Carolyn Singer: Success with seeds — The perfect bed |

Carolyn Singer: Success with seeds — The perfect bed

Carolyn Singer
Years ago, Carolyn Singer's grandchildren enjoyed helping with her seed-starting projects.
Photo by Carolyn Singer |

When I observe the hundreds of California poppies that germinated with last spring’s rains, I know that nature always seems to do better than the gardener. All I did was provide the gravel, and it was not intended for the poppies, but rather for the driveway.

This cherished state flower establishes in greatest numbers where there are no competitive weeds, especially grasses. The tiny seed, like all seed, has special requirements in the beginning. Sufficient moisture is at the top of the list. Not only water (rain or irrigation) that will break the dormancy, but will also provide precious moisture for the root in its early growth.

The gravel along the edges of the driveway has been the ideal medium for the poppies. Seed lodged within the irregular surfaces, each perfect seed lying dormant until conditions were favorable for germination and early growth.

The clay foothill soil under the gravel held all the nutrients the California poppy needed after germination. Rains kept the soil moist to a depth that allowed for deep and quick root growth as spring brought warming temperatures

I am reminded of the variables affecting seed germination and subsequent growth when I see that carpet of poppies. Not all seed would respond to a gravel bed.

Sowing your seeds

Hellebores also self-sow easily, but a bed of compost spread over good garden soil meets most of the requirements for this evergreen perennial. Winter chill, known as stratification, is also a requirement. Here again, nature is my friend in the garden. As long as I remember to spread a layer of compost under the plant while it is in bloom, before the seed falls, a carpet of seedlings will appear the following late winter.

Most seed I sow under more controlled conditions, where I can focus on providing irrigation to ensure germination and early growth. The growing medium is not the heavy soil native to the Sierra foothills, but rather a light and porous bed, perfect for the tiniest lettuce seed and for the largest squash.

I must add that the flats and containers where most seed begins life before enhancing my garden as young seedlings, are all at a height on a shelf in my walk-in cold frame. This certainly makes for easy sowing, and it also allows me to observe the germination. Daytime and night temperatures inside the building are only slightly above outside temperatures.

Most gardeners do not have the arrangement I do, left over from the days when I had a nursery. A shelf outside serves the same purposes, easy sowing and focused attention. A row cover will add protection from cold temperatures and hungry birds.

Greenhouses offer more warmth, which will speed germination of many seeds, but often overheat. Know your plant and time your seeding for your garden’s climate. When warmth stimulates quick early growth, the seedlings may not be strong enough to handle sudden cold outside the greenhouse. Starting some vegetables too early may simply lead to unexpected losses.

The growing medium I mix for my seed projects is low in nitrogen, which may always be applied as needed once plants are up and growing. I begin with a base of compost that is “certified organic,” two parts mushroom compost and one part rice hulls. Natural phosphorus is added to stimulate root growth, along with oyster shell. To five gallons of the compost, I am adding three cups of the phosphorus and one of the oyster shell.

Vermiculite adds a natural component that is important for success with seeds and seedlings. The material absorbs moisture and nutrients, releasing them slowly. I add two five-pound coffee cans of vermiculite to the mix. Finally, one can of perlite is added to keep the mix light.

For most of my vegetable starts I am also adding Sustane 4-6-4.

The tiniest of seed is sown without being covered. As I irrigate with a wand that provides a gentle spray, the seed will be washed into the compost mix, just as rains have carried California poppy seed into the gravel bed along my driveway edge.

Carolyn Singer has gardened organically in Nevada County since 1977. She is the author of the award-winning “The Seasoned Gardener, 5 decades of sustainable and practical garden wisdom”, and two volumes of “Deer in My Garden” (deer-resistant plants), available locally. Send your gardening questions and comments to Check out her website at

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