Getting my act together, part 1: organizing seeds

I’ve been growing pollinator plants from seed for four years now. I’m embarrassed to admit that my seeds and planting process are always a disorganized mess. Now that I have some unexpected, extra time on my hands, I’ve resolved to sort this out once and for all.

A small selection of the native seed packets I’ve accumulated (March 18, 2020).

Missed opportunities

It’s a lot easier to collect and buy seeds than it is to manage them. Seeds need to be planted on time so they’re ready for spring. Most native plant seeds need cold treatment, like winter weather, before they’ll germinate. I prefer to plant native seeds in pots and put them out in the snow, so Mother Nature can babysit them, instead of me.

In January, after the Christmas fuss is over, and I’m keen to start gardening, I should first plant the seeds that need the longest period of cold treatment. Then, as winter progresses, I should plant the seeds that require fewer days of cold treatment. This is a great plan — in theory.

I planted native seeds in these pots and put them out in the snow for their cold treatment. The little fence sections, from Dollarama, keep the dog out of the pots and to prevent him from stealing the plant tags. I also laid a fence sections on top to discourage squirrels from digging in them when they thaw. (February 10, 2020)

Every year, I manage to leave some seeds too late to be planted outside. As a result, I’m just accumulating unused seeds. As they age, their likelihood of successfully germinating declines. They’re too precious, and hard to find, to waste.

Getting my native seeds in order

I’ve decided to organize all my seeds in old plastic bins by when they need to be planted. I arranged the native seeds according to Prairie Moon Nursery’s germination codes. For example, seeds that need 90 days of cold, moist stratification have the code C (90). According to Prairie Moon Nursery’s germination code system, seeds that don’t need any cold treatment are code A. By the time April or May rolls around, I can plant code A seeds right outside, or indoors under lights. This new system seems promising.

All my native plant seeds organized by when they need to be planted. The seeds that don’t require cold treatment, including grasses, are in the front. The rest of the seeds are divided into sections according to how much cold treatment they need, using Prairie Moon Nursery’s germination codes as a guide. (March 18, 2020)


While annuals don’t need cold treatment, many must be started indoors a number of weeks before our last frost date. This way, we make up for our shorter growing season by giving them a head start inside. Once again, because my seed stash is a mess, I lose track of what needs to be planted when. I arranged my annual flower and vegetable seeds by the number of weeks ahead of our last frost that they should be planted.

When, exactly?

Four weeks for this seeds, 60 days for that seed is still kind of vague. I need specific dates for when I should be planting each kind of seed.

For annuals it is relatively easy to figure out because each packet notes how many weeks before the last frost that seeds should be planted indoors. (Some that grow quickly can be directly planted outside.) Vesey’s Seeds in P.E.I. has a page listing Canada’s Hardiness Zones and Last Frost Dates. I marked Ottawa’s last frost date, May 1 to 10, on my calendar. (When I checked Ottawa’s last frost date a few years ago, it was March 18. I guess the shift is due to climate change.) I then counted backward on my calendar marking each week as ‘1 week before’, ‘2 weeks before’, and so on. Next, I matched up the number of weeks before frost date (2 weeks, 4 weeks, etc.) with the actual dates on the calendar. I wrote the dates on my seed bin dividers.

Now, I know exactly when to plant my seeds. It looks like I need to start right away. (March 18, 2020)

For the native seeds, it is a bit tickier. What date should I use to start counting backward? Wildflower Farm seed packets state that cold treatment should start X number of weeks “before outdoor night temperatures are reliably in the 10°C (50°F) range”. Online, I found average minimum daily temperatures for Ottawa, and around May 25th night time temperatures reach 10°C. Right now (March 20), I could probably still plant native seeds that require 60 days cold treatment right outside. What if we have a warm or early spring though? I decided to use the same May 1 – 10 start date that I used for the annuals. Again, I marked these dates on the calendar and on my seed bin dividers.

Need seeds?

If you don’t have a seed stash like me, here are a few of my favourite places to buy seeds online.

On to planting the seeds

Now I actually need to do something with all these seeds. More on that in my next blog post…

One thought on “Getting my act together, part 1: organizing seeds

  1. Hello what a beautiful garden you have. I’m just starting and joined the David Suzuki Foundations Butterflyway Ranger group and I could use some local Ottawa advice as to what to buy and where. I am trying to get up to speed but for this year at least it’s a bit of an uphill battle right now. I’m housebound for a while due to immune system so I can’t wait to get into my garden again. I turned my front yard into a garden many years ago but will need to change some things to make it a pollinator garden. I have space for more native plants and have recruited 5 other Butterflyway Ranger in Britannia Village who are hoping I can lead them….holy moly… I’m Linda….


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