Favorite Heirloom Garden Flowers from Seed

Heirloom garden flowers
Heirloom garden flowers are perfect for informal cottage gardens.

Imagine a sweeping cottage garden of China pinks, petunias, and marigolds interspersed with a tangle of colorful sweet peas and lacy love-in-a-mist. Old fashioned flowers such as these remain in vogue for the same reason our grandmothers grew them. They are lovely, easily grown from seed, and their seeds can be collected from year to year—making them perfect for gardeners on a budget.
Choice heirloom flowers are brightly colored, long-blooming, and easy to manage. Quite a few have the added bonus of being highly fragrant, because fragrance was considered an important floral trait from Victorian times to the mid-nineteenth century.
The majority of these flowers are best started indoors from seed at the beginning of the growing season, but several can be started outdoors. Our favorites will be sure to add value to your flower garden and containers this season.

Top 10 Heirloom Flowers from Seed

China pinks (Dianthus chinensis)

China pinksThese highly fragrant, short-lived perennials thrive where summers are cool and have frilly blooms in shades of red, white, and pink. Most reach a foot in height and are perfect for sunny border edges. Try the lovely Single Flowered Mix from Select seeds with single flowers in mixed colors. Start seeds indoors in February or March. 

Heliotrope (Heliotropium arborescens)

HeliotropeThese bushy, sun-loving bedding plants reach 2 to 3 feet and develop broad clusters of small, sweetly fragrant purple, lavender, or white flowers that attract butterflies. Remove old flower heads for repeat bloom all season. The very old variety ‘Amaretto‘ has pale violet flowers that smell of almonds. Start these from seed indoors in February.

Sweet Pea (Lathyrus odoratus)

Sweet peaSweet peas are some of the most fragrant cool-season flowers. The delicate, tendriled vines require light trellising. Long-stemmed clusters of sweet-smelling flowers appear by late spring and are perfect for cutting. The antique ‘Perfume Delight’ is especially fragrant and more heat tolerant than most. Start sweet peas indoors from seed in February or March.

Sweet Alyssum (Lobularia maritima)

Sweet AlyssumThe ever-blooming nature of this small, fragrant garden annual has made it one of the best for border and container edges. It blooms well in both hot and cool weather with clusters of tiny white, pink, or purple flowers. Try the honey-scented Gulf Winds mix from Renee’s Garden Seeds, which has flowers of light pink, rose, lilac, and white. The seeds are very fine, so be sure not to accidentally plant too many when starting them indoors. Start these no later than March.

Marigolds (Tagetes hybrids)

MarigoldLoads of warm-hued heirloom marigolds are still available to brighten contemporary flower beds. These tough sun lovers shine through the most difficult summers, keeping gardens looking good through the swelter. For garden edges, choose the 1903 heirloom French Marigold ‘Legion of Honor’. Its fragrant flowers are dark orange with gold edges. Small-flowered signet marigolds are also uncommonly showy with their ferny foliage and bushy habits. Plant seeds in March for late-May planting.

Jasmine-Scented Tobacco (Nicotiana alata)

Jasmine-Scented Tobacco The white blooms of jasmine-scented tobacco are most fragrant at night and pollinated by moths. The tubular flowers appear on plants reaching 3 to 4 feet high. This heat tolerant annual will tolerate some shade and will bloom well into fall. High Mowing Organic Seeds sells seeds for this old-fashioned beauty. Cut back the old flower stalks to encourage flowering. Start the seeds indoors no later than March. (Image by Carl E. Lewis)

Love-in-a-Mist (Nigella damascena)

Love-in-a-MistUnusual lacy flowers make love-in-a-mist especially charming in the garden. The flowers may be violet-blue, purple, white, or pink. Once they have finished flowering, their dry seed pods are also visually interesting and useful in dried arrangements. They do tend to self-sow, so expect lots of seedlings to appear the following season. They flower best in cool weather and are short-lived, so they can be started both in early spring and late summer for two seasons of bloom.

Old-Fashioned Petunia (Petunia hybrid)

Old-Fashioned PetuniaHeirloom petunias tend have looser habits that require regular pruning, but they are also charming and free-flowering. One of the most unique of the seed-grown heirlooms is ‘Old-Fashioned Climbing‘. This pretty rambler has highly fragrant flowers in shades of purple, lavender, and white that bloom above the foliage. Start the seeds no later than March for summer enjoyment.

Scarlet Sage (Salvia spendens)

Scarlet SageOlder varieties of scarlet sage are taller and bushier but no less free flowering. The tall and elegant ‘Van Houttei’ is one of the earliest cultivated forms. The bushy 3- to 4-foot variety thrives in heat and becomes covered with spikes of deep red blooms that attract the hummingbirds. Pinch back spent flowering stems to encourage more flowers! Start the seeds in February or March.

Growing Heirlooms from Seed

Some heirlooms, such as love-in-a-mist, can be directly sown in the ground outdoors, but most are best started indoors. Start your seeds in seed trays fitted with six-pack flats, which give growing flowers enough space for root and shoot growth. Fill the flats with premium OMRI Listed Black Gold Seedling Mix, which holds moisture and drains well.  Moisten the mix before planting for easier watering after planting. If planting your new seedlings in containers, choose Fafard Ultra Container Mix with Extended Feed, which feeds flowers for up to 6 months.
Fafard Ultra Container Mix with Extended Feed and RESiLIENCE packFollow seed packet instructions for planting guidelines and expected germination times. Smaller seeds usually need to be lightly covered with mix while larger seeds require deeper planting. Plant each cell with two to three seeds to make sure you get at least one seedling per cell. You only want one seedling per cell, so pinch out the weakest seedlings that germinate and leave the largest. Seeds often sprout best in temperatures between 68-73º F. Warm-season annuals germinate faster if flats are placed on heat mats.
Good light is important for strong growth. You can either start your seeds in a sunny, south-facing window of beneath strip shop lights fitted with broad-spectrum bulbs. One shop light will supply light to two trays. Keep trays 4 inches from the grow lights to keep seedlings from getting leggy. Raise the lights as your plants grow. Once seedlings develop new leaves, feed them with half-strength Proven Winners Premium Water Soluble Plant Food.
Before planting your tender heirloom flower starts outdoors, acclimate them to the natural sunlight and wind by placing them in a protected spot with partial sun for one week. This process of “hardening off” allows indoor-grown starts to toughen up before outdoor planting. After this step, they will be ready to plant in your garden or containers.

Gardeners, Start Your Vegetable Seeds!

Gardener's hands planting cabbage seedlins in garden. Homegrown food, vvegetable, self-sufficient home, sustainable household concept.
Cool-season seedlings like cabbage can be planted outdoors in early to mid spring.

Winter’s end is in sight—with or without favorable predictions from the groundhog.  For months you have been eating frozen veggies, imported salad greens, and tomatoes that taste like Styrofoam.  It is time to think about an activity that is fresh, exciting and pro-active; something that will get your hands in contact with soil and ultimately, get your taste buds in contact with something delicious.  It’s time to start veggies from seed!

Love It, Choose It

Seed catalogs
Seed catalogs carry some of the most interesting and wonderful vegetable varieties. (image by Jessie Keith)

What’s best to plant from seed?  Almost any type of vegetable will work, but some work better than others.  [Click here to discover our favorite spring vegetable varieties!] Among the best are beans (bush or pole types), beets, carrots, corn, peas, radishes, spinach, and turnips.  Other possibilities might include herbs like basil; various greens and cucurbits, including squashes, zucchini, and cucumbers.  The best advice about plant choices is also the oldest: grow what you like to eat.  There is no point in starting radishes or mustard greens if you and your family will turn up your collective noses at the finished crop.

Another good piece of advice: if space is limited, choose compact varieties and/or truly special heirloom varieties that you can’t purchase as seedlings at the garden center. Seed catalogs are the best source for wonderfully diverse vegetables. Seed sources like Johnny’s Selected Seeds, Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, Pinetree Seeds, Burpee, Parks, or Jungs all have great selections.

Lay In Supplies

Plastic cell packs for lettuce seedlings
Plastic cell packs are the best choice for seed starting (lettuce seedlings shown).

Once you have made your choices, lay in supplies.  This need not be expensive. The seeds come first.  After choosing your veggies, look at the package directions, which will give you an idea of the best times to start various species and varieties in different regions of the country.  If you are starting multiple varieties, create a master schedule on paper or a computer spreadsheet.

Next, select your containers.  Plastic cell packs are good and available at garden centers, nurseries, and big-box stores.  However, you can also use egg cartons or other containers, as long as they are clean and have drainage holes in the bottom.  Disinfect containers with a mixture of one part household bleach to nine parts water and rinse and try them thoroughly before using.

Starting Strong

Fafard Natural & Organic Potting Soil with RESILIENCE pack
OMRI Listed mixes are best for vegetable seedling cultivation.

Strong plants require a good growing medium.  Fresh, soilless mixes are best, like Fafard® Natural & Organic Potting Soil and Black Gold® Seedling Mix.  Both are OMRI Listed® for organic gardening and yield great results.
Our potting mixes contain an all-natural wetting agent, so there is no need to pre-wet containers before planting.  Fill the containers with the seedling mix, leveling the mix about one-quarter inch below the tops of the containers.  Follow the package directions for each seed variety, and be sure to label them as well as marking planting dates on your master calendar or spreadsheet.  Save the seed packets for later in the growing cycle, when you will need them for spacing and other information.

Generally speaking, seeds should be planted to a depth equal to three or four times the diameter of the seed. Small seeds should be surface sown.  Plant two to three seeds per cell, gently irrigate them (bottom water and then gently mist the tops), and place the containers under grow lights. Many seedling flats have clear plastic planting domes to create a mini greenhouse for the plants. If you lack these, cover your pots with plastic wrap and poke a few ventilation holes in the plastic. (These should be removed once your seedlings have emerged.)

Gentle Warmth

Peppers in plastic containers
Warm-season veggies like peppers grow faster and better with gentle bottom heat.

Place the plastic-covered containers in a location where they will receive warmth and light.  (At this stage, high sunlight is not necessary, and may even “fry” the emerging seedlings.)  Setting up a table with shop lights fitted with broad-spectrum florescent bulbs for plant growth is best. These bulbs provide gentle heat and light in the right spectrum for plant growth. Flats should be placed no more than 6″ from the bulbs for strong stem growth. Include a seedling heat mat or two for warm-season veggies, such as tomatoes and peppers, and you are in business.

If you lack grow lights and heat mats, a great place to start seedlings is on top of the refrigerator, where the seed trays will receive bottom heat. For the most part, starting with moist potting mix and a plastic cover will create a self-watering system until the seedlings emerge, but check the trays regularly and don’t let them become dry.  If condensation is forming on the plastic, the potting mix is probably moist enough.

Out of the Incubator

Planting in a pot
Thin seedlings so there is only one plant per cell or pot.

When your seeds germinate, liberate them from the “greenhouse” by removing the plastic.  Watch and water sparingly, as needed, preferably from the bottom.  Don’t drown your baby plants!  Once they have developed a second set of leaves, thin crowded plants by snipping off weaker ones at soil level.  You should only have one strong seedling per cell. Follow spacing instructions on the seed packet.

After you thin the seedlings, give your tomatoes or basil or cilantro what they crave the most—more light.  A south-facing windowsill is good, but be careful not to place seedlings too close to the cold glass.  The other option is to simply raise the height of your broad-spectrum fluorescent light as your plants grow.  Aim for about 15 hours per day of light to ensure good growth.

Out of the House

Tomato plants in pots
Gradual exposure to higher light and outdoor conditions will ensure your seedlings will be fully acclimated before planting.

Eventually the weather will warm up, all danger of frost will pass and your plants will be ready for the great outdoors.  Like all major moves, this one should be gradual.  “Harden off” your seedlings by taking a week and placing the containers outside, in a semi-protected spot with partial sun and low wind, for gradually lengthening time periods each day.  Gradually increase the amount of light and exposure they receive until their stems become stouter and their leaves are fully adapted to long days of natural sun.  Keep watering.  At the end of the hardening off period, the young plants should be ready for planting in the garden.

Little Seeds, Big Rewards

Starting veggies from seed is economical, gratifying and lets you harvest vegetables ahead of your neighbors.  You will end up with greater variety, a more diverse harvest and—best of all for competitive veggie growers—big healthy bragging rights.

Kid’s Gardening: Big Seeds for Little Hands

Kids' Gardening: Big Seeds for Little Hands Featured Image
Renee's Garden Mini Jack pack of seeds

Kids just naturally love dirt—ask any parent. When you encourage children to put their hands in that dirt and plant seeds, you are growing future gardeners. But as with any learning experience, kids are more likely to take to gardening if you help make it fun and accessible. The best way to start is with a packet of big seeds.

Start by talking about what the child wants to grow. Some children naturally gravitate to colorful flowers, while others might like the idea of planting and harvesting their own Halloween pumpkins. If your child is very young or unsure about the whole project, start with one easy plant type and see what happens. More than one gardener started his or her horticultural life with a single bean planted in a paper cup.

Child holding pumpkin
Pumpkins are a great first garden plant for children to try.

Handling small seeds can be frustrating for small people, so make it easy by choosing plants that grow from the kind of large seeds that are simple to handle, plant, and love. If the child likes flowers, annual sunflowers (Helianthus) are a wonderful way to start, featuring large seeds and a wide array of varieties to choose from.

Traditional giant types are inspiring to watch, rising to 6 feet or more, with huge, yellow-petaled flowerheads. Some of the shorter hybrid types boast petals in shades from palest cream through yellows, oranges, and reds—perfect for enjoying up close, or for arranging in the empty jam jars that seem to lurk in so many kitchen cupboards.

Renee's Garden Cup of Sun pack of seeds

Other good ornamental varieties include low-growing nasturtiums (Tropaeolum) and brightly colored Mexican sunflowers (Tithonia rotundifolia). If ground space is limited, plant climbers like scarlet runner beans (Phaseolus coccineus). Nasturtiums can also climb or sprawl from hanging baskets if you pick the right varieties.

The world of edible species is full of large-seeded plants. Small children often like peas—either traditional or snap varieties—which also feature lovely flowers. Beans of all sorts are another option. Let little ones help you build simple supports for these sprawling crops. Pumpkins, from the cute miniature types to bright orange behemoths, also start with large seeds. Hilling up soil for planting mounds can be, literally, child’s play. Other members of the cucurbit family, like squashes and melons, are also possibilities.

If your child insists on growing tiny-seeded edibles like carrots or greens, try to find vendors that offer pelleted seeds. These easy-to-handle products consist of tiny seeds encased in pea-like pellets of inert material. Once the pellets go into the ground, moisture quickly dissolves the coating and the seeds sprout normally.

If you are working with very young children, supervise carefully to make sure that they do not put any seed—even those of edible crops—in their mouths.

Planting Garlic
For kids, planting time is almost as fun as harvest time!

Before planting large-seeded edible or ornamental varieties, parents should prevent later disappointment by doing a bit of prep work. Suit your crop to your particular situation and make sure that sun-loving varieties will receive enough light. Can you dedicate a small portion of your garden to your child’s plants? If not, container growing is always an option. Encourage your child to have a sense of ownership of the plot or container, so he or she will take an extra measure of pride in the finished crop.

Give big seeds a leg up by growing them in planting beds amended with a nutrient-rich product like Fafard® Premium Natural & Organic Compost. For seed starting, choose Black Gold® Seedling Mix, a quality seed-starting medium that grows robust seedlings fit for little hands to plant. Some large seeds, like nasturtiums, sunflowers, and morning glories, benefit from an overnight soak to soften hard outer shells before planting.

Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost Blend pack

Once the planting is done, check the beds or containers every day. Encourage the children to watch and tend their plants, but be sure to supervise the watering. Overenthusiastic watering will swamp young plants, leading to tears later on.

Give older children an idea of how long those big seeds should take to germinate, sprout leaves and produce flowers or fruits. Check off days on a calendar or whiteboard to help manage expectations. Sometimes the longest days are those just before flower buds open or edible crops are ready to harvest. Keep frustration at bay by letting children draw or photograph their young plants each day.

When harvest time finally arrives, celebrate. Invite friends over to see the culmination of all the gardening effort. Harvest and prepare the edible crops and have the young growers help as they are able. Take pictures of both children and crops and cherish the occasion. Remember that the child who plants sunflowers today may end up as a horticulturist in a few short years.

Sunflowers at the end of the season
Collect sunflower seeds at the end of the season for spring planting the following year!

Garden Planning 101

Kniphofia 'Border Ballet' in garden
Remember that many great gardens have been planned on scrap paper and built on a shoestring. (Photo by Jessie Keith)

In February, home gardens may be covered with snowdrops or blanketed with snow, depending on climate zone and the whims of Mother Nature. Either way, it is time for garden planning. New ideas are ready to break dormancy, even if the outdoor plants aren’t quite there yet.
Fafard Premium Topsoil packSomewhere there is a vast garden planning spectrum, with places on it for all of us who love to dig in the dirt. The meticulous planners are at one end, plotting layouts, bloom times and expenditures in careful detail every year. They keep excellent records and can tell you precisely how much they paid for a new lilac in 2002 and the exact day that it produced its first blossom. The seat-of-the-pants gardeners are at the extreme opposite end. These are the people who make every garden decision on the fly. When spring arrives, they get in their cars and create highway havoc by braking suddenly in front of every alluring garden center display. Often these mercurial individuals go on to jeopardize their credit limits by making extravagant impulse purchases of plants, tools and garden décor. No matter where you are on the spectrum, a little planning is a good investment.

Dream Big

Define your dream garden in words or images, even if your vision goes way beyond your current means. Great gardens or landscapes begin with big plans. The same goes for plant lists. When you first page through paper or online plant catalogs, flag anything that catches your eye. The process will help you understand the colors, shapes and plant types that you love best at this particular stage of your gardening career. It will also speed you through the end-of-winter doldrums and pave the way for the list-whittling and prioritizing you will do down the road.

Some of the best garden ideas have been inspired by “borrowed” landscape elements. Start Your Garden Plan

Think about your entire landscape, including hardscaping, structures and established plantings. Decide what you want to keep, modify or eliminate completely. Even if you are starting with a property that has been completely cleared, at least one landscape element is already in place—the view. For better or worse, the view of your own property and that of your neighbors, is part of the existing scheme. Some of the best garden ideas have been inspired by “borrowed” landscape elements. Some even better ones have sprung from the necessity of hiding something ugly.

Plan a Garden You Can Manage

Get a realistic grip on your gardening/landscape resources. This includes your discretionary time as well as money. Figure out how much of both you have available for garden-related expenditures and tasks. Your dreams may include large, color-themed beds and borders, with razor sharp edges and hundreds of linear feet of precisely clipped hedges. If your reality includes about an hour a week of garden maintenance time, you will either have to hire someone to do much of the work, stretch out your plans over a long time frame or redefine your goals.

Making Arrangements for Your New GardenWinter Landscape

Once you have defined your vision and resources, it’s time to move ahead. Do you have the time and/or money to make big changes, like removing a mature tree or building a water feature? If so, get contractor recommendations from friends and family and call contractors for quotes. In spring, landscape professionals and builders have full calendars. Starting early ensures that your jobs will be on them. If smaller DIY changes are more your style, figure out how best to accomplish them. Sketch out planting schemes or designs, either on paper or with the help of online gardening tools. Whittle down plant wish lists and, if possible, order plants that you won’t be able to find at local garden centers. Many vendors offer early bird discounts to gardeners willing to order at the end of winter. Make a list of the basic supplies you will need, including new or replacement garden tools and products like Fafard Premium Organic Compost and Premium Topsoil.

Garden Limits

Imagination has no limits, but most other resources do. If money is a problem, borrow tools or buy them cheaply at garage and tag sales. Plan to divide existing perennial plants and ask friends if they will share divisions or cuttings from their gardens. Start annuals and edible crops from seed. If your soil is bad or non-existent, plan a container layout using repurposed vessels. Remember that anything that can hold a quantity of damp dirt can serve as a plant pot. Start small, with a simple plan, and add to it as time and finances permit. Remember that many great gardens have been planned on scrap paper and built on a shoestring.
Planning ahead lets you make the most of whatever you have and gives you a jump-start on the gardening season. It is also an excellent tonic for the winter-weary soul.

Planting during gardening season
Planning ahead lets you make the most of whatever you have and gives you a jump-start on the gardening season. (Photo by Jessie Keith)

Hot New Vegetables for 2014

Pepper Mama Mia Giallo F1-NotHighRes
The pretty ‘Mama Mia Giallo’ is a new, AAS winning sweet pepper worth growing in 2014. (image care of All-America Selections)

Vegetable gardeners love seed selection time. The seed catalogs are simply brimming with good new things to eat.  New tomatoes and peppers are always at top on my list, with great new melons and squash coming in second, followed by root veggies, brassicas and so on. With seed starting time just around the corner, there’s no better time to get your list together and design those new vegetable beds for 2014.

Blue Gold tomatoes
The beautiful ‘Blue Gold’ tomato is an exciting new slicer from Wild Boar Farms. (Image care of Wild Boar Farms)

Tomatoes, tomatoes, tomatoes! There’s never a shortage of great new cultivars to choose from. So where do you start? I always go for flavor and utility (a paste, a cherry and a slicing tomato or two). Good looks are also welcome but only if the fruit has flavor to match.  One great new selection with all the bells and whistles is ‘Blue Gold’, bred by Brad Gates of Wild Boar Farms. The golden-fleshed, medium-sized fruits are flushed with blue-black, and the dense, juicy flesh is said to be sweet with a full tomato flavor. Two other Wild Boar tomatoes I’ll be trying include the super sweet, small fruited ‘Yellow Furry Boar’, which has lovely yellow stripes and fuzzy skin that I know my daughters will love, and the delectable looking ‘Amethyst Cream Cherry’, which bears lots of purple-kissed creamy cherry tomatoes.
Of the new sauce or paste tomatoes, Burpee’s giant ‘SuperSauce’ hybrid is one I cannot resist. Its huge sauce tomatoes are supposed to be bountiful and delicious—just what I need for midsummer sauce canning.

Numex Suave Oranges
‘Numex Suave Orange’ is a milder habanero with fruity flavor and great color. (Image care of The Chile Pepper Institute)

Many new hot and sweet peppers are available this year. Two sweets are on my list: the 2014 AAS winning golden sweet pepper ‘Mama Mia Giallo’, which bears lots of long, golden sweet peppers on compact plants, and the big, blocky, red bell pepper ‘Currier’, which is highly disease resistant. Hot peppers are increasingly popular, and the famed ‘hottest of the hot’ ghost pepper (bhut jolokia) is popping up as a new introduction in practically every seed catalog, but at 20,000 Scoville units it won’t have a place in my child-friendly garden. Instead I plan to grow the relatively mild, orange habanero ‘NUMEX Suave Orange’. This New Mexico State University Chili Pepper Institute introduction is sure to be a winner for hot sauce making.
Romaine lettuce is satisfying to grow, and super crisp dwarf varieties tend to have extra dense, sweet hearts, so I was excited to discover the compact, crispy ‘Dragoon’, offered by Johnny’s Selected Seeds. In addition to good texture and flavor, it boasts resistance to downy mildew and lettuce mosaic virus. Another nice new salad green is arugula ‘Dragon’s Tongue’,  offered by Park Seed, which has spicy, red-veined green leaves.

Tronchuda Biera Kale
‘Tronchuda Biera’ kale is a Portuguese heirloom that stands up to heat. (image care of Renee’s Garden Seeds)

Heart-healthy kale has become more and more popular, and the newer, heat tolerant kale ‘Tronchuda Biera’ is a Portuguese heirloom that gardeners can continue to grow through summer. Offered by Renee’s Garden Seeds, it produces many large, blue-green, paddle-shaped leaves that are said to remain tasty and mild during the summer months when most other kales flag and start to taste bitter.
No garden is complete without root vegetables, and the purple daikon radish ‘KN-Bravo’, also offered by Johnny’s, is a crisp, sweet, eating radish that I can’t wait to harvest. Johnny’s also offers a red, baby beet, aptly named ‘Babybeat’, which looks and sounds delectable for the spring garden.

Pink Porcelain Doll Pupkin pack of seeds
The pinkish ‘Porcelain Doll’ pumpkin is perfect for kids and delicious to eat. (image care of Renee’s Garden Seeds)

We always make space for pumpkins. This year, my girls are very excited about the new pinkish ‘Porcelain Doll’ offered by Renee’s Seeds, among other vendors. Not only are the blocky pumpkins pretty, but their deep orange flesh is said to be great for cooking and pie making. Many of the proceeds also support the Pink Pumpkin Patch Foundation to cure breast cancer.
Sweet, seedless watermelons are always expensive to buy, so I’ll be growing my own this year. The new, small, seedless, red melon ‘Sorbet’ is a Johnny’s exclusive that looks perfect for my family’s needs. Each vine yields two to three ice-box melons with sweet, crisp fruit.
No garden is complete without zucchini or summer squash; the golden, round ‘Summer Ball’ looks cute and tasty. The space-saving, compact bush squash is offered by Harris Seeds and looks ideal for stuffing.
These are but a few of the great new vegetable offerings for 2014. And before planting any of them, I will be sure to amend the garden soil with Fafard Premium Organic Compost. It’s the best way to give vegetables a great start each year.

Yellow Furry Boar Tomato
‘Yellow Furry Boar’ is a fuzzy yellow striped tomato with exceptional sweetness. (image care of Wild Boar Farms)

Amethyst Cream Cherry Tomatoes
The unique ‘Amethyst Cream Cherry’ is a lovely new cherry tomato. (image care of Wild Boar Farms)

All About Seed Starting

The seed-starting season is upon us. Soon loads of colorful and alluring seed catalogs will be populating websites and mailboxes nationwide. For the ardent gardener, raising plants from seed has huge benefits. One can grow cooler homegrown plants from seed for less than purchasing from most garden centers, but it’s not without challenges.

Even advanced gardeners need a little know-how and experience to produce homegrown seedlings that are as robust as nursery-grown; the key is maintaining the right balance of light, temperature, soil, nutrition, and water through good care and smart decision-making.

Homegrown Plants from Seed: Various Seed Packets
There’s a reason why seed-starting is popular. Gardeners can grow cooler plants, for less.

Seed Starting No Nos

Seedling woes and mishaps are many. Truth be told, the average seed grower tends to grow leggy, pale green, weak plantlets rather than stout, multi-stemmed, medium green ones. The causes are basic: poor light causes legginess and pale color and inadequate nutrition, poor soil and/or improper watering can all cause poor growth and weakness. This matters because weak seedlings have a higher mortality rate and are slower to establish, while robust seedlings look better, fill out faster, and yield more flowers and fruits sooner.

Good growing light is most essential because too little causes etiolation (long, spindly, pale growth) and too much causes foliar burn. Gardeners lacking a sunny conservatory or greenhouse should choose the next best thing, a light table. And for high-grade seedlings refrain from window-growing; even south-facing-window-light is rarely uniform or strong enough for robust growth. A growing table fitted with broad-spectrum shop lights will do a much better job.

Four Steps to Good Seed Starting

Here are four growing table “dos” to abide by:

  1. Do choose the right location and table. A warm, sunny room is ideal. Prefabricated grow tables (sold by many seed vendors) are handy but expensive. Standard 4-level utility shelves (sold at home improvement centers) fitted with shop lights are just as effective and much cheaper.
  2. Do choose the right fixture and bulbs. Standard 48-inch shop lights can accommodate two flats of seedlings, and high-Intensity fluorescent bulbs have the broadest spectrum for good growth. (Avoid metal-halide high-intensity discharge (HID) bulbs, which are expensive, hot, and unnecessary.)
Homegrown Plants from Seed: Seedlings Placement
Place seedlings a few inches from high-Intensity fluorescent bulbs to keep them from becoming leggy.

3. Do place your seeds and seedlings at the right distance from the light. Pots and seedlings should be kept 2-to-3-inches from fluorescent bulbs and fixtures hung from chains for easy height adjustment.

4. Do slowly acclimate sun-loving seedlings to natural light before outdoor planting. Sunlight is stronger than artificial light and can burn tender seedlings. Over seven to ten days, slowly move seedlings from indirect outdoor light to full exposure—increasing exposure by two hours every two days.

Homegrown Plants from Seed: Help Seedlings Adjust to Natural Sunlight
Exposure to dappled sunlight can help seedlings adjust to natural sunlight more quickly.

Seed Starting Containers and Mix

Containers and growing medium are the next essentials. Standard six-cell, six-pack growing flats with non-draining trays are perfect for most seedlings, and Black Gold Seedling Mix, with its blend of high-grade Canadian Sphagnum peat moss and perlite, is recommended. It is also easily wetted and uniformly fine for light seed coverage. Light coverage is essential because most seeds naturally germinate on or close to the soil’s surface, so when planting seeds stick to the mantra “lighter coverage for lighter seeds and greater coverage for greater seeds.”

Dust-like seeds can simply be sprinkled on the top of the medium, and large seeds rarely need to be planted deeper than ¼ of an inch—despite what some seed-starting guides advise. Seeds can also be lightly covered with washed or fine vermiculite instead of mix. Coverage with both is shown to reduce instances of “damping off” (seedling fungal disease); planting in the fresh, unused mix also reduces damping off.

Seed Starting Temperature

Temperature needs vary from seed to seed and plant to plant; some like it cool and others like it warm, but most thrive at room temperature (68 degrees Fahrenheit). Warm-season plants, like tomatoes, peppers and zinnias, germinate and grow faster with warmer temperatures; a seedling heat mat will hasten germination and growth for these and other summer growers. Temperature needs vary from seed to seed and plant to plant; some like it cool and others like it warm, but most thrive at room temperature (68 degrees Fahrenheit). A heat mat for seedling flats costs around $25.00 and will last for years.

Watering Seeds

Good watering technique will make or break growing success. The key is remembering that overwatering is worse than underwatering. Too much water encourages fungal disease and root and stem rot and invites pests like fungus gnats, whose larvae feed on seedlings, and shore flies, whose excrement damages seedlings. Once these problems are established, they are hard to get rid of.

Homegrown Plants from Seed: A Perfect Seed Waterer
Left: A plastic bottle with holes punched in the top makes a perfect seed waterer! Right: Be sure to allow only one seedling per planting cell for best success.

To avoid overwatering seeds and seedlings: (1) water gently and (2) water until mix is moist but not wet. These steps are most important before and right after seeds germinate because seeds and seedlings use less water and are easily drowned. A plastic water bottle with five holes poked into top makes a great gentle seed and seedling waterer (see photo). Bottom watering with a self-watering capillary mat is also recommended. Just be sure that no standing water remains at the tray base at any time.

Homegrown Plants from Seed: Properly Grown Seedlings
Properly grown seedlings should have healthy roots to the bottom of the pot.

Seedling Care

Once plants develop multiple leaves, more water can be applied. The amount ultimately depends on how quickly plants are growing and using water. It’s wise to check fast-growing seedlings twice daily to assess their water needs. If you think you may be watering too much, err on the side of less water. Slight wilting is better than rot and ruin. If seedlings need to be upgraded, move them to 4-inch pots filled with Fafard Ultra Potting Mix with Extended Feed for fast growth and success.

Seedling Fertilization

Nutrition is not a factor until plants develop their “true leaves” (sometimes called the second set of leaves). In fact, fertilizer can actually inhibit seed germination and burn new seedlings, which is why good seed-starting mixes are always fertilizer-free. Once seedlings have reached two inches or so, a feather-light sprinkle of light starter fertilizer will keep them pot-healthy until planting day.

Hardening Off Seedlings

When the threat of frost has passed, incrementally introduce your flats of plantlets to the great outdoors. Incremental exposure allows tender plants to healthfully acclimate to the high light, wind and temperature changes of the garden. Start by placing them in a protected location with diffuse light and slowly move them into a more open spot with higher light. After seven to ten days your plants should be garden-ready, and if you follow this guide they should look like those grown by the pros!

Homegrown Plants from Seed: Happy Seedlings
Happy seedlings have good colors and are not leggy.
Homegrown Plants from Seed: Homegrown Fennel Plantlets
Homegrown plantlets, like these fennel, should only be planted in the garden after they have hardened off.
Homegrown Plants from Seed: Homegrown Cabbage Seedlings
These newly planted homegrown cabbage seedlings are healthy and robust!