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If you want to grow the best, the latest or most unusual flowers or vegetables, if you want to stand out from the gardening crowd, you must go . . . : From Packet to Plant

TIMES GARDEN EDITOR

Pliny the Younger did it. So did Thomas Jefferson.

In fact, in earlier times, growing from seeds was the only way to grow just about everything. But almost no one practices this mysterious art anymore. That’s what nursery packs are for, right?

Yet starting flowers and vegetables from seeds remains the only way to grow certain plants, such as the newest tomato or latest flower, or any of the thousand or so flowers and vegetables available in seed catalogues but not in nursery six-packs.

And there’s no mystery to it. Growing from seeds is easy, especially in Southern California, once you know a few simple rules. A couple of almost forgotten tools you can make yourself and some new high-tech stuff can help. All it takes is patience.

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Agatha Youngblood, whose eye-filling Rancho Santa Fe garden graces the premier issue of Home Garden (and the March 14, 1993, issue of the Los Angeles Times Magazine), points out that you can’t buy at nurseries all of the exquisite flowers she grows. “You have to grow some from seeds,” Youngblood said.

She’ll also tell you it’s an extremely satisfying way of growing plants, especially for children, who properly view the whole process with wonder, but also for adults.

“It makes you feel like such a gardener,” said Sally Wenzlau, a member of Pasadena’s Diggers garden club, who has an equally enviable flower garden. She too can show you flowers, such as a deep-blue columbine, that she had to grow from seeds. There was no other source.

Starting plants from seed is not nearly as mysterious or difficult as it seems. Most have simple requirements--a good soil, constant moisture (but not soggy), and they must be planted at the proper depth.

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Some also need warmth, which is why Eastern publications are always talking about starting seeds indoors. Here in mild Southern California, it is much easier to start them outside, in the ground or in containers. Diseases are more likely indoors, and the seedlings will “etiolate,” or bleach, and stretch for the light, which gets them off to a spindly start.

Outdoors, seedlings remain short and tough, which makes for sturdy plants that don’t topple or fall, or “damp off,” a disease that withers newly sprouted seedlings.

Some seeds are best sown directly in the ground, root crops in particular, but also a few flowers, such as larkspur and zinnias. When sowing in the ground, make sure that the soil is finely pulverized, with no clods of any kind, and raked level. And don’t plant the seeds too deep.

A clever old tool called a “seed boat,” shown on the cover, uses a “keel” to will make the proper depth seed trench, so seeds aren’t planted too deep. Keels one-half and one-quarter inch deep will make the proper trench for most vegetable seeds.

Run the handle along a string tied to stakes and you’ll also get amazingly straight rows.

Or use seed tape, a paper tape with seeds inside, which gives you straight rows and properly spaced seedlings, though it doesn’t help with planting depth. (W. Atlee Burpee is one source.)

It’s hard to evenly space seeds in the planting trench and most people end up planting way too much, with the seedlings wastefully clumped together.

A way around this is to use coated seeds. Colored organic coatings make seeds more visible against the soil. (Nature tends to do the opposite, coloring seeds like soil so they are invisible to birds.) Coated seeds are also easier to handle since they are slightly larger. Unfortunately, only some seeds are coated, and catalogues seldom tell you which ones are.

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To protect emerging seedling from birds and bugs, cover them with one of the new “row covers,” lightweight fabrics that let sun and water in but keep critters out. As plants grow, they simply push the fabric up, so lay it on loosely and tuck the edges into the soil. Most seed companies and some nurseries carry them, under a variety of names, such as Agryl, Harvest-Guard, Tuffbell and others.

There are some good reasons to sow seeds in containers and then transplant them into small pots and finally into the ground. It helps protect seedlings from bugs and birds, you can provide a better soil, and weeds aren’t a problem. When seedlings first sprout, it can be difficult telling weeds from seedlings.

You can sow seeds in all sorts of containers, but it is hard to beat the old-fashioned wood flats since they help insulate the soil and keep it moist. If you have a handsaw, hammer and a few nails, build your own from redwood 1-by-4s and bender-board, the thin wood sold to edge lawns. Twelve inches wide by 18 inches long, and 4 inches deep, is a convenient size.

Fill to within a half-inch of the top with fresh potting mix (the kind sold by the bag at nurseries), and pack it down with the row-maker, pictured on Page 1, which is made from the leftover redwood. It’s as long as the flat is wide and pressed into the soil on edge.

Seeds must be kept moist, especially overnight, which means you may have to water them as often as twice a day.

Use a very fine spray to water; special nozzles with lots of little holes are available at nurseries, or use a mist nozzle. Or get a watering can made for seedlings, such as the English Hawes with the fine rose (the proper name for a watering can nozzle) that faces up.

You should water seedlings upside-down, that is, with the nozzle pointing up, so the spray goes up and then arches down as naturally as a light rain.

Most seed packets suggest how deep to plant seeds and this is critical. Seed that doesn’t germinate is usually covered with too much soil.

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Packets also suggest how far apart to plant seeds. Don’t think that planting lots of seeds close together will ensure that some germinate.

Keep flats in a sunny location in winter and spring, a partially shaded place in summer and early fall. The more sun you give them, the less likely they are to succumb to diseases or to etiolate.

Keep them up off the ground, away from sow bugs (who usually prefer decaying matter) but especially snails and slugs that relish seedlings. Patience is again required for the seeds to grow to transplanting size. This may take several more weeks. Most gardeners move seedlings out of the flats and into old nursery packs or tiny pots (such as the those made from this newspaper, pictured on the first page of this section). Peat pots are not recommended in California because they dry out too quickly.

Transplant the seedlings from the flat when the first pair of true leaves appear. (The odd round leaves that initially sprout are actually part of the seed and not true leaves.)

Use a “dibble” to help with the transplanting. Dibbles are used like tiny trowels, and you can make one from a piece of wooden dowel. Use it to pry out the seedling and punch a planting hole. The Widger, an improvement on this old, old tool, really looks like a little trowel. (Ecology Action is one source for Widgers and kits to make redwood flats.)

A few weeks later, the transplants should be ready to go into the garden.

The whole process takes about six to eight weeks and is really not much of a mystery at all. The only real puzzle is how so much life can be packed into that little bundle called a seed.

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Seed rack for garden shed or garage designed by Barbara Miller; available at Heard’s, Westminster, or Hortus, Pasadena. Seed boat diagram from “Vegetables in the California Garden,” by Ross Gast, 1933.


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