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Master gardener in training: learning
to love seeds and nurture seedlings

May 27, 2010 |  7:03 am

MGseeds2 For the first time in my gardening life, I feel like a parent. I’ve grown a selection of plants from seed and teased out more seedlings from some adopted mini-plugs. I've eased them into the ground and through their transplant shock. They’ve developed their first true leaves, taken on an identity.

MGseeds3 In the UC Extension Master Gardener program this spring, I've gained a new respect for the seed in all the forms it takes, from the fine powder of lettuces to the softball-sized coconut from an oil palm. For the first time, I’m reading closely the information on the seed packets. 

All seeds are embryos and contain the starchy energy for their first growth in the cotyledon. A monocot, such as corn, has one cotyledon, but the majority of flowering plants are dicots, with two halves. When the first leaf surfaces, if it's grass-like or hollow (like an onion), it's a monocot. If there are two first leaves (like a pepper), it's a dicot.

If a small seed is planted too deeply, all its reserves will be used trying to get to the surface, leaving nothing to feed these first leaves. For this reason it’s best to plant seeds no deeper than their length. 

Newly planted seeds should be watered twice a day until the first leaves emerge -- when they can be transplanted from trays or pots. Water once a day until the second set of leaves appears and then start a less frequent/deeper watering pattern to encourage deeper root growth. (Some seeds are best sowed directly in the ground -- peas, melons, carrots, beans and flowers -- because they don’t transplant well.)

And when a batch of seedlings is ready to move from pot to ground, remember that the general rule is to plant anything at the same level it was in the pot. The exception: tomatoes. The fuzzy hairs on a tomato stem are future roots, so it can be planted up to its top leaves. If the leaves are large, cut them in half.

Jim Folson, the director of the Huntington Botanical Gardens, who gave a guest lecture on botany during our field trip to the San Marino garden, framed plant growth in a deceptively simple way: They make roots, stems and leaves. Roots, he said, are brutish and primitive, existing  in a tough world of soil and rocks. Stems are elegant, following a architectural plan for where leaves and flowers will grow, marking each spot with a bud. “They’re very French,” he said approvingly.

Why bother to grow from seed? For one thing, it can be cheaper and deliver a variety you won’t find at your typical nursery. A home-germinated plant also may have fewer diseases and pests, which can hitch a ride from the nursery or store to your garden.

But the best reason -- besides the satisfaction of parenthood -- is successive planting. You can sow a new group of seeds every three weeks to extend the growing season.

-- Jeff Spurrier

Photos, from top: A young bean plant grown from seed; orange Italian bean seeds and pink pea seeds; black sunflower seeds and white cucumber seeds. Credit: Ann Summa

Follow along: Join our Facebook page for California gardening and track Spurrier as he shares lessons from the master gardener class.