gardening advice

Seed Basics: A Q&A with Lois and Jim Hole

Is it better to grow my annuals from seeds, or should I just buy bedding plants?

Lois—Let your interests be your guide! Growing annuals from seed is a great pastime, especially if you’re eager to start gardening while there’s still snow on the ground. However, some varieties are easier to start from seed than others. We had a heck of a time growing bells of Ireland from seed until we discovered, quite by accident, that they require a cold treatment before they will germinate. If they hadn’t been set down on a cold concrete floor, we never would have discovered what were doing wrong!

Jim—Mom’s right. There’s nothing more frustrating than planting a tray full of seeds only to be faced with a barren pack even after weeks of care. To avoid disappointment, choose easy-to-germinate seed like marigolds and nasturtiums, and buy bedding plants if you want to grow the more demanding annuals like begonias and alyssum. Of course, if you like the challenge of growing the picky species from seed, by all means, give them a try. Just take the time to learn a little about their needs.

 

When should I start my seeds?

Lois—It depends on when you’re going to transplant your seedlings outdoors. For example, here in St. Albert the average last spring-frost date is May 6. We transplant our pansies outside 3 weeks before that in mid-April. Pansy seedlings take about 14 weeks to grow from seed, so we start the seeds in mid-February. It takes a bit of planning, but it’s worth it. By May last year, I had pots filled with pansies on my deck, and they received rave reviews.

Jim—People spend a lot of time worrying about frost. They don’t realize that many annuals need to be outside and growing in the early part of the growing season. More plants are finished off by heat and drought in the summer than by frost in May! In our experience is actually better to put annuals like pansies outside and cover them than to leave them indoors and have them stretch out from being too hot. There’s really no substitute for planning. Read your seed packets carefully, check on the average last spring-frost date for your area, and do the math for yourself.

 

What are the easiest annuals to start from seed?

Lois—By and large, the bigger the seed is, the easier it is to grow. If you start off with larger seeds such as sweet peas, nasturtiums, and marigolds, you’re almost guaranteed success. Once you’ve gotten the hang of it, you can move on to smaller seeds, which tend to be more challenging to grow.

Jim—The sweet pea is the easiest annual to grow from seed. Not only is a sweet pea seed big, it’s nearly indestructible! It doesn’t mind if you give it too much water or too little. It’s disease resistant and easy to handle because it’s so big.  On the other hand, tuberous and fibrous begonias are among the trickiest annuals to seed.  The seeds are almost as small as dust particles. You can barely see them, let alone pick them up with your fingers. These seeds require consistently warm soil, and just the right amount of fertilizer; otherwise they starve. Raising begonias from seed is definitely a challenge compared to the easygoing sweet pea!

 

What do I need to grow my own plants from seed?

Lois—First you need the very best-quality seeds. My mother-in-law, Grandma Hole, always said, “Only the rich can afford to buy cheap things!” If you start off with inferior seed, you might as well not even bother. Also, you’ll want to give those seeds a good home, so be sure to buy a professional seedling mixture.

Jim—You can start with as little as seeds, potting soil, flats, and a sunny window. If you’re ready to get a bit more serious, though, it’s worth investing in the right equipment

Basic equipment checklist
• the best available seed
• the best-quality soilless mix (Seedling Starter Mix)
• a mister bottle
• clean plastic flats
• grow lights
• covers (plastic or fabric)
• fine-textured vermiculite to cover your seedlings
• a thermometer with a probe (an oven meat-thermometer works well)
• heating cables/mats
• fungicides (optional)
• Earth Alive Soil Activator
• tags to label the different varieties

 

Do I need a special kind of soil for my seedlings?

Lois—Yes! Even though you can get reasonably good results from regular potting soil, you’ll have better luck if you use a special mix for your seedlings. I always use Seedling Starter Mix. It has just the right components for healthy seedlings.

Jim—I agree wholeheartedly. For the best seedlings, you should always start off with the best soil. Spend the few extra dollars and invest in a professional seedling soil. Regular potting soil is too coarse and variable to risk using on your seedlings.

 

What are hybrid seeds?

Lois—There are many different kinds of hybrid seeds. One hybrid seed tends to be very similar to the next, unlike non-hybrid seeds, which sometimes surprise you when they bloom! Hybrid seeds are more expensive than their non-hybrid cousins, but the extra pennies are worth
it! Plants that grow from hybrid seeds tend to have all kinds of bonuses, like bigger and more colourful blooms, greater disease resistance, and better growth habit.

Jim—Development of hybrid plants is a complex procedure that ultimately, if everything goes right, results in very uniform varieties.

 

Can I plant the seeds collected from hybrid plants?

Lois—You can, but only if you’re prepared for unpredictable (and often downright unsuccessful) results. Hybrid plants don’t make good parents!

Jim—Seeds taken from hybrid plants don’t grow “true to type.” You can collect and sow hybrid seeds, but only half of the resulting plants will look like the variety that you collected the seed from. The other half will be divided evenly—the two quarters resembling the two parents that gave rise to the hybrid.

 

What other factors are important for good germination?

Lois—Even though I always emphasize the importance of watering, oxygen is just as important for your seeds. If you keep your flats saturated with water, your seeds will drown. You also need to check your seed packets to see if your seeds require special conditions to germinate.

Jim—Oxygen and moisture must penetrate a seed’s coat in order for it to germinate.  Apart from that, different seeds have their own requirements. For example, the smallest seeds (like alyssum, begonia, coleus, and petunia) generally require light in order to germinate. Other seeds, such as larkspur, phlox, and verbena, prefer to germinate in the dark.

Some seeds actually need a little abuse to get started! In one process, scarification, the seed coats are cut or abraded in order to allow water and oxygen to penetrate. In another process, stratification, the seeds are stored in a cold, moist environment for several weeks or months, to simulate the passing of winter.

 

What things can contaminate my seedlings?

Lois—Take the time to practice good sanitation. You must be careful to work in a clean space with clean tools. And wash your hands, too!

Jim—Disease can enter the picture at several points.

• Containers or other tools. Rinse your tools, plus any previously used flats or trays, in a 10%-bleach solution.

• Improper sanitation. Listen to Mom! Always wash your hands before working with your seedlings. Tobacco carries the mosaic virus, while certain foods like lettuce carry damping-off diseases.

• Unpasteurized soil.

• The seeds themselves. Some diseases live in the seed or on the seed coat itself. Buy only the best-quality seeds.

• Dirty water or dirty watering cans (tap water is fine, provided it’s not high in salts—sodium in particular).

 

Do I need to use pesticides to grow seedlings?

Lois—No. Pesticides are not the answer. Ted and I used to grow our seedlings without using pesticides, and to this day, we still do. The key is sanitation, sanitation, sanitation! If you keep everything perfectly clean, you won’t have to rely on chemicals.

Jim—I agree. You don’t need pesticides to grow your seedlings, especially if you use a professional seedling mixture. This is the key—garden soil introduces many unwanted potential problems for seedlings. Fungicides, on the other hand, can be an important investment. Even with the best sanitation, fungal diseases can occasionally find their way to your seedlings.

 

Favourite Herbs: Chives

Chives

Allium schoenoprasum

Hardy perennial

Height 20 to 60 cm; spread 30 to 40 cm.

Grows in clumps of long, cylindrical, hollow leaves, with globe-shaped clusters of pale-purple to pink flowers atop tall, slender stalks.

Try these!

Allium schoenoprasum (common chives)

Allium schoenoprasum ‘Grolau’ (windowsill chives)

Allium tuberosum (garlic chives/Japanese chives): flat-leaved variety from Japan

 

chives.png

Planting

As you must with all perennials, choose your location carefully, because chives come back year after year; however, they are not invasive. Although chives can be started from seed, most people start with clumps of young plants purchased from a garden centre or split the roots from an established plant.

How much: One clump (six to ten bulbs).

When: As soon as the ground can be worked; very tolerant of cold and frost.

Where: Partial sun to shade. Prefers rich, well-drained soil. Space clumps 30 to 45 cm apart.

Care and Nurture

Chives are easy to grow! For large, mild chives, water often; for smaller, more intensely flavoured chives, don't water as frequently. (Newly planted clumps need to be watered regularly.) Divide old clumps or plant in a new spot in your garden every 3 years to prevent crowding and maintain plant vigour.

Harvesting

Harvest chives throughout the growing season, using clean scissors.

For best flavour: Harvest mid-morning, after the dew has evaporated and before the day gets too hot.

Leaves: Harvest as needed by trimming individual leaves a few centimetres above the ground.

Flowers: Harvest when fully open but before the colours begin to fade. Cut growing stem a few centimetres above the ground; clip flower head and discard stem.

Preserving the Harvest

Chives are best used fresh and are fairly easy to grow indoors if you want a year-round supply of fresh chives. Chives are best preserved by freezing, either whole or chopped. Chives do not retain their flavour well when dried in the home.

Tips

  • To keep fresh chives available through winter, here’s a trick you may want to try. In late summer, take a clump of chives and transplant them into a good-sized pot. Sink the container into the ground; then remove after the first hard frost has killed the tops. Trim the dead material and keep the pot in a cool spot in your house (such as a cold room) for about 3 months. After this necessary period of dormancy, place the container on a sunny windowsill and keep it watered. New growth should appear in a few weeks. Harvest as needed.

  • Many people ask me "what's the difference between chives and green onions? Can I use them the same way?" While both plants are members of the Allium family, chives lack the fleshy, bulbous base of green onions (or other onions, for that matter). The flavour of chives is also subtler than that of green onions.

To Note: 

  • Chives make a great perennial border. The blossoms can also be used as cut flowers. Chives attract bees.
  • The juice of chives is used as an insect repellant.
  • Chives were recorded in Chinese literature 4000 years ago and were eaten by Marco Polo on his journeys to the Far East. In Europe, chives were not generally appreciated and widely cultivated until the Middle Ages.
  • Many Romanian gypsies believe that hanging chives from bedposts or the ceiling will ward off evil spirits.

 

 

Garden Alert: Poplar & Aspen Borers

One pest that is causing a lot of grief for those who have poplar trees on their properties is an insect called the Poplar Borer.

It is a native beetle that evolved feeding primarily on native aspens, but has developed a taste for Swedish Columnar aspens that are typically planted in rows along fences for privacy screening. Poplar Borers are rather large, gray beetles with faint, yellow stripes on its body and antennae that are as long as its body.

The problem with these borers is that they not only feed on the green “phloem” that sits just below the bark and moves sugars up and down the tree, but the larva (worms) also tunnel into the wood and leave a labyrinth of trails that weaken the tree, leaving portions of the trunk prone to snapping-off on windy days.

Aspen Borers prefer aspens that have trunks about 10 cm wide or larger and they typically seek trees that are stressed. The adults prefer to lay eggs on the south to southwest side of trees that have lots of exposed bark (extra trunk heat is better for larva growth and development).

The lifecycle of Aspen Borers can take several years to complete in our region, but once they invade trees they are very difficult to control. Given the great benefits of having Swedish Columnar aspens, and the expense of removing these trees, the battle to keep the borers at bay is critical.

Here are some of my observations and a bit of a game plan for Poplar Borer:

  • Aspens growing in landscape fabric with rock around the base are the worst affected, typically

  • Drought stressed aspens growing in poor soil are also preferred by the borers

  • Aspens with branches removed on the south/southwest side of tree are attacked more often

Symptoms of borer attack:

  • Small holes in trunk with brown sap stains on bark

  • Small piles of ‘wood shavings’ at trunk base from borer tunneling

What can be done?

  • Inspect your poplars several times during the growing season and look for any signs of damage

  • Pest control products like ‘Garden Protector’ can be used as a trunk and foliage spray prior to the borers penetrating the wood

  • If the borers enter the wood, control is difficult. Success can be found by applying Knock Down aerosol insecticidal spray directly into the entry holes on the tree trunks.

Aspen Borers are destructive pests so if you have Swedish Columnar aspens always be vigilant! Being proactive with controlling the beetles is the best strategy!

- Jim

Garden Stage Q&A with Jim Hole

Bring all your gardening questions this Saturday & Sunday at 1:30PM to our Garden Stage for a Q&A session with Jim Hole.

Let Jim give you the best advice to get your garden growing like a pro.

There is no registration required for our Garden Stage Q&A with Jim, but this segment will follow Jim's FREE Workshop at 1PM, so be sure to register online for the workshop if you would like to attend both!