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Keeping Records of Seed Sowing - Thompson & Morgan

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Keeping Records of Seed Sowing

Over the years sowing records can build up into very valuable sources of information. Dr. Tim Ingram writes about his own methods

The thrill of growing new plants from seed is an experience universal to all gardeners. For the inveterate plantsmen or women amongst us the number of pots sown with seed very soon multiplies and threatens to consume all of the space available in greenhouses and cold frames. As this stage approaches the importance of keeping some records of one's successes and failures, methods and ideas, begins to make itself felt. Firstly it tempers the acquisitive instinct (a little!) and instills a discipline on the system of raising new plants for the garden. For nurserymen such as myself it is of fundamental benefit as the range of plants grown for sale expands and demands varied cultural routines and degrees of care. Thirdly it helps one focus on problem points and determine better and more consistent ways of obtaining good results. Finally, as the years pass. records become of abiding interest, sharpening one's awareness of the remarkable diversity and adaptability of plants. The enjoyment of sowing each new year's lot of seed is strengthened when one can look back to earlier successes for guidance and stimulation.

The extent of recording one's observations and experience of sowing seed can vary greatly from a simple list of plant names followed by ticks denoting successful germination, to a comprehensive series of headings covering dates of sowing, germination and potting on, source of seed, compost used, and so on. In practice it is best to allow a system of keeping records to evolve in accord with ones requirements and temperament. A simple listing of plants preceded by the date sown and followed by columns describing the compost used, source of seed and time of germination. A final column of 'Remarks' can then cover any remaining information such as problems encountered (e.g. loss of seedlings through fungal or insect attack, erratic germination), numbers of seed and extent of germination, time of potting on, and so forth. Leave plenty of room for this section. This information is entered in pencil in a strong, hardbound, A4 notebook, resistant to the scrapes and spillages inevitable on the greenhouse bench! Alternatively you may find it useful to have a day-book to record the details and transfer these to a permanent book at another time.

Seeds may be obtained from a wide variety of sources and these can be abbreviated in the main listing, with full details given at the start of the book for reference. A great range of viability can be encountered in seed from different sources and thus such information soon identifies good suppliers. However, it is important to stress that poor results may equally often be due to incorrect conditions and complex dormancy-breaking requirements. In solving some of these problems lies much of the satisfaction of raising plants from seed.

As time goes by I have found it helpful to keep explanatory notes of the techniques used in sowing seeds, particularly with regard to the composts used. To jog ones memory these, and notes of fungicidal and insecticidal treatments, can be interspersed chronologically in the listing of seed sown. It may also be helpful to note down references and summaries of relevant articles and descriptions gleaned from periodicals and books. As experience is gained so these can be of considerable benefit, if only in consoling one after yet another failure with a particularly desirable plant!

If a wide range of plants are grown from seed each year, encompassing species from very different habitats, it may be of use to segregate records for different groups of plants. For example members of the Ericaceae and Gesneriaceae have extremely fine seed requiring a cultural routine quite distinct from the majority of other plants. At the opposite extreme many plants from arid, mountainous regions have equally specialised requirements for successful germination and growing on.

Many gardeners collect seed from a wide range of plants in their own gardens to send to seed exchanges and to sow themselves. This habit quickly teaches one what to look for in good viable seed. In some cases, however, it may still be difficult to judge the quality of seed, for example with many Composites and Monocotyledons, and some notes of ones observations can be helpful.

The problems of breaking dormancy of many seeds was mentioned earlier and herein lies a vast subject for observation and experiment. Many methods have been described for different plants and can be mentioned in the 'Remarks' section of the seed listing. Success with one species often provides clues for overcoming problems with another. Other seeds need to be sown fresh or require light for germination. Information on all of these aspects is gradually built up from practical experience and leads to ever greater chances of success.

Records may not solely relate to the methods and results of sowing seed. A project that has appealed to me for some time has been to keep simple descriptions or drawings of the seed sown, which can vary so greatly, and perhaps also of the shapes of the seed leaves (cotyledons) as they emerge through the soil. The excitement of seeing the first signs of life in your seed pans may then be doubly enhanced.

The general system of keeping records described above may be extended in the same book to cover vegetative propagation. Essentially the same philosophy applies, that of steadily building up information in a readily accessible form for future reference. However, the variety of methods used to propagate plants vegetatively can make a comprehensive system of keeping records more complex in scope. Again the easiest course is to allow a system to evolve in line with ones practical experience. Propagation from cuttings provides the most widely used vegetative technique. A straightforward listing of date, plant name, compost and 'Remarks' on type of cutting, propagation conditions and success of rooting, provides all of the information needed. Even more than with the seed listing it is useful to incorporate notes along the way gleaned from observation and books and periodicals. With the more specialised methods of vegetative propagation such as grafting and layering, details of the procedure and aftercare are of even greater importance for success. An example of the value of maintaining careful records comes from the increasing use of micropropagation in horticulture. The success of this technique is based on a strong foundation of empirical methodology, as much as on scientific theory, and is testimony to the power of careful observation and experiment.

As a collection of plants builds up in the garden many gardeners will maintain an index of plants to refresh the memory of their names and origins. Information on the successful propagation of new or particularly intractable species can be entered onto individual index cards for ease of future reference. The use of such cards for recording other information such as cultural requirements, planting position(s) in the garden and time of flowering has been nicely described elsewhere.

In today's world the retrieval of information has been greatly aided by the advent of the desk-top computer and many keen gardeners of more analytical bent may keep records on magnetic discs. Such a system is clearly very compact and efficient, bearing in mind the occasional drawbacks resulting from power cuts, gremlins in the system and operator error. Although I have no experience of using a computer in this way the advantages are most compelling and must be inestimable for a large nursery or Botanic Garden. You may feel as I that the time spent entering information into the computer can be more profitably spent outside amongst your plants. However, the long-term benefits of readily accessing information must make a powerful case for considering its use if very many plants are grown from seed and cuttings each year.

Whichever way you go about keeping records ensure that you remain flexible enough to change and incorporate new ideas and observations from year to year. Although at first the results may seem intangible, success with growing more difficult and unusual plants will readily repay the effort involved.

Dr. Tim Ingrain runs a successful nursery in Faversham, Kent, where many of the plants are grown from seed.

Source of article
Growing From Seed - Winter 1989-90 Vol. 4 Number 1
© The Seed Raising Journal from Thompson & Morgan