Easy Plants to Start from Seed

By Ellen Zachos

Why would anyone want to start a plant from seed when it's so easy to buy plants at the garden center?

1. It's WAY cheaper to buy seeds than to buy plants. A package of seeds often costs less than $2.00 and that's for 10 to 30 seeds. You'd probably pay more than that for a single plant.

2. Some unusual plants are hard to find in stores, yet their seeds are readily available. Garden centers might not be willing to stock an uncommon plant if they're not sure they can sell it, but seeds are a much smaller risk.

3. The feeling of accomplishment is enormous. There's nothing like looking at a mature plant in your garden and saying, ″I started this from a seed.″

Here are my five top recommendations for plants that are easy to grow from seed, along with excellent reasons for why you should try!

Heirloom tomatoes (S. lycopersicum)

It's easy to find modern hybrid tomato plants, but not many garden centers sell the more unusual heirloom varieties. So if you want to grow 'Black Krim' or 'Green Zebra' tomatoes, you're probably going to have to plant seeds. Tomato seeds take 6 – 14 days to germinate and need darkness to sprout. The seeds are medium sized and should be planted 2 - 3 times as deep as they are large. Start them indoors 8 – 10 weeks before your last frost date and give them bottom heat if you can.

Cilantro (Coriandrum sativum)

You can buy cilantro plants at garden centers, but here's why you should start your own seed: cilantro flowers quickly and once it has flowered it doesn't taste very good. If you can start a new crop from seed every 3-4 weeks, you'll be able to keep yourself in cilantro all season long. Start seeds in individual biodegradable pots because cilantro does not transplant well! Cilantro seeds require darkness to germinate and will sprout in 7 – 10 days. Seeds are medium sized and should be planted 2-3 times as deep as they are large.

Flowering tobacco (Nicotiana spp.)

While you often see flats of Nicotiana alata in garden centers, the more unusual species, like N. sylvestris and N. langsdorfii, can be hard to find. Flowering tobacco seeds are tiny, and they require light to germinate. Sprinkle them on the surface of moist potting mix and you should see small rosettes of foliage in 10 – 20 days. Start flowering tobacco indoors 6 – 8 weeks before your last frost date. You could direct sow outdoors after your last frost but I don't recommend it. The seed is so fine it blows away easily, and if you live in a cool climate you probably won't see flowers until August.

Lamb's ear (Stachys spp.)

Lamb's ear is a common nursery plant, so why should you bother to start it from seed? Because it's SO easy to do! If you need more than one or two plants, you'll save a bunch of money by starting from seed, and if you're looking for a garden project to do with your children, the fuzzy leaves of lamb's ears have great kid-appeal. (I'm a big believer in getting kids hooked on gardening as early as possible.) Seeds are very small and require light to germinate. Start them indoors by sprinkling the seeds on top of moist potting mix 8 – 10 weeks before your last frost date. Germination usually takes about 14 – 30 days.

Mexican sunflower (Tithonia rotundifolia)

Mexican sunflower is an impressive, late season annual. It's a great butterfly attractor, its height makes it perfect for the back of a sunny border, and its multitude of flowers are a vibrant vermillion color. Yet you almost never find the plants for sale! I suspect more nurseries don't grow this plant because it flowers in late summer, and it doesn't jump off the shelves until its showy flowers appear sometime in mid-August. Start seeds indoors 6 – 8 weeks before your last frost date and don't transplant outdoors until soil temperatures are above 60F. Mexican sunflower seeds take 10 - 21 days to germinate and should be just barely covered with potting mix (no more than 1/4 inch). Give them bottom heat during germination if you can.

It's now officially seed catalog season, so what better time to choose a few envelopes of seeds to experiment with? I promise you won't be sorry.

Ellen Zachos is the owner of Acme Plant Stuff (www.acmeplant.com),a garden design, installation, and maintenance company in NYC specializing in rooftop gardens and indoor plants. She is the author of numerous magazine articles and six books and also blogs at www.downanddirtygardening.com. Ellen is a Harvard graduate and an instructor at the New York Botanical Garden. She lectures at garden shows and events across the country.

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