Seed Starting and the Mexican Sunflower Crisis
The closing of Anton’s, a neighborhood plant nursery, threatened to plunge our garden into crisis. I loved Anton’s for a lot of reasons, but particularly because it was the only place where I could buy one of my absolute favorite plants: Mexican Sunflower (Tithonia rotundifolia), a stately annual with dazzling orange daisies.
Now, it is possible to order Mexican Sunflower seeds. However, in our climate you really cannot sow them outdoors, and I was completely unprepared to start seeds inside.
So it was with a sense of crisis averted that I got hold of a copy of Starting and Saving Seeds, by Julie Thompson-Adolph. Julie sells an extensive variety of organic plants (mostly vegetables) that she grows herself from seed. She also writes on gardening for her own blog, Garden Delights, and a variety of other outlets.
There are actually a lot of reasons to start plants from seed. First off, though an initial investment in equipment is required, seeds are far cheaper than plants. I blush to think how much I have spent on annual flowers over the years, especially those that come in individual pots often priced at $5 to $7 each.
Second, seed starting opens up a much wider world of plant choices. I also hope to lessen my personal burden of guilt for all the plastic pots that I buy and discard every year. Plus, you don’t have to worry about growers who use neonicotinoids and other agents harmful to pollinators.
The author, who I’ve met at several Garden Blogger Flings, has a love for her subject that comes through in clear and engaging prose. I particularly appreciated the section on seed-starting equipment, which emphasizes the affordable and the practical with a step-by-step approach.
Another section covers seed collecting and storage, while the final portion reviews a variety of plants and how they can be propagated by seed. While the author emphasizes edible plants, flowers are not ignored. My beloved Mexican Sunflowers, for example, have their own write-up, from which I learned that the botanical name Tithonia comes from Tithon, a prince of Ancient Troy.
For gardeners with an interest in native plants, the book includes a number of plant genera indigenous to North America, including Asclepias, Echinacea, Symphyotrichum, etc.
Now that I have read Starting and Saving Seeds, I am looking forward to growing plants from seed in the new year. In addition to Mexican Sunflower, I definitely want to grow some Zinnias and ‘Italian White’ Sunflowers. Plus I’ll be happy to grow some annual herbs like Basil and Dill. At the same time, I know I have to keep things manageable and not get overly enthusiastic in the first year.
Even so, it’s exciting to start a whole new aspect of our garden.
This is wonderful. And something I have wanted to do for years but even though I have purchased equipment, I never get around to doing it, not being a serious gardener, and it’s always try again next year. Maybe I should read her book first!
I would recommend that book. Makes it seem very doable.
I bought the Kindle version and started reading it …but I’ve temporarily hit a wall trying to find affordable organic serrano chile seeds.
Hmm. Can’t help you there.
I haven’t read Julie’s book, but I’ve been starting plants from seed for many many years, nearly 20 years now. I actually started back when we lived in a much colder zone, in Massachusetts, with a concept called winter sowing. I don’t know if you’ve heard of it, but it’s worth Googling and looking into, especially for your zone. It involves sowing seeds in miniature greenhouses made from things like milk cartons and putting them out in freezing weather, right out into the snow and ice during the winter. I’ve started Tithonia that way and it has worked, without the need for any special equipment.
I can’t imagine that would work with Tithonia here, given our winters. Julie’s book does deal with winter sowing, it sounds interesting.
I don’t think anything beats seeing your first seedlings leaves coming through, it is so exciting! You are going to have a wonderful time once you start sowing.
You’ve got me looking forward to it even more.
I have never seen Tithonia plants here, so always grew them from seed – one of the easiest I have grown! I always sow my own basil too, from about June onwards in batches to keep us going all summer. Other easy seeds are cosmos and cleome. You have such a wider choice too, especially with things like herbs and zinnias. I look forward to hearing how it goes in spring!
That’s good to hear about the Tithonia.
They don’t sell the plants here either. 😦 I’ve started seeds many times, but since we’ve been going south, the timing doesn’t work right now. It is fun – kind of like gardening indoors. I’ll share one tip with you if you find you want to keep the heat and light contained rather than going all around whatever space you are using. Pick up a couple of those silver emergency blankets at a box store. They usually cost about $4. If you drape/attach them around your seed shelving area, you will be amazed how much heat and light you can save. 🙂
Timing is a problem for me as well, at least until I retire. I’m out of town for a few days almost every week January through May. I hope to find ways to work around that.
Awesome tip in the blankets!
If you have a place for setting up seed starting I think it is a most satisfying exercise in gardening. I don’t start many seeds but I do enjoy the process.
I will try to start small.
I’m not sure what zone you are in , but once we had planted tithonia it has reseeded itself. We cut the stalks down & lay them on the ground in early fall. However, they really don’t get going til July when it is really hot. BTW, I am zone 8b.
Too cold here for Tithonia to reseed. That would be wonderful if it did.
I’ve started tithonia by seed from the first time you mentioned the plant. If I have a green thumb, it doesn’t extend to indoor gardening, and damping off is a perennial problem, so I usually wait until later than usual when the seed trays can be put outdoors on mild days. Also, I find direct sowing zinnia and cosmos and parsley and basil mean later blooming, but worth the wait.
Hmmm. That bit with the Zinnias etc. may work better in Kentucky than in Chicago, especially with the basil.
Good luck! Looking forward to seeing the results.
A new adventure in gardening.
It’ll be great to see what you decide to grow. Sorry that Anton’s closed. It’s always sad to see a nursery go out of business.
It really is!
Julie has inspired me to grow from seeds and her info has given me success that i never got before! I love the pictures too : )
The photography in the book is very good.
Growing from seed is enormous fun, the ordering, sowing and then the thrill of germination. And you get to grow more unusual plants.
The ordering! Yes, I’m looking forward to that a lot! The other parts I’m still a bit dubious about.
Oh Jason – the joys you will encounter!! Once you grow from seed you will be hooked, not only by the experience itself but by the incredible number of varieties to choose from. No matter how well stocked the nursery, none compare to what you can get out of a seed catalogue.
I’m looking forward to lots of perusing of seed catalogs. A great activity to relax before going to sleep.
Thanks to Judy for the Mylar blanket idea; that would be particularly helpful for things like basil. My tip is for those with damping-off problems: set a small, low-power fan (ideally oscillating) to blow across your seedlings for a few hours a day once they have their true leaves. It makes them sturdier plants and discourages fungal afflictions.
Would there be a reason not to have it going full time?
It can be done if you have the right amounts of light, temperature and humidity.
We’re going to do it in the basement. I hope it’s not too damp down there.
How exciting! I love starting seeds and have always thought the investment in equipment was well worth it. When we first started this garden I knew I wanted to try lavender, but in zone 4 it was dicey and I didn’t want to pay $10/pot to have them die. I spent $2.50 on a packet of seeds and got 30 plants out of it, most of which are still alive! Good luck and I second the recommendation for a small oscillating fan to beef up the stems.
You keep the lavender outside all year?
I do! We lose some on occasion, but so far we’ve kept over 70% and they overwinter just fine. However, we have super sandy and well drained sand, so I think that helps loads.
I’ve not had success with growing la ended from seed. Maybe I need to look into a better company. I’d love to grow them from seed. Yes, much cheaper!
It wouldn’t work for Mexican Sunflowers (I grew my first two this past year, and was impressed! Fortunately, I can direct seed them.), but you could do a lot of other seeds the winter sown way. I did that for the first time last year too. And am getting ready to do it again in a few weeks. I just have one heating mat and a light for starting tomatoes in the house. Again, last year was the first time! The lights used to be more expensive, but with so many marijuana growing, they’ve really come down. Mine is a gooseneck with three heads, LED.
(Seeds – try eBay, limit the search to just USA. For a dollar or so, if they don’t work out, no big loss! Also, rareseeds.com has free shipping all the time now!
Ooh, thanks for the seed links. Glad to know that pot growing is having positive ripple effects on the economy.
My neighbour has fun growing plants from seed, but she has a holiday house in a mild climate…kind of cheating! I love your Mexican Sunflowers, so I look forward to seeing how it all goes.
People in mild climates are definitely cheating. They should pay a penalty to provide assistance to suffering gardeners in harsher climes.
So true! I’ll start a collection..
I’m a big fan of Tithonia – and if I had a sunny garden they’d be one of the inhabitants, for sure! And, as you know, I also enjoyed Julie’s book. Happy growing, Jason!
Thanks, Helen. There’s a real shortage of sun in most urban and suburban gardens.
It is difficult to grow ‘anything’ from seed in landscapes professionally. I mean, we need things to look like something ‘now’, when planted. You know how that goes. However, there is nothing stopping us from putting small seedlings or even seed in some of the areas planted with annuals. I can even sneak some nasturtiums in with primroses in hanging baskets. (I don’t know why we put primroses in ‘hanging’ baskets anyway.)
Love nasturtiums, though ours don’t grow as beautifully as yours in California.
I would have guessed that they would grow like weeds anywhere. I can not think of any of our very diverse climates here where they will not grow. They can get roasted in the desert wind, but will look great even in the desert if sheltered.
Have fun growing your own! I’ve been doing it for years and it can save you a lot of money and you can grow things you can’t find elsewhere. Don’t know much about growing Mexican Sunflowers, but someone just joined my church and in his bio said he was an avid fan. I’ll ask if he grows his own. Need to get you two to talk 😉.
btw, I’ve had great luck sowing zinnias and marigolds (I know, not your favorite) right in the ground from last year’s seeds. Actually gives a better display than when I’ve planted from seedlings, either my own or bought. Be sure to check out my posts on that, and growing seedling indoors as well! Agree with the commenter above, since everyone seems to have an indoor garden now, the lights have become much less expensive.
Good luck and I may add Mexican Sunflowers to my indoor growing repertoire. Sorry about losing your local nursery, I love mine and they are a really treasure to have nearby.
That’s interesting about the Zinnias and Marigolds. In my garden they do not self-sow, though I have not made efforts to encourage them.
So pleased to hear this wonderful book has inspired you. Oh….the fun you will have, growing from seed is one of the most enjoyable things….you will become addicted fairly quickly. I haven’t bought an annual for over ten years, I actually have to give most of what I grow away. Good luck with it.xxx
I think it will take me a while to get to the point where I don’t buy any annuals at all, but that’s a good goal to shoot for.
Have fun starting plants from seed! I’ve been doing this for years and enjoy it. Thanks for the book recommendation – my copy arrived yesterday. I look forward to reading it.
Hope you like it! Happy New Year!
Growing from seed is super satisfying! It’s so awesome to see the first sign of green pop through the soul. Magical! You are going to have so much fun!
Thanks! Looking forward to it!