Field Notes 25

NOrtheast BY TOVAH MARTIN / Roxbury, Connecticut, Zone 5

Bouquets from Seed

DESPERATE FOR MIRACLES in midwinter, I start seeds. Ostensibly, I sow because someday the snow will melt, temperatures will rise, and I’ll be craving zinnias and love-in-a-mist for the cut-flower garden. Not just any zinnias, mind you, but select colors like ‘Hallo’, ‘Oklahoma Salmon’, and ‘Cherry Queen’. But just between you and me, the truth is that every spare window is monopolized by seedlings because I need a little magic during the off season.

I also like the challenge. In fact, starting seeds of cut flowers is more difficult by far than nurturing exotic orchids or keeping the rarest new brunfelsia happy and healthy. Actually, germination is a breeze—it’s those first few formative weeks in a seedling’s life that separate the pros from the uninitiated.

Last winter, I found myself making repeated phone calls to my friend Dave, who starts seeds for the cut-flower garden on a large estate. When my zinnias began to damp off, Dave received a series of panic-stricken calls. “Give ’em warm temperatures,” he counseled. The small-flowering, cut-and-come-again types weren’t so moody. But those gigantic zinnias with beefy flowers the size of peonies—they’re finicky beyond most patience levels. Next year, I’m starting the zinnias later, in April and May, when day lengths and light levels increase. In my region, they’ll still be at the right stage at transplanting time to coincide with frost-free nights and warm soil.

Dave couldn’t figure out why I brought my cosmos seedlings over to be grown in his greenhouse. “They like it cool,” he advised. “Keep them in your cold frame.” And just as he predicted, the cosmos grown under glass stretched out into gangly, hard-to-transplant adolescents, whereas their cold-frame-grown counterparts were stocky and buff.

Likewise with the bells of Ireland. To say that my converted barn/house tends toward chilly is an understatement, and the bells of Ireland loved every teeth-chattering moment of it, while Dave struggled along with an identical crop sown in his greenhouse. Finally, in desperation, he broadcast a handful of seeds in the beds outdoors, and was greeted by a carpet of seedlings a couple of weeks later when the weather permitted venturing out.

There were other trials. Although there’s nothing more frigid than my house in early spring, the stocks (Matthiola incana hybrids) began to bolt anyway. And I never did get the hang of selecting doubles and culling singles based on the shade of the first true leaves (double stocks are more desirable as cut flowers). Supposedly, doubles have pea-green leaves, while the first foliage of singles is darker in hue. However, the difference is less pronounced in temperatures above 50°F.

Some seedlings were as close as gardeners can come to no-brainers. Marigolds, Chrysanthemum ‘Coconut Ice’, calendulas, nigella, hollyhocks, larkspurs, Rudbeckia ‘Cherokee Sunset” and ‘Chim Chiminee’, and Scabiosa atropurpurea were all a cinch, given warm germination temperatures and frequent spritzing. The bishop’s weeds came up easily, but their flower heads didn’t stand up against last summer’s heat, when all was said and done. Neither did the ‘Coconut Ice” chrysanthemums. But that’s another story.

To do in the greenhouse

  • Start perennial seeds early. For those that need cold stratification before sowing, mix the seed with some perlite, put the mixture into a plastic bag, add a few drops of water, seal it, and toss it around a little before slipping it into the refrigerator.

  • Start slow annuals such as pansies, snapdragons, schizanthus, and parsley (I use parsley in flower arrangements) early. Not only are they slow to germinate, but they take a couple of months to reach transplanting stage.

  • Wait until early spring to sow marigolds, cosmos, stocks, and other fast-growing annuals. No point in keeping them indoors any longer than necessary.

Worth growing

Rudbeckia ‘Cherokee Sunset’ ‘Cherokee Sunset” sprouts easily from seed and begins blooming in June with large, chrysanthemum-size, burnished heads of many-petaled blossoms. The color range of this annual includes all the shades you’d find in Indian corn, including copper, brick red, butter yellow, and a bronze with pink undertones that work magnificently in cut-flower arrangements. The flowers stand up well between cutting and conditioning. Sources, page 84.

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