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Feb. 19, 2004

In the Garden

Starting from seed


[photo of seedling trays with labels]I HAVE ALWAYS CONSIDERED SEEDS to be a kind of currency between gardeners. When I trade a packet of seeds with a friend, I am passing along more than the offspring of some overabundant plant in the garden. I am also sharing history, lore, wisdom and affection.

When my friends in Albuquerque bought their first house, I went out to the garden in late summer and thought, "Hmm, New Mexico. Desert sand, adobe, heat, drought. What do they need?" Before long, I'd filled a bag with the seeds of cosmos, Maximilian sunflower, and scabiosa. They scattered those seeds in the back yard, and now, year after year, the brilliant yellows, hot pinks, and wild reds of those flowers rise against their warm adobe walls. In autumn they go to seed, and in the spring the message that I sent from my garden speaks to them again.

It's reassuring to know that the offspring of my best-loved flowers are out there, in other cities, other time zones. Computer experts tell you to store a back-up of your files away from home; sending seeds out to friends accomplishes the same goal. Just last weekend my friend Sue called to check on the yellow hollyhock seeds she'd sent me. I told her the plants had reached 8 feet tall and were still covered with seed pods. "Great," she said. "Those came from a friend of mine, and hers didn't come up last year. Can you send some seeds back?" With pleasure, I told her.

What intrigues me most about seeds is the way in which a seed tells its parent's story. A flower that sheds light-as-air, nearly invisible seeds depends on wind to carry on the family name. Carrots, chamomile and poppy seeds are so tiny that they fly out of my hand if I try to plant them on a windy day, and for good reason: A gardener can do in a chamomile seed by digging too vigorously and burying it too deeply. The tiniest seeds just want to be scattered on the surface of the earth and watered lightly into the ground, the way they would if a good wind whipped up and brought with it a sudden rain.

Some plants that evolved in areas with colder winters produce seeds that are accustomed to a long chill before they germinate. Penstemon and columbine are two such flowers that do best if the seeds spend a long, cold winter underground. You can mimic this natural process by stratifying the seeds -- layering them between moist paper towels or peat moss, sealing them in a plastic bag and keeping them in the refrigerator for a month or two.

Other seeds, like sweet pea and morning glory, have a hard coat that may only break down after it has passed through the gut of a bird. But gardeners can even imitate this relationship between seed and bird: A metal file or blade works well to nick a seed coat; smaller seeds that require this treatment (called scarification) respond well to a good rubbing between sheets of medium-grade sandpaper.

My husband just shakes his head when he reaches in the refrigerator for the jam and pulls out a bag of damp peat moss instead. And I do look rather silly hunched over the cutting board, reading glasses perched on my nose, trying to make delicate cuts in a seed coat without splitting the seed in half. It seems like a great deal of effort to go through for something as simple as a flower, and perhaps it is. But gardening is all about anticipation and plans for the future. A handful of seeds represents something to a gardener: It speaks of potential, the promise of a fresh start in spring and an abundant summer to follow.

Whether the seeds come from your garden or from a catalog, here are some suggestions for getting them started this year:

Be choosy. Some plants just aren't as easy to start from seed. I've never understood, for instance, why so many catalogs sell lavender plants from seed. Most lavender sold in the nursery is grown by propagation because they are so difficult and time-consuming to grow from seed. In fact, many perennials aren't worth the trouble of starting from seed. Also, some annuals, like pansies and snapdragon, are so inexpensive that it is just easier to buy them in flats from the nursery.

Handle with care. Store seeds in a cool, dry place. Even a small amount of moisture can bring on premature seed germination and reduce their viability.

Indoors or out? Make sure you know whether seeds should be started inside or sowed directly where they are to grow. Carrots and poppies, for instance, put down long taproots that make transplanting difficult, so plan on sowing them outdoors. Summer vegetables, annual herbs and cut flowers like larkspur and bachelor button are excellent choices for growing indoors. You'll get a head start on the summer season and you may be able to choose more interesting varieties or colors than you could if you bought them at the nursery.

Give seeds warmth and light. You don't need an expensive grow light to grow seeds indoors, but you do need a strong light source. I use ordinary shop lights from the hardware store with one "warm" and one "cool" fluorescent tube in each light. Hang the lights so that they are only a few inches above the seedlings, and plan on adjusting them as the seeds grow taller. Most seeds won't germinate until soil temperatures reach 60 to 70 degrees, so if you are starting your seeds in a chilly basement or greenhouse, consider buying an electric heating mat (available at nurseries), which sits under the seed trays and provides an even source of warmth.

Give worms a chance. You didn't think I'd miss a chance to talk about earthworms, did you? Researchers at Ohio State University have demonstrated that mixing one part worm castings to four parts growing medium (such as a bagged seed starting mix) will get plants grown and out the door a week earlier -- and they'll be healthier, too. If you want to hear more good news about worms, I'll be teaching a worm-composting workshop at Miller Farms on Saturday, Feb. 21, at 10:30 a.m. Call 839-1571 to register.


 garden-related announcements and news to Amy Stewart.


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