Grow 505: Starting seeds, emerald ash

Still time to start over if the first sowing failed

Dear Janet,

I've been trying to start some seeds and am not having good luck. A few of some types sprouted on time but it's been weeks and there haven't been any new ones coming. Others didn't sprout at all. - J.E. -


Dear J.E.,

Check your basics first. Did you use airy, sterile soilless mix and clean containers? Do those flats or pots have drain holes so excess water flows out freely? Dirty pots and garden soil -- even the best loam -- may harbor fungi that can kill seed before or as it sprouts. Too much moisture can rot seeds and roots.

Then think about a plant's specific germination needs. Temperature, amount of light and treatments like pre-soaking or moistening and refrigerating seed for 3 months can make or break your seed-starting.

Those who study germination, including Dr. Norman Deno who wrote Seed Germination Theory and Practice, have changed the way we handle seeds. For instance, these scientists have proven that what we once called dormancy is really a period of gradual change in the starchy food reserves around an embryonic plant and in the seed coat that contain both. In many cases, chemicals that formed while the seed ripened inhibit further development of the embryo until conditions are right. It may take a certain amount of time, specific temperatures or changes in temperature, the presence or absence of light, or a combination of these things to break down these inhibitors.

Instructions in catalogs and on seed packages reflect Dr. Deno's and others' research, listing specific steps required to germinate each species. Check there to see if you did anything contrary.

One mistake inexperienced seed-sowers make is covering seeds that need light to germinate. Another is keeping sown seed too cold or too warm. Any of these can kill the seed.

It happens to all of us, so don't be discouraged. There is still time to order and start new seed!


Short Reports

Classes are available to help teach people about what the emerald ash-borer does and how to assist the problem.

We have much to learn about the emerald ash borer. It has killed tens of thousands of trees already and has moved outward from those areas. Yet we are only guessing how fast it will spread. We don't have detailed maps of where it is and isn't yet within quarantined counties.

The overall containment effort will be most effective if ash trees are managed on the basis of specific local information. Yet our officials don't have the manpower or budget to take what we know to individual tree owners and help them make decisions one ash at a time.

We aim to identify where the borers are currently at work  and alert those who should remove infested trees plus those whose trees are at high risk. As we monitor those areas over the next months and years we will improve our ability to advise individuals about specific trees. For instance, if we learn that a certain neighborhood is not yet infested and come to know that beetles may not reach it for several years, we may advise those ash tree owners that preventive insecticides are worthwhile. In areas still free of borer damage but very close to current infestations, we'll help property owners recognize which trees are at risk and what replacements they might plan.

We'll also report to those in charge of the overall containment program, which may indicate that program's effectiveness or need for change.


Green thumbs up

to that glorious thaw nine days ago and the gardeners who used it to prune Japanese maples and other small trees. Missed it? Be ready for the next one, soon!


Green thumbs down

to lack of forethought and the resulting rust on our pruning tools. If you didn't oil and clean your blades last fall do it now so you can use them in the next thaw.

Originally published 3/1/03