Seeds better than Six-Packs

Viola 'Apricot Sorbet'

Viola ‘Apricot Sorbet’

OFTEN the thought of annual flowers in the garden is something like the thought of bungee jumping, the thought of spending a lot of money for a brief thrill.
But can you imagine having deep beds of annual flowers around your house throughout the year without having to invest hundreds of dollars in them? In fact, you can have annual flowers in all four seasons for pennies, as long as you are willing to plant seeds. But first, let’s take a closer look at the problem with annuals as they are typically grown in our gardens, transplanted from plastic cells.
Annual flowers – such as pansies, primroses and snapdragons – look so good in the nursery, lined up like perfectly groomed soldiers on parade in silky uniforms of brilliant color. It is impossible to resist them. But then you plant them and they stop flowering. Why is this so? I once attended a seminar of annual flower breeders who confessed that annual flowers are bred for the way they look when displayed in the nursery (as opposed to how they grow in the garden), to catch your eye and clinch a sale.
Recently, I was reminded of the annual flower dilemma through an e-mail from Marilyn Minkle of Tarzana, who mentioned plants she had purchased with “roots encased in a square of planting mix and roots.” She asked, “What should I do with this extra root mass? Are these inferior plants that I cannot count on to live? I have heard that cutting off some of the roots or scoring the sides with a knife is beneficial. Need help!!!”
Actually, I have pondered this question for years. Prior to planting, what should be done with annual flowers growing in 4-inch or six-pack plastic cells? The conventional wisdom is to score the sides or pull off the bottoms of their dense root masses. Some gardeners just loosen the root mass, the thought being that tearing the roots of young plants could be damaging to their health.
It has long been my feeling that it is sort of a “lose-lose” situation with these root-bound annual flowers, the kind you are likely to get at your local nursery or garden center. If you plant them as is, without cutting or manipulating the roots in any way, you risk stunting the plants’ growth, their roots staying all balled up and never growing out into the surrounding soil. However, if you are too aggressive in pulling apart the roots, you could weaken the plants’ root systems.
It is critical that the soil/root ball of annuals be well-watered prior to planting. The biggest mistake you can make is to purchase annuals and then leave them on your driveway for a day or two before putting them in the garden. Their root balls would have dried up by then and it would be next to impossible to properly hydrate them after planting. If root balls have dried, place the plants (while still in their plastic cells) in a bucket with an inch or two of water at the bottom. The plants will soak up the water and can then safely be planted. Make sure you water them every day during their first two weeks in the ground.
The key to successful growing of annuals planted from plastic cells is to plant them at the right time of year. For instance, plant pansies now rather than in November to get them started growing before cool weather, which always slows growth of young plants. If you plant at the right moment, the question of whether to fiddle with the roots of your annual flowers is really not that important. Of course, it will help matters if you have softened the soil with compost and added flower-friendly fertilizer prior to planting.
You can completely avoid the crisis of transplanting annuals into your garden when you grow them from seed. You can purchase a packet of 20 or 30 seeds for a little more than a dollar as opposed to buying single plants for around a dollar each. The real advantage of growing annuals from seed is that plants which sprout in your own garden are more durable than those brought from the outside. Home-grown plants have acclimated themselves to your garden from day one and are well-adapted to your own soil, sun and wind conditions.
TIP OF THE WEEK: Flower seeds that germinate most easily this time of year are alyssum (white, purple, rose), calendula (yellow, orange), nasturtium (yellow, orange, red), love-in-a-mist (baby blue, purple, rose, white), red flowering flax (Linum grandiflorum “Rubrum”), and California poppy (orange).

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