Growers Guide for Starting Seeds Indoors


I have given up indoor seed starting completely on several occasions. The first time it happened I was a novice gardener. I had ordered seeds of just about every plant that I saw in the garden catalogs without thinking about such practical things as gallons of potting soil, hours of daily watering, and square feet of windowsill space. It also did not occur to me to determine whether or not I had room in my garden for even a fraction of my seedlings. My chaotic efforts eventually produced some wonderful plants, but the process was so exhausting that I said: “Never again.”

After that, I made some half-hearted attempts at seed starting, but it always seemed as if I got my seeds in too late, or forgot that I wanted to take a long weekend at a crucial time in the life of my young green charges. My seed starting still resulted in a measure of success, but not enough, it seemed to me, to make the heartburn worthwhile.

But life and gardening ideas evolve. For the past two years, I have been very selective about the seeds that I start indoors. When I open the catalogs I steel myself and try to remember how it feels too thin hundreds of seedlings with a pair of nail scissors. With that in mind, I select just a few varieties that I am sure I will not be able to get in the garden centers. I buy in quantities that I know I can accommodate the top of the microwave, which is the optimum seed starting area in my house

This strategy has proven very successful. Last year it worked so well that I had enough white cosmos seedlings to give to a neighbor. My ‘Moonlight’ nasturtiums were an absolute triumph, and my ‘White Linen’ California poppies grew like wildfire.

Now I am finally ready to take on pansies.

I have always loved pansies, and that is the problem. My unbridled affection makes me want to have masses of them in the garden. The kind of masses that require hundreds of plants. The kind of masses that also require hundreds of dollars of expenditure at the garden center. Even in my pansy-besotted state, I know that it is no good to have masses of pansies if you are also going to lose your house because you bought pansies instead of making mortgage payments. Therefore, in the interest of mental and financial well-being, it behooves me to tame my expectations and start some pansies from seed.

The Thompson & Morgan seed catalog (call 800/274-7333 for a catalog, or access the T&M website at is at once a great and a terrible place to start the process of seed selection. There are 35 separate cultivars and seed mixes listed in the pansy category, and lots more under “Violas”. Most of the pansies are cultivars of one hybrid, Pansy x wittrockiana. Within that category are traditional types like ‘Universal Mixed’, with the distinctly blotched petals that pansy fanciers call “faces”. There are also pansies in single colors, like the screaming orange ‘Padparadja’, the velvety ‘Bingo Deep Purple’, or the sunny ‘Clear Sky Primrose’. For those into the fashionable black flower craze, T&M has a new hybrid this year, ‘Blackmoon’, that is as close to black as you are ever going to find. If you saved some seed until summer, you could raise a bed full of “Padparadja’ and ‘Blackmoon’ for a lovely Halloween garden display.

Of course, hybridizers can never resist taking a good flower and doubling it, and the people who work with pansies are no exception. ‘Can Can Mixed’ is an assortment that the catalog copywriter describes as producing “dazzling frilly blooms”. Dizzying frilly blooms” seems more appropriate, as the multi-colored blossoms look a bit like overblown rhododendron flowers. For my money, a mass planting of ‘Can Can Mixed’ looks rather like a really colorful hallucination, but to each his own.

With such an array of choices, it seems wise to choose some guiding principals. I chose color. I really like ‘Springtime Lemon Splash’, which sounds as if it should be a cologne, but is actually a pale yellow cultivar with a dark purple face. I may combine them in containers with ‘Maxim Marina’, which come in shades of purple, with very pronounced purple and white markings.

For novelty’s sake, I am also ordering ‘Bronze Tones’, a cultivar that I spotted in the wonderful Select Seeds catalog (call 860/684-9310 or access the Select Seeds website at These are arrayed in shades of antique gold, bronzes and browns, and would look equally lovely in the spring, or, with appropriate pruning and summer care, in the fall. In fact, I am so enamored of ‘Bronze Tones’, that I just might forgo my orange and black Halloween pansy bed, and install them instead.
– E. Ginsburg

Yellow Rose

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