Saturday, March 28, 2020

A Seedy Proposal

There are things in life that are hard:  brain surgery, getting a two year old to stay in bed,  running a marathon, finding a parking spot in DC, trying to find toilet paper during the quarantine, etc. But growing plants from seed shouldn't be one of them. Yet every year I read articles that make starting seeds sound like the botanical equivalent of calculus. It's actually quite easy.


Gomphrena seedlings

I started growing all my annuals from seed years ago when I realized most of the plants sold in our local garden centers are full of systemic pesticides. Gardening with their plants was like serving a feast and poisoning the guests. To guarantee I was successful, I started with the easiest plants I could grow - zinnias and worked up from there. Hundreds of plants later, here are a few things I've learned:

1. Don't waste your money on special seed starting soil, seed trays or tiny seed starting pots. Just take a small pot or plastic drink cup that you've poked a few holes into the bottom of and fill them with high quality potting soil. This reduces how much transplanting you'll need to do and gives the plants more room for root growth. Moisten the soil first and then fill the pots. Write the name of the seed on the pot to keep you organized. 




Rudbeckia hirta is very easy to grow.

2. Buy heat mats and grow lights. Unless you happen to live in a greenhouse, your plants hate your windowsill. It's cold and probably doesn't get enough light.  Your initial investment will pay off when you save money at the garden center. Turn the lights off after 12 hours but leave the heat mats on.



I wrap the light stands in aluminum foil to keep the plants warmer and prevent the light from diffusing into the basement.

3. Unless your seeds are big and round, sow them on the surface of the soil, spritz them with a water bottle that has a nozzle with a mist setting, and cover the pot or cup with a plastic bag. Unless the seed packet specifically states the seeds need darkness to germinate, they all need warmth and light. Once the seeds start to germinate, remove the plastic bag and use it again next year. For larger seeds, just barely poke them beneath the surface. 



'Brad's Atomic' tomato and dahlia 'Watercolor Mix' seedlings



I save containers from my summer annuals and reuse them every year since I always grow some of the same plants.

4. Be patient. Seeds are like people. They don't all grow at the same time.



Grow lights on the shelves


and even more in the middle of the basement because being able to actually move around is massively overrated.


I have about 100 plants!



Gomphrena seedlings after being transplanted.

5. Expect some seeds not to germinate and some seedlings to die or grow weird. That's life and it's no big deal. Don't overwater or the seedlings will rot. 

6. It's not too late to start seeds and it's a great way to fill those quarantine hours. 

Here's what I'm growing: monarda citriodora; 'Bergamo Bouquet' monarda; 'Frosted Flames' and 'Floral Showers Purple' snapdragons; 'Perfume Deep Purple' nicotiana; cardinal climber; 'Summer Jewel Red' and 'Summer Jewel Lavender' salvia;  gomphrena 'Mixed Colors'; 'Brad's Atomic' tomatoes; rudbeckia hirta 'Sahara', 'Chim Chiminee', 'Prairie Sun', and 'Denver Daisies'; Chinese foxgloves; dahlia 'Watercolor Mix'; and all these zinnias - 'Jazzy Mix', 'Aztec Sunset', 'Lilac Emperor', 'Mighty Lion', 'Raggedy Anne'; and cosmos 'Cosmic Red''Sonata White''Apricot Lemonade', 'Xanthos' and 'Apollo Carmine'.    


Here are a few pics of the plants I grew from seed last year:



Rudbeckia hirta (black eyed susan's) with red perennial monarda and agastache.


Rudbeckia hirta with little dahlias and cosmos


Starting dahlias from seed is very easy.

I started most of these seeds in late January but will be starting the cosmos next week. All of these can still be started now, especially if you live in a cooler climate. Normally, I wouldn't have started some of these seeds so early but with the distressingly Orwellian turn our sick government and environment have taken, I'm expecting a short, warm spring and a long, hot summer. The pollinators and I need them to be ready. The entire planet needs them to be ready. 




Purple and white gomphrena in October.

29 comments:

  1. Have you tried winter sowing? It's even simpler, with great results. No grow lights needed, and yes, it works in your zone. You don't need lots of snow or freezing winter temperatures.

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    1. I've winter sown before and it definitely has its merits but I prefer to grow under lights.

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  2. Great post, Tammy! It's funny how we all have little tricks and shortcuts that work for us. It is such a wonderful hobby and a great way to start plants and save money. :)

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    1. Thanks, Beth! By starting plants from seed, you can grow plants that aren't available at local nurseries. I love all the options!

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  3. You make seedy look good, Tammy! I don't have the indoor space for lots of seeds (although I did buy myself a small light/heat map set-up years ago); however, I direct sow more and more each year. My larkspur (Consolida ajacis) and sweet peas have been woefully slow about getting to bloom stage this year but they're getting ever closer and, barring a heatwave following our colder-than-usual winter and early spring, they should arrive soon.

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    1. Thanks, Kris! I love starting my own plants from seed. We grew sweet peas when I was a kid in Oceanside but they've never done well here. We had barely any winter at all.

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  4. Goodness....please tell me you haven't had brain surgery and are struggling to get a two year old grand to bed??????
    Lovely to see you back and a fab post. Loving what you're growing and how you're growing it.xxx

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    1. I've never had brain surgery and am way too young to have grandkids but I remember how hard it was to keep my kids in bed when they were toddlers. Thanks for the love!

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  5. I always admire people that do these major seed starting processes. I would like to do this but I have no room in the house, no basement and no greenhouse. I have resorted to sowing seeds directly in the ground. I have had good results. I don't know why I have waited so long to do so. I like your choices of plants too. All look so pretty together. Cheers.

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    1. Seed starting used to seem difficult and mysterious to me but then I realized it was just a matter of learning what to do and decided if other people could learn, so could I. I direct sow, too, but love the thrill of having my own personal greenhouse set up in my basement.

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  6. Thanks Tammy! I never thought about starting dahlias from seed. That is a great idea. I did a seed starting blog also, and since I have a greenhouse, my greenhouse is overflowing with seedlings. I also reuse old nursery pots.

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    1. The dahlias I start from seed are small. The tallest they've ever grown is about 3 feet but are usually about 2 ft tall. I have a super cheapo snap together greenhouse on my back patio that I'll take down once it warms up and stays warm. I will definitely check out your post!

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  7. Hi Tammie! Great post - practical and clear. Your own setup is impressive. I'm doing some seed starting these days. but I wish I had more space for grow lights.

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    1. Thanks, Jason! The set up is actually really simple. It's how large it is that makes it seem noteworthy. I used to be intimated by seed starting but now I love it.

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  8. It's nice to read something lighthearted in the midst of all our problems. I am deeply envious of all those seedlings!! What money it must save you and how wonderful all those plants must be come summer. Sadly I have neither grow lights nor heat mats. Add to that my basement is as freezing as an unheated garage. I do hope to grow more from seed this year though. Hopefully the weather will warm enough to get going in a few weeks time. Take care Tammy! I hope you and your two kids stay safe and well.

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    1. I'm done with the doom and gloom. Yeah, life's in the shitter right now but there is beauty to be found and created every day. My family and I are doing well! Everyone is healthy. Starting seeds is addictive because it's so exciting to see them grow. The first seeds I ever started were tomato seeds and I used a grow lamp attached to an empty wine bottle I'd filled with gravel to hold it upright on the kitchen counter. It was weird looking and took up space but I didn't care. I was growing a tomato from seed!

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  9. Well look at that, years of trial and error and you just summed up everything I've learned in one post! Excellent information, so much better than the usual stuff which people collect in a google search and copy and paste, this is the real deal :)
    The gomphrena look great. I've got a few sown but it might be that my garage is cooler than they want so we will see when they show up. Even if they don't I suspect there will be some really nice gardens out there this summer.

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    1. Thanks! This is definitely the real deal! Gomphrena want to be warm and if the conditions are right, you'll have loads of seedlings. My seeds germinated very quickly.

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  10. You have such an industrial set up and the results look amazing! I've generally done very little from seed as I have mainly shrubs, trees and perennials that I divide or grab from cuttings. The large border we're making in the garden will be be filled with plants done from seed through as it's too large to full with garden centre-grown plants.

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    1. Thanks! My basement smells like plants and potting soil. I love it! Your back border is really big so starting from seed will save loads of money.

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  11. You are super well organised with all your grow lights. I always grow more plants than I need but it is such fun.

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    1. Thanks! I tend to be a very organized person. I have loads extra but several are headed to friends' gardens and I will have no problem finding spots for the rest in my own garden.

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  12. Tammy you truly take this enterprise to another level and well done you !
    You explain it all in practical measure .. so anyone who wants to do this has a clear blueprint to follow.
    I however .. am so NOT a seedling mom .. it is like putting up a "wanted poster" and I am the villain .. plain and simple .. that also goes for almost every houseplant I have executed in my life .. so far this little fern under Lee Valley grow light has escaped the death sentence .. so far !
    How weird is it I am a proficient outdoor gardener but fail spectacularly at the above mentioned plant activity.
    There maybe a Freudian explanation in there some where ... but for now .. I won't kill seedlings, or house plants that aren't looking at me constantly while I am on my computer ? .. again though, you are doing an amazing job!

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    1. Thanks! I'm not a fan of houseplants but I love starting seeds under lights. I have two houseplants and one is usually being chewed on by the cat. I like the challenge of starting seeds. I learn something new every year. I always grow way more plants than I need and I love being able to give the extras to friends.

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  13. I haven't done a lot of seed starting to date, but this year, I signed up for a community garden plot with lots of sun. It might be too late to get them started, but I'm thinking maybe I can can sow a few directly on the ground? It may not work, but if it doesn't, it's a mistake I can afford. Great post, btw, with lots of good pointers. Wish me luck! :D

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