Back to Basics

BY Jamie Walker

Spring overwhelms our thawing senses with warm perfumed breezes boldly painted petals and vibrant green landscapes. Almost instantly the inner gardener emerges from nearly all of us.

Patios fill up with pots of geraniums marigolds and variegated greenery.  Garden beds are flush with young color and nursery parking lots are packed. Patrons buzz back and forth pulling carts loaded with pots of perfectly formed little plants. Until recently most gardeners would anxiously whisk by the seed packets hanging neatly from the rack by the checkout counter without a glance.  

In the last couple of years however it seems theyve started to linger a while. Seed sales have climbed steadily and significantly since 2009. The potential of turning a tiny low-priced packet of seeds into a row of vegetables or a flower bed that would otherwise cost $10 to $20 more is enticing in these frugal times. The once risky and labor-intensive prospect of starting plants by seed has morphed into an adventurous do-it-yourself possibility.

While most seed shoppers have their hearts set on vegetables a few gardeners are turning to seeds for spring and summer color. More people are answering springs call with seed-starting kits and freshly amended beds ready to add to springs palette.  

Why buy seed?
Christin Deener of Federal Point Farms says while seeds are more affordable and eliminate potting waste the real advantage of starting with seeds is the pure pleasure of it.

“You get to see the whole thing happen.” Deener says. “Growing by seed makes you more aware more clicked in with the life cycle of a plant.”

And while one can be sure that Deeners plants sold at the downtown farmers market have been cared for in the most sustainable way possible some nursery-bought plants are born and raised in a synthetic environment.

Another advantage to sowing your own seeds is controlling the plant cultivation process and possibly decreasing the impact that gardening may have on the environment.

Gardening by seed also allows access to a wider variety of plant options. Buying from a nursery can be limiting; but by seed the gardener can experiment and spice it up a bit.

Its impractical for many gardeners to sow all the color in their gardens. But along with shopping at local farmers markets and nurseries for staple annual and perennial garden color ordering a seed packet or two from a favorite seed company can be a lot of fun for the family and can add a lot of interest and perhaps fresh herbs to the established flower garden.

To sow or not to sow

Seeds can be sown directly into garden soil or raised in a controlled environment such as in a flat or other contained space.

Egg cartons are a great inexpensive alternative to buying seed-starting kits. A small slit in the bottom with a butter knife will allow the container to drain properly. In some cases the seeds are so small that it may be necessary to line the bottom with a layer of newspaper.

At Federal Point Farms Deener starts most of her seeds in flats in hoop houses. She does sow a few herb and flowering varieties directly into her mounded beds but she believes that some control in the beginning can be really helpful.

“Im a big proponent of having that control.” Deener says. “Its just nice to have them in their own little contained space. Its easier to gauge how theyre doing and what they might need.”

Although a green house or even a cold frame is ideal for seed-starting the flats dont always need to be kept indoors while germinating. The seeds actually need a lot more light than even a bright window can offer Deener says. They should be protected from frigid night air but on most early spring days they could be kept outdoors in the sunniest spot possible.

As for direct seeding Charlotte Glen says to start big. Glen is a gardener a former New Hanover County extension agent and currently a Pender County extension agent.

“One of the problems with most annual and perennial flower seeds is that theyre so tiny they can easily get lost in the shuffle. The bigger the seed the more control you have ” Glen says. Sunflowers of all varieties are usually foolproof when sown directly. Glen recommends sowing a batch of the dwarf varieties every three to four weeks for more consistent color. Dwarf sunflowers come in electric hues of red orange and yellow and in some cases a mix of all three; and at full growth they provide a bright spot in any garden.

Sunflower seeds can also easily be collected and planted the following seasona great job for kids and adults alike. Seed collection and seed saving is a great way to get children involved in the garden. Sprinkling the seeds from the spent flower into their hands storing seeds and planting them the following year can help to create life cycle connections children might not otherwise be able to make.

Glen says that in order to sow seeds successfully the area to be seeded must be well prepared. “Be sure that the area is clear of mulch has been amended with compost and is raked level ” Glen said. “A general rule of thumb is to bury seeds two times their diameter.”

The hardest part about seed starting is keeping the soil just wet enough for the seeds to germinate. Whether starting seeds in flats or in the garden they must stay wet or they wont germinate.

“Germination is the trickiest time ” Glen says. “Generally if you can get them to come up youre good.”

Best Varieties

There are many annual and herb seeds that do fairly well in the Southeast when sown directly into the garden.

Cleome cosmos zinnia marigolds basil balsam celosia and gomphrena and the prolific re-seeding melampodium just to name a few Glen says are all popular local favorites that can add good color good flavor and lots of great pollinators to the garden. Glen recommends moon vine cypress vine and hyacinth bean by seed for arbors and fences that beg for a little spark.

Most annuals Deener says will need to be consistently pinched back in order for them to bush out and bloom well.

There are a few tried and true perennials that can be seeded directly and are perfect for the loosely structured cottage garden. Purple coneflower rudbeckia (R. fulgida R. triloba) varieties of coreopsis verbena bonariensis gaillardia French hollyhock (Malva sylvestris) and four oclocks are all great additions to the perennial garden.

Deener recommends direct seeding bachelor buttons in the fall or in early spring along with larkspur. Some of her other directly-seeded favorites are dianthus agrostemma (corncockle) and ornamental grasses and grains.

Parsley does best when seeds are soaked for about 10 days before being planted. Herbs like parsley basil cilantro chives and dill add lush tasty greenery to a bold bed of flowers.

Alistair Glen Charlotte Glens husband is owner and operator of Growing Wild Nursery and specializes in the cultivation of native plants. Most of the plants in his nursery were cultivated from seeds he has collected.

The most popular re-seeding native flowers he says are the towering late-blooming swamp sunflower the eye-catching beautyberry and the bold late summer blooming butterfly weed. All are super-easy to grow by seed and will bring some good native flavor just what you need Alistair Glen says. Muhly grass is another that he recommends. Muhly grass seeds are easy to collect in November after theyve gone to seed then distribute in spring.

When planting native species expect some native insects. As an active member of the Audubon Society Glen says this is a good thing.

“Insect-free plants are not good for wildlife ” he adds.

Local birds he says thrive on insects and insects thrive on native plants. He recommends keeping natives and adding them in where possible to help keep the insects down in ornamental areas of the garden. Insects will generally gravitate toward native varieties.

Where to buy

Both Charlotte Glen and Deener use Johnnys Selected Seeds for the bulk of their seed orders.

Southern Exposure Seed Exchange is one of Deeners other favorites. All of Southern Exposures seeds are open-pollinated and the company carries many heirloom and organic varieties.

Glen says another open-pollinated seed company J.L. Hudson specializes in small portions designed for the home gardener. Their prices are significantly more affordable than most commercial producers.

Avoid buying the mixed seeds found at big box stores as they typically dont contain varieties suited to our area and usually have low germination rates.

So this year when you feel your inner gardener creeping out consider really letting it play by going online to order a few seed packets and clearing a little garden playground. Whether you choose an established bed or build them a bed of their own seeds can add much more than great color to a garden.