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Spring sprouts up: Sowing seeds and welcoming the season

by Timber Press on April 4, 2018

in Gardening

From one of the most beloved garden writers, The Garden in Every Sense and Season  encourages us to look closer, breathe deeper, and listen harder. As winter melts into spring, this is the perfect time to remember the joys of the garden, and to savor that work we put into our outdoor spaces.


After the peas are tucked in, the momentum gains pace. Spring just sort of sprouts up. From early March onward, everyone is immersed in the über-focused business of sowing. In my garden, seed sowing commences indoors with the ceremonial planting of the leeks. The official starting gate is the potting bench, which is scattered with packets of just about everything from cabbages to columbines. Over the next few weeks, seeds as simple as marigolds and as challenging as delphiniums are tenderly buried in the soil of seed flats. Seed sowing is a ritual to be savored. Packets are studied for their germination suggestions; online searches are launched whenever something unfamiliar like Berlandiera lyrata is attempted. This is more than just a chore, it’s a celebration. Long before it’s possible or feasible to safely play in the earth, we are plunging into the potting soil, making spring happen—one seed at a time.

Wherever and however seed sowing occurs, it is always a sublimely tactile operation. Indoors or outside (as soon as it is feasible to work the soil, the festivities are moved out to planting rows of seeds directly in the earth), you need to do it delicately. Although I’m an outspoken advocate for gardening with gloves, this is one instance where gloves get in the way. If you don’t believe me, try sowing columbines. Even bare-handed, you have to handle those seeds with care (especially when you consider that each one costs a quarter or more). You don’t want to waste a single precious seed.

The first flower seeds to be flung outdoors are traditionally the poppies. It’s a cold custom. Grains of sand are larger than poppy seeds. Poppies love chilly, damp conditions and they need light to germinate. In other words, they should lie on the soil surface unburied. Tasha Tudor, that beloved children’s illustrator and legendary gardener, taught me that on the last snow of the year, you don boots, try to estimate where the garden’s boundaries are beneath the snow, and toss the seeds where you want a sea of poppies to swarm. It is an act of faith and trust, which is really what gardening is all about. As the snow melts, the poppies get their required chill and wet conditions until they’re delivered to the premoistened soil surface. It works like a charm, but the bare-handed process is brutal.

Seed sowing is one of the only garden chores I accomplish without gloves, even for the larger seeds, such as four o’clocks. Precision is required to aim those little nuggets. In the seed flats, spacing them evenly is key, even though they will be transplanted into individual pots in a few weeks. When direct sowing into the garden, you need to make sure that the carrots, for example, don’t form a glob in close proximity, even though you will thin them later. Do not waste seeds by sowing them too thickly. To get the required aim, take off your gloves. And wash your hands between poppies, especially if you don’t want to mix ‘Lauren’s Grape’ with ‘Lady Bird’.

In early spring, seed sowing can be uncomfortable verging on painful, but it gets better as the weather warms. That’s a good thing, because there is a lot of opportunity for intimate contact. The seedlings planted indoors will need transplanting from their mutual seed flat into individual containers with organic potting soil. Teasing them apart requires infinite dexterity, especially when you transplant every single sprout. You tuck each one in, nestle some nourishing soil around it, and wish it the best of luck.That sort of thing must be done hand in hand. It is bonding, and it feels really good.

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