Let’s start on the exciting day you get a package of seeds in your mailbox. Open it up and double-check the packing slip to make sure you received everything you ordered. Sounds obvious, I know, but mistakes are always possible. If you are buying from another source, the seeds might have been crushed if shipped without adequate padding (I always use a padded mailer), or the seed company might have run out of something and just sent you a credit instead (my site won’t let you order seeds that are out of stock). If you don’t realize something is damaged or missing until the day you are ready to sow, it may be too late to find another source for that growing season.
I highly recommend having a box, drawer, or other specific place where you always put your orders as you receive them. Being small and flat, seed packets are just too easy to lose! Before you toss new seeds into their designated storage spot, though, look at each one and figure out when it needs to be sown. If that information isn’t already on the packet, then do some research and write it on the packet for quick reference later—or sow the seeds immediately, if that’s what you need to do. It’s so disappointing to pull out seeds in February or March and realize that you should have sown them in fall or winter to give them a natural chilling period, or that they should have been sown while fresh instead of stored dry.
I can’t stress this enough: Understanding the germination needs for each of your seeds is such an important part of successful sowing. Don’t assume that all annuals need to be started in warm conditions, or that all perennials need chilling, or that just because you’ve grown a couple of ornamental grasses from seed, you can start all of them the same way. When you’re new to sowing seeds—particularly those not readily available through common commercial sources—you may not even be aware that some have special requirements, like fluctuating day and night temperatures, alternating periods of warm and cool temperatures, or nicking or soaking to soften the seed coat. I suspect that’s why some of these seeds are so hard to find. They may not be hard to grow, if given the right conditions, but companies don’t want to deal with complaints from buyers who don’t follow the directions and then want refunds.
Even when you have lots of seed-sowing experience, it’s easy to think you already know when or how to plant a given species because you grew another species in that genus before, but those assumptions can sometimes lead you astray. Seeds certainly aren’t cheap, and gift seeds are too special to waste, so taking a few minutes to review their needs is a worthwhile investment.
The obvious place to start is the catalog or website you purchased from, but if the source hasn’t bothered to share that information, then you need to look elsewhere. I’d advise doing that anyway, as I occasionally see Etsy or Ebay sources that look reputable but provide incomplete or totally wrong information. Type the name of your seed and the word “sow” or “germination” into your favorite search engine and you’ll usually find multiple sources of information.
It’s also possible to go the old-fashioned route and use seed-sowing reference books, if you have access to them; it’s not like germination details go out of date.
I still cling to most of my gardening-related reference books, but to be honest, I rarely pull them off the shelves. Even my most favorite reference for seed details—Seed Germination Theory and Practice by Dr. Norman Deno—is now available online (Second Edition). It is absolutely a must-read for the very geekiest of seed geeks and useful even to newer seed-starters who are interested in learning more about the details behind the germination process. (It’s a very large PDF, so it may take a while to load for you.)
One question that has come up a few times from my seed customers is whether they should put the packets in their refrigerator until they are ready to sow. It’s fine if you want to do that—it won’t hurt, and it might help some kinds, like native asters—but it’s generally not necessary. If you do choose to keep your seeds in your refrigerator, I suggest putting them a jar or a container with a tight lid to keep them dry until you are ready to sow.
I’ve noticed that some folks confuse putting seed packets in a refrigerator with giving seeds a cold treatment. Storing seeds cold and dry (still in the seed packet) is a different thing than adding them to some sort of moistened growing medium and then exposing them to cold. I have occasionally received pre-chilled seeds from seed exchanges (generally mixed with a pinch of moistened vermiculite in a small, resealable plastic packet), but seed companies normally don’t send them that way for a variety of logistical reasons, so don’t expect to receive pre-chilled seeds from me unless I say in the seed listing that that’s what you are paying for.