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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.