Seed or plant? Decide now how you'll start your spring garden.
Winter is the time of the year that gardeners peruse plant catalogs and Web sites to plan what they want to install in their gardens once spring arrives. Once they decide which plants they would like to grow, the next consideration is whether to start with seeds or plants. This is generally dependent on what plants are selected, economic considerations and how long you're willing to wait for plants to mature.
Starting from seed
Seed is the most economical way to acquire new plants. You can harvest seed from your own garden and trade with other gardeners. There is a company that sells seed packets to use for collecting and labeling seed for next year. Share-Croppers ( share-croppers.com ) sells envelopes for gardeners who collect and share or sell their seeds. The envelopes have Victorian seed-catalog-style illustrations on the front and planting instructions for the individual flower, fruit or vegetable on the back, available in black-and-white images that can be colored with pencils. Cost: $2.99 per dozen.
The only way to ensure that you are getting varieties that are the color, size or growth habit you were expecting to see is to acquire your seed from reputable seed companies or buy it from your local garden center.
The most commonly available seeds are annuals, biennials, perennials and vegetables. The following are some plants available from seed:
l Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) is a native perennial that will feed finches and other seed-eating birds. It will drop seed and grow into an early-summer flowering plant that returns dependably, producing enough seed for you to harvest.
l Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) will flower for four weeks or more in midsummer, picking up when purple coneflowers begin to fade. This native plant and Maryland state flower is attractive to seed-eating birds. It will flower freely in full sun and grow into a colony where you plant it. It produces ample seed that you can harvest.
l Hollyhocks will return from seed and flower every two years. Their seed will grow into a plant that will flower the year after it's planted. It is considered a biennial that will naturalize in an area by dropping its seeds and is a common plant to start in this manner. They are the sentinels in the garden, having tall stems with flowers that bloom all summer. If the color is important to you, purchase your seed to get the hue you want.
l Blazing star (Liatris spicata) is a native prairie plant that performs well in this region. Its pink-to-purple spiked flowers are coveted by birds and butterflies. It will grow quickly from seed but might not flower until its second year of growth.
Meadows are created to mimic those found in nature. They're usually a mix of grasses, annuals, biennials and perennials growing in open, sunny fields. In the Midwest, areas of naturally growing flowers, small shrubs and grasses are called prairies. On the East Coast, they're referred to as meadows.
Creating a wildflower meadow is best accomplished from seed. A prairie-size yard is not necessary - any sunny patch of ground will do. It is important that you follow explicit guidelines for establishing a wildflower meadow for it to be successful, and now is the time to learn about that. If you want wildflowers, start planning now for the summer of 2012.
Two sources for purchasing meadow or prairie seed are Prairie Nursery ( prairienursery.com ) and American Meadows ( americanmeadows.com ). The mixes are tailored to your location. There can be 20 seed varieties or more in the most complete seed mixes. If there is a slope, a grass such as sheep's fescue might be added to cover the soil and hold the wildflower seed.
The wildflowers you'll have will be limited to those that thrive in your region. If you're using a prepared seed mix, check the list of plants to make sure there are a variety of natives that prefer the soil type and climate where they are to be planted. Examples that will do well in the Washington area are black-eyed Susans, purple coneflowers, butterfly weeds, goldenrods, coreopsis, wild and sulphur cosmos, gaillardias and cleome.