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Early, easy, and inexpensive...summer garden from seed started indoors.

Flower seeds are still the greatest landscaping bargain of all. For the 1,300 plants that produce the stunning display in the 1,000 square feet of raised beds shown at left, the bill for seeds was about $30. (To buy the same plants as small seedlings would have cost about $260; for plants in 4-inch pots, the tub would have been $1,300 to $2,000.)

You don't have ahave a greenhouse, even for a bursting-at-the-seams garden like this. But you do need to plan ahead. If you order seeds now, then supply the right growing conditions at the right time (check the Sunset Western Garden Book for when to start particular plants in your area), you'll have all the vegetables and flowers your garden can hold.

One of the most effective nongreenhouse systems we've seen is that used by Seattle gardener Jan Vonada, pictured here. Her goal is to make seed starting as easy as possible, with little or no fertilizing or transplanting along the way. A modest investment in seeds ordered in January rewards her with a colorful garden show all summer, as well as herbs and greens for her kitchen.

Sowing the seed

You can start seeds in conventional flats, as many people do, or use 4-inch plastic pots and cell-packs, as Mrs. Vonada does (transplants pop out of cell-packs more easily). Plants that get relatively big by the time they're garden-ready (tall, zinnias, for example) go into the pots; she sows those that stay smaller (such as French marigolds) in scell-packs.

After filling the containers with commercial potting mix, Mrs. Vonada tamps it down with a fork, then waters lightly. Seeds are sown directly on top of the mix. Two seeds to into each cell, with the weaker seedling to be removed after both seeds have sprouted. Up to five seeds go in each 4-inch pot, with all but the strongest one or two seedlings removed later on.

You can sow all but very fine seeds by picking one up between finger and thumb and gently dropping it onto the soil surface. Mrs. Vonada pours fine seeds from the packet onto a spoon, then pushes as many as she needs off the end of the spoon with a fingernail.

Watering and feeding

Once seeds are sown, sprinkle potting soil over them to the depth recommended on the seed packet. Then lightly tamp the soil with a fork and mist it. By misting until the soil surface is saturated, you dampen soil above the seed without washing the seed out of place. From then on, you need to water only when the soil starts to feel dry or when seedlings start to look wilted.

Since Mrs. Vonada uses enriched potting soil, she gives just one feeding with a liquid fertilizer when plants have two sets of true leaves.

Light for germination

After seeds are sown, Mrs. Vonada puts the pots and cell-packs beneath an out-of-the-way staircase, where they can germinate and grow undisturbed. Here the seedlings get all the illumination they need from a bank of eight 48-inch-long fluorescent lights mounted to the undersides of four 16-by 66-inch fir planks, each of which is supported at the ends by stacks of blocks (see the photograph on page 79). The lights stay 4 inches above the plants; as seedlings grow, blocks are added or rearranged to raise the planks.

Lights are on 10 hours a day when seeds are first sown, with the time gradually increasing to about 15 hours a day just before seedlings are transplanted to the garden. Since the seedlings get no direct bottom heat, during this period the house's thermostate is kept at 65 [deg.] at night and 68 [deg.] to 70 [deg.] in the daytime. (As an alternative, you could keep soil temperature up with a heating cable.)

When seedling start to mature (flower buds are a sure sign), they need natural light. At this point, Mrs. Vonada moves hers to a greenhouse window in the kitchen, where they get four days of natural light. After they get four days of natural light. After that, they go outside to a patio to become gradually accustomed to outdoor temperatures and light levels before they're put in the garden.

Outdoors care, direct sowing

To prepare soil outdoors, Mrs. Vonada digs about 3 to 4 yards of aged chicken manure into her 1,000 square feet of garden beds about two weeks before planting. This is all the extra fertilizer the beds need to support transplants or direct-sown seedlings for a full season.

To prepare soil for root crops, wild-flowers, peas, lettuce, beans spinach--plants that grow best from sed sown directly into the garden--Mrs. Vonada cultivates and smooths the soil, making tiny planting depressions at 2-inch intervals with her fingertips. She drops the seeds into these depressions, thinning seedlings as they grow.

Kitchen herbs which do well from direct sowing are grown in 6-inch pots and grouped together in the sunny garden until they're ready to harvest. Then she moves pots to a patio near the kitchen; they grow more slowly there than in full sun, but they're handier for harvest. She brings perennial herbs inside for winter.
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Copyright 1986 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Date:Jan 1, 1986
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