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Seed Starting:  Where to Start?


Seeds can be quite varied in their growing needs. Some seeds require light to initiate growth (germinate), and some require darkness.  Some seeds require special pretreatment to break through the seed coat (scarification) and some require prolonged cold (stratification) to trigger growth. Regardless of their differences, all seeds require sufficient moisture and oxygen.  The planting medium must be suitable to provide these factors, be free of competition from weeds, and allow roots to grow, anchoring the plant and absorbing water and nutrients.


The first step in successful seed growing may seem obvious:  seed selection.  Seed viability declines as the seed ages and can be affected by adverse environmental conditions.  So, select fresh seed and store it in a cool, dark, and dry place. Keep in mind the cultural requirements of the mature plant and its destined location regarding sunlight, moisture, and soil type.  Choose species that will survive in our local hardiness zone, now 7a or 7b as recently updated by USDA.  Additional selection criteria may include bloom time and color, plant form, taste or scent, disease-resistance, or vigor.  


Once you have selected your seeds, choose your sowing method:  inside with supplemental light, outside in the garden during the typical growing season, or outside over winter.  (See our other publications for details.)  Researching your plant and assessing your resources will help with this decision.


If your selected plant will be living outdoors for an extended period, timing of your efforts will be important.  It is best to work backwards from a target date.  For plants that you start indoors with the intention of transplanting them outside, your target date may well revolve around the anticipated date of the first or last frost. The sowing date should equal the time required for germination, plus time for sufficient seedling growth to withstand transplanting (usually about 6 weeks), plus a period for “hardening off” (usually about two weeks during which you gradually increase exposure to outside conditions).  Other factors you may need to consider are time to maturity for bloom or harvest.  For produce, seed suppliers usually include this information in their catalogs as “days to maturity.”


Finally, a word about failure:  it will happen.  Under the best of circumstances, germination rates are less than 100%. Plus, you are dealing with a lot of variables, many of which are out of your control.  Try to understand what might have happened and keep records.


Good luck and enjoy the process.  Our master gardeners are here to help.  Contact us through the Help Desk by leaving a message at 540-463-4734; visit us in person at the County Extension Office on the 2ndfloor of the Rockbridge County office building on Main Street in Lexington; or send us an email at


For more information: 

Seed Pretreatment

Plant Hardiness Zones:

How to Sow Seeds Indoors: A Step-by-Step Guide

Outdoor Seed Sowing

Outdoor Winter Seed Sowing

Virginia’s Home Garden Vegetable Planting Guide:


Virginia Cooperative Extension is a partnership of Virginia Tech, Virginia State University, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and local governments. Its programs and employment are open to all, regardless of age, color, disability, gender, gender identity, gender expression, national origin, political affiliation, race, religion, sexual orientation, genetic information, military status, or any other basis protected by law.

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