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Variety, cost favor growing flowers from seed

If you enjoy having flourishing containers of annuals coloring your doorstep or brightening the borders of your lawn, but the high cost of bedding plants has pared you down to a modest pot or two, perhaps it's time to consider growing annuals from seed.

I used to buy bedding plants for the small assortment of containers clustered by my front porch.

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It didn't seem worth the trouble to start just a few plants. But when a hanging basket I was making consumed $15 worth of alyssum and violas, I decided to grow my own.

Indeed, this figure, multiplied by the number of baskets I planned to make for the back porch, made it seem suddenly worthwhile to start from seed.

In addition to the savings, starting from seed offers a tremendous increase in choice of color, size, and variety. Garden centers and nurseries usually stock only a limited selection of the most popular annuals. You can take full advantage of the improvements in size, color, and flowering characteristics developed by plant breeders in recent years by starting from seed.

Growing annuals from seed is easy if you start with hardy easy-to-grow varieties and observe a few basic rules.

To help you get started, I've assembled a baker's dozen of simple-to-grow annuals. The list runs from ageratum to zinnia and includes annuals that are suitable for shade and sun, humid and dry conditions. These annuals will do well in any part of the continental US if they receive ordinary good care.

Start by selecting from the list those annuals that are suited to your growing conditions. Pay special attention to their light requirements.

If the containers or flower bed will be exposed to sunlight all day, choose a sun-loving annual such as one of the many zinnia or marigold varieties. But if the planting area is shady a good part of the day, choose a variety that prefers shade such as dianthus or browallia.

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You do not need elaborate or expensive equipment to start the annuals on the list. You can use anything from milk cartons split lengthwise to special 6- and 12-pac trays or even individual peat pots.

If you want as little fuss as possible, you can buy trays already filled with soil and sown with seed. These may be purchased, for example, through the seed catalogs put out by such companies as Burpee and Geo. W. Park.

You will need a good starting soil, one that holds moisture and does not compact readily. There are several good mixes on the market. It is essential that whatever starting mix you choose, make sure it is sterilized. Most unsterilized soils may cause damping-off, in which fungi contained in the soil attack young seedlings.

Damping-off fungi thrive in the moist humid atmosphere of a seed tray and will kill the seedlings you thought were doing so well. If you wish to use soil from your garden for starting seeds, be sure to pasteurize it first by baking small batches in the oven at 350 degrees F. for one hour.

Give your seeds a good start by observing their minimum germination requirements: Correct planting depth, constant (not soaking) moisture, and adequate sunlight after germination. In general, cover the seeds to a depth equal to the diameter of the seeds. For very fine seeds, such as browallia, just pat lightly into the moist soil and do not cover.

Keep the soil constantly moist but not soggy. If you let the seeds dry out for even a little while, they will die.

Covering the trays with plastic until the first seedlings appear is a good way to keep the soil evenly moist. As soon as the seedlings emerge, take the plastic off and move the trays to a sunny window. Feed them at this time with a dilute liquid fertilizer if you are using a starting mix that does not contain soil or fertilizer.

Continue feeding every two weeks until they are transplanted to the garden or permanent container.

When your seedlings have their first true leaves, usually three weeks after sowing, it's time to move them to larger quarters. To transplant, loosen the soil around the plants by dropping the trays from a height of five or six inches. Carefully lift each plant with the tip of a knife blade and replant them in a larger container.

A two- to four-inch pot will be fine until they are large enough to go outdoors. If you wish to skip this step, sow the seeds in 6- or 12-pac trays or suitably sized peat pots.

It's a good idea to ''harden off'' the plant for a few days before they are set outdoors permanently. To do this, leave them outside during the day and bring them in at night for several days before transplanting. This will give them a chance to get used to their new climate gradually.

The chart lists 13 easy-to-grow annuals. Their flowering characteristics, germination time, and light requirements are listed. Lead time refers to the average number of weeks required by the plant to reach transplant size.

By using the lead-time figures as a guide, you can coordinate your sowing times with the outdoor planting dates in your area.

The flowers in the chart were chosen because they are hardy, simple to grow, and will do well in either containers or the garden. Mix or match colors and sizes to achieve the effect you wish.

For more information and growing tips, send for one or more of the catalogs from the seed companies listed on the chart.

A baker's dozen growing chart Variety Light Germ. time Lead time (days) (weeks) Ageratum Full sun 5 6-8 Alyssum Full sun 5 6-8 Browallia Part shade 15 8-10 Calendula Full sun 10 6-8 Dianthus Half shade 5 8-10 Gazania Full sun 8 4-6 Geranium Sun orpart shade 14-21 8-10 Marigolds Fullsun 5 6-8 Phlox Full or half sun 10 6-8 Portulaca Full sun 10 6-8 Salvia Full or half sun 10 4-6 Verbena Full sun 8 6-8 Zinnia Full sun 5 6-8

The followingseed companies, among others, offer free catalogues on request:

Burpee Seed Company

Warminster, Pa. 18991

Geo. W. Park Seed Co., Inc.

Greenwood, S.C. 29646

Stokes Seeds, Inc.

P.O. Box 548

Buffalo, N.Y. 14240

Joseph Harris Co., Inc.

(Catalogue for commercial flower growers)

Moreton Farm

Rochester, N.Y. 14624

J.L. Hudson Seedsmen

P.O. Box 1058

Redwood City, Calif. 94064

R.H. Shumway Seedsman, Inc.

628 Cedar Street

Rockford, Ill. 61105

Most of the seed catalogues are full of useful growing tips for the home gardener.

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