One of January's joys is planning the flower garden. Outside, a snowstorm could be in progress and the wind howling at the door, but you are curled up with this year's crop of newly arrived seed catalogues and your private diary of successes and failures in the flower garden.
You pore over your notes and soon realize that you've been lulled into growing the same annuals and perennials year after year. Even though hundreds of new plants have been introduced every year, you've never grown one in your garden.
Consider the All-America Selections, the "Oscars" of the flower and vegetable world as voted by seed specialists and growers. This year, flowers copped three of the eight awards: "New Look" celosia, "Snow Lady" shasta daisy and "Ultra Crimson Star" petunia. Will you be growing them this year or will you compromise and accept the conventional starter plants found at garden shops and nurseries in May?
The problem for the most part is selection. Only a limited number of "starter plants" are available. Seed is generally available, but many homeowners dislike starting seed indoors in the first place.
The stumbling block for most people is a past experience starting seed indoors. For whatever reason, the seeds never produced plants.
I raise the seed subject now for several reasons. First, if you want the flower garden of your life this year, you can have it at next-to-nothing cost if you grow plants from seed that you start yourself. Second, seed-starting is fool-proof as long as you stick to a few basic rules. Third, you're on the threshold of the seed-starting cycle. From now to May, you have the opportunity of starting and growing every annual and perennial plant available today.
Let us begin with the tools. You could use the seed starter kits at the garden shop, but they're not all that user friendly. You'll find all kinds of starter soil for seed, but they don't improve germination or survival one iota. Your best choices are plastic-coated egg cartons (as many as possible) and pure-and-simple vermiculite.
Soak vermiculite in hot water, then spoon it out and let it dry on newspapers while you label the egg cartons with the names of the seeds you will plant.
Fill every egg cradle with moist vermiculite, follow the recommended procedure for starting the seed, then pull a sheet of clear plastic over the top of the carton, down the sides and under the carton itself, creating a mini-greenhouse. Unless the seed-starting scenario says otherwise, move the egg cartons to the warmest room of the house with bright indirect light. Direct sun should never be allowed to strike the egg carton.
On the fifth day, temporarily remove the plastic cover, spray mist warm water gently over the egg carton (usually 3 or 4 presses of the button), then cover with the plastic again. Repeat this every five days while the egg carton remains covered.
When plants sprout, check carefully to verify that all the seeds have sprouted before removing the plastic. At this point, you will find tiny plants with one pair of leaves (nurse leaves).
From here, spray mist warm water over the soil twice daily. Within two or three days, a second pair of leaves will develop (true leaves) and the initial pair of leaves will drop from the plant. Take this to mean that the seedlings should be transplanted as soon as possible.
Here's a summary for the most popular annuals: Ageratum: Start seed indoors now or in the first two weeks of February so that plants will be in flower when set into the garden in May. Place seed on top of the vermiculite in the egg carton, but do not cover the seed with soil. The seed will sprout in eight days if the room temperature is in the high 70s.
Alyssum: Start seed indoors from March 1 to the first week of April. Do not cover the seed with soil, but place it on top of the vermiculite. Room temperature in the 70s will help seed sprout in seven to nine days. When spray misting water over the soil, add a pinch or two of Benomyl to the water to stop "damping off" disease, which usually affects this plant.
Aster: Start seed indoors in mid-March so you have good-size plants to transfer to the garden in May. Try for 70-degree room temperatures for seed-starting; seed will sprout in less than 10 days. Cover seed lightly with soil.
Bachelor Buttons: Plant seed directly into the garden in May.
Bells-of-Ireland: Plant seed directly into the garden in May.
Calceolaria (Pocketbook plant): Start seed indoors the first week of March. Do not cover the seed with soil in the egg carton. The seeds take 16 to 20 days to sprout in 70-degree room temperatures.
Calendula: Plant seed directly in the garden in late May or early June.
Candytuft: Start seed indoors in late March, covering the seed with soil. Room temperatures should be in the 70s, with seeds taking three weeks to sprout.
Cardinal Climber: Plant seed directly into the garden in late May.
Carnation: Start seeds indoors in mid-March, covering them with soil. Seeds sprout in 16 to 18 days with 70-degree room temperatures. Move plants to the garden in late May.
Celosia: Start seeds indoors the first days of April, covering them with soil. In 70-degree temperatures, seeds will sprout in 10 days. Planted into the garden in mid-May, you'll enjoy the colorful stalks by mid-July. Be sure to try the "New Look" celosia.
Cleome: Plant seed directly into the garden in early June.
Coleus: Start seed indoors between Feb. 15 and March 15. Do not cover the seeds with soil; seeds must have light to germinate, usually two weeks in a warm room. Plant in late May in partial to dense shade.
Cosmos: Plant seeds directly into the garden in late May. You must have perfect drainage for cosmos to do well.
Dianthus: Start seeds indoors from March 1 to mid-April, covering them with soil. In a warm room the seeds will sprout in two weeks. After transplanting seedlings, grow plants in bright indirect light, but temperatures must be below 60 degrees for plants to stay healthy. Move to the outdoor garden the first days of June. Jack Eden hosts "Over the Garden Fence" Sundays from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on WTOP Radio (1500 AM).