by Miriam Hansen
Well we’ve rung in the New Year and I couldn’t resist running a photo of the beautiful lettuce, spinach and cruciferous greens growing in January in our single-ply greenhouse with a door that doesn’t fully shut. We transplanted those greens into the greenhouse at the end of October. I’ve never started them this late and had them full grown this early. The whole question of time and timing is one that plays a huge part when you are trying to figure out which seeds to discard and what to order.
With the exception of the onion family, whose seeds are only really viable for one year, vegetable seeds will still germinate at decent rates for two to five years with the cabbage family closer to five and the carrot family closer to two or three. Seed for annual flowers should last from one to three years and perennial flowers one to four. I usually try to order seed in small enough quantities that there are few packets to discard.
I order most of my seed from Fedco, with Johnny’s as a runner-up. So far I’ve only ordered flower seeds. I splurged and bought them from Parks, because they have certain cultivars like the dwarf snapdragon Twinny series that are only available from them. But I discovered a new catalog — Pinetree Garden Seeds in New Gloucester, Maine. It is a self-described “family owned and operated business since 1979, founded with the simple mission of offering low prices on quality seeds to home gardeners.” Pinetree has an extensive list of flower, vegetable, herb and perennial seeds, with average prices below $1.50 a packet. That is half to a third those of Park’s! So I made two flower seed orders this year. I’m excited.
Many people still buy annuals and perennial flowers to transplant rather than growing them from seed. There are reasons for this. For one, flower seeds can be tricky to germinate. If you are new to starting flower seeds indoors, I’d suggest starting with easy ones like marigolds, calendula, cosmos and zinnias. What makes these easy is in part because their seeds are fairly large. With many flowers, the seeds are so tiny they need to be broadcast on the surface and watered in rather than covered. Another issue, and this is most true with perennial flower seeds, is that the seeds can require a period of chilling or freezing, scarification (nicking the seed), and very particular day and night time temperatures. On the other hand, if you want one or two dozen of something, paying a couple of dollars for seed will save you a lot of money compared to buying the plants in flats.
Some of the perennials I’ve found fairly easy to start from seed have been pinks (dianthus), penstemon, salvia, iberis (candytuft), doronicum, lupin, nepeta (catmint), oriental poppies, columbine and delphinium. While I’ve had good luck starting poppies, I’ve done so in individual pots because they have tap roots and don’t like to be transplanted from flat to pot.
Even annuals can have stringent germination requirements. The wonderful cleome, for instance, which readily self-seeds, is tricky to grow indoors from seed. After a few years of trying, I decided to just get a few plants from a friend who has them as welcome volunteers in her garden. While this has worked and they now self-seed for me, something in my stubborn nature has impelled me to try one more time. I’ve purchased a $2 packet of Sparkler Blush cleome from Pinetree and will follow the germination recommendations — chill seed in the refrigerator crisper for a week, sow and barely cover the seed and give warm temperatures to the flat during the day and cool temperatures at night. This is obviously a lot of trouble to go to but if it means I’ll have a huge clump of Sparkler Blush cleome blooming from July to October, I’ll do it.
Aside from conditions for germination, perhaps the most important piece of information on the seed packet is the number of days from planting or transplanting to maturity — in the case of vegetables — or bloom in the case of flowers. That number of days tells you how early to plant it and whether this is a plant that will mature and/or thrive in our climate. Check the zones in which the plant is hardy. We are zone 4 in Central Vermont, but there are often protected areas around a house that are closer to zone 5. This gives us a lot of options.
A friend asked me whether I’d ever grown the gorgeous lisianthus. I had not, but gamely looked it up. A biennial in zones 8-10, it can be grown as an annual this far north. BUT. It takes six months from seeding to flower. It is tricky to start, requires constant temperatures of 70 to 75 day and night and 16 hours ½ to 1 inch from a bank of grow lights. All this to say, before you order your flower seeds to start indoors, look at the particulars of germination and maturity requirements. See whether it tolerates transplanting. Try to find a picture of the whole plant in bloom. Frequently pictures in catalogs show close ups of the flowers. That doesn’t tell you much about what it will look like when it is in your garden. Be a bit adventurous. If there’s something you’ve always wanted to grow a lot of, look it up and see whether it’s feasible. But for the main, stay with the tried and true.