When it comes to sowing seeds, many of us in the North are keen to get things started as soon as possible. More often than not, however, we are advised to wait. While this works for many seeds, there are some flowers that benefit from starting in January and early February. Below you will find information about early starting annuals in our climate.
No one needs to tell us gardeners in the Northeast that our weather is unpredictable. Because of this, not all seeding methods work as well for us as they do in other parts of the country. New techniques such as winter sowing in milk pots may work well in mild winter climates such as the Mid-Atlantic states, or in areas with permanent deep snow cover, but in the Northeast , we know Mother Nature doesn’t often do that. Don’t always play by the rules. I don’t know about you, but I’ve moved most of my seeds indoors and under lights, where I can control the conditions, no matter the weather.
General Tips for Starting Annuals from Seed
Many of the annual flowers we buy can be started from seed at home. Some of you may already be starting your tomatoes or peppers from seed, but maybe you can try a few annuals this year. Most of us just use a simple home setup. Fluorescent full-spectrum or LED lighting works best. Also, you need to find the right location for your unit, but it should be based on what you plan to grow. Separate annuals that need constant heat (such as geraniums, begonias and impatiens) from those that grow best in cool conditions (such as sweet peas and pansies).
Set your light unit based on the temperature range required for what you are growing. For annuals that need heat, try growing them in an unused bedroom or elsewhere in the house. For those who prefer cooler conditions, try a garage or unheated cellar.
Annuals that need constant heat.
Not truly an annual but considered an annual, the common geranium (Pelargonium spp. and cvs., zones 10-11) is a great but often overlooked houseplant. Seed may seem expensive, but you can get dozens of plants from just one envelope. There are many seed strains to choose from, and if you go with a mixed color selection, you can often find many interesting combinations with plants that cost a fraction of nursery-grown specimens. .
But I think the best thing about growing geraniums from seed is that they allow you to start sowing seeds early in the year – as early as New Year’s Day, giving us a wide variety of gardening options. It helps to feel like we’re working even though it’s winter. Start.
Geranium seeds are easy to handle. Sprinkle them over the surface of the potting mix, and cover the seeds lightly with vermiculite or soil. Water the seeds lightly, and grow them in warm conditions (around 70°F) with the brightest light you can offer—ideally LED. (Full spectrum is best, but a fluorescent shop light will work in a pinch.)
Wax begonias and impatiens
Old-fashioned wax begonia (Begonia × semperflorens-cultorum cvs., zones 10-11) seems to be making a comeback (well, maybe it’s not making a comeback yet, but it should), along with impatiens (impatience. spp. and cvs., zones 10-11), with dozens of good varieties for growing from seed. Fortunately, both begonias and impatiens enjoy equally warm conditions in the lights until they are ready to be planted outside in late May. Use the same instructions for handling and care for seeds as you would with geraniums. Be prepared, though, because begonia seeds are tiny and dusty. Mix them with some dry sand or vermiculite and sprinkle on the surface.
Annuals that prefer cooler conditions.
sweet peas (Lathyrus odoratus cvs., annual) also appreciate an early start, but only if you can keep their growing environment slightly cooler than they are comfortable at home. Sow sweet peas in individual pots, one per 3-inch pot, and set the seeds a half-inch deep. Or plant four to five seeds in a 6-inch-deep pot, as their roots prefer more space if you can provide it. For my favorite sweet pea varieties, click here.
Pansy (Viola x Vitrokiana cvs. Annual) also requires an early start. Sow pansy seeds anytime from New Year’s Day to late January. Cover the seeds lightly with 1/8 inch of soil and keep them moist, perhaps with plastic sheeting. Violet (Viola spp and cvs., zones 3-9) should be treated similarly when started from seed.
A caveat here is that, as stated earlier, sweet peas and pansies (and violets) all demand cooler growing conditions. Try to achieve an air temperature between 50° and 65°F, with a slight natural drop in temperature after the lights are turned off at night. This can be easier to achieve if you install your light in a garage or cool basement. Living in the cold Northeast has some advantages.
Finally, don’t forget to order your seeds in advance as usual, try adding full-spectrum LED lights to your light unit or shop light setup, and most importantly, use a timer with your lighting unit. . Set it to 15 to 16 hours of light, which will mimic those long May days.
To learn more about growing flowers from seed, check out:
And for Northeast regional reports, click here.
Matt Mattis is the author of two books: Mastering the art of flower gardening And Mastering the art of vegetable gardening. He farms in Worcester, Massachusetts.
Photos: Matt Matts