time for spring. This leaves the garden looking a little messy through the winter months, but makes it a haven for wildlife by providing pollinator and seed plants over as long a period as possible. I personally find it quite pleasing to the eye!

Coneflower, Perennial, Native

My Favorite Plants for Pollinator Gardens

The plants I discussed here are only a small portion of plants that make an excellent addition to butterfly gardens!

For more information, check out this pollinator garden plant list I created for anyone looking to start a bird, bee and butterfly garden.

Hellebore with bees, Perennial

Perennial Winter Wanderings

As many of us have experienced these past few weeks with the temperatures bouncing back and forth between 10 and 60 degrees, winter weather is “like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get.”  Sometimes frigid temperatures keep us indoors, and sometimes we are fortunate to have almost tropical days in the midst of the frigid ones. I love to wonder around my garden and the garden center on these warm 60-degree days to see what is going on among the plants. While the winter landscape may seem to be fast asleep, there are actually many things to see and enjoy in the forms of wildlife, blooms, bark, and foliage.

Blooms

Hellebore with bees, Perennial

Hellebore

My most recent walk around the garden center revealed the Christmas Rose’s (Hellebore niger ‘Jacob’) white blossoms in full bloom. The weather has been so warm that the honey bees were even out foraging upon them! This compact perennial is shade loving, evergreen, winter blooming and a warm-spell pollinator savior. There are numerous types of hellebore which bloom later in the winter through early spring, but this variety has been blooming now for several weeks.

Paperbush

Paperbush

Another sight to behold right now is the Paperbush (Edgeworthia) shrub. This plant features beautiful, spotty bark covered with dangling umbrella looking yellowish blossoms at the tips. I have one strategically placed under a window on the east side of my house, so that when those warm days of winter show up, I can open the window and let its beautiful fragrance float in. Since it’s a zone 7 shrub, this placement by the house also helps to protect it during long, severe cold snaps.

Buds and Foliage

Dwarf Mondo

Planted under my Paperbush is the daintiest of evergreen groundcovers that can live in the deepest shade. Dwarf Mondo (Ophiopogon ‘Nana’) measures in at only 2-3” tall. I can only see it in the fall and winter, after the Paperbush has shed its leaves. A hidden treasure of tiny cobalt blue drupes hides within its foliage if you get down on your knees and move the foliage around. This plant is a slow spreader, but worth it for its beauty and ability to grow in deep shade.

Candytuff

Continuing my walk, my Candytuff (Iberis) with its little evergreen shiny leaves has swollen white buds ready to pop when spring arrives. It contrasts nicely in front of the purple toned winter foliage of my azaleas. I love to see these signs that spring is on its way!

Seed Pods

There are a number of plants whose seed pods look splendid in the winter. As a bonus, many of these plants attract birds, who find the seeds a valuable food source during a season where resources are scarce.

Siberian Iris Seed Pods

Siberian Iris

Looking splendid when “dead” for the winter, the bronze seed pods of the Siberian Iris protrude out like a porcupine’s quills. This Iris brings architectural interest to the garden all season long, and it does very well in the clay soil of our northern Virginia region. Of course, it is also beautiful during its bloom season – I know it doesn’t flower long, but when it does, it’s like a gorgeous, floppy butterfly.

Rudbeckia Seed head

Black-Eyed Susan

At the end of my garden walk, birds were feasting and frolicking around the numerous seed heads of the Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia). The seedheads of this plant look lovely when left standing in the winter, and of course, it is wonderful to provide food for the birds.

Starting from seed

Louis Ratchford, Merrifield Plant Specialist

Growing your own plants from seed can be very rewarding! You can get your hands into the dirt in the middle of winter, and enjoy the fruits of your labor when the weather warms.

Step One: Plan your garden

The key to determining when to start your seeds is identifying the average last frost date in your area. You can work backward from this date to determine when to begin your seeds indoors.

To begin, select the crops you’d like to start from seed. Make sure you select seeds that can be sown indoors (some veggies, such as beans, prefer to be sown directly in the ground outdoors as they germinate quickly). I’m beginning with a few flowers, veggies and herbs that tend to be easy to start from seed indoors, such as zinnias, marigolds, tomatoes and peppers.

Step Two: Collect your supplies

You’ll need:
• Containers and trays
• Plastic lid or plastic wrap
• Labeling supplies
• Watering mister
• Seed packets
• A high-quality seed starting media
• Grow light, if necessary

There are many different containers you can use to start seeds, such as seed trays, biodegradable pots, yogurt containers or milk or egg cartons. If you select an item from home, make sure to clean it thoroughly and drill holes in the bottom for drainage. We decided to use seed starting plastic containers and trays as they’re already cleaned, pre-drilled and ready to go.

If you’re using seed trays, pick up one of the plastic covers. This will help retain moisture and increase the humidity during germination. If you’re using at-home containers, plastic wrap can do the trick.

It’s important to use a seed-starting media as it’s lose and lightweight and holds moisture to keep your seeds consistently moist. Avoid using soil from your garden or potting soil as it’s too heavy for delicate seeds.

Step Three: Sow your seeds

Place your seed starting medium into a bucket and add water to moisten it until it’s thoroughly damp. The goal is to get it crumbly, not soaking wet.

Fill your seed trays with the soil, pressing it down to eliminate air gaps.

Insert your finger or a pencil into the soil at a depth of two to three times the thickness of the seed in a few places in each cell to make holes. Place one seed in each hole.

Once you place all of your seeds, cover them with the seed starting media, and then mist with water. As soon as you finish one type of seed, label the tray with the plant name and date. There is nothing more frustrating than forgetting what you planted where and when!

Cover your tray with the plastic cover or plastic wrap and set it under the light source. I don’t have a strong south or east facing window that will naturally produce enough light during the day so I’m using a grow light. For the best growth, seedlings need at least 12 hours of light per day. If seedlings don’t get enough sun, they can grow leggy and weak.

Note: Not all seeds need to be covered with the seed starting media to germinate. Check the seed packet to see how deep to cover your seeds or if your seeds can grow simply on the surface. Whether you cover the seedling with the medium or not, all seeds need direct contact with the seed starting media to germinate.

Step Four: Keep them well-lit and watered

If you’re using a grow light, place it a few inches above the seeds and raise it as they mature. Keep the soil evenly moist by using a mister. Seeds are very sensitive to over and under watering. Heavy watering, with a watering can for example, can disturb the seedling. We recommend checking your seeds for moisture at least once a day.

Seeds germinate when the soil temperature is between 65 and 75 degrees F. If you’re starting your seedlings in a garage, potting shed or basement that might not be temperature controlled, use a heating mat or space heater to keep the tray warm. If you’re using one of these heat sources, check the moisture level more frequently as they can dry out the soil more quickly.

Once your seeds sprout, remove the plastic cover and heating source, if used, and set them aside for next time.