COLUMNIST: THERESA TALBOT
If like me, you have decided to try this for yourself (come on, how difficult can it be?), with withering results, then read on!
Often, you buy a packet of wildflower seeds, scatter them with delight, and wait for a mass of colour reminiscent of Monet’s garden. Three months later, your plot remains bare, the pigeons look better fed than usual, and a few defiant dandelions burst forth, mocking your efforts.
But despair not – I swear, it’s actually a much easier process than you’d think. As a gardener turned florist, I constantly look for ways to increase my stock, growing blooms that not only look amazing but smell fabulous too.
Different seeds need different methods of stratification (this just means the process of pre-treating seeds to break their dormancy). Some need cold – bung them in the fridge for a week – others need to be soaked, others are just happy for you to open the packet and get going.
Hardy annuals such as Nigella damascena, Consolida (Larkspur), Orlaya grandiflora, and even sweet peas can be planted in the autumn to give you a bit of a jump start by the time spring arrives, but for now I’ll concentrate on early spring sowing.
There are loads of seed composts out there, but a regular multi-purpose, peat free one will work just as well if you sift it to make it as friable as possible. In early spring I mix in some perlite or horticultural grit to aid drainage. Vermiculite is popular, but I find it retains too much moisture and is better for summer months.
Now for the exciting bit. My new favourite method of sowing is using soil blockers. If you’re not familiar with them, they’re an absolute game changer. Surprisingly soil blocks have been in use for over two thousand years, and hand-held soil blockers in regular use for decades. These little devices save you a heap of soil, a load of room, and there is less risk of root disturbance when you transplant your precious babies into bigger pots.
Planting seeds too early in spring when the light levels are low, risks them becoming too leggy and weak. Does this stop me? Does it heck! I always plant at least quarter of my seeds way too early - fortune favours the brave!
Most will need some sort of heat to germinate – around 18-22 degrees – so a heat mat, or warm windowsill, is ideal. But – and here’s the important part – as soon as you see them germinate take them off the heat, no matter how tiny those seedlings are.
Germination is erratic at this stage. You may only get one or two, but that’s fine. Put them in a cool, light place (greenhouse/bright windowsill) then pop them back on the heat overnight until most show signs of germination.
Keeping them on the heat for too long encourages growth and they’ll shoot up in their quest to find light – hence you end up with spindly leggy seedlings! Putting them in a cool, light spot halts this process resulting in stronger, bulkier plants.
The other method I use is the ‘winter sow’ method. This involves creating a mini greenhouse with plastic 4 litre milk cartons, or plastic cups if you have some lying around, and leaving them outside - hail, rain or shine. It creates its own micro-climate, with the temperature around 10 degrees warmer than outside air, and no need to water (leave the top off and let mother nature do her thing).
Once they have grown into robust little seedling they can be pricked out and potted on - easy peasy. I’ve grown sunflowers, amaranthus, zinnias, and a host of tender annuals using this method with fabulous results.
Hardy seedlings sown in autumn won’t mind the cold weather – but spring sown plants should be protected from severe frosts.
There are a few basic rules when it comes to getting the best from seeds. Pre-water the compost in seed trays or milk cartons from the bottom beforehand. Likewise, watering seedlings is best done from the bottom so there is less chance of washing away the seeds, and it promotes a strong healthy plant by allowing the entire root system to access water.
Ensure your containers and trays are scrupulously clean – and although tap water is better than rain water at this stage as it contains less pathogens, I find it makes no difference to my winter-sown-milk-carton method.
Acclimatise seedlings outdoors if you have no greenhouse and once they have established a decent root system, it is time to pot on into bigger trays or pots. Don’t be in too much rush to plant into the garden, let them really develop a good root ball that won’t fry in the sun, perish in the cold, and will withstand the rigours of being out in the soil.
The hardest part for me is thinning out seedlings. I hate discarding any – but it’s got to be done! Don’t have them too crowded or close together.
Most spring sown seeds will flower between 60 and 90 days after germination. Sow too early (like me) and the light levels are too low for the plants to succeed; too late and again, the light levels start to dip and you miss the best of the long summer days. Read seed packets and work backwards for the best time to sow.
Experiment to see what works best for you – it is fun! Annuals are a super cheap way to an abundance of plants to fill your borders from spring right through to the first frosts. A packet of seeds can cost around two quid – tell me where else you can get that level of enjoyment for less?
Theresa Talbot is a boutique florist and garden consultant based in Glasgow. Following a successful broadcasting career with the BBC, Theresa embarked on a new path, training with some of the best florists in the country to launch Willow & Herb.
Her passion is for sustainable floristry, creating natural, rustic style arrangements including blooms from Scottish flower farms, as well as from her own plot. 2023 is an exciting year as Theresa extends her cutting garden to offer clients more of the exclusive and unusual blooms for which she is now known.
See more of Theresa's beautiful blooms on her Instagram and Facebook pages.