Picking the right seeds for the spring

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By Susan Brown, County Extension

I would be lying if I said that this weather was not confusing. I am fighting the urge to work in the garden but I still suspect we may experience cold temperatures in the month of February.
I have decided to put my energy toward seed selection for this spring. Growing plants from seed indoors can give you a head start on the growing season. It can also allow for more diversity in the plants you are able to find.
There are many seed catalogs on the market and it can be difficult to know which ones to trust. A reliable source is very important in order to start with a high quality seed. A few garden catalogs I have used and recommend are Jonny’s Selected Seeds, Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, Burpee Seeds and Park Seed.
Select cultivars that provide the plant size, color (flower, foliage, fruit) and growth habit. Choose cultivars adapted to our climate. Purchase only enough seeds for one year’s use, because germination decreases with age. The seed packet label typically indicates essential information, such as the year the seeds were packaged, the germination percentage, and whether the seeds have received any chemical treatment.
If storing seeds is necessary, store them in a cool, dry place. Laminated foil packages help ensure dry storage. Paper packets are best kept in tightly sealed containers and maintained around 40 degrees in low humidity. A good storage location would be an airtight jar or a sealed Zip Lock-type bag in the refrigerator. Remember that seeds collected from your own garden may not produce plants similar to their parents. This is especially true of hybrids.
A wide range of media can be used to germinate seeds. The medium should be fine in texture and have uniform consistency, yet well aerated and loose. It should be free of insects, disease, weeds and weed seeds. It should also be low in fertility and capable of holding moisture, but well drained. Do not use garden soil to start seedlings; it is not sterile, too heavy and does not drain well.
Commercial soil mixes have low fertility, so seedlings must be watered with a dilute fertilizer solution soon after germination. Use 1/4 to 1/2 the recommended rate. Some growers prefer to use peat pellets, peat pots or expanded foam cubes. These can work very well but the medium can be hard to keep moist.
Using a sterile medium and container is important. Re-using pots is a great idea but the container will need to be washed and any debris removed. Then it can be immersed in a solution of one part chlorine bleach and nine parts water for five minutes and allowed to dry.
Remember, anytime you prune a plant, it promotes new growth, so if you do decide to prune your garden now and we do get a freeze in February, all the new growth will die. I am planning on waiting till the end of February to start pruning my garden.
Susan Brown is a horticulture agent with the Brunswick County Extension Service. Call 253-2610 or e-mail susan_brown@ncsu.edu.