Plant Seeds – Getting Started

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Robert Pavlis

Fall is coming to a close and I have been collecting plant seeds from the garden for several months. In a few cases I want the seed so that I can grow more plants, but most of the plant seed I collect will be donated to a couple organizations that operate seed exchanges. Other people around the world are doing exactly the same thing. In December, members of these organizations are allowed to order these seeds. That is where my fun starts.

I will have access to thousands of different types of seed. Anything from perennials and grasses to shrubs and trees. The groups I belong to don’t distribute vegetable seed or house plant seed, but I am sure organizations also exist for these kind of seeds.

Over the next month or two I plan to write a number of posts to tell you everything there is to know about growing plants from seed. Well, almost everything. After 40 years I am still learning.

Plant Seeds - Propagation Secrets
Plant Seeds – Propagation Secrets

What is A Plant Seed?

In layman terms a plant seed is a baby plant that has not yet been born. It consists of an outer coat that is usually quite hard so that it can protect the inside tender parts. Inside the coat is the baby plant and a lot of baby food. When this baby is born it will not have a mama, so everything it needs from the moment it is born must be inside the seed.

Compost Science for Gardeners by Robert Pavlis

Do all plants make seed? No they don’t. Ferns for example make something called a spore. It is somewhat similar to a seed, but the whole process of making a baby plant is quite different. If you are interested in the details have a look at this link that describes fern propagation

Orchids make seed, but they are extremely small because they contain almost no baby food. The seed needs to land somewhere where it will get fed as soon as it is born. If you see orchid seed for sale, don’t buy it. It take special techniques to get it to germinate and grow into a plant.

Some plants also produce sterile seeds. They’re essentially empty seed coats, and will never make a baby.

I am sure there are other examples of plants that don’t make seed, but the vast majority of plants make seed, and with a little knowledge and practice you can grow them all.

Difference between Open-pollinated, Hybrid and Heirloom Plant Seeds

These terms are poorly understood by some people and often mixed up.

Open-pollinated Plant Seeds

Open-pollinated seed is produced by nature with no human intervention. Pollen lands on the stigma of a flower and pollination takes place. The process is mostly uncontrolled but plants do have mechanisms to control which pollen is actually used for fertilization. For example maple trees will not pollinate your corn no matter how hard the bees work at it. It just won’t work.

Open-pollination normally occurs between plants that are closely related, genetically. A rose won’t pollinate your yellow marigolds, but a different species of marigold might. Crab apples will pollinate eating apples, but won’t pollinate a pear tree.

Heirloom Plant Seeds

Heirloom seed is a term that is really not well defined. It is seed from a particular variety that has been handed down for generations. How many generations are needed to be an heirloom – that is not clear. There does not seem to be a heirloom registry organization and different groups have different rules as to what constitutes a heirloom seed. Anyone can claim to have ‘heirloom’ seed. Buyer beware!

Building Natural Ponds book, by Robert Pavlis

Heirloom seed is open-pollinated and that can be a problem. If someone is growing a line of heirloom seed alongside another compatible variety – they might cross pollinate, which means the seed produced is no longer ‘heirloom seed’ although it might still be sold as such.

The term heirloom is used mostly for vegetable seed, but heirloom flower seed is available.

Hybrid Plant Seeds

Gardeners use the term ‘hybrid seed’ to indicate seed produced by deliberate cross pollination between two cultivars or species. The term ‘F1 hybrid’ is also used to mean the same thing.

Hybrid seed is rarely produced by gardeners because it is too complicated to control the pollination process. It is mostly produced by companies specializing in the production of seed. They grow crops of two different varieties, and then manually transfer pollen from one type of plant to another.

Hybrid seed usually costs more, but is usually worth the extra money since it produces consistent quality in the seed. A lot of the disease resistant vegetable seed will be hybrid seed.

When you grow a hybrid seed, the seed produced from such a plant is no longer a hybrid seed. It then becomes an open-pollinated seed, and the quality of such seed is rarely as good as the original hybrid parent.

Organic Seed – Why Buy Them?

The only reason to buy organic seed is to support the organic farmer. To fully understand organic seed have a look at this post:

Organic Seed – Why Buy Them?

What About GMO Plant Seeds?

There is so much garbage written about GMO seed. People have been incorrectly scared of GMO food and consequently they fear GMO seed. Seed companies now advertise “GMO free” seed.

Unless you are a farmer you can’t buy GMO seed even if you wanted to. You need to sign a license agreement to get GMO seed.

I know of no GMO flowers, and GMO vegetables are only available for corn, wheat, soybeans, canola, squash and rice. Tomatoes may be coming soon – but you won’t be able to buy them.

For the homeowner, GMO seed is a non-issue.

Treated Plant Seeds

Some seed is coated with a pesticide, usually a fungicide, so that they don’t rot as easily when planted in cold soil in the spring. Some people are afraid of this coating and want to buy untreated seed.

Is this seed safe for producing vegetables? Yes. The amount of pesticide is very small, and by the time the plant grows large enough to produce food it is mostly degraded. It is not a health risk. If you are interested in actual numbers proving this point see Organic Seed – Why Buy Them?

I contacted Stokes Seeds to ask about the policy surrounding treated seed. In North America, regulations require companies to clearly identify treated seed. For example, in the Stoke’s seed catalog, treated seed is clearly marked. If you buy seed in packages from local stores, the package will be clearly marked if it is treated seed. Most packaged seed is NOT treated since treatments cost more to produce the seed, and seed package costs are kept low. In fact very few of the seed available from Stokes Seeds is available as treated seed.

Should you use treated seed? It might be useful for things like pea seeds which can be planted very early. I have never bothered with them. If my seed rots due to a cold wet spring, I just sow the seed again in a couple of weeks.

Except for a few types of vegetable seed, this is a non-issue.

Advanced Plant Seed Topics

Here are some more advanced posts about growing plants from seed that might interest you.

Germination of Baptisia Australis Seeds

Growing Clematis From Seed

Seed Germination Videos

YouTube video

If you can’t see the above video, use this link:

YouTube video

If you can’t see the above video, use this link:

YouTube video

If you can’t see the above video, use this link:



  1. Photo Source: 小漫 溫
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Robert Pavlis

I have been gardening my whole life and have a science background. Besides writing and speaking about gardening, I own and operate a 6 acre private garden called Aspen Grove Gardens which now has over 3,000 perennials, grasses, shrubs and trees. Yes--I am a plantaholic!

4 thoughts on “Plant Seeds – Getting Started”

  1. A very good analogy with ‘baby and mama’; and then they grow in the nursery. Too bad that they don’t cry, so we can figure out what’s wrong sometime much easily 🙂


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