Breaking tradition and growing your own bedding plants indoors from seed this winter and spring will probably lead to a revolution in the flower garden this year. No, you hadn't quite planned on a major overhaul of the bedding garden, pretty much opting to leave well enough alone, but let's face it: You haven't grown that many new and different flowers in awhile. If the marigolds, petunias and zinnias had a voice, they'd say it's time you gave the flower garden a face lift.
Why start now?
For one thing, you won't have to wait long for results. Ageratum could have been started already, but most of the popular annuals and perennials are candidates for growing indoors over the next 12 weeks.
Secondly, if you want reassurance that you're on the right track, there's no better, more inexpensive way than by starting seed indoors. One success will build on another.
Finally, there is the matter of cost. Neighbors will be counting their pennies come May when starter plants become available, but you will have many more plants and varieties because you grew everything from seed. You won't be buying, you'll be planting.
Let us add a few more hints for seed-starting: On the fifth day after your seed is under way, it will be time to spray-mist warm water over the carton. When you do, take a small sheet of newspaper, roll it to the size of a golf ball, then place the balls on the rim at opposite ends of the egg carton. When you return the clear plastic sheet over the carton, "breathing space" will be left for the sprouting plants.
Using fiberboard in place of the plastic-coated foam carton isn't a good idea because paper siphons off moisture needed for the seedlings.
Beware of excess water showing up as droplets on the underside of the plastic cover; this means you're spraying too much water. Venting the plastic cover for an hour or so will correct the problem.
When the second pair of leaves (true leaves) develop on plants, the first leaves (nurse leaves) will drop; transplant as soon after as possible.
For equipment, rely on 3-inch peat pots and your standard 1-1-1 soil, that is equal amounts of "milled" or "compressed" sphagnum peat moss, perlite and vermiculite. Here is the transplanting scenario:
Mix your 1-1-1 dry in a dishpan; once homogenized, add hot water to wet it thoroughly. Spoon off the wet soil with your hands onto sheets of paper on the kitchen counter to dry for a few minutes. Dunk peat pots twice in water up to the rim to wet the peat.
Take two heaping trowels of your wet 1-1-1, add a one-third teaspoon of pulverized lime, mix it with your hands, then fill the peat pot almost to the top. Spoon the seedling plant from the egg carton to the peat pot, scooping some soil from the pot to accommodate the seedling. Add more 1-1-1 around the plant, then add the barest amount of warm water to remove air pockets in the soil.
Growing conditions change after transplanting: Keep the soil and peat pot lightly moist at all times. Every three days, hold the peat pot at the top and immerse it in warm water, but do not allow water to spill into the pot. Wet the soil inside the pot every few days to keep the soil lightly moist at all times; never allow the soil to dry out.
Feed the seedlings every week. Use Peters' 15-30-15 water-soluble plant food, using one-third the label rate and applying it once a week.
Provide bright indirect sunlight and warm temperatures. Locate plants in the warmest room, but out of reach of the direct rays of the sun. Rotate pots a half-turn every week so stalks don't bend to the light. From mid-April to outdoor planting in May, move the plants to lower room temperatures (60 degrees or slightly less), but into full sun. Let soil go moderately dry between waterings to harden off plants somewhat before the move outdoors.
Now, here are more capsule summaries for the popular annuals: Dusty Miller: Start seeds indoors in warm rooms anytime between now and March 1, remembering not to cover the seed with soil. If you grow the Candidissima variety, cover the seed with soil, but then move the egg carton into a dark room for germination. Plant in mid-May.
Four O'Clocks: Plant seeds directly in the outdoor garden in mid- to late May.
Gerbera: Start seeds anytime this month, covering them only with an eighth of an inch of soil. Seeds will sprout in two weeks, after which plants should be grown in a cool room until moved to the garden in late May.
Heliotrope: Start seeds indoors from March 1 to April 15; cover the seeds lightly with soil. Seeds sprout in three weeks. Plant outdoors in late May.
Hollyhock: Start seeds indoors about March 15; seeds will need warm temperatures and three weeks to germinate. The plant always has a deep taproot, so use a deep pot when you transplant it from the egg carton. Plant it outdoors in late May and it will bloom next year, since it is a biennial flower.
Impatiens: Start indoors from now to March 1, but do not cover the seed with soil. Reserve a few egg cartons exclusively for impatiens seed because germination takes three weeks, and plants should remain in the egg carton for another two-plus weeks before transplanting; sturdier plants will result. If you have a grow light with GE F-40R redlight tubes, use it for starting these seeds, leaving lights on 14 hours daily. Feed seedlings every two weeks rather than every week, and don't overwater.
Lobelia: Start seeds indoors in March, but do not cover the seed with soil. They will sprout in a little under three weeks. Grow outdoors in partial shade for continuous summer flowers.
Marigold: Start seeds indoors March 1-20, barely covering the seeds with soil. Germination will take 10 to 14 days. After transplanting, seedlings must have only nine hours of indirect light. Use an old cookie sheet for storing peat pots, moving the tray to a dark closet at 6 p.m. and returning the tray and plants to bright indirect light around 9 the next morning. Continue this schedule for four weeks after plants have been transplanted. Move plants to the outdoor garden in late May.
Pansy: Seeds are normally started outdoors in September, so you have no choice but to buy starter plants when they become available.
Petunia: Start seeds indoors in early March, but do not cover them with soil. Germination takes two weeks. After transplanting, grow plants in 55-to-60-degree temperatures, but in optimum sunlight. Plant outdoors in mid-May.
Salvia: Start seeds indoors March 1-15, but do not cover them. Be careful with water because Salvia seeds are very susceptible to damping off disease. Seeds will sprout in 12 to 16 days in 70-degree room temperatures. Move to the outdoor garden in mid-to-late May.
Snapdragon: Refrigerate seeds for two weeks before starting, usually up to March 15; do not cover seeds with soil. Germination takes 10 to 14 days, after which you should move seedlings to a dark closet for a full two weeks. While they are in the closet, keep the soil lightly moist. When the fourth pair of leaves develop, pinch the top of the plant between the third and fourth pair of leaves. Transplant to peat pots after the two-week closeting cycle. Plant outdoors in late May.
Stock: Start seed anytime up to the first week of March, covering the seed with soil. Germination takes two weeks in a warm room. After transplanting, keep plants cool (temperatures below 60 degrees), moving your best plants to the garden in mid-May and discarding unhealthy plants.
Torenia: Start seed indoors anytime until March 1, but do not cover seed. Seed sprouts in just under three weeks. Plant outdoors in late May.
Verbena: Start seeds indoors March 1-15, cover seed with soil, but move egg carton to a dark closet until seeds sprout (usually four weeks). Transplant afterwards. Keep plants pinched through the spring, planting outdoors in late May.
Vinca: Start indoors Feb.15-March 1, covering seed, but moving egg carton to a dark closet for three weeks while seeds sprout. Be careful not to overwater. Plant outdoors in late May.
Dwarf Zinnia: If you find dwarf zinnia seeds, start these indoors the last week of March at room temperature, around 60 degrees. Seeds sprout in two weeks. Plants are moved to the outdoor garden in late May.
NEXT WEEK: Starting perennials from seed indoors. Jack Eden hosts "Over the Garden Fence" Sundays from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on WTOP Radio (1500 AM). TIP OF THE WEEK FEEDING FERNS
It is time to resume feeding ferns every four to six weeks, now that the plants are growing again. Repotting is probably not needed, but you need to improve the soil. Use your standard 1-1-1, with lime added, to replace the top inch of soil spooned off after watering. Keep the soil lightly moist from here on. Brown tips signal a lack of humidity.