The first day of Spring has come and gone, and Maine gardens are beautiful, every branch and twig loaded and fluffy with Snow. Some places it looks a little like the hydrangea blossoms of your childhood – you know, the ones called Snowball Bushes. The lovely bare ground and brown spikes of last year’s grass that we gazed at fondly last week are now a memory, but we do have sunshine and bluish skies and light at seven P.M. It’s possible to be cheerful, although it’s not a good idea to talk long distance with your friends in Florida or South Carolina.
Fortunately, while Spring in Maine — the part right after the Solstice — does not mean daffodils and planting peas, there’s stuff to do. The fat seed packets are arriving. The catalogs come by Christmas nowadays, but turning the pages and making choices is a good way to spend February, and in fact, there’s still plenty of time. If you’ve never seen the Johnny’s Selected Seeds catalog (Order yours at johnnyseeds.com), you owe it to yourself. Who knew there were so many varieties of vegetables in the universe?
Starting annual flowers indoors accomplishes several good things. (I’ve been pleased with Park Seeds, but there are many sources.) First, it’s a way to get your hands in dirt (actually, light seed starting soil) when outside it’s still mud. (Of course, you can’t work the ground until it’s dry or you’ll produce bricks, not plants.) My primary reason for starting my own annuals, however, is to get the varieties I want. For example, for years I have grown large zinnias, both for the landscape and for cutting. I like masses of them and all one color (especially salmon rose). Landscape nurseries, in my experience, offer only “mixed,” which I think are suitable only for out among the vegetables where I won’t care what color they turn out to be.
In Maine, we can’t plant tender seedlings outside until mid-May, typically – meaning until the soil is warming. (You can always protect against an errant cold night by covering, but cold feet are cold feet.) So starting seeds indoors shouldn’t happen until six to three weeks before then. (Read the packet label.) That’s April — especially if you are depending on the light from your windows.
Fluorescent “grow-lights” are a much better idea. You can install these warmer kinds of fluorescent bulbs in standard workshop fixtures from any hardware store. (Many carry these bulbs, too.) Hang them on chains so you can adjust them higher as the plants grow taller. Nothing replicates the sun as well, except an actual greenhouse, which is a whole other level of effort. Set a timer or train yourself to give them 14 hours of light per day. Plants will grow straight and strong and not need constant turning.
Most seeds need to be covered with cellophane to maintain moisture until they germinate. Then remove it and be vigilant. Watering from the bottom works best.
Maine’s moderate summers and usually adequate rain give us splendid gardens, and that will happen again this year. Really. We just need to keep ourselves occupied and out of trouble while we wait.
The Camden Garden Club is a member of the Garden Club Federation of Maine and National Garden Clubs, Inc. The 2013 general meetings begin April 25th at 9:30 a.m. at the Congregational Church on Elm Street in Camden. The April program will be “Twigs and Things” by Linda Redman, who will demonstrate clever ways to turn bare branches into garden architecture like fences and arbors. Come early for refreshments at 9. Watch for the club’s Plant Sale, May 23rd, and the Annual House and Garden Tour, July 18th. New members are always welcome.