seeds1.jpgThis year, I’m taking the plunge and trying to start some seeds I’ve purchased and collected that need a bit of special treatment. In the past, all of the seeds I’ve started went into pots in late March and were germinated (or were encouraged to do so) on top of my refrigerator before going under grow lights in the basement. This schedule and process came from the way I started my tomato seeds – the very first seeds I ever tried starting.

Well, let’s face it. Starting tomato seeds is just too darn easy! They are practically a sure thing! Where’s the thrill? Where’s the challenge?

Okay, okay – perhaps I don’t really need more thrill and challenge, but I’ve gotten a bit lazy in my seed starting. If I had something else to try starting, it would happen when I did my usual tomato seeds. So this year I decided I would truly do what I know I’m supposed to do to start some of the more “difficult” seeds that I have.

I have several seeds that I know need what is called stratification – a period of cold to simulate winter for them before they will germinate. Some people do this using the fridge, but I’m going to try actually putting them outside for a few months. Other seeds I have I’m not as sure if they need stratification, but since they are natives, I’ve decided that stratification probably won’t harm them; I’ll sow some now and stratify them, and maybe I’ll sow a few during my usual (a.k.a. tomato) seed starting session and see if they will germinate inside.

The seeds I’ll be trying stratification on are the following: Penstemon palmeri, Penstemon whippleanus, Frasera speciosa (a plant, that if it germinates, will take 20-80 years to bloom – am I good person, or what?!), Echinacea tennesseensis, Oenothera caespitosa, Thelesperma filifolium, and Zinnia grandiflora. I’ll also try the Thelesperma and Zinnia seeds when I do my regular (yup – tomato) seed starting in March.

Let me set the scene for you: a bitterly cold early February afternoon (with 8 degrees as the high) in Colorado Springs. I drag out my usual seed starting gear – potting soil, pots, my big plastic tray that helps contain the mess, and a bowl for soaking the dried out potting soil. For my “special” (a.k.a. non-tomato) seeds, I have a few extra items as well – cactus mix, some fine rinsed gravel, a few large plastic tubs (that greens mixes come in), a candle, matches, and a metal skewer. The candle and matches are for a special little prayer ceremony – ok, no not really. I need to make some holes in the bottom and top of each plastic bin, and a friend has clued me in that heating a metal skewer or small icepick over a candle will make poking holes through the plastic much easier. She is right! This dreaded task actually becomes kind of fun (and brings my husband into the kitchen to investigate the smell of burning plastic).

My potting soil was left over from last year, so it is very dry at this point. It’s amazing how well peat moss repels water once it is dry. I’m not patient enough to let it soak overnight (advice I’ve read many places). I find if I dump some in a big bowl, add some water, and let it sit a few minutes before stirring it around with a spoon I keep for this very purpose, the mix is well dampened without too much fuss. I mix some cactus mix in with the potting soil and then fill some four inch pots with the mixture.

seeds3.jpgThe seeds I’m starting are more finicky than easy (read – tomato) seeds. I can’t just bury them a quarter of an inch down and then water them. They need to sit on top of more quickly draining soil (hence the addition of the cactus mix). Watering from the top will wash the seeds around and disturb them, so I can’t do that either. So I scatter the seeds across the soil and then put down a thin layer of the rinsed fine gravel. (I tried to find the much touted #1 starter chicken grit for this, but that’s the subject for another post.) The gravel will help keep the seeds in contact with the soil without burying them. At this point, I put some masking tape onto the pots and label them with the seeds I’ve put in each. I set the pots into a tray and put some water into the tray to soak up into the pots. After several minutes, I can tell the pots are thoroughly watered because the gravel changes color when it gets damp.

After draining briefly, the pots go into the larger plastic containers that I enjoyed putting the holes in. These will act like little protective greenhouses for the seeds and keep the squirrels from messing with them. Out they go along the foundation of the east side of my house. The north side would be good too – what we’re looking for is somewhat constant temperatures and possibly more consistent snow cover (ha!). The east side is a good choice for me because I’ll see the containers there on a regular basis. If I put them on the north side, they would be out of my sight, and I’d have to make a special effort to go check on them once things start warming up and they’re at risk of drying out.

One last step – I grab the snow shovel and pile up snow over the plastic containers, covering them as best I can.

So here we are just over a week later. The temperature pendulum has swung the other way and we’ve had a few 60 degree days this week. The snow is completely gone off the containers, but I can see a bit of condensation in them. The squirrels are mystified by these containers that suddenly appeared from nowhere (I keep thinking of the obelisks and the apes in the movie 2001). When it snows again, I plan to pile more snow over them to help protect them from big temperature swings.

The seeds will continue the stratification process and then when warmer spring temperatures arrive, they’ll (hopefully) germinate! More info then…