Hosta Seed Starting
by Bob Axmear

This last year I just started the seed under grow lights for approximately 2 or 3 weeks and then moved them in front of south windows. I did this after I thinned them and just kept the best. I started them later than I usually do, about the first of January. They did very well doing it like this. I hardly used any grow lights and then not for long. The seedlings came out just as healthy as usual and I didn't use much electricity. I am taking one of my grow stands down, know after this I don't need near as many lights.

One problem I had I might mention. I usually use cow compost when I tranplant the seedlings but this year I got wood chip compost. I should have known better, I have placed pots on wood chips and fungus gets going like you wouldn't believe and grew from the chips right up the sides of the pots. It didn't work any better with seedlings. The wood compost keep starting fungus on the soil surface and I had to try to kill it back with captan but many didn't develop roots very well. They will come out of it with TLC but they would have been a lot better without the wood compost.

I wanted to add a little bit today. Last summer I decided to grow the seedlings outside. I started out the same as I would inside the garage, seed starting mix that I watered or soaked along with a little bit of Captan. You can do the same if you want individual small pots in a flat. Make sure the flats have holes in the bottom for drainage. Then I sowed the seed and put about 1/4" or so of mix over the seed and watered it again with water and Captan. I tried growing them in a little bit of direct light but could tell the leaves didn't like it, they weren't slick and healthy like they show be. I ended up putting them on top of an extension ladder on the north side of the house. If you ever let slugs get to them on the ground they can wipe out a whole tray overnight. This lets you water them with a sprinkler and save time and electricity growing them inside. They grew and did well the whole summer. The only drawback is squirrels, they started digging in the flats to bury food for winter. Next spring I am going to cover the flats with chicken wire to keep the squirrels away. I stored all the flats, will transplant and cull them next spring. I took a few quick photos of them sometime last summer but can't seem to find them now.

Today 2-25-2010 some seed set in the sun to grow on, they have been there for a few weeks

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Today 1-23-2010
When I start potting seedlings up I reuse the sterile seed starting mix and add about 10-15% cow compost to it and the rest I use peat moss. About like 10% compost, 45% peat moss and 45% seed mix. This makes an inexpensive mix that they seem to grow well in. All I have ever used for the past 5 or more years now. I am adding a little perlite now starting this year to see if it helps with drainage and aeration to the roots.

Once I blend all the seed starting mix containing nematodes together with everything else it seems to inoculate everything with nematodes and I have no problem the rest of the year with gnats. Really helps keep the plants healthy.

I don't know if I mentioned this farther down but the biggest secret to keeping hosta seedlings healthy is to never let them dry out from the minute you plant the seed until the time you plant them out. They need a constant supply of water to keep them growing healthy. Nematodes need a great quantity of moisture as well to move throughout the soil and destroy the gnats as they hatch.

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Update for 2009

Today (10-2-2009) I ordered seed starting mix from here. It contains fungicide right in the mix to help control damping off. They deliver to the states surrounding Minnesota if interested.

I also ordered cheap window glass to cover the flats after being sown. I think the domes kept the seedlings too far from the lights and the seedlings stretched before they got any height. I added masking tape to the glass to make sure I don't get a nasty cut from it. Once the seedlings get a little size to them I can replace the glass with the domes if needed.

Otherwise I will probably grow the seed pretty much the same way as last year. I started the first 2 flats today, 10-5-2009.

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Some Crazy Quilt seedlings on 11-11-2009, these were the second batch I started this fall.
Some of these and some Dorset Clown seedlings are really colorful already.


Seedlings on 11-22-2009, transplanted to about 8 to 10 to a pot for awhile until they get some size. Then they will be culled again, transplanted to maybe 2 or 3 to a pot until larger.


Update for 2008

I change my method a little each year and am sure you will too. This will give you somewhat of an idea how to begin and then you can adapt it to what works best for you. Two things I will mention is I started them too early last year and they got too large(will start them at about Nov 15th to Christmas from now on) and also I will always use beneficial nematodes for gnats, they worked like nothing else I have ever tried. If you keep things clean, one thing might not have potted houseplants around them, and start a little later in the fall you might never get gnats but if you start to get them, don't let them get too thick or they will do great damage to your seedlings.

Wanted to add you can start with just a few pots and a flourescent shop light with cheap bulbs and do fine, you don't need anything more expensive than that to begin. That is all I ever use, I run them 24/7. You could get by with less hours but if you get many lights going it is hard to get them all going each time. I have 2 metal halide lights and never even got one out of the box yet and probably never will. Never used the other one either. These flourescent lights below cost $10-12 each, I have 4 going in this photo. One light will do 2 flats. And once you get a little size to a seedling, maybe 4 or more leaves, you can grow them on in a south window until spring and save some electricity costs.

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More 2008 update

I am using a whole flat this year instead of individual pots. I have been using flats with holes in them just to make sure I am not overwatering the seed later on. (Can put another flat under this flat without holes if needed to keep them from dripping as the seed grow.) I spread the mix 3/4 of the way to the top of the flat and moisten it. Then I sow the seed and sprinkle more mix lightly over the seed. Then I use a small amount of captan fungicide in the water I use to water them in and gently tamp the mix down. I also keep a close eye on them to make sure no molds start growing, if so I mist them with a captan solution. Then cover the whole works with a dome. I will keep watch until the seed come up and then put them under the grow lights, or turn the lights on. The most critical time for seed is from the time it germinates until it comes up, they can't dry out nor let them get mold on them.

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Photos taken 3/21/2009

Photos taken 5/1/2009     Half the seedlings for the year

This is my version of starting hosta seed, I am sure there are many other ways to go about it. One thing to remember when starting seed indoors, especially in October, is that it is a long way until spring and by then it might not be so much fun. Unless you want to commit to 6+ months of indoor growing and plants getting pretty large by spring, late December might be better.

Someone asked when is the proper time to harvest seed, thought I would add a line about it here. I wait until the last minute if they are outside until the pods turn brown. I have been reading where they are probably ripe within 6 weeks though. If it is a special plant and I want them to be on the plant longer I pot the plant up and bring it inside. It is almost the first of November and I still have two plants inside the house and probably will have for another couple of weeks. Another way to extend the time is to cut the scapes off and place them in the house in sugar water for awhile. I add about a teaspoon of sugar to a glass of water and in goes the scape. Every few days or so I cut the bottom off the scape and clean it some and replace the sugar water.

Another thing to consider is seed quality or what the seed parents are. If a person is interested in growing new variegated plants you need to start with seed from streaked pod parent hostas, using a streaked pollen parent alone or a green plant will just produce more green plants, or blue plants if they are used. And usually not a very good quality plant. It is too hard to explain everything here but a person needs to consider what they want to do and where they are going with their hybridizing. The worst thing to do is buy seed from variegated plants and hope to get streaked or variegated plants from these. If you just want to grow a large amount of plants for some reason I would at least suggest buying seed of a plant that has a lot of substance or thick leaves and not from just common variegated plants. A few examples would be elegans and Love Pat, they are nice and blue with thick leaves.

Once the seed are harvested I let them dry for awhile and then clean them. When I harvest I write the name of the plant on a brown paper bag like they used to use to carry lunches in and put either the scapes with pods or just pods in the bag, pods dry faster. Then I usually leave them in an unheated area of the house or garage for a few weeks or longer. This dries the pods and helps the pods split open for easier separating from the seed. I use collanders or wire strainers of various sizes like used in the kitchen to separate the seed from the pods. Then I mark the plastic seed packets and put the seed in the crisper in the refrigerator. If a person lets seed dry in a house unprotected with forced air heat eventually it will dry too much and die before you get a chance to plant it. Many people put plastic seed packets in a protective container like tupperware and store it in the freezer for long term storage.

Some say you can plant seed immediately and some say you should wait a while and maybe cool the seed for a few weeks or so. I don't know for sure which is right but most of the time I don't plan to start many until December or so anyway so it is a moot point.

When I do start the seed first I get quart plastic pots, ones that measure about 4" by 4" and about 6" deep. I have also used gallon pots as well. Most years I soak them for a while in a 10% bleach solution, this year I just washed them with soap in the sink. The cleaner and more sterile you get them the better though. You might get away with being less than sterile 9 times out of 10 but I would bet about anything the tenth time they will croak and it will be the most expensive or rare seed you have. I also mark each pot with white paint pens, these last for years, and it helps keep the name and date.

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Crazy Quilt Seed on 10-6-2006

Then I use only sterile seed starting mix, buy bags of it from nursery centers. Otherwise the seed might be overcome with pathogens and die if you use unsterile mixes. This really helps control or eliminate damping off as well. Another way to beat this is to microwave the mix on high for 10 minutes or so, get it really hot. It is like the Bird Flu, if you don't have the disease germs around or kill them they can't do any damage to your seed. You could use other mixes but they should be made completely sterile. Online recipes for making your own say use vermiculite, perlite, etc but have you ever really tried to find these lately. Almost impossible.

I moisten the mix with water until it gets pretty wet. Then I fill each pot almost to the top and then compact the mix, just press it down a little to firm it up and level it. This year I sprayed the bottom part of the mix with a weak spray of diazanon. Want to get the jump on fungus gnats if I would happen to get them. I sow the seed, maybe 30-50 in a pot making sure to take out as much foreign material from the seed as possible to keep molds from growing on the refuse. Then I sprinkle a little dry mix over them until they are covered. This year I am trying spraying the mix I cover the seed with water containing captan until the soil is moist, to help control any soil fungus that could possibly be present and damping off. I have also heard of No Damp although I have never tried it.

When I am all done I take a gallon sized bag, cheap ones from the grocery store that don't zip, and cover the pot completely, and tie it. If you ever moisten hosta seeds and then let them dry out you might as well kiss them goodbye. A bag helps prevent that from happening. Some people used trays with domes(ebay) for this. Keep them warm for about 10 days, around 70-80 degrees if you can, and then you will see them start popping up. Some probably faster, many a bit slower. If too cold they take forever to germinate and some probably never will. I wanted to mention the Dorothy Benedict and the DB seedling seed is just now coming up, I was beginning to worry about it. It took between 3 weeks and a month to germinate.

You can also purchase plastic domes(JR Johnson) for your trays. Here they sell them by 50s. You can probably find them elsewhere individually.

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Seed on 10-6-2006

Lighting (See my lighting setup at the bottom of the page)

I have grown them very well under shop lights 24/7 (doesn't need to be this many hours a day though), in front of south facing windows once they get up and some size to them, and also outside. You can also buy metal halide lights. I am trying these out this winter. Below are photos of shop lights and metal halide lights.

Click on above photo for larger image
Photo by R. A. Smith

Metal Halide
Metal Halide Lights

I have been trying to grow the seedlings in front of south facing windows but might have to give that up, for awhile anyway. They need plenty of light when they are coming up and they haven't been getting that. (added this 11-9-2007)

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Seed on 10-20-2006

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Seed on 10-22-2006

When the seedlings start to get a little height to them I start to open the bag slowly. I don't get into too much of a hurry to do this unless there is a problem. Not all the seed germinates immediately and it is best to give the stragglers a little time to geminate as well. After a few days of opening the bag a little more each day until it is off, I start bottom watering to keep the soil moist when needed. This helps to keep damping off down as well and once the roots get down a little you don't need to keep the top as moist either. This helps control fungus gnats which need a damp surface to survive.

I read where diazanon controls gnats very well, both the flying insect and the grubs. Another way I have heard that is effective and I am trying it this year is mosquito dunks that are normally used to control mosquitos in standing water. I tried beneficial nematodes this year and they worked excellent. I bought them from this place because the shipping was free, everywhere else they wanted as much for the shipping as they wanted for the nematodes. You can also find them at the same place they sell domes above. I mixed the nematodes in about a quart of potting mix and then a pint of water and mixed well. Then I put a marble size piece in each pot and took a baster and watered them in. They haven't killed all the gnats but there aren't too many after about 6 weeks.

I reordered the nematodes on 1-8-2008 and as of today, 3-8-2008, I see almost no gnats. This is great not have to mess with them for months at a time. I worked with the plants all day today and really can't rememeber seeing one gnat. I never had that kind of control with anything else I have tried.

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Cajun Sunrise Seed on 12-1-2007

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Dorothy Benedict Seed on 1-4-2008

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Dorothy Benedict Seed on 3-2-2008

Below is probably a Dorothy Benedict seedling, I lost it last spring when we had a cold snap.

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I will add to this about tranplanting and hardening off later.

Questions? Comments! Cussing!!


Below are seed I collected from seedlings I had grown the year before, open pollinated seed. Many of these will have to be culled for lack of substance. I probably will only grow hand pollinated seed from now on to improve the quality.

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I use 3 stands like this made out of scrap lumber, also cheap fluorescent lights, 24/7.
These cost little to construct and you can grow many, many hundreds or thousands of seed this way.

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Part of the seed I grew, will be glad to get them outside as soon as possible. I have them here for natural sunlight until I can move them out and give me room on the stands for the rest which are also growing rapidly. 3-8-2008

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This is all but about 30 flats of the seedlings. Wish the weather would straighten out to get them outside. 4-28-2008

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Getting them planted out. The far end is too sunny for now,
will plant it toward the end of August. 6-27-2008

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