Growing Daylilies (Hemerocallis) From Seed: Part 2 – Starting Daylily Seed

In Part 1 of this series, we outlined our standard growing rack that holds twenty (20) standard 1020 nursery trays, capable of germinating and tracking up to 900 individual daylily seedlings. We also outlined some of the other materials you will need, including trays, pots, domes, potting mix, and more.

In this installment, it’s time to talk about how we go about planning for and planting the daylily seeds, and how we continue to grow them until moving them outdoors once the weather is favorable.

Tracking Your Seeds – Meticulous Record Keeping

Since pretty much all the daylily seed out there represents hybrid crosses (aka. greges / grexes), most growers want to keep good records of the plants they are working with. There must be many ways to do this, but for our purposes, we maintain spreadsheets where all relevant information is tracked and stored. Before you plant your very first seed in the dirt, you probably need to figure out how you’re going to keep your records. BORING…we know, but a necessary evil for many.

In the case of seeds we produce here in Duluth, each packet of seeds is issued a sequential number when the seeds are packed, and the spreadsheet includes that number, as well as the parental details (pod and pollen parents), the number of seeds in the packet (both the stated quantity, as well as any bonuses), the date the seeds were harvested, the date the seeds were packed and put into refrigeration, and who packed them. Over time, we use the raw data to sort through and identify seeds for selling, growing, and gifting. We even track when those seeds are sold or given away (and if so, who got them), or when we plant them here, and what tray they were planted in! And yes, we even track failures in storage.

We maintain a separate seed-starting spreadsheet each year, which documents all activity for the seed-starting season. All purchased seeds are logged in, as are any surprise bonuses we receive. Each packet is issued a unique ID number that includes the year, a 3-character abbreviation for the hybridizer, and a sequential number. Some also include a lot number, if they were purchased as part of a package offering. Examples of such a number would be something like 22-MTH-43 or 21-2MR-3, or 22-SSC-BKLOT47-23, 22-SCC-BKLOT47-24, 22-SCC-BKLOT47-25, etc. Along with this identification code, the parentage is again noted, as is the foliage type of each parent, the number of seeds (stated, and separately bonuses), the cost of the packet, and who the hybridizer was.

This information is important, but particularly the part where we note the number of actual good seeds in the packet, as this number is often different (higher) than the stated amount when we purchased or packed the seed. We use these actual seed counts to plan out each tray for planting, particularly if we are setting up an experiment, where we need exact numbers of seeds to be split up into multiple trays for whatever the experiment requires.

When it comes time to sow seed, we issue separate in-house Duluth Daylily seed codes that are just the year and a sequential number. Examples would be 21-142, 22-234, etc. Those numbers are assigned to a specific cross, which may represent multiple unique packets that all contained the same thing, or even in rare cases, the same cross may have been obtained from more than one grower! But that code is referenced back and retains the pod and pollen parent information, along with the date it was planted, and what tray it was planted in. The same code may wind up being used more than once in a season if the seeds are planted in several trays, but it always tracks back to the same base cross. We can look back at all our notes, and quickly do a search for a code (e.g. 21-178) to find all instances of it throughout a workbook.

Each tray gets its own sheet in the workbook, where the 45 seeds that are planted into it are recorded as well, again recording our internal seedling code, the original code we assigned to the hybridized (or if ours, noting the year of the harvest and the original packet numbers), once again also copying over the parental information and the number of seeds that were planted. The trays themselves are marked with green painter’s tape on both ends with the tray number and sowing date. The date the tray is planted is noted in the spreadsheet, and an area is given to track germination for individual seed codes, as well as leaving general notes and observations. The tracking generally ends when seedlings are consolidated or moved outdoors, but the 5-digit seed code remains with that seedling whether it is sold or planted.

Why go through all this trouble? Well, for starters, it’s really easy to write 21-178 repeatedly, vs. writing Smoke Scream X Yankee Pinstripes over and over and over again! We can always go back and reference the appropriate spreadsheet to figure out what something is, and we’re also making it a point to post them online once all the sowing is done (here are the 2021 harvest seed codes, for example).

On the topic of spreadsheet tips and tricks, we use a few spreadsheet capabilities to alert us to certain things as we work. For example, while pod and parent names are listed in individual cells, we also have a cell in each row that combines them into one singular text value. We then use conditional formatting rules that highlight cells with duplicate values; for example, we apply this functionality to the cells that contain the combined parentage, which helps us locate multiple packets of the same cross, regardless of the grower or time they arrived. We also use conditional formatting in other instances to again clue us into the fact that a cross has already been given a Duluth Daylily seedling code (because when you enter in the parental cross, it will be instantly highlighted in the column where the names are combined if it already exists in the sheet). We also use conditional formatting on our seed code column itself, so that we don’t inadvertently apply a number that’s already been used onto a second cross (but it does also show us where there were multiple unique instances of the same cross being planted at different times or in different trays). And finally, we utilize various cell background colors and font formats to keep track of the work we’ve done; e.g. a light peach background with italicized format on a row tells us the seeds have already been planted.

Ultimately, most seed growers develop their own methodologies for tracking all their work, and figuring out how we were going to do this here took a lot of thinking; no one had really put out a standardized way. And there is no right or wrong way, but lost information is hard to ever get back, so it’s best to record it now when you have it and do so in a manner that it can be accessed if the need arises. Some growers are happy to forego some or all of this record keeping, but we’re the type of growers who want to be able to share the parentage of everything we produce, and to learn as much as we can about what we’re doing. Good records can reveal wonderful insights.

Planning The Work

When it is time to plant, we gather up the seeds needed. Sometimes, we’re just planting a particular grower’s seeds, and we’ll just sit down with the seed packets and assign the sequential numbers. Other times, we’ve already planned out precisely which seeds we need, and we’ll go through each hybridizer’s bag to select what we’re looking for.

At this time, we’ll label the requisite number of pots. We apply the 5-digit code for the seeds to the exterior of each pot. We’ll then set those aside, with the seed still in their storage bag. Once we’ve got all the seeds planned out for an evening’s work, it’s finally time to plant.

Potting Daylily Seeds – Preparing the Workspace

With the seeds all sorted, and the pots all labeled, it’s time to actually sow the seed. We’ve found that the process of actually planting the seeds probably takes a good 30 to 45 minutes per tray, working patiently but diligently. It’s important not to rush; finding a daylily seed you dropped into the bowl of potting mix is challenging enough, but it’s even worse if you knock over a half-planted tray, at which point all your hard work may be ruined as you probably can’t figure out which seeds belonged in which pot…if you can even find all the seeds again!

We’ve found that our flat-top stove makes an ideal place for potting, as it is large enough to hold one or two trays, and has good supplemental overhead lighting! The countertop next to it makes a great staging area for the pots and seeds, and the potting mix.

Making The Potting Mix

As outlined in the prior installment, we use a potting mix that we make here, hand-mixing 2 parts all-purpose ProMix with 1 part coarse perlite. We mix this in the basement in a large mixing bowl, using a salad bowl to scoop the first part of ProMix, then the layer of perlite, and finally another scoop of ProMix. This is all then gently folded together. We keep mixing until the perlite appears evenly distributed throughout the mix. Of special note, unrelated to this particular task, we sometimes add a powdered fertilizer (for other growing projects), and we add this on top of the layer of perlite. When the perlite is evenly distributed, the fertilizer should be as well.

While this mix could be made ahead of time and in larger quantities, we do it as needed due to space limitations. Our mixing bowl doesn’t hold enough for all 45 pots in the tray, so we go through about three (3) mixing bowls for every two (2) trays worth of planting.

A total side note, this mix also cleans up really easily, so don’t worry about making a short-term mess. A handheld vacuum can get most all of it, and a damp paper towel captures any loose bits. Any mix that is stuck to your hands simply rinses away.

Planting The Daylily Seeds, One At A Time

We work with one cross at a time. In this manner, if there is a spill or accident, the odds are low that we ruin anything, as all the seeds are from the same cross. It’s not foolproof, but it does dramatically lower the risk. Before we commence, we normally empty the seeds from the packet onto a small salad plate, and we may test them with gentle pressure one last time to make sure no bad seeds are present.

We also have a clean and empty 1020 tray ready and waiting, and mark it on both exterior ends with green painter’s tape where we write the tray’s ID number and planting date (do both ends, or maybe even sides too, which makes it easier to see what tray you’re looking at and helps prevent loss in case one of the labels falls off…not that it’s ever happened, but it could).

To pot the daylily seeds, we first fill all the pots for the cross we are planting with the potting mix, quickly filling each with handfuls, not tamping it down much, and brushing off the excess so the contents are roughly level with the top of the cup/pot. we usually (but not always) place these pots on the worktop, and not in the tray.

We then create a small despression or hole in the top and center of the media by pressing the rear/back end of a ballpoint pen down into the mix about 1/8th to 1/4th of an inch (0.125-0.25″). We’ve found this is incredibly helpful in creating a target and cradle for each individual seed. It also helps ensure that the seed sprouts up in the middle of the cup, allowing for equal and balanced growth.

Once the pots are ready, we place one seed from the plate into each waiting hole; again, one seed per pot. Since these are small pots, a single seedling absolutely will fill up the cup by summertime (if not sooner), and this one-seed-to-one-pot method allows us to track the success or failure of every individual seed. For example, if a seed shows up albino, we can just lift the pot up slightly in the tray to find the code, and note it on our spreadsheet (as it was a viable seed, but won’t result in a viable seedling).

Once each pot has a seed, we sprinkle a pinch of potting mix over the seed and the hole, and then gently press the media into the cup to firm it up. There is usually just a little space now between the top of the substrate and the lip of the cup. The potted seeds are then placed into the tray; given that these are round pots that we use, the tray layout winds up being 9 pots lengthwise, 5 pots across, with each 9-pot run offset. The actual arrangement of the pots may vary depending on what we’re trying to accomplish, but if we’re just growing seed to grow them, we try to keep all the seeds of the same kind grouped together.

Watering In

Once the tray is full, we carefully walk it over to our kitchen sink, which has a really nice spray attachment. We turn the flow down as low as it will go and still produce a spray, and then lightly wet the tops of all the pots. Then, we wait, and usually move on to working on the next tray.

We’ll come back a few times to apply more water, always slowly, allowing the potting mix to slowly and evening soak it up. It’s hard to describe exactly, but the tray will become rather heavy, gaining significant water weight. Each individual cup also becomes rather heavy. If you’re not sure what you’re aiming for, practice with a single pot, and get the feel for how it should feel in your hands when it’s thoroughly watered, but not sopping wet.

Top Dressing

Something new that we’ve started in 2023 is top-dressing the pots with cinnamon. The reasoning is that it is said to significantly reduce fungus gnats, and so far, all signs suggest that’s true, but we haven’t put it to a formal test yet. It is also said that cinnamon is an anti-fungal, and may even help reduce “damping off”, although we’re less convinced of these statements at the moment.

So, for now, we’re simply giving the pots a very light dusting of cinnamon after we feel the pots are sufficiently watered. It’s not so much cinnamon that it creates a thick layer that blocks out all visible potting mix, but just a nice fine dusting. One upside…the trays smell divine (if you like the smell of cinnamon).

The Waiting Game

Once everything is potted and top-dressed, the tray is covered with a dome. All the dome vents are initially closed. The tray is then placed on the growing rack, and now we wait. We mostly leave the daylily seedlings illuminated 24/7, which at this time also provides constant heat to all the trays except those on the very bottom row.

As a side note, we believe that the bottom heat is beneficial, and are currently running experiments to test this hypothesis. It may be wise to start by placing trays on the top shelf and working your way down, and when you get to that last bottom shelf, move the presumably well-germinated top-row trays that you started a couple of weeks ago from the top down the bottom, putting your last four freshly planted trays on that top row.

While you wait for germination, you should not have to water the trays or pots at all. Most trays will develop condensation on the inside of the domes, and this is totally fine. This is a time to check the trays to ensure good humidity and water levels. If a dome loses condensation, things may be getting too dry. Even if there is condensation present, a tray can still be too dry. We use a quick lift of the tray on one end to gauge the weight of the tray. If it has become significantly lighter, a watering may be required. Also, look for any pots that change color and lighten up, particularly in the center of the trays that are over the lights for the shelf below them, as this means they’ve dried out! Dried-out seeds are not likely to give positive results! We’ve noted that the cinnamon top dressing may actually develop a fungal growth, but this appears to have had no negative impact, and seems to subside.

Germination can happen in as little as seven (7) days, but we feel most of the time we see the first germination of a seedling around ten (10) days. During this time, be patient. More will follow. Continue to monitor water levels, and do water lightly if things appear to be too dry.

Per our records, germination mostly occurs in the first month (30 days), and by two months time (60 days) there is very little chance of seeing more new seedlings pop out of the ground. But, long before this time, you’ll reach the point at which you start growing what has sprouted.

Hardening Off Daylily Seedlings

Plants grown in very high humidity tend to develop weak, filmy leaves, and can easily fail if they are not properly acclimated to lower humidity conditions. Additionally, the very high humidity can encourage fungus gnat problems, as well as other general problems with molds and bacteria.

Generally, once the majority of the seeds in a tray have sprouted, it’s time to open the first vent on the dome. This may occur as soon as 2 weeks after sowing. We usually start with one of the vents on the side. Within another week, we may open one of the top vents on the opposite side, and by a month’s time, all the vents are open. A week or two later, the dome may be entirely removed. This is all just an approximate timetable; you will need to figure out what works for you, but we’re of the opinion that less time spent under domes is probably better for the plants.

Watering and Fertilizing Daylily Seedlings Indoors

This is an area we have yet to experiment with, instead relying on some initial recommendations that worked well. Once seedlings are mostly up and have leafy growth, about the same time as the first vent is opened, we start bottom watering with tap water plus two fertilizers. Water is applied only as needed, in response to conditions, rather than a specific routine.

We use both liquid Miracle Grow, and Alaska brand fish emulsion. We start out at a lower dose, 1 tsp of each per gallon of water, but over time we’ll jump to 2 tsp of each per 1 gallon of water. Be careful with the fish emulsion, as it does stink, it does slightly irritate my (Matt’s) skin, and, if you overwater with it and it just sits there, oh boy it can stink up your entire house! Frankly, you might be entirely fine with skipping it; liquid Miracle Grow might be plenty enough.

To properly bottom water each tray, it takes between a quarter and a third of a gallon to wet all the seedlings up to about the bottom 0.25″ inch of the pots. If they soak up all the initial watering quickly (e.g. within 30 minutes) we may add more, but less, so as to not overwater. We try to strike a balance where the tray is heavy, and the substrate in all the pots is dark, but they are not swimming in a pool of water. If we feel like we have added too much, we may pour off the excess.

Watch for the telltale signs of when to water. First, we look at the bottom of the trays to see if there is any water or if they are dry. We tend to just lift up each tray an inch or two, and see how heavy it feels. When things are feeling lighter than usual, it may be time to water, particularly if the bottom of the tray is completely dry. If the tray feels absolutely light, or you start to see the color of the soil lighten (because the moisture has left) it is definitely time to water. You may find, in these instances, that pots may even “float” initially because they are so dry. You want to try to water before they get to this state, maybe the day or two prior. This is something you’ll learn to easily gauge with experience, and fortunately, daylily seedlings are forgiving. You are more likely to kill them by overwatering them initially when they are still germinating, vs. letting them get a little too dry later on. But, ultimately, just like any plant, if you wait too long, you will lose the plants.

Watch For Pests

In the prior installment, we mentioned using blue and yellow sticky traps to monitor for pests. The most likely pest you will encounter is fungus gnats, and they absolutely were a plague in our first year, although they didn’t seem to do much harm to sprouted seedlings. We did find them eating seeds (which had presumably already expired and were rotting). So far, the application of cinnamon appears to have substantially impacted or even eliminated this problem. But it may not work for you. If so, what to do?

A fungus gnat problem might point to overwatering, so evaluate what you’re doing there, and potentially cut back. There are so many options out there for controlling fungus gnats, but the traps will tell you if you have a true problem or just the odd gnat here and there. We found that adding Mosquito Bits (which contain BTI) to the bottom of the trays when bottom watering was helpful in controlling them. There is also a wide range of beneficial nematodes that can be purchased and applied as a spray, which can treat many pests. Of course, there are also various pesticides that can be applied. But, you’re growing indoors, likely where you live, so we’re inclined to encourage the use of biological controls first. Nature’s Good Guys has been a reliable source, should you be in need of any biological for use in your gardening.

Honestly, this, and damping off (which kills seedlings very early on) are the two main problems you’re likely to encounter. The rack system as designed seems to provide the heat and light to prevent damping off from occurring in our growing conditions, but the University of Minnesota has a great webpage about damping off where you can learn more about this problem.

Should you encounter other problems, we’ll simply note that we prefer to use organic-listed methodologies in our growing areas, since they are in our home and around all manner of animals.

If you encounter thrips, Monterey Garden Insect Spray (spinosad) is a highly effective treatment (it is sprayed all over at a rate of 1 Tbsp spinosad to 1-quart warm water). We also use Neem Bliss neem oil as a spray at times (1.5 tsp neem oil, 0.5 tsp dish soap to 1-quart warm water); it is effective against a wide range of pests, and also has anti-fungal properties.

And on a related note, if you are growing any houseplants, we’d highly recommend prophylactic applications of both neem and spinosad when bringing in any new plants; it could prevent a whole host of problems including spider mites, mealy bugs, thrips, scale, aphids, and who knows what else. We haven’t settled on a specific protocol, but lately we hit the plants with spinosad upon arrival, then an application of neem oil after a week, and a second application of neem at two weeks, then maybe a final application of spinosad at 3-4 weeks. We also use these types of treatments on any outdoor plant that we intend to bring inside over winter, starting the treatment outdoors and applying final treatments when they are brought in. New plants are always quarantined in areas away from our growing zones.

Growing Out Your Daylily Seedlings

Throughout the growing period, we leave the lights on almost constantly and have seen no ill effects from doing so, although every once in a while we’ll turn the lights off for a night. Whether there is a net positive to this practice or not is something we cannot answer. Some plants are known to suffer from 24/7 illumination, but many other plants will just keep going and growing. Perhaps someday we’ll devise an experiment to see if there is a benefit or not (it could certainly lower our electricity bill if we don’t need 24/7 lighting).

By two months’ time, the process of rearing daylilies indoors is simply growing plants. As the seedlings grow, they will consume more water and fertilizer, and you’ll have to make sure you’re staying on top of watering.

Opinions differ, but many growers will give their seedlings “haircuts”, trimming leaves back once or twice early in their growth. Generally, the first haircut might occur when the leaves hit the lights, and a second again at the same time. The thinking is that these trimmings encourage root growth over leaf growth. This is one of those scenarios where we’ve yet to be presented with compelling evidence that backs up the claims, and perhaps one day we’ll set out to test the question ourselves. There are times when daylily leaves are cut back, and it is the norm when shipping daylilies (the long, strappy foliage is pretty impossible to pack safely, and once it breaks, you’re not going to save it anyway). So, whether you give your seedlings a haircut or not is something we’ll consider to be personal preference at this point in time.

Regardless of whether you haircut your daylily seedlings or not, you will need to clean up and remove any dead foliage. This is normal, as the initial outer leaves die off and give way to larger, stronger leaves. Note, if you’re seeing this happen a lot, you might need to step up on watering; these outer leaves are the first to be shed if the plant is stressed and underwatered.

Moving Your Seedlings Outdoors

No matter what you do, nothing can really prepare your seedling for this next, big step. The biggest risk is sun damage. We move our seedlings outside after the last risks of frost have passed. We watch for a series of cloudy days in the forecast, which reduces the intensity of sunlight, and we initially place the trays of seedlings in shady locations. After a few weeks, the seedlings can generally be moved to anywhere we’d like with no ill effect.

We’ve wondered whether it might be easier to simply trim off all the foliage and move the seedlings straight into full sun, as the new foliage will grow already adapted to the higher light intensity and UV radiation that’s lacking from the LEDs. This might be something we choose to test in the future.

Of note, when you move the trays outdoors, they will require even more frequent monitoring and watering. At this point, it seems pretty difficult to overwater the daylily seedlings; some growers even have taken to growing their potted daylily in standing pools of water (they’re not aquatic or marsh plants, mind you). One last note; if the tray is not level, you’re going to have problems with some seedlings drying out much sooner than others. And, if it rains, the trays will flood, which can cause some of the potting mix to get washed out of the pots. Some of these problems can be avoided by switching to trays that have drainage holes, or by making this the point in time when you decide to plant your daylily seedlings in larger pots, or in the ground, ready for the next chapter of life.

If all goes well from here on out, you’ll be seeing your first blooms in a year or two. Our shortest time to bloom yet was 5 months, although it was a single bloom, and entirely wonky. But the seedling was 4-fans by the end of the first year, and we are hoping for quite a show in its second year!

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