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Seeds Sown for Bloom
Centre of the City, Toronto, March/April 2005

There are few winter pleasures for a gardener that equal browsing through the colourful images and vivid descriptions of seed catalogues, and thank goodness they’ve finally begun to arrive. Even if you don’t buy, just flipping through these catalogues can make you feel that sweater-weather and spring flowers are on their way. It may be optimistic, but it does help to dispel those late winter blues.

If you haven’t yet received your seed catalogues, there are many online resources that will gladly send them out to you or accept online orders. If at all possible, it’s best to order your seed from a firm that is located near you or conducts their seed trials in the same hardiness zone as your location. This way, you know they test their seeds in conditions similar to those in your garden. Most catalogues state the hardiness zone for the seeds they offer, and many include a hardiness map so you can accurately identify your own zone. You may have to go further afield for seed that is out of the ordinary, such as heritage or organic seed.

If you prefer to shop in person, garden centres will now have a replenished supply of seed for sale as well. Pay close attention to the hardiness zone, and to the ‘best before’ date or harvested date on the packages. Avoid seed that is over a year old. The package will also usually tell you whether the plant will bloom in its first year. Not all plants do, so watch for a phrase such as “blooms 8 weeks from sowing”.

Many catalogues also clearly indicate bloom time, so that you know what to expect from your purchase. For example, according to Dam Seeds 2005 catalogue, their Rose Red Cirsium will bloom during July to August in its first year. Their Crazy Daisy Chrysanthemum seed listing, however, states that while it blooms June-August, it “can bloom first year if given a cold period”. Coreopsis grandiflora ‘Early Sunrise’ blooms 12 weeks from sowing, and Delphinium grandiflorum ‘Blue Mirror’ “starts blooming 12 weeks after seeding and continues to bloom all summer long”. Bear in mind that if you plant the seeds on the May 24th weekend, counting 12 weeks will give you bloom starting August 14, so “all summer long” is not quite so impressive. To get bloom earlier in the summer, you need to sow the seed earlier. It is often safe to sow outdoors as soon as the earth is workable, and this could give you up to a month more bloom.

Alternatively, sowing seed indoors can be a fun and rewarding experience. Plants started earlier indoors provide bloom much earlier in your garden. Depending on the seed you choose, you may need to start them 10-12 weeks prior to last frost. If the May 24th weekend is arbitrarily used as the day after last frost (we hope!), then sowing could occur indoors during the first two weeks of March. Indoor sowing usually requires different containers and potting mixes, and grow-lights are recommended to produce strong, healthy seedlings. The necessary supplies can be found in both catalogues and garden centres. Indoor sowing requires a bit more dedication and attention, but when you are rewarded with stunning, sometimes exotic early-blooming plants for a fraction of the cost, it can be very satisfying and well worth the effort.

If you’ve never grown plants from seed, a sensible first step is to purchase seed that can be sown directly outside. The planting bed should be free of snow, and while it can often be cold, the ground should not be frozen. While some seeds require warm soil, others prefer to be planted in the cool soil of early spring. The package will indicate optimum conditions for each type of seed. Sowing directly outside is a fairly easy task, so it is recommended that you stagger your plantings for the same seed over three weeks, rather than all at once. This will give you staggered bloom times and hopefully provide you continuous bloom in your garden.

If you’re going to sow seed directly into the ground, you may be wise to consider seeds that do not require stratification. This is the process of simulating winter conditions for up to four months prior to planting (depending on the seed). They are usually identified on the package or in the description as requiring a cold period, or requiring stratification.

Seeds from many hybrid plants do not come up true to the parent, when grown from seed. This means that the seeds produce plants that are somehow different than the original, in appearance, characteristics, hardiness or even viability. If you receive seeds from a friend, there is the possibility that your results will be somewhat different from theirs, for this reason. Not to worry, though, as commercial seed has been tested and rarely has this problem.

Consider where your seedlings will grow. Some companies offer special groupings of seeds for specific purposes. For example, Richters offers an Indoor Windowsill Seed Collection, with seeds that you can grow in containers like indoor pots and on windowsills, and a Tea Herb Garden, with seeds for plants that are great in tea.

Seeds that prefer to be sown in warm soil include:
- Laceflower – much like Queen Anne’s Lace in appearance, the seed likes to be planted in soil that is warm to the touch, after chance of frost is past
- Cosmos, with varieties that will bloom from early summer to late fall
- Sunflowers, including yellow, terracotta and red colourings, that can be planted every two weeks to ensure steady bloom
- Malva, sown from mid-spring through early summer, to give you continuous bloom from July until frost.

Seeds that prefer cooler (earlier) sowing include: - Clarkia, a great cutflower plant that will tolerate semi-shade, requires cool soil for optimum germination
- Godetia, also to be planted in a shady location, blooms early summer in white, pink, red and purple. It prefers cool growing conditions.

Design Your Planting

To get the best results in your garden, you may find it useful to plan your sowing activities in advance. Seed packets include height and width expectations for the plants, as well as when they will bloom.

Plant according to size – Sow seeds for short plants in front, tall plants in the rear of the garden bed. It sounds self-evident, but you’d be surprised how many lovely little floral gems get lost behind mammoth plants.

Plant for succession of bloom – Plants bloom at different times throughout the season. Try to plant seeds that will give you a succession of bloom from early summer through to frost. Read the seed packages to ensure your expectations are realistic.

Select plants that suit the scale of your garden – Be aware of the size of the grown plant in relation to your overall space. If you have a large garden, larger plants work well when viewed from a distance, with groupings of shorter plants in front, to give interest as you get closer. For a small garden, keep the variety down to create a more impressive display.

Butterflies and birds – Consider including seeds that draw butterflies and birds to your garden, especially if the garden bed is just outside your window. Some plants will retain their seeds into the winter, providing food for birds and a pretty view for you.

Consider your environment – Wildflowers that are native to your area will often need less care, fertilizer, pesticides or irrigation than other plants, and will usually survive better during hot, dry spells. Plant seeds that are appropriate for your environment and you’ll have increased success. For dry soil, for example, consider butterfly weed, purple coneflower and coreopsis. For medium or average soil, spiderwort is very rewarding.

Plant a Row, Grow a Row – If you’re planting vegetables, you might also consider planting an extra row for the hungry. Food banks in town make donating your excess vegetables very easy during harvest time, and are always happy to receive fresh produce.

Planting for Colour

Designing your garden when you have seeds instead of plants requires some imagination. To create a visually pleasing garden, the use of a colour wheel can be helpful.

Complementary colour combinations – For the most pleasing results, plant in groupings of complementary colours, and keep the number of colours to a minimum. Complementary colours are those which are opposite each other on a colour wheel. When used together in a design, they make each other seem brighter and more intense.

Harmonious colour combinations – Adjacent or related harmonies are created from groups of colours that lie next to each other on the colour wheel. For example, you can opt for shades from the green and blue-green spectrum of the colour wheel, or yellow-orange, yellow and yellow-green shades. You can blend two, three or four neighbouring sections - all warm, all cool or a mixture of the two.

Cool colour garden plantings - Colours on the blue-green side of the colour wheel appear to recede away from you, generally making an area look more spacious. They can also be used to fade an unattractive feature into the background.

Warm colour garden plantings - Reds, oranges and yellows from the warm side of the colour wheel appear to advance towards you, making a space look smaller and more intimate. They can also be used to draw attention to an attractive feature. In a small space, use paler tints of these colours if you want to “warm it up” without making it feel enclosed.

Also consider monochromatic gardens. An example would be Richter’s Moonlight Soiree Silver Garden seed collection, in which the plants are all within the same silvery palette.

How to Plant Seeds

Each package of seeds will come with planting instructions including depth to which the seed should be sown, plus water, light and temperature considerations.

- Prepare the area by tilling the soil and adding compost or fertilizer, preferably a week prior to sowing
- Make a furrow in the soil for the seeds. The standard rule is that the seed should be three times as deep as its diameter
- Sow your seeds, following spacing instructions on the package. Remember that not all seeds will germinate. You can plant a few more than required, and thin out the excess, once they begin to grow
- Gently cover the furrow, and tamp lightly to ensure the seed is in contact with the soil
- Water, and keep moist until the seed sprouts

Helen Kirkup
HMK Consultants
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Also by Helen Kirkup:
The Kirkups: Pioneers & Travellers
Available now on Amazon.com