For some reason around the holidays, stores seem to stock up on tiny little succulents. I have not figured out why these tiny pots spring up alongside displays of poinsettas, aside from a co-workers theory that they are popular as small gifts.
Mike has always been more of a succulent fan than myself – even though he’s had mixed success. The last one he got was a small kalanchoe that scarecely lasted a week before kicking the bucket. I must be swept up in the marketing, though, because I’ve been getting the itch to try some of these. I picked up a small $3 replacement for his panda plant and got online, did some research, and ordered some echevaria seeds. Because I like a project. And there’s something more fun about getting mixed seeds and not knowing EXACTLY what you’re going to get, especially because when it comes to echeveria there is a lot of variety (as a Google image search will attest).
Testimonials seem to imply that hobbyists have success with this as a project, but there’s a lot of big caveats. 1) Echevaria seeds are tiny (as you’ll see below). Seeds this small tend to have very low germination rates. 2) They need to be “Fresh”. Succulent seeds seem as though they’re a little finicky about how long they last. When you get them from a stranger, you never know how long the seller has had them sitting around. 3) They’re picky about temperature. My target here is 60 degrees… and apparently they will not germinate above 70 degrees. Shouldn’t be too hard in winter. 4) They need a lot of light. 10-13 hours a day. THAT might be a little more difficult in winter, but I can probably reconfigure my basement shop-light set up with some long chains.
All that being said, the other refrain about succulent seeds is … don’t give up. Germination can take place apparently anytime between three weeks to 180 days. So if you’re going to be waiting months, you want to be especially attentive to sterilization.
So here was my project for the evening:
- I pulled out my standard starter pots – 9 inch plastic solo/dixie style cups (With lips), and saucers that are repurposed old yogurt cups. These work exceptionally well as seed starters as rooting pots. I drilled and enlarged the holes in the bottom of the solo cups for draining, and then sterilized and washed them with diluted bleach and hot water.
- I grabbed some small pebbles out of a bucket on the patio I had been using to redo the garden pathway in the fall, and doused them repeatedly with boiling water to sterilize them.
- Then — refilled my “peroxide” spray bottle. This trick has served me well with indoor germination – taken from this site – using a diluted mix of 3 tablespoons of 3% hydrogen peroxide to 2 cups of water. Using that mixture for seed germination seems to help give seeds a nice boost and inhibits fungal growth.
- I filled a gallon ziploc storage bag (the “storage” type bag is key, the “snack” bags are not condoned for microwaving by the manufacturer), and prepared a mix of cactus/citrus potting soil with some extra perlite shaken in. I stuck that in a plastic bowl, and microwaved it first for 1 minute (and then again in 30 second intervals) until it hit 180 degrees. For sterilizing soil, 180 is your magic number. If you heat the soil too high, you can potentially release toxins that will harm your young sprouts. 180 for 30 minutes is your target. In the microwave method, the time it takes the soil to cool should help kill any stray seeds, bacteria, or fungus spores. Leave the bag vented while heating, and then seal when you hit 180 and wait.
- Once everything is cooled down, I put a layer of pebbles at the bottom of the cups for drainage, then filled the cups with the potting mix. I had mixed information on whether to tap the soil down or not – the instructions from the seed seller told me both to tap it down with a tamper AND to not tap it down at all — so I split the difference and lightly tapped.
- Then I tried a trick from the internet that I likely will not recommend – but will document here in case you’ve also seen it and contemplate it. The idea is that you spread a paper towel over the surface and hit the soil with a kettle of boiling water (to again help sterilize and also level out the top of the potting mix). The alternative recommendation is to sit the pots in a larger basin of water and let them saturate from below. I will likely NOT do the boiling water trick again, because it deformed my plastic pots a little bit from the boiling water, and seemed completely redundant. It took a while to let the soil cool down again before sowing, and I still had some misgivings about heat retention when it was time to seal the pots. I already microwaved this soil to get to perfect 180… and as I noted, 180 is the magic number, so why would you want to hit it with 200+ degree water? (Sadly I didn’t think about this until after the fact. Lesson learned, I guess.)
- While that cooled, it was time to turn to the seeds. They are so dust-fine, getting them out of the shipping baggie is problematic. The recommendation is to spoon some fine sand into the baggie and shake it up, and then directly spread this sand/seed mixture onto the top of the potting mix. I had a hard time telling how much of the seed I was getting out, since after shaking out the pouches I could see particles that COULD be either remnant seeds or particles of the sand. (This is one of the additional challenges of super-fine seeds… knowing how many you actually managed to get into the pot.)
- After that, a fine mist on top of the spray bottle of peroxide mix to moisten the sand, attach the lids, and wait.
- And finally, clean up, since I chose to do this all on my kitchen counter/sink and was instructed that I better disinfect everything after I had finished… and was a fitting coda to the boiling and disinfecting of the past hour.
Now I wait… hopefully I see results in less than 180 days to know if all this fiasco was worth it!