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Becky Livermore, Master Gardener: Save money by direct seeding annuals

Sowing annual seeds directly into the soil and bypassing an early greenhouse start is common gardening practice for many vegetables. Many annual flowers grow quickly enough outdoors, as well, when planted directly into the ground and bloom by mid- to late-summer.

Area nurseries sell lovely, healthy plants, and I plan to visit all of them this month. But consider this: starting seeds indoors is a time-consuming, expensive job for those in the nursery business. Gardeners who start plants indoors know all about the fuss and muss of transplanting seedlings and caring for them until they can be set out "after all danger of frost." The cost for this is passed on to consumers. By direct-seeding those flowers that are fast growers, we can save both time and money. It’s much easier to direct-seed into the garden than fill small cell packs or peat pots with special planting soil, keep them moist for a week to 14 days, and then make sure they get proper nutrition and light. It’s almost like having small children around the house again.

Direct seeding also allows us to grow flowers that nurseries don’t carry, plus many flowers don’t react well to being jerked out of their comfortable little cells and jammed into the ground. They’d much rather bloom where they are planted.

How flowers will be used in our yards determines whether we buy them as plants or direct seed them. If we’re having our daughter’s wedding in our backyard during July, we’ll need to buy plants already reaching maturity. But if we can wait until August for bouquets of cut flowers, or if we’re growing them as a background for our vegetable gardens, then direct seeding in May/June will fit the bill. I always buy plants for hanging baskets and containers by the front door, since instant gratification is important after unending winters such as 2013. But when patience wins out, and I daydream of nasturtium salads and fragrant sweet peas, I let them sprout and flourish in the garden.

Basic requirements differ from setting out plants. Flower seeds need the sun’s warmth to germinate. Seeding them in the shade will provide poor results. Seeds also need constant moisture for good germination. When Mother Nature doesn’t provide ample rains, it’s up to us to be sure the small seeds don’t dry out as they are beginning to sprout. Some seeds germinate quicker if they are scarified (nicked) or have gone through a stratification process (cold or soaked in water). Check the back of the seed packet for this information.

As to which flowers react well to direct seeding, experience and experimentation gives the best answers. My list of 16 annual flowers is incomplete, but from my experience they usually bloom within six to eight weeks from germination. Every growing season brings different results. Last summer’s heat was great for zinnias but dreadful for sweet peas. Cool summers are loved by stocks but hated by marigolds and 4 o’clocks. No matter how we try, we just can’t have everything to our liking:

Bachelor buttons (cornflower)

Calendula (pot marigold)


Mirabilis (Four O’Clocks) — Fragrant, soak seeds overnight.

Nigella (Love-in-a-mist) — Sow in cool soil (when planting lettuce).

Tagetes (Marigold) — Easy.

Tithonia (Mexican sunflower) — Tall background flower.

Ipomoea (Morning Glory) — Soak seed overnight.

Tropaeolum (Nasturtium) — Thrive on neglect.

Papaver (Poppy).

Phaseolus (Scarlet runner bean) — Edible, need strong support.

Matthiola (Stocks)— Fragrant.

Helianthus (Sunflowers) — Great for kids.

Lobularia (Sweet Alyssum) — Lovely scent.

Lathyrus (Sweet pea) — Need cool soil to germinate, soak seeds overnight.

Zinnia — Sow in warm ground.

Master Gardeners will answer your gardening questions via a voice-mail service. Call 444-7916, leaving your phone number, name and the nature of your question. A master gardener will give you a call to speak with you personally. For horticultural information about annuals and other horticultural topics, go to the University of Minnesota Extension website>