Flower friends it is March! We are almost there. Lighter evenings, warmer temps, maybe just maybe we will get an early spring? Either way it is definitely time to start thinking seriously about the growing season ahead and make some decisions about what we want to have flowering in our gardens this year. 

If I have said it once, I have said it a hundred times, flowers grown and cut from your garden are worth a thousand times what flown-from-afar are in terms of scent, style, and beauty, and they cost – environmentally, socially, and financially – a fraction of the price. So even if you are a complete novice at this garden lark, 2023 is the year to try creating your own home-grown source of flowers

To buy or to grow? That is the question

So where to start? Yes, you could head straight out to the nearest garden center and buy whatever plants are on offer. However, there’s another option and one which I cannot recommend highly enough for a number of reasons and that is growing your own flowers (and veg) from seed. 

I know that sounds like way too much effort and a potential recipe for disaster, but stay with me on this. Firstly, it’s going to save you a lot of money. Yes, there might be some initial cost in seed-sowing gear (more on which later) but a packet of seeds compared to a six-pack of seedlings? I’m going to conservatively guesstimate 20 seeds to one seedling. Big bang for your buck!

Secondly – and this is what hooked me – the choice of what to grow. I’ve always been a sweet pea fanatic. The number of beautiful varieties to grow is endless – unless that is, you are relying on seedlings from your local garden center. Then you are limited to a few of the least exciting, most mundane pastel colors. Fed up after a few years of this, I decided the time had come to learn to grow my own. This year I will be growing 18 different varieties from almost black to marbled magenta to the palest dirty blush. (I told you I was a fanatic!)

The third reason to grow your own is the satisfaction factor. Nothing beats the sense of achievement when, through entirely your own devices, you convert a patch of empty soil into a theater of dancing beauty. Whether it is creating a whole display from scratch or filling in and supplementing established perennial plants, having an arsenal of home-gown annual seedlings at your disposal will elevate your garden space in numerous ways. 

From thought to action

So how do we do this? The first thing we are going to do is stay calm! A little bit of forethought and planning can go a long way to avoiding half-germinated trays of withered seedlings. (Rest assured you will still have a few – we all do, whatever it may look like on Instagram). So, before you go crazy and, in a fit of enthusiasm, start sowing enough seeds to fill the New York Botanical Garden, you need to work out exactly what it is you want to grow and as important, how much room you have both to nurture these through germination and then once planted out. Just because there are 100 marigold seeds in the packet it does not mean you will actually want – or magically have room for – 100 marigold plants in your garden! 

The temptation to over-sow just in case they all don’t germinate can lead to you becoming overwhelmed and not giving your germinated seeds what they need in terms of light, space, and water. Counterintuitive though it may seem, treating your seed like gold dust is much more likely to lead to strong, healthy, successful plants. 

A word to the wise

I’m also going to add a caveat here – and this applies to growing vegetables too. Grow what you like, not what everyone else is growing on Instagram. Don’t put your efforts into a flower that, when it does bloom, you won’t like. For me that’s zinnias – a sacrilegious statement I know, but I’m not going to waste my time, energy, and growing space nurturing something I’m never going to love.

The second thing that we’re not going to do is start sowing everything now, however great the desire to get going. Yes, there are some cold, hardy flowers, such as sweet peas, that relish the cold, but these are few and far between. Many of the flowers you may be thinking of growing cannot be planted outside until the last chance of frost has passed. Here in the Northwest Corner that is after Memorial Day. Until then you will be responsible for giving your seedlings everything Mother Nature would otherwise give them outside. 

Light up your life

Along with water, a critical element for seedlings is light. For those of us not blessed with a cool greenhouse, we will be starting our seeds inside, maybe with grow lights but most likely making use of a sunny windowsill. At this time of year our natural light levels are so low, it’s likely that instead of establishing good strong roots and leaves, seedlings will get hysterical, putting all their efforts into reaching skywards. Exacerbated further by the warm temperatures inside, this is how we end up with super tall and leggy seedlings – great for a catwalk super-model, definitely not for a healthy, resilient plant. 

Having read the back of your seed packets carefully for germination dates and then conservatively counted backwards, the time will arrive when you can start sowing. “Why not just throw these straight out into the garden?” I hear you ask. There are definitely some seeds that 100% benefit from direct sewing. Plants that hate their roots being disturbed such as poppies, nigella, and foxgloves are best sown out directly. They tend to be cold, hardy, and/or biennial so can cope with frost (these are also great self-seeders and so will do the work for you in subsequent years). However, those that either can’t tolerate early frost or get knocked out by the mid-summer heat before reaching their peak need this head start inside. Additionally, your seedlings will be that much stronger when it comes to competing for resources with the insane number of weeds we lucky people get to enjoy here!

Seed gear

Next up, what are you growing these in? Again, hold your horses! Please do not rush out to buy fancy grow light stands and growing systems. Until you know for sure you’re in this for the long haul, this is the time to get creative with recycling. Old plant pots (thoroughly scrubbed clean), yogurt pots, take-out containers and tins with holes stamped in the base – anything you can fill to the top with good seed compost (this I don’t advise you skimp on) and that can drain. 

If you are really stumped for something to use, then I suggest buying CowPots, which are 100% biodegradable (and were invented right down the road in Canaan, CT). You need a leak-proof tray that these can sit on so you can both water the pots from below and easily move them en masse. If and when it comes to investing in seed gear, and you are buying plastic, please invest in the highest quality with the longest lifespan that you can afford. I love Bootstrap Farmer’s products (www.bootstrapfarmer.com)  Or even better, consider seed blocking, but that’s a lesson for another day!

What, where, and in what

So now we know what we’re sowing, we know when we’re sowing, and we know what we are sowing in. Certain seeds require different germination conditions, which I don’t have space to go into here, but none of them are complicated. You just need to read the packet carefully and follow the instructions. You always have Dr. Google at your fingertips if you need any extra advice. 

What you need next is patience and consistency. The speed at which seeds germinate varies greatly, so don’t despair if they haven’t all burst into life within a few days. That said, you do need to check on your seeds daily. As someone who has sown and lost many trays of seeds via forgetfulness, my tip is to make checking on them a part of your daily routine. Between brushing my teeth and my first cup of tea in the morning is what works best for me. Otherwise, the day gets away from me and somehow, it’s three days later and I’ve got a tray full of parched wilted seedlings. All you are doing at this point is checking on water, temperature, and light levels. (And by the latter, I simply mean swinging the whole tray 180 degrees if your seedlings begin to lean towards the window).

Toughen up!

And now we’re ready to plant out in the garden? Not quite. Seedlings need to become acclimatized to the great outdoors after their early days in the comfort of our homes. Again, this isn’t rocket science. All you need to do is give them a daily holiday outside in a sheltered spot out of direct wind and rain and then bring them back in at night. Ten days or so of this and your seedlings will be nicely ‘hardened off’ and ready to be placed in their long-term summer spot.

From then it’s as if they were any plant you had brought from a garden center. You will still need to water, stake, and deadhead when and where appropriate. The big difference is that you will have saved yourself a fortune, have months of blooming varieties of flowers you personally chose to grow, and the most enormous sense of satisfaction. So, if you try one new thing in your garden this year, I urge you to make it sowing some flowers from seed. •

 Pom Shillingford is an obsessive gardener originally from England and now based in Salisbury, CT. She offers seasonal cut flowers through English Garden Grown. Find her on Instagram @english_garden_grown.