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THE CALIFORNIA GARDEN

Reaping those little rewards

Start with seeds if you want unusual or hard-to-find flowers and vegetables to transplant this spring. With a bit of help from the experts and attention to details, it's easier -- and cheaper -- than you may think.

February 08, 2007|Robert Smaus | Special to The Times

HISTORY does not record exactly how Jack planted his marvelous beanstalk, but he probably just pushed a seed into some moist dirt with a finger. Though the results might not be quite as dramatic, sowing seeds in containers isn't much more difficult. You're more likely to succeed because containers make it easier to control temperature, humidity and other things that dramatically affect germination.

You can also get a jump on the planting seasons by starting things when the garden soil is too cold in winter, or too hot in summer. Sow seeds now and seedlings will be ready to pop into the garden when the ground warms this spring.

Why even bother with seeds? ("Can't I just get plants at the nursery?") Because you can grow an almost unimaginable variety of flowers and vegetables not found at the corner garden center. Many of the newest varieties, as well as many heirlooms, are only available as seed. Seeds of rare and exotic plants from around the world can be found in catalogs. Oh, seed is also dirt cheap.

But many gardeners consider sprouting seeds something of a black art, difficult and problematic at best. "It's pretty easy, actually," says nurseryman Ron Hill, who grows some lovely and exotic stuff from seeds, although his techniques are a bit more sophisticated than Jack's. But experienced seed-planters like Hill have a few tricks up their green sleeves that will help any home gardener with the basics.

Ron and his wife, Junko, run Mariposa Garden in Lakewood, a specialty wholesale nursery known for its choice selection of plants found at upscale establishments such as Marina del Rey Garden Center or Burkard Nurseries in Pasadena. He has a greenhouse, of course, but suggests that home gardeners plant seeds in a container with a cover to trap humidity, then place it on top of the refrigerator.

Don't worry if it's a little dark up there. Light isn't important at first. Interior lighting will do, at least until seeds have sprouted. Hill says the important factors are humidity and warmth. In his greenhouse, he shoots for 90% humidity and temperatures between 72 and 75 degrees, in 80% shade, to sprout most seeds.

Shirley Kerins, who runs the legendary Huntington Botanical Gardens' plant sales (May 19-20 this year), has a greenhouse too, a brand-new one, but doesn't use it. She and the volunteers sprout seeds outdoors in partial shade, using clear-topped, clamshell salad containers from the Huntington's cafe, poking holes in the bottom for drainage. Sometimes they simply sow seed in leftover plastic nursery packs with no covering, keeping the seeds moist with a mist nozzle on the end of a hose. If seeds are started under a covering, be sure to remove it after they sprout. The seedlings will need good air circulation.

Once you've found suitable containers (they can be purchased, see the story at right), fill them with a quality, sterile potting soil that does not contain real dirt, or you'll invite disease. Hill prefers potting soils that contain peat moss. Before sowing the seed, water the potting soil and let it sit until it is just moist.

Seeds must be planted at a certain depth, information usually found on the packet. Usually seeds are planted twice as deep as the plant is expected to grow. It's best to cover the seeds with additional potting soil so they end up at the proper depth, rather than to push them into the soil. Sieve the covering soil first, if it is coarse.

Water the seeds with a special mist nozzle found at nurseries. Anything stronger, even a gentle watering can, will disturb, or actually move, the seeds. Once the seeds sprout, you can switch to a fine, rain-like nozzle. Each kind of seed will take a certain amount of time to sprout. Tomatoes, for example, will sprout in 48 hours, but a chile pepper takes a week, says Hill.

Kerins points out that while it is important to keep the seed damp and the humidity high by misting or other means, it is even more important not to let the soil get too wet. "It should be like a squeezed-out sponge," she says. Too-wet soil brings on rot and the dreaded "damping off," a disease that constricts the base of seedlings, killing them.

Admittedly, some seeds are temperamental and have special requirements that must be met before they'll sprout. California natives have a reputation for being fussy and obstinate, though Holliday Wagner, plant ecologist and nursery manager at the Theodore Payne Foundation in Sun Valley, which grows all kinds of natives, says it's not that difficult.

"It's sometimes tough to get seeds to break dormancy," she says -- but the foundation has a whole bag of tricks, including boiling, freezing, rubbing them with sandpaper (scarifying), even covering the soil with "charate" (ashes). The charate is made from live chamise slowly burned in a 500-degree oven (don't try to burn dead or dry chamise, or you'll start a fire in the oven). Many of our natives are fire followers, and the charate tricks them into thinking they just survived a big blaze.

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