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GARDENING : Seed and Ye Shall Find Satisfaction : To Get What You Want and Save Money, Start Small

August 27, 1994|SHARON COHOON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It's nearly impossible to keep plants from going to seed in August. Gardeners often exhibit the same tendency.

Days just too hot for planting can be perfect for lounging in a hammock with a favorite iced drink and plotting fall gardening schemes.

Seed-loving gardeners are a growing tribe, according to Ron Vanderhoff, Nurseryland district manager for Orange County/Los Angeles. "Seed sales have expanded dramatically," he says. "They've tripled in the last three or four years, and we think that trend will continue."

One reason is economy. "Seed sales traditionally go up during recessions," he says. "Seed is always the cheapest way to garden."

Ralph Barton of Brea, a gardener with 40 years of experience in growing from seed, vouches for that. "You can get 30 tomato plants for a $1 packet of seed," he says. "You can't buy a single plant in a nursery for that price. In fact you can barely buy one tomato in a supermarket."

Increased horticultural sophistication is another reason for the popularity of seeds. Growers tend to raise plants that will look good in pony packs when they arrive at the nursery, especially in the case of annuals, Vanderhoff says.

"There are less compact plants that look just as good or better in the garden but that look rangy and unappealing in pony packs," he says. "People who want them usually have no choice other than starting from seed."

Brad Allen of the Newport Beach landscape design firm Fleur Jardin falls into this category. Whether it's calendulas, snapdragons, marigolds or zinnias, he inevitably prefers taller annuals to the varieties he finds on the market. "They're more graceful, more cottagey, and better for cutting." Because he can't find what he wants in the nurseries, Allen grows annuals for customers and for his own garden from seed.

Starting from seed has other advantages, he says.

"You get what you want when you want it. Growers usually don't release plants until they're in bloom, but I like to get my plants in the ground earlier. I'm convinced the younger plants are when you transfer them to the garden, the stronger they'll be."

Allen sows his fall annuals in flats in late August and early September and transfers them to the garden as soon as they've developed four leaves, approximately six weeks later. (A lazier way to start annuals is to wait until the first rain storm is expected, scratch up a bare patch of dirt beforehand, scatter seeds, wait for rain, and watch what happens.)

Color control is better starting from seed, too, Allen says. "Many plants only come mixed in the nurseries--foxgloves, for example--when all I want is one color. That's another reason I start from seed."

The pleasure people find in growing their own produce--if only a few culinary herbs in a window box--has also contributed to the current interest in seeds. Shepherd's Garden Seeds, one of the companies that has been instrumental in creating the current crop of home food growers, has experienced sales growth of 25% a year since 1986, according to Beth Benjamin, horticultural adviser.

Shepherd's current best sellers are heirloom tomatoes, habanero and other chili peppers, French filet beans, scented basils and all the specialty greens.

Vanderhoff at Nurseryland reports similar trends. Lettuce and specialty green sales have been particularly strong, he says.

Home gardener Bea Grow of San Clemente, for one, isn't surprised. She sows at least 10 different types of lettuce seed in her border each year. "I just broadcast seeds wherever I have an empty space among my perennials," she says.

The bronze-leafed lettuces, which are her favorites, look very pretty mixed in with other plant foliage, she says. They taste as good as they look, too.

Chris Franzen in Tustin likes greens, too. She's planted Shepherd's 'Paros' chard several years in a row now. "Chard is so expensive in the supermarket and so easy to grow. And it keeps going for most of a year before you have to replace it.

"Chervil is fun and easy, too."

Gardeners also have more choices now.

A few years ago three major seed companies--Burpee, Ferry-Morse and Northrup King--accounted for 95% of Nurseryland's seed sales, according to Vanderhoff. But lots of new players, such as Seeds of Change, a company specializing in organically grown seed, are making inroads into the market. And older companies such as the English firm Thompson & Morgan have caught on again.

This makes gone-to-seed gardeners always searching for the unusual happy.

"If you're always looking for something new, seed is the way to go," Grow advises. "There are so many options."

"If it's normally green, and some seed company has a purple one, then that's always the one I want," Barton says.

"If I've been reading about a certain plant in a garden book and coveting it like crazy and I find it somewhere in seed, then I'm a goner," Franzen says. "I've got to have it."

There's a final reason starting from seed has caught on: The experience is addictive.

"To watch a big, vigorous plant develop from this delicate little seedling is a pretty miraculous thing," Vanderhoff says. "Even after 16 years in this business, I still find it amazing."

Going to Seed?

Here are some plants to start from seed in August or September:

Cool-season annuals: Calendula, Iceland & Shirley poppies, larkspur, snapdragon, stocks, sweet peas, pansies.

Spring-flowering perennials: Delphinium, digitalis, hollyhocks, Shasta daisies, coreopsis, columbine, penstemon.

Cool-season vegetables: Broccoli, cauliflower, chard, radicchio, mustard, lettuce, spinach, arugula, peas, fava beans.

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