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IN THE GARDEN

Start Seeds Now for Winter Payoff

September 01, 1996|ROBERT SMAUS | TIMES GARDEN EDITOR

At other, more temperate times of the year, seeds take their sweet time sprouting. But in late summer's heat and humidity, they fairly rocket out of the flats, be they vegetable, flower, tree or shrub.

Anxious to replace some of summer's pooped-out vegetables--tomatoes dying of various unknown diseases, beans drying on the vine and squash turning white with late-summer mildew--I sowed seed of head lettuce, broccoli and cauliflower on Aug. 8.

Just three days later, eager seedlings split and pushed up the soil as if they were a 7.0 temblor. A day later they were nearly an inch tall.

I've already moved them from the wooden flats where I sow seed, putting them in saved nursery six-packs, and figure I'll have them in the ground near the end of the month, so the vegetable garden will again look fresh and be in full swing by early autumn.

The unlikely act of sowing seed in the late summer heat works for all sorts of things, and they are ready to transplant into the garden in fall, our best planting season. If you've been dying to try something new that can be planted in fall and can be grown only from seed, now's the time to take the plunge.

Sow seed in ordinary potting soil in any container with drainage that's a couple of inches deep. Put the container in a partially shaded spot and keep it constantly moist. When seedlings have two true leaves (the first rounded pair don't count), transplant them into nursery six-packs, then transplant into the garden when seedlings are about 4 inches tall.

You can find seeds for the normal fall flowers and crops at nurseries, but seed catalogs contain many newer or more unusual varieties. For an excellent, inexpensive list of seed companies (and other mail-order garden suppliers), write for the Gardener's Source Guide, P.O. Box 206G, Gowanda, NY 14070-0206. It costs $5.95, postpaid.

For instance, the lettuce I sowed came from the local nursery, but the broccoli is a hard-to-find variety named 'Early Dividend,' which proved last year to be quicker to form a main head, with plenty of side shoots later on. Although the variety was developed here in Southern California, the seed is available only from Pinetree Garden Seeds in Maine (P.O. Box 300, New Gloucester, ME 04260).

Similarly, the California-bred cauliflower seed, of an unbelievably huge variety named 'Stardust,' came from an Amish seed source, E&R Seed (1356 E. 200 S., Monroe, IN 46772).

Those who want to plant sweet peas before Labor Day, so they have flowers by Christmas, had better act today. Seed should be sown in the ground, where the vines are to grow, not in flats or pots. Sweet peas don't transplant well. Soak them overnight before planting.

If you're not in a big hurry for flowers, you can sow the seed any time in fall, which gives you time to order seeds from a mail order source.

Shepherd's Garden Seeds (30 Irene St., Torrington, CT 06790; Californians call [408] 335-6910) added a bunch of old-fashioned extra fragrant varieties to its catalog this year, including 'Cupani,' introduced in 1699; the powerfully fragrant 'Painted Lady,' which dates from 1737; 'America,' from 1896 with striated tomato-red flowers; and 'Old Spice,' a mix of old Italian varieties.

Don't expect any of these floral antiques to be as floriferous or large-flowered as today's strains, but they sure smell good.

For years I've been growing a bunch of small but pretty bulbs from South Africa that are on the same timetable as our own native plants. They grow in winter, flower in spring and go dormant for summer. Most of these Cape bulbs, like our natives, want to be kept dry in summer and prefer gritty soils, but one genus seems more tolerant of ordinary garden conditions--Babiana, or baboon flower, so named because baboons dig and eat the corms.

In the garden they have no such pests and are one of the few that grow in clay soils, even if planted with other things that get watered in summer (as long as the beds aren't heavily watered or soggy wet).

During the last couple of years, bulb growers have begun raising the corms, of a purple and a lavender, here in California, and they start showing up at nurseries about now. Plant the bulbs any time in fall. You need to dig only a small hole, so the corms are covered with an inch of soil.

The bulbs throw foot-tall spikes in early spring, and flowers open slowly from one end to the other, so unlike many bulbs, this one blooms for more than a few days.

I have some tucked at the base of my front gate, by the edge of the path, that bloom for well over a month, and each year the patch grows wider as the bulbs thrive and multiply. They get virtually no care.

You don't need to dig them out, just let the pleated foliage dry to an orange-brown, then cut off the leaves with scissors. Don't try to pull the dried foliage off, or you'll yank the shallow bulbs right out of the soil--the leaves are firmly attached even when dry.

They also do well in pots, as do all Cape bulbs, if you just set the pots in the shade in summer and let them go completely dry until fall, when you can start watering again.

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