Germination and Cultivation

Or What To Do When Your Seeds Arrive

Copyright 2006


Maintained by Virginia McMillan

Last modified 1/2015





There are several recommended methods, refer to our Links Page for more information on these. We pot several hundred plants each year and out methods may not suit the home gardener. Described here, is what works for us with suggestions to adapt our techniques for smaller scale propagation. Our germination rate is almost 100%.  We have a VERY humble seed bed - it is built from scrap lumber and set into an East facing slope.  The only digging we did was to accommodate the slope, you don’t need to sink it.  The bed is lined with weed barrier fabric, you can recycle the bags your potting mix comes in, just poke holes for drainage.  Our bed is covered with an old screen door grill to keep critters out.




We start our seeds in TURFACE, a clay based soil conditioner used to improve drainage in sports fields, that looks remarkably like kitty litter (but don’t try that!). We order the 50 pound bag from our local lawn and garden supply store for about $15, and also use it in our soil mix. If this quantity exceeds your needs, it is available on- line in 2 pound bags at  You can also find it at aquarium supply stores or nurseries that specialize in orchid growing and bonsai. It is a versatile and useful product, however any ‘sharp’ (well draining) potting mix will do.  Avoid mixes that are heavy on peat.


We fill a plastic seed container with TURFACE,  place the seeds and cover with another 1/4 to 1/2 layer of TURFACE, and soak the container from the bottom so as not to scatter the seed.  You can do this in your kitchen sink or a non-draining flat. The seeds then go into the seed bed and are almost forgotten until December.  If it is very dry we’ll water them, if we think of it, but they are not under a sprinkler and are seldom remembered.  The picture above on the right was taken on December 23 - Happy Holdiays!  - and that’s when you’ll start seeing growth.  The one below left was taken in late March, cells with no growth are primulas, and below right shows result of doing absolutely nothing in the planted border.  As you can see, the germination rate is high if seeds are fresh.



A method that works well if you want to site directly in your garden is to scratch up the soil, improve drainage if necessary, plant seeds and cover with a brick.  We’ve also used pieces of unglazed tile and roofing slate but prefer the bricks as they stay put. The trick to this method is remembering to take the brick off in December, when you should start checking for seedlings.


There is considerable debate on when to prick out and transplant the seedlings.  Some growers recommend doing it as soon as the cotyledon leaves emerge. Others say wait for the first set of true leaves.  We do it when we get to it, usually after the true leaves appear, and put the seedlings in  4” pots using a soil mix that is half composted leaves and half fine pine bark, with a pinch of osmocote in the bottom of the pot, and are more conscientious about watering during the dry months.  If you use the deepest pots you can find, avoid handling the stems, and make certain the soil drains well, your seedlings will thrive. For sale stock we step-up to big pots (2-3 gal.) in early winter before new growth begins. Your seedlings can go into the garden at that time or you can carry over in the pots if you don’t have roots growing out the bottom.  It is important to avoid “checking” which occurs when the roots form a dense mat at the bottom of the pot.