I figure this is the year to grow some things from seed, for several reasons.
Seeds are cheap and although you can no longer buy a packet with pocket change, there are seed packets that sell for under a buck. Considering the times, this is good news.
Seeds need less water. Although you must keep seed constantly moist for speedy germination, once the plants sprout, they sink their roots deep in search of moisture and need much less frequent irrigation, if planted directly in the ground.
If you plant in pots or cells, you can transplant at the proper time so the roots can continue growing without becoming root-bound. This also makes for deep rooting. Less watering is more good news because despite all the rain we've had locally, the drought is still officially on.
Seeds offer variety. If you are tired of the same old tomato, you will find dozens to choose from in a nursery's seed rack, maybe hundreds if you order from the many mail order seed companies. In the catalogues (some are listed at the end of this article), you will also find plants you've never heard of.
Seeds are easy. Thanks to some new products, getting seeds to sprout is easier than ever. This may be the real news.
I just sowed some seed in one of these new products. It has a clear greenhouse top, a water reservoir and a wick that carries just the right amount of moisture to the little cells that hold the potting medium and seeds. It seems foolproof, with no chance of over- or under-watering.
This one, the "APS Starter Kit" from Gardener's Supply Co. (128 Intervale Road, Burlington, Vt. 05401) is the fanciest I've seen, but most of the seed catalogues offer similar seed environments and last year I used one called the "Easy Grow Greenhouse" found at a local nursery.
In my book, there are only three tricks to germinating seed. First, provide enough light. Don't overdo it and cook the seed in the hot sun, but provide enough light and warmth to encourage quick germination and sturdy stems. I put my seedling trays where they get sun in the morning, speckled shade the rest of the day. As soon as the seeds sprout I move them into full sun so the stems do not elongate in their search for light. You can also start seeds indoors in a sunny window. One gardener I know begins hers on top of the refrigerator, to take advantage of the warmth from the cooling coils, then moves them out into the sun when they sprout.
Seeds need constant moisture to germinate--trick No. 2. This is where the new products help. A greenhouse top of some kind keeps them moist, but even better is a wicking device that provides just enough moisture to the open bottoms of the seedling cells or trays. This capillary matting makes sure that the potting soil never dries out or never gets too soggy. Once seeds sprout, remove any greenhouse top, but keep using the capillary mat.
Trick No. 3 is to use only potting soil sold by the bag. This has been sterilized so there are no fungus diseases present. It is these fungus diseases that cause seedlings to collapse or wilt right after sprouting. There may be one other trick--the time of the year you plant--but March or April are the best times of all so you're in luck.
Some seeds do best sowed directly in the ground. This is true for most of the summer annuals we grow, but especially for marigolds and zinnias. It is also true for most vegetables. Tomatoes are one exception because they sprout sooner in pots than in the cool ground. When it is time to transplant (when about six inches tall), you can plant tomatoes deep. Every bit of stem buried will sprout roots which makes very sturdy plants.
Critters are the reason more people don't sow seed directly in the ground. Even a little sow bug can wreak havoc on tender little seedlings; they are safer in a pot or cell or seedling tray.
Most nurseries have a decent selection of seed, but mail order sources have an astounding variety. Jaded vegetable gardeners will find hundreds of treats in these catalogues:
Bountiful Gardens, 5798 Ridgewood Road, Willits, Calif. 95490.
Heirloom Seeds, P.O. Box 245, W. Elizabeth, Pa. 15088-0245. Catalogue costs $1.
Seeds of Change, 1364 Rufina Circle No. 5, Santa Fe, N.M. 87501.
Shepherd's Garden Seeds, 30 Irene St., Torrington, Conn. 06790.
Native Seeds/SEARCH, 2509 N. Campbell Ave. No. 325, Tucson, Ariz. 85719. Catalogue costs $1.
These catalogues have flowers and vegetables:
W. Atlee Burpee & Co., Warminster, Pa. 18974.
The Country Garden, P.O. Box 3539, Oakland, Calif. 94609-0539. Catalogue costs $2.
Gurney's, 110 Capital St., Yankton, S.D. 57079.
Park Seed, Cokesbury Road, Greenwood, S.C. 29647-0001.
Thompson & Morgan, P.O. Box 1308, Jackson, N.J. 08527.