Miss Floribunda: Scared of Scarification

HHS can help you learn the ins and outs of starting your plants indoors.

Dear Miss Floribunda,

I enjoyed the [Hyattsville Horticultural Society] seed sale in February and took a chance buying seeds that haven’t worked for me in the past. Generally, after some discouraging attempts at planting from seed, I’ve bought herbs and vegetables in six-packs commercially. That has become more of an expense than I can afford. I have had better luck growing annual flowers from seed, except for nasturtiums and moonflowers. The nasturtiums take a long time to come up and by the time they bloom summer is nearly over. The moonflowers never come up at all. I asked somebody at the sale’s information table what the problem could be, and she said that because the seeds are unusually hard they need “scarification.” When I asked what that meant, I was told I had to nick the seeds with a knife before planting them.  

Now, I have a tremor in my hands, and I could easily cut myself doing this. Couldn’t I maybe soak the seeds in warm water first? Would that help at all? I want my garden to succeed this year, but without wasting money or shedding blood.

Scared of Scarification on Decatur Street

Dear Scared,

Moonflower seeds are so hard that they are impermeable to water until their coats are nicked or, more safely, abraded with sandpaper. Then, soaking them in water will speed germination. Nature’s purpose in making certain seeds so hard is to delay sprouting till such time as the survival of the sprout is most likely. You can learn the best ways to outwit nature’s timetable, and much more, at the Hyattsville Horticultural Society (HHS)’s upcoming seed germination workshop on Saturday, March 16, after a brief meeting at 10 a.m. It will take place at the home of Dr. Julie Wolf, 4008 Hamilton Street.  

Dr. Wolf, who is is a plant physiologist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Beltsville, will address the many challenges facing gardeners who wish to give their seeds a head start indoors under controlled conditions. You are welcome to ask her about every type of herb, flower or vegetable seed that you want to plant, and she will provide expert advice. Along with scarification of large hard-coated seeds, she will demonstrate seed stratification, which is a method of providing damp conditions at specific temperatures to mimic the passing of seasons. This is necessary for the seeds of columbine and other native plants so desirable for attracting beneficial insects.

In addition, she will show how to use heating pads or other heat sources to start the seeds of peppers and other plants that sprout only in warm soil. She will give tips on watering and hygiene to prevent damping off (rotting) of your seedlings, as well as discuss how to provide enough light to prevent the legginess that often characterizes tomato seedlings.

You will learn when to plant your seedlings outdoors according to day length and soil temperature, and about fertilization and other care. You won’t even have to take notes because Dr. Wolf is providing helpful handouts. She also will provide containers and soil blockers for those who want to plant on the spot and are not afraid of getting their hands dirty. If you want to emulate Dr. Wolf’s charming display at the seed sale, you can bring eggshells to use as biodegradable containers.

If you decide you want more seeds, the opportunity will come on Saturday, April 6 at the Community Forklift Annual Garden Party. The HHS will set up a table there from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m and will offer not only seeds but gardening implements, books and decorative containers. You will enjoy the festive atmosphere, garden product displays, refreshments and live music. Then, don’t miss the HHS plant exchange on April 20. You might want to bring some seedlings and swap them for others. The location will be announced in next month’s column.

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