The sometimes sticky and always hot weather of August turns out to be quite useful for starting plants from seed. It is, in fact, the traditional month for doing so in Southern California.
If August seems an unlikely time, consider the photograph accompanying this article as evidence. These seedlings were all sown the second weekend of August last year, and were ready to be planted in the garden about late September, the beginning of the fall planting season.
The autumn months are considered the best months for planting things in the garden because the weather has begun to cool but the ground is still warm, so roots become established quickly. They then have all winter to grow and any rain helps with the watering.
In this flat of seedlings are annual flowers that should be planted in the fall for spring bloom, such as pansies; perennial flowers that also are best planted in the fall, at least when this young, and even a shrub I couldn't find as anything but seed. Trees also can be started from seed in August and this is the preferred method of planting some, including the deep-rooted eucalyptus.
Warmth Spurs Sprouting
The reason that seeds succeed so well when started in August has mostly to do with warmth. Seeds need a warm soil to sprout in. Planted in the heat of August they almost leap out of the ground, they sprout so fast.
Of course, you can't start them out in the sun; that would be too much. They need a bright but sunless spot. As they germinate and begin to grow, move them out into ever brighter spots in the garden and finally into full sun, within a week or two of sprouting.
Seeds can be started in any fine commercial potting soil. If it looks too coarse, run it through a piece of window screening. It must be fine-textured so the seed comes in contact with the soil. Fill small pots or nursery six-packs with soil and sow the seed on top. Cover each kind of seed with a layer of soil no thicker than the seed itself. Make sure you label each row or clump of seed.
Sow seed lightly. As one expert gardener once told me "if one seed germinates, they all will." If you sow too much seed you are going to have to thin the seedlings and risk ruining those nearby. If you do have to thin, cut off the tops of the plants you wish to remove with a small pair of scissors. Don't yank them out of the trays or pots.
To get seed to germinate, it must be moist all the time (why August's humidity also helps this project). Water every morning and whenever the soil even hints at becoming dry.
I have a favorite watering nozzle for this job that I recommend highly. It is made to water bonsai and has dozens of tiny holes that let the water out like a gentle summer rain. It should be used upside down--hold it so the water first goes up in the air and then falls with only the force of gravity on the seedbed.
One source for this watering device--the Masakuni Bonsai Nozzle--is Ashbrook's for the Garden on Montana Avenue in Santa Monica, (213) 394-4604.
Or, you can use one of the English watering cans, such as the Haws, with the fine upward pointing nozzles on the end.
After the seeds are up, keep them moist but let them dry out just a little between waterings to help avoid a fungus that attacks young seedlings and is called "damping off."
When they are about 3 inches tall, move them to larger containers (2-inch pots, or quart or 4-inch pots). Keep them in these until the fall planting season begins just after Sept. 15.
If something is ready to plant in the garden before then, go ahead and get the head start, but provide some kind of shade for the young seedlings. One old trick is to use wood shingles, pushed into the ground on the south side of the plant.