Deb Terrill is a syndicated columnist who monitors moths for the Nature Conservancy.

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Seeds in Situ
by Deb Terrill    

There’s a special thrill that comes from saying “I grew it from seed.” Try it and see for yourself.     

When I was a child, I spent many lovely, sunny hours in the garden of our neighbor Genevieve. It was a smallish yard, enclosed with a low picket fence, and made to feel private with great pools  of annual flowers that bloomed all summer. There were clouds of tall yellow blossoms I recall, and red vining things that spilled over the fence. I remember being drawn to the low patches of pink and blue petunias that spread out over the sidewalk and perfumed the air on still afternoons. 

Genevieve planted her flowers from seed each spring, sowing them directly into the prepared soil. This simple, inexpensive way of filling a garden with color seems lost today, but that needn’t be the case. Seeds are readily available, and even the busiest gardener can find time to directly sow a few packets. 

Select a spot in your garden to create a bed. Try for a space that gets plenty of sun all day and is accessible with a garden hose. If you have mostly shade, just be careful to choose plants that prefer it. Make sure the space is large enough to accommodate the big splashes of vegetation that will make the effort worthwhile. 

Prepare the soil by weeding thoroughly and raking to break up clumps and make it as smooth and finely textured as possible. Don’t work soil when it’s wet, especially if it’s clay-based. I like to prepare planting beds by sitting on the ground and taking my time breaking up the soil, crumbling it with my hands and working in some compost with a small hand rake.  

Cosmos spp.

You should not use any pre-emergent weed control products in these beds because they will prevent your seeds from germinating, too. After you have a smooth bed of prepared soil, select your seeds. 

Choose seeds that are labeled for sale in the current year and check the package to see that you are not buying something that has a very long germination period. Seeds that take more than 10 to 14 days to germinate may not be the best choice for direct sowing.  

Don’t buy too many kinds of plants. Try three to begin, and include plants with varying heights for an appealing display. A few flowers that do very well when direct-sown include larkspur, cosmos, annual vines, zinnia, daisies, poppies, four o’clocks, cleome, sweet peas and nigella. 

There is no reason why you cannot plant perennials in situ as well as annuals. But do remember that perennials and biennials generally don’t bloom the first year.  

Vegetable gardeners are better versed in planting from seed, but for those who are new to it, some garden plants are better off started under lights or purchased as transplants. Vegetables with taproots such as carrots, beets, radishes and parsnips do not transplant easily, so they are better off sown directly into the garden. The same is true of greens such as lettuce, spinach and kale. 

Early-blooming flowers such as poppies and violas can be directly sown very early, in March, but most seeds should wait until the soil warms up and the danger of frost has passed. You  may start peas and lettuce early too, in late March. I also like to plant lettuce and spinach in late September for a fall crop of greens. 

When you bring your seeds home, examine them before planting. Those that are large and easy to handle, such as beans or nasturtiums, will be planted more deeply than the finer seeds. The smaller the seed, the more light it needs to germinate, so fine seeds should be scattered on the surface and barely scratched into the soil. Soak larger seeds for up to 24 hours in tepid water. This will ensure that they are fully infused with water and won’t dry out as easily. Soaking will also speed germination. 

Tiny seeds can be soaked, too. They may then be mixed with sand to make them easier to broadcast over the soil. Many gardeners report that blanketing the bed with a thin layer of bagged seed-starting mix makes a better place for fine seeds to settle in and helps them hold moisture. 

Zinnia spp.

By starting your planting with a well-saturated bed and fully moist seeds, you will be able to get through brief periods of drying out without losing your planting. But you will still need to mist the soil daily with a gentle-spray hose wand. 

Rain is very helpful, but a hard rain can cause the seeds to float or clump into furrows and low-lying soil pockets. If at all possible, listen to the weather forecast and try not to plant when heavy rains are expected within the next week. If this does happen, just thin the seedlings and try tamping the extras into the empty spots. 

One of the joys of direct sowing is the bonus of having repeat plants in following years. Many flowers such as larkspur, four o’clocks, viola and poppies will self sow and come up year after year. I have a stand of blue larkspur that I planted 10 years ago and it still lines my walkway with a mist of blue flowers from May through June. The seeds fall at will and the volunteers move around a bit in the garden, but it is wonderful to find Johnny jump-ups and forget-me-nots popping up here and there among the vegetables and perennials … and the occasional sidewalk crack.


A version of this article appeared in Chicagoland Gardening Volume XX, Number 2.
Photos courtesy of Patsy Bell Hobson, Chuck Eirschele, and Bigstock-Pressmaster.


Posted: 03/29/16   RSS | Print


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