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Sow seeds directly into garden beds and pots. They thrive in moist but well-draining soil, full sun, and sheltered spots that protect them from harsh winds. Sunflowers release an allelopathic chemical into the soil that can inhibit the growth of nearby plants—use them as barriers and borders.
Almost too vigorously, lemon balm will happily take over an entire bed. Sow seeds into pots to prevent unwanted growth. Scatter them on top of potting soil and cover lightly with seed compost. Thin out to 30cm and position in full sun or partial shade.
Cerastium tomentosum, otherwise known as dusty miller, grows in a mat-like formation. The fast-growing plant spreads across the surface of the soil and acts as a cover crop. It helps retain moisture and protects microbial life from UV rays.
Don’t let that gorgeous herbal smell tease you all season long. Prune your plants back at the end of the season and collect the flower heads. Dry them out to make a soothing and tasty tea.
This herbal powerhouse and member of the mint family will draw pollinator species into your garden to look after your vegetables. The plant also keeps mosquitoes away, making gardening a much more pleasant experience.
Traditional advice is to plant seeds thickly in a flat or tray, then “prick out” individual seedlings for repotting into larger containers. But I prefer to start just a few seeds in 2¼-inch or larger pots, eliminating the need for transplanting altogether. I thin the emerging seedlings with scissors or just plant the whole cluster in the garden.
I use a commercial “soilless” seed-starting mix—a blend of milled sphagnum moss, vermiculite, and other sterilized components—so I rarely have trouble with damping-off disease, a fungal problem that causes seedlings to wither and die. To prepare for planting, I pour all but a small portion of the mix into a large bowl and moisten it thoroughly with warm water. Next I fill the containers—plastic pots saved from my periodic nursery buying sprees—to ½ inch below the rim and gently pack the medium to eliminate air pockets. Containers recycled from previous uses should be first sterilized by soaking in a solution of one part bleach and nine parts water.
Presoaking is my number one secret for success in starting seeds. This simple procedure exposes the seed embryo to moisture, which is the primary impetus for making it grow. I pour hot tap water into a shallow container, empty a packet of seeds into the water, spread them out, and let them stand for up to 24 hours. Soak the seeds for any longer and they might rot. The seeds swell as water penetrates the seed coat and the embryo inside begins to plump up.
It’s easy to care for seeds planted in pots
Columbines brighten both sides of my shady, front-yard path. The little congregation on one side came as plants from a catalog, while those on the other were nurtured, by me, from a palmful of shiny, black seeds to a drift of long-spurred flowers. Guess which ones give me the most satisfaction? Maternal pride isn’t the only reward that I get from starting seeds. I’ve also gained a greener thumb and a fatter wallet—a packet of seeds provides 20 or more plants for the price of a single potted plant.
On the other hand, more extreme treatment may be necessary to get the most out of wildflowers from hot places. In the Southwest, it can be fire that turns the key. I had a lot of trouble getting Texas bluebonnets (Lupinus texensis) to sprout with abandon until one year when a kitchen fire scorched an envelope of seeds. That’s the end of them, I thought, tossing the charred seeds out on the bank. Naturally, every last one sprouted into a vigorous, healthy plant.
Eliminate the need for transplanting seedlings by sowing just a few seeds per pot. Photo: Scott Phillips
“Stratification” means supplying a period of moist cold to trick seeds into thinking that they’re experiencing winter. If you’re sowing indoors in spring, presoak the seeds, then place them in a zip-top, plastic, sandwich-size bag filled halfway with moist, seed-starting medium. Top off the seeds with another inch of moist medium, and then put the bag in an undisturbed corner of the refrigerator (at 34°F to 41°F). Check weekly for signs of germination. When the seeds begin to sprout roots, carefully transfer them to pots, fishing each seedling out of the bag with a spoon to keep soil around the new roots and to avoid disturbing delicate new growth. Then, care for them as you would any other seedlings.