SPECIALTY CUT FLOWER CORNER: For the beginning grower
Seeding . . . Where to start
Column III: Set those complicated computer programs and expensive gadgets aside and start simple.

By Melanie DeVault


Not-so-High-Tech: 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.




To Plug or To Seed?

Hello Melanie,

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 or plugs.



Hey Bonnie,

We are certified organic which means we can’t use commercial plugs under new guidelines unless they are certified organic (and I haven’t found any).

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, they’re great. You need to pre-order plugs in late fall or early winter. I’ll deal with them in a future column.



Oh dear, Those Deer!

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!



Boy, your 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:

1. 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 back.

2. 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.


Next Column: Planting

  • Transplanting seedlings
  • Direct seeding
  • Netting and such


Killer Perennials

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.

Achillea (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.

Monarda (Bee Balm), is great for early bouquets, even for the greenery and cut it back and it will come again

Asclepias (Butterfly Weed) We’ve had good luck with Milkmaid and just planted some Silky series last Fall, which we grew from seed.

Buddleia (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 markets.

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

A Sunny 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 reference.

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 packet/catalog information:

SEEDING 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.

POTTING 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.

MARKERS: 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.

FISH 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 (Helianthus annuus)
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 date. Reminder: 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.

ZINNIA (Zinnia elegans)
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.

GOMPHRENA, Globe 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.

AGERATUM, Floss 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 open window.

STATICE (Limonium sinuata)
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.

CELOSIA (Celosia plumosa feathery types and Celosia cristata crested types)
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 than we.