A friend, having made a note that I have never raised poppies with any success, thoughtfully invited me to view her Shirley poppies in bloom in February. Not outdoors, of course. She is the rankest amateur, she is fond of saying, and just raises a few things in her basement under lights, including these poppies, which are -- she scarce knows how -- growing gangbusters. But then any fool can grow them.
So go ahead, don't pay any attention to me, plant your seeds indoors in October or January or early February. Any fool can succeed, as my friend likes to remind me.
But I am here to say the one gardening operation that brings the most grief to the greatest number is this sowing of seeds in the house before mid-March. People tell me what they do, and I know it anyway, as I have often done it myself:
They rev up and buy 10 bucks worth of seed from a catalogue, and there they are on Jan. 10 with the seed in their hand, the styrofoam cups on the windowsill, and what joy there is when on Feb. 1 all kinds of wee green sprouts make the heart leap.
It is far otherwise on March 10, when the few surviving spindly pale green shoots lean desperately toward the light. Outside there is a snowstorm. The gardener reads the seedlings should be "hardened off" by exposing them to greater light and cooler temperatures outdoors, then bringing them back inside for a few days.
Very well. It's hardening-off time, not that the spindly seedlings are going to survive either outdoors or indoors, but the gardener hesitates to harden them off in a rain of sleet.
And after about three years of this, the gardener says nuts and sprinkles the seeds outdoors in fall or late winter, hoping a few will grow. A few do, but they cannot compete with the late winter weeds and commonly no flowers result, not even one. Then the gardener says nuts again and waits till April 1, searching garden centers for the very first flats of geraniums and alyssum. These are borne home in triumph, planted out, and they too perish in a late freeze, or even without a freeze they die in cold windy damp.
Nuts again, says the gardener (we are now up to about the 10th year), and he learns to wait till late April or May to plant out those semimythical "sturdy thrifty well-hardened" plants that the books keep talking about. And sure enough they grow and bloom, so the gardener concludes the way to do it is wait till full spring is here, then plant out the best and most costly young plants he can find.
But suppose he wants a certain variety of petunia or verbena or zinnia or whatnot, and knows he will not find it at any garden center. The only way to get it is from seed. He then has two choices:
He can wait till mid-May and plant the seed outdoors, in a well-prepared bed (please pause just here; well-prepared means tilled and weed-free soil in friable condition, which means work, so don't just race over "well-prepared" as if your soil already were dreamy) and given protection from emerging weeds, from strong weeds and especially from drought. When the seeds emerge you should transplant them to stand about a foot apart, except for things like poppies and cornflowers, which often die when transplanted.
The other method is to proceed on St. Patrick's day exactly as the foolish gardener did on Jan. 15, with your styrofoam cups and soil (or whatever you use) and you will still have the joy of beholding the tender green sprouts. Except that this time they will live. The light is strong, the temperature is milder. If it snows you don't care because your little seedlings are safe indoors. They don't dry out because you water them, and they don't suffer from wind or slugs or the usual hazards of God's great outdoors.
They grow up sturdy, because on mild sunny days you put your flats or pots of seedlings outdoors, bringing them in at night. Their leaves are really green, not pale, and their stems are sturdy, not etiolated.
Depending on how fast they grow, they go outdoors in permanent positions the second half of April or in early May, if the varieties are pretty hardy, or after mid-May if they are tender. In either case, it is warm (or hot) outdoors and you will really take time to get the weeds out of your seedlings' permanent planting sites. Your plants will be tough and in the first great flush of sturdy youthful strength, well able to withstand a bit of buffeting in the great rude world.
As for my friend who with no trouble flowers poppies in February in her basement, if she says anything more about how easy it all is, I will print her name and phone number (call after 10 p.m., please) and she will thus learn to keep a civil tongue in her head.