When Melanie and George started, they seeded in the basement
on an old, ugly but sturdy plywood worktable. They've since
upgraded to what you see here, but still rely on the basics:
a calendar, a pencil, inexpensive plastic trays and seeds.
or To Seed?
I so look forward to
your articles. This will be my first year and
I am starting small. Do you order many plugs or
do you start your own from seeds? Would be grateful
for any info. I have never started from seeds
We are certified organic which means we can’t
use commercial plugs under new guidelines unless
they are certified organic (and I haven’t
Hope this column helps with seed starting. Starting
seeds is easy and you’ll amaze yourself.
If you can use plugs, it’s a no-brainer.
Plugs aren't cheap, but
for some of the tiny or difficult to start seeds,
You need to pre-order plugs in late fall or early
winter. I’ll deal with them in a future
I read about your fascinating
flower growing business and that has been my dream,
not the business part, but to grow as many types
of flowers that I can in my backyard. If neighbors
want a bouquet once and a while, that is fine
with me...the problem are white tail deer. I live
in Philadelphia, near a wooded part of Fairmont
Park. The deer have eaten everything except daffodils,
butterfly bushes and crape myrtle.
I have tried dried
blood, lifebuoy soap, hair, pepper plants within
the flowers and only bird netting worked. Do you
have any suggestions. I’m
thinking of growing rocks. At least the deer will
not eat them!
problem is a common one.
My brother and sister-in-law live on the edge
of Cleveland Metropolitan Park and deer come up
from the valley and feast, also. Different people
will swear one thing works for them and someone
else has no luck with it.
We’ve had some success with
Irish Spring soap chunks placed in net
bags or old nylons and hung on posts. Trick is
keeping the soap whiffy, so that means changing
it every month or so. We also change our scare
tactics often -- even putting a
garbage bag on a stake to blow in the wind
where we see lots of deer prints, because deer
do not like to be surprised.
Here are two tips that we’ve had pretty
good success with:
Try tying clear
fishing filament between a couple stakes
at various heights (like 2-4-5 or 6 feet) where
the deer are likely to roam. (Eliot Coleman told
us that one years ago). Be sure you and guests
know where the filament is so you don’t
walk into it! Deer can’t see the lines and,
again, don’t like being surprised. Change
the location of the stakes and filament occasionally
to keep them off guard. Hortnova, the plastic
netting flower growers use to keep flowers from
flopping, can also be attached vertically between
stakes, ideally in two rows. (That we gleaned
from the Arnoskys). Deer touch it and retreat.
If they get tangled they don’t usually come
Our big protection around
our regular square flower and vegetable growing
areas is hot tape
(IntelliShock and various other names). We run
two strands around the further garden areas with
solar powered energizers, and others have electric.
We’ve seen deer tracks up to the tape, and
quick retreats. Theory is, deer see the enclosure
and while they can easily jump over, they don’t
want to get trapped in an enclosed area. They
also don’t like to get zapped on the nose.
Folks at Premier Fence are great with questions.
(Call them at 800-282-6631 or click
here to e-mail them
Our dogs have all gotten zapped, and learn from
the experience. Unfortunately, we people aren’t
as smart. Can’t tell you how many times
I forgot to turn the fence off, went in between
electric netting and hot tape with gloves on,
and came out without gloves, and got zapped. It’s
more of a startle than a hurt. But small children
need close supervision around any electric fencing.
- Transplanting seedlings
- Direct seeding
- Netting and such
There are so many great perennials, and
adding a few each year helps get you through
the lean times. Some you can start from
seed, many are best purchased as small plants.
(yarrow) gets me through
the early part of the season. Yellow types
are hardiest for us, and just keep coming
back.Colorado variety is nice, and you can
do it from seed and plant in Fall.
Balm), is great for early
bouquets, even for the greenery and cut
it back and it will come again
(Butterfly Weed) We’ve
had good luck with Milkmaid and just planted
some Silky series last Fall, which we grew
(Butterfly Bush) fill many
a void for us. We purchase plants.
A little bit about Melanie
Melanie and husband George own a 19.2-acre certified
organic farm in Emmaus, PA, where they, with son
Don and daughter Ruth, have operated a modified
CSA and members-only home market stand, sold at
Farmers’ Markets, to health food stores
and restaurants. Melanie specializes in specialty
cut flowers. A former newspaper reporter, she
also is a freelance garden writer. She is a member
of the Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers.
March 14, 2003: My sister-in-law
asked last year for some advice on starting flower seeds to
sell bouquets at a small farmers’ market. “There
is so much advice out there, it’s overwhelming. Where
do I START?” she asked.
“Start simple -- with a calendar with blocks you can
write on, a seed catalog and a notebook and pencil,”
I told her. “You have to plan your seeding first. Know
your last frost date, and you’re on your way.”
(If you don’t know the average last frost date for your
area, give your county Extension agent a call.)
You can do all the fancy stuff you want on a computer (and
we do translate most of our scribbles onto the computer for
our organic certifier) but these hands-on, inexpensive items
are key for our flower and vegetable operation.
Here’s why: With a calendar and seed catalog your planning
is easy. The catalog tells you which flowers are best started
indoors and which are best direct seeded. (It’s a good
place to start -- and eventually you learn the advice isn’t
cast in stone, and you figure out what works best for you.)
Look up the flower you wish to start indoors, say Blue Horizon
Ageratum. Catalog says to transplant out after danger of frost
and to start 6-8 weeks before last frost. In our part of Pennsylvania,
that means a sometimes iffy mid-May. So counting back from,
say May 15, eight weeks and that means I need to start them
mid-March. I write *seed Ageratum* on the March 15 calendar
block in pencil (so I can change the date in case time escapes
me). Ageratum is an 80-100 day crop. So I can count ahead
and mark in pencil an approximate date of when I’ll
have a crop.
Do this for all the seeds you want to start indoors, and
also mark on the calendar when the direct seeded flower seeds
need to go in. Like teaching the same grade year after year,
soon the groundwork is laid and you don’t need to do
nearly as much planning after the first year. You learn to
adjust the dates, too, to suit your needs and those of your
In the notebook, I keep a running log (that probably only
I can read) by date, of actual planting dates. But I also
try to note temperature. (Here’s a good example of why
from the veggie calendar: Two years ago we were planting thousands
of onions on March 5. This year, we could walk on frozen snow.
So actual planting dates are really determined by Mother Nature,
not you.) The notebook can go to the greenhouse or potting
bench with you, so you can write down germination information.
It can go to the field with you, so you can write down germination,
problems, picking dates, etc. It’s a no-brainer.
Basic Seed Starting
Window, A Cool Room: Melanie gets a helping
paw from Jethro while moving seedlings.
When we started growing things for real, we started all of
our seeds in the basement on an old, ugly but sturdy plywood
worktable my husband, George, had used for stained glass projects.
We hung a few grow lights on moveable chains above the table.
That system works fine. George, built a 21 by 32-foot double-poly
heated greenhouse for me a few years ago. (He and son, Don,
will have greenhouse columns on this website in the near future.
With a few sore thumbs, you can do it, too). Now we start
everything on two heat tables in the seeding greenhouse, using
Ken-Bar Agritape heaters. (Go to www.ken-bar.com
for detailed product information. Heaters and other products
are sold through local distributors.) The heat tables are
set at 70°F.
When seeds germinate, the trays are moved to unheated tables.
The greenhouse is set at 45°F to protect against cold
nights. (Shade cloth goes on in early May to protect against
intense sun and comes off around Labor Day.) Okay, too advanced?
See the side-bar on Linda Essert-Kuchar in column
II and her inexpensive heat cable seed-starting setup.
Or, if you want to go even less techy, you can set the seeding
flats on top of your refrigerator, covered with plastic wrap
or clear covers you can buy with the seed flats, keeping flats
moist until the seeds germinate. Then remove the plastic wrap
and move them to a sunny window in a cool room. We’ve
done that, too. Friends turned the heat off in a sunny, spare
bedroom and created a mini-nursery. In your spare time, you
might want to sit down with Nancy Bubel’s The Seed-Starter’s
Handbook, if you haven’t devoured it yet. That
book got us through many a quandary and is still a trusted
Equipment you need
Seeding trays; good quality potting mix and a tub to blend
the mix with water; plastic or wooden markers and a marking
pen; fertilizer (fish emulsion), and, of course, seeds and
TRAYS: I start most of my flower
seeds in the greenhouse now in the standard 1020 seeding
trays with bottom drainage holes and more than 2-1/2 inch
sides. When the seedlings get their first true leaves, I
bump them up to the plastic trays with individual round
cells (usually 50 or 72). For temperamental seedlings that
don’t like roots disturbed, I start right in the individual
cells. I also use Speedling transplant trays (200 cell)
for larger quantities of seeds like sunflowers or zinnias.
These polystyrene trays are reusable and sturdy. Seed flats
are available from many greenhouse/farm supply catalogs
such as Griffin Greenhouse (www.griffins.com)
and Peaceful Valley Farm Supply (www.groworganic.com).
Peaceful Valley also carries Speedling trays. Or if you
just need a few trays to get started, most seed catalogs
like Johnny’s Selected Seeds have what you need. So
do garden centers, if you want to pay the price.
MIX: There are lots of recipes for
making your own potting mix. Again, since we are certified
organic, we have restrictions (see the Organic Materials
Review Institute website for more information at www.omri.org).
Most problems have to do with wetting agents in mixes. We
go together with several area growers to purchase McEnroe
Organics potting mix since it is only sold in large quantities.
The mix we use contains compost, peat, perlite, rock phosphates,
blood meal, calcite clay and gypsum. Greenhouse/farm suppliers
have lots of choices, as do garden centers. (Just watch
the shipping charges if you have bags delivered; cost can
be prohibitive, especially with rising diesel prices). Sunshine
has an organic mix, and other good products. Many growers
use Fafard. Just don’t use your backyard garden soil
or reused potting mix, to avoid disease and insect problems.
Before you put the mix in your seeding flat, make sure you
blend it well in a tub with water. We usually soak the mix
well with water, mix it up, cover it with a sheet of plastic
and let it sit overnight. It’s ready to go in the
morning. If you grab a bit with your hand and squeeze, it
should hold together somewhat but not be sopping wet.
Seed catalogs and garden centers have many small plastic
or wooden labels, so you can keep track of each flat you
seed. Mark the variety and date seeded with a permanent
marker. It’s real easy to forget what you planted
last week. Trust me.
EMULSION: No one likes to be in
our greenhouse on Monday. That’s because it’s
fish day. We give most of the seedlings that graduate to
the regular greenhouse benches a shot of fish emulsion.
We use Neptune’s Harvest.
Seeding Made Simple
As we stated above, the fussy seeds we place directly in cells
(catalogs tell you which seedlings don’t like to have
roots disturbed), but many we seed in seed flats, and then
transplant. Why? Because we can do A LOT this way. To fill
the seed flats, we add moistened potting mix to BELOW the
rim and smooth it out. If you fill to the top, water will
run out of the flat. We take our "special tools"
(sections of a yardstick we cut to the width and length inside
our seed flats) and make indentations in the potting mix and
set the seed in the indentation.
Pay attention to the seed packet directions on whether the
seed needs light, or doesn’t need light, to germinate
-- hence, whether you cover it or don’t. Water and place
in your warm location. Probably the most important step is
watering. Don’t let the trays dry out completely. But
don’t overwater either! Make sure there is good air
circulation around the flats (a small circulating fan works
well). If you have too many cloudy days and mold begins, sprinkle
the surface of the flats lightly with milled sphagnum moss.
That helps fight damping-off, too. Catalogs will tell you
to bottom water many seeds, especially those that need light
to germinate. That’s great if you have time. It’s
impractical for us, when we get a greenhouse full of seed
flats. We haven’t had a problem with top watering with
our fine-spray watering wand.
As promised, here are our Seeding Specifics (planting
specifics next column) for some top picks:
Sunflowers are started inside
and also direct seeded. We start Sunbright and
Sunrich every couple weeks in the greenhouse according
to our needs, and alternate planting other varieties.
They are started in 72-cell flats, and also some
Speedling 200-cell flats. Starting indoors lets
you have a uniform crop that matures at the same
rate. It’s not as easy when you direct seed,
but direct seeding is great for volume. We start
some sunflowers in our greenhouse in March to
transplant in the slightly heated greenhouse.
We push the season outside by planting seedlings
under row covers with hoops in early May. Generally,
sunflowers should be planted outdoors after frost
Sunflowers shouldn’t be kept indoors for
more than four weeks in small cells! We’ve
lost more than a few flats because we ran out
of time to plant seedlings crying for freedom.
These guys are so easy! They
like it hot and dry and they’re a natural
for direct seeding. We start some in the greenhouse
to transplant, to get a jump on the season. Start
them in individual cells because they don’t
want their roots disturbed.
Amaranth (Gomphrena globosa and haageana)
This stuff is so great for late
summer bouquets. Just a few add a needed splash
of color and they just keep coming! Great dried
in the Fall. We start inside in late March and
mid-April and set out some under cover in mid-May,
others in late May.
Flower (Ageratum houstonianum)
These need to be started indoors. They’re
pretty cooperative. We start them in early March,
late March and mid-April. We’ve both seeded
them in rows in flats, and transplanted them carefully
to 32, 50 and 72 cells so they mature at different
rates, or we just plant them in cells. Both ways
have worked well, even though they’re supposed
to be fussy. They do not like to get cold, so
don’t put them near a greenhouse door or
Statice needs to be seeded indoors 6-8 weeks before
the last frost. It’s one of my favorites
to seed because (don’t tell my grown-up
kids I said this) the plants are really cute.
We start this early and late March, too, and set
first planting out early May under row cover.
We do two later plantings.
plumosa feathery types and Celosia cristata
Easiest direct seeded after danger of frost. We
do that, and start some inside at the end of March.
As those incredible Texas flower growers Frank
and Pamela Arnosky’s recommended long ago
in Growing for Market newsletter, we seed celosia
on the soil surface dusting lightly with vermiculite.
Works great, and since celosia can be fussy inside
-- they’re susceptible to damping-off disease,
don’t like cold temps, don’t like
to get too dry and don’t like to be held
in the tray too long -- we use 72-cell seed flats
to give them more room. Pampas Plume always gives
us plenty of volunteers from the previous year
in the garden, too.
This herb, and thai and lemon basil can be great
in bouquets. Purple ruffles is good sometimes,
and other times it flops. Go figure. Seed indoors
and transplant out after danger of frost. We do
several plantings during the summer, using individual
50 or 72-cell trays. Basil does well for us in
the hoophouses because it loves it hot. Cinnamon
basil really loved last summer’s horrid
heat and drought. It just kept coming back, the
more we cut. In other words, it held up much better