Many seeds are properly sown in late August, and this year I shall try a few even though seedlings are a royal pain and usually need something done for them on the busiest day of the month.
In Washington the trick is not to get them to sprout -- they will sprout quite nicely if not dead to begin with -- but to get them to grow sturdily enough to survive the coming winter.
I thought I would try some red campion, an agreeable weed of dampish copses. I always feel one's chances are so much better with weeds. Another thing is wild violas, a mixed bunch that I suppose will turn out to be several kinds of Johnny-jump-ups, like tiny pansies.
Then there is the milk thistle, a quite prickly thistle with beautiful leaves marbled in white against soft green.
It is incredible to me that another fine weed, bachelor's buttons or cornflowers, do not like my place at all. Last year I had a fine row of them, maybe 40 plants, all sturdy and bursting with energy in late April, but not a one survived, being overcome with a gray mold. It's true they were slightly overwhelmed on the west by ripening daffodil leaves and, later, by day lily leaves lengthening into their space. But I thought surely the cornflowers were robust enough to pull through. Once you have them, of course, they sow themselves about and are there forever after. So again I shall try them. It is rather embarrassing for a garden writer to think he cannot grow cornflowers which, in my childhood, used to grow up and down the alleys.
Poppies are another troublesome flower with me. This is like that Nixon daughter who felt the most difficult thing in marriage would be learning to cook bacon. Any imbecile can grow poppies but I have endless trouble.
This year I had several plants of Iceland poppies, which of course do not like this climate much (one reason a gardener is determined to grow them) and for a change actually got several plants to a fair size. Then I left town a few weeks and that was that.
I also failed with some annual poppies (the Icelanders take two seasons). The Shirley poppies failed because a silver lace vine to the south cast too much shade, and I did not get round to whacking it back in time. The red field poppies failed because my wife kindly weeded them out (they were at the end of an iris bed and she knew how manic I get if anything intrudes on the irises). But they probably would have failed anyway. They always do.
So this month I shall plant the field poppies again. Surely some of them must survive? They are handsome (and infuriating to farmers) when they grow amid the grain in European fields.
Now poppies do not like to be transplanted, so they must be sown in place. The other seeds will be sown in flats or pots, depending on what I find in the garage, and in sterilized soil. When they are about an inch high, I'll plant them where they are to bloom, hoping they will not grow too much. If they get too large and luxuriant they fall prey to ice in the winter.
In some years I have had excellent results from pansies sown in late August and set in permanent places in October. In other years I have lost most of them over winter. When they survive well they begin to bloom in late March, whereas if little plants are set out in the spring they do not begin to bloom until May.
Since pansies more or less close shop for hot weather (though a few sad little flowers may be found on them in August) it makes sense to have them ready to bloom the instant spring comes. I like to have them with daffodils, which is possible from August-sown seeds.
It is surprising how much protection a few strands of straw give the small plants over winter. I am nervous about this, never having quite decided how much protection is enough, and how much is too much. About half an inch of straw mulch, somewhat tucked up about the crown of the plant (but not covering it), usually works well, with a few strands sprinkled on top.
This may be the place to say pansies like rich soil. They have nothing to say to poor soil and they dislike lumpy clay. Working manure and peat moss into the soil before planting them out in October is well worth the effort.
Next spring I shall recount assorted triumphs from my August seed-sowing project. If I say nothing then, it will be because I have nothing interesting to report.