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Oh, my aching muscles...

By Mary Gutierrez

My vanity won’t allow me to tell you how long I’ve been gardening. Even after a considerable number of years in this racket, when the seeds I’ve planted in spring begin to sprout I’m still amazed. I appreciate the wonder of nature and how plants can arise from those little brown specks. Mostly, I’m just happy that I was able to get the seeds to germinate!

I haven’t always been very confident about growing plants from seed. I still fuss over seed trays, worrying that I’ve covered the seeds too deep or if I’m giving them too much or not enough heat. If nights are chilly, I bring the seed trays in the house in the evening and put them back out in my unheated greenhouse in the morning. On a recent warm day, I lugged all of the seed trays out of the greenhouse so they wouldn’t cook.

It’s a springtime ritual, planting the seeds of annual flowers. I always enjoy the big, easy seeds: sunflowers, nasturtiums and sweet peas. I scratch seeds of annual poppies, forget-me-nots and calendula directly into the dirt. It’s gratifying to see the plants I’ve grown from seed putting on a show in summer. And growing plants from seed can be economical. (Though I did spend $100 on seed trays, soil and pots last March!)

In the last decade, I’ve challenged my seed-sprouting skills. I started by growing chile peppers and tomatoes from seed because I couldn’t find a wide enough variety of plants for sale at nurseries. One chile I grow is an heirloom that my father-in-law used to grow, a hot little number called ‘Floral Gem’. (We don’t mess around with the mild ones!) Members of the extended family count on me to provide Floral Gem chile plants for their gardens, so if I fail with these seeds I’ll never live it down.

I’ve become bolder in recent years. When I became interested in bulbs that weren’t available in the US, I ordered seed from South Africa (the opposite of economical!). Growing bulbs from seed is an exercise in delayed gratification. A few species sprouted sturdy leaves and took off; others sent up tiny hairlike leaves and won’t be big enough to bloom for five more years.

I’ve branched out to growing shrubs and perennials from South Africa now. Many of these plants require seasonal fires to stimulate their seeds to sprout. Scientists have learned that it isn’t the heat that triggers germination, but chemicals contained in the smoke. I order little blotter paper disks that are impregnated with smoke chemicals and soak my seeds with the disks before I sow them. When these seeds germinate I feel like a genius!

Even though it’s all nature’s doing, I still feel a sense of accomplishment when I grow plants from seed. In order to keep it fun, I’ve become philosophical about the process. If they grow—great. If a tray of dirt and seeds remains a tray of dirt and seeds, I figure it wasn’t meant to be.

Every year one thing remains constant: I end up with more plants than I know what to do with!

Chile seedlings growing in the author's greenhouse.

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