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Sowing Seeds

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Before you start

Before you do anything, I hope you have a book or two on the subject around. My successes were mainly due to techniques discussed in a number of cacti and succulents books. Do get a book or two as it will be a valuable reference and you will be encouraging the authors to write more books.


I've made a few really bad mistakes in my efforts to grow cacti and succulents from seeds. One was not giving them enough moisture, expecting them to harden quickly when still small. Well, you can harden them while they are still quite small, but since small seedlings are pretty fragile, they can become damaged or stressed easily. If the root system is damaged, their growth will be stalled. I used to have a 4 year old Mammillaria which was only about 2cm tall. Ouch. Seedlings need moist conditions, but not enough that they rot.

In order to avoid too much moisture, I make sure the soil drains easily and the pot is not standing on water. After watering, I would soak up excess water draining from the bottom of the pots using a piece of cloth.


The other is a problem with myself. To put it simply, I get bored after a while - it's almost like seeing them germinate was the highlight of the tour and after that everything went downhill . I'm sure those of you brought up on MTV will have it worse (or maybe they don't grow C&S at all.) The mass media has brought our attention span down to almost zero.

The seedlings don't grow as quickly as I would like them to, so you will need lots and lots of patience. Constant care is something I am still learning to do well. If I lapse, a few seedlings will die. Sometimes I do look after them, but I still get them killed upon making silly mistakes, like using too much insecticide.

Successfully caring for your plants from seed to maturity is great for training yourself to become more patient, and to be able to persevere.

Starting out

So, unless you are a green thumb kind of person (which I am not, often I do just enough to keep them alive and in order) I recommend that you practice your skills on a few batches of cheap seeds first. Either ask your fellow collector if he or she has got seeds to spare or buy a packet of mixed cactus seeds from a supermarket (this is available in most cities in Malaysia, I believe). Here is a commentary on mixed cactus seeds available in Malaysia:
Horti Mixed

Spend your money on more expensive stuff only after you are confident that you have got what it takes. But the fact is, sometimes we can't help ourselves and we get tempted anyway.

Remember, getting them grow to maturity requires lots of patience. You might kill a lot at first, but then so did I. The last time I counted, I have gone through 10 packets of them.

Sow seeds as soon as you get them. Unless you know how to store seeds properly, which most of us hobbyist types don't, use them quickly otherwise they will soon lose their viability. If you have to store seeds, a cool and dry place (like a refrigerator) is recommended.

What I do

Here I will describe the technique I use. I don't claim to be an expert, just a hobbyist. You will find in books that there are many ways of sowing cactus and succulent seeds. Some really tough seeds can just be thrown at the base of the parent plant; you then cross your fingers and hope for the best. Some collectors and experts sow seeds and bags the pots, leaving them inside for up to a year or more.

Astrophytum asterias seedlings
What I do is sow seeds in standard 2" plastic pots and put the pots in clear plastic containers. By doing that, I need to check the containers only once a week. I don't sterilize anything so I need to open up the container to check the condition of the plants from time to time. I can leave seedlings in this setup for 6 months or more.

If you see the onset of fungi (fine strands of white), spray immediately with a mild fungicide (I use Captan.) Better still, soak the seeds in fungicide before you start.

Put the containers in a spot which is bright and not too hot. A windowsill is a good place. A place that is too hot will cause the pots to dry up quickly. Seedlings can get burned this way, and they will turn reddish brown and become weak.

Preparing the pots

Cleanliness is important. Use good quality soil, or don't use soil at all. I have not tried germinating seeds in a soiless mix so do check elsewhere if you want to try it. In Malaysia, you can buy high-quality soil used for bonsai (many nursery owners call it 'Japanese soil', see the Growing C&S Page) which is free of weeds, bugs and is very free draining. I use it for everything, from germinating seeds to large pots.

Spread the seeds uniformly on top of the soil, pressing the big ones down a little bit. You can put gravel on top if you want. I use coarse gravel that is sold in aquariums.

The initial size of seedlings can be very small, and take care not to bury seeds as they might not be able to make it back to the top of the soil. Cactus seeds are quite happy to lie on top of the soil; that's the way it's done in the wild anyway.

After sowing, spray the soil thoroughly. Soak up any excess water running from the bottom of the pot. While germination is taking place, maintain a nicely moist condition.


Astrophytum asterias seedlings
Some seeds will germinate in less than a day, while some only after a week or two. Most of the seeds which I have sown germinate within a month. For large seeds, a longer period of time may be necessary.There are techniques to speed up the germination of large seeds, please refer to books.

I usually remove seed coats stuck to seedlings as they germinate. Although I run the risk of damaging the fragile root at this point, a seed coat on the plant may trap water and cause fungi to grow. The seedling might also distort itself while trying to get rid of the coat.

After germination

Germination is in fact, quite easy. After germination comes the hard part of caring for seedlings, which I will cover in the Caring for Seedlings Page.

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  Last modified: 2002-08-26  Copyright © 1997-2002.  Kein-Hong Man.  all rights reserved