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Question
Hello! Recently at my garden center I bought some packets of annual flower seeds that looked very nice. I purchased packets of Phlox drummondii, Calendula officinalis, Portulaca grandiflora (Moss Rose), and Convolvulus tricolor minor (Ensign Blue Morning Glory). Are there any specific growing conditions that I should be aware of for any of these plants? The descriptions of these plants said that they produce many flowers that last throughout the season. Are there any other annuals that produce many blooms that you would recommend?

Also, the main reason I am asking you today is for advice on starting these seeds. Could I just directly sprinkle the seeds on some soil? What do I need to do in order for these seeds to germinate and grow? Thank you.
I live in southern Massachusetts and I plan to grow them in my front yard which is facing east and gets lots of morning sun but shade in the afternoon.

Answer
Choices as to what to grow are a personal choice based on specific preferences, including color, size, and growth habit. My favorites are salvia, petunias, celosia, profusion zinnia, marigolds, and sunflowers. I also include begonia, snapdragons, coleus, and impatiens for shady areas.

Salvia Flare is a great variety with 18" bright red spikes. A new hybrid of celosia called Fresh Look stays vibrant all summer, with very little deadheading required. Profusion zinnia is one of the only zinnia which is totally resistant to powdery mildew and requires no pruning or deadheading. It comes in various shades of reds, orange, and white. I also grow Oklahoma mix, a taller zinnia for the back of the flower bed.

My advice is to visit the attached website at Park Seed. They have the best catalog available with many illustrations and great descriptions. You can either view it on-line or request a free catalog for delivery.

http://www.parkseed.com

In regard to starting seed, it is actually an easy process, but success only comes through many years of trial and error. I have been starting seeds indoors for the last twenty years and thoroughly enjoy it.  Since I start over 500 seedlings, including annuals, vegetables, and herbs, it does become a full-time hobby, especially in the spring.  The obvious advantages are the cost savings and the variety as opposed to purchasing seedlings at the garden center.

Most vegetable and annual flower seeds need to be started 6-8 weeks prior to your last expected frost.  The exact timing can be found on the seed packets, but 6 weeks is usually a good rule of thumb.  Never sow seeds deeper than twice their diameter.  For small seeds, place them on the surface of the growing medium, and then lightly sprinkle the mix over the seed until it is barely covered.  Water from the bottom to avoid disturbing the seed.

Seedlings need to be in simulated sunshine for at least 14 hours per day.  They also need 8 hours of dormancy for good growth.  You either need to invest in fluorescent bulbs called gro-lights which are as close to natural light as anything sold on the market, or substitute these with less expensive bulbs. By using one cool and one warm white fluorescent in combination, you will achieve the same effect.

If given the correct conditions, namely adequate moisture, strong light, and healthy soil, the seeds will germinate and grow to maturity with few or any problems. I grow my seedlings in seed trays with individual cell packs.  After sowing, I cover with a pre-fitted plastic dome.  But once the first seedlings sprout, it is important to remove the cover to avoid damping-off disease.  This is a fatal fungus disease which only attacks young seedlings, and is caused by inadequate air circulation and non-sterile soil.  That is why I advise all those who start seeds indoors to only use a sterile medium composed of vermiculite, perlite, and sphagnum moss.  These seed-starting mixes can be purchased at any reputable garden center.

Once the seedlings develop their second set of leaves, you can begin supplementing the plants with a diluted solution of fertilizer.  Since you want to keep the nitrogen and salt levels low at this stage of growth, I highly recommend staying away from the chemical mixes.  Rather, use a seaweed/fish emulsion formula at one-half the recommended level.  This will help the plants’ development and also help ward off disease.  You can purchase these organic formulas at most garden centers or through online websites such as Gardens Alive.

Finally, be sure to keep your fluorescent lights no higher than 3” above the seedlings at all times.  This is critical to prevent the plants from becoming weak and spindly.  As I mentioned earlier, they should be left on 14 hours per day.  If fluorescent lighting is not possible, put them in a southwest window and turn them every three days to avoid leaning.

I am attaching a few websites that should prove helpful.  I would also advise you to purchase “The New Seed-Starters Handbook” by Nancy Bubel. It has many good ideas and techniques that benefit even experienced gardeners.

http://www.gardenguides.com/TipsandTechniques/starting.htm
http://muextension.missouri.edu/xplor/agguides/hort/g06570.htm
http://echonet.org/shopsite_sc/store/html/SeedStarterHandbook.html


Supplies Needed for Seed Starting
1.   Seed Trays
2.   Seedling cell packs
3.   Peat Pots for Transplant Sensitive Seedlings
4.   Clear Plastic Domes
5.   Starting Mix Containing Vermiculite, Perlite, and Sphagnum Moss
6.   Heat Mat
7.   48” Lighting System; Single or Double Tier
8.   Nest Trays
9.   Gro-Lux Fluorescent Bulbs
10.   Hand Seeder
11.   Plant Markers; 4”
12.   Permanent Ink Markers; Sharpie Fine
13.   Fish Emulsion Fertilizer
14.   Misting Bottle

Good luck, and please write again if you ever need assistance.

Regards,

Mike  

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Mike Mascio

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I have been an avid gardener since 1985 and an AllExpert volunteer since 1998. I specialize in soil preparation, seed starting and plant propagation, flowers, vegetables, and general landscaping. I am a strong advocate of the square foot method of gardening and the use of organic controls for pests and diseases.

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An All-Expert volunteer since 1998.

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