ELLSWORTH — Do you crave a house full of fragrant, colorful flowers and a kitchen counter laden with freshly picked tomatoes, herbs and greens?
Start planting seeds now. But first, read this article.
“Seed starting is actually the easiest part of the growing process to control,” said Mary Blackstone, who has had her hands in soil since she was a bonnet-clad baby.
The Blackstone family homestead, at the corner of Christian Ridge Road and Bucksport Road, has a storybook quality. Hollyhocks, delphinium and other successively blooming flowers, trees and shrubs almost eclipse the house and provide a colorful, continual show for passersby. The white clapboard house had belonged to her late parents, Albert and Hazel Blackstone.
At Blackstone Gardens, Mary and another lifetime long gardener, Jay Barnes of Lamoine, sow thousands of seeds annually. “So far this year, we’ve planted 3,000 seeds,” Barnes said on a crisp March day.
Mary’s mother, Hazel Blackstone, hired Barnes 28 seasons ago. He kept working for Mary after Hazel passed.
Barnes’ green knowledge predates his work for the Blackstones.
“We always had a garden,” Barnes said. “I started when I was 5 years old. That’s what got you through the winter.”
The pair has lots of seed sowing tips.
“I think the important thing is it’s fun,” said Blackstone. “A lot of people who don’t try growing seeds are missing what for me is one of the chief reasons for growing.”
When you grow from seed, those plants almost become part of your family, she said. “If you want to involve or engage kids, growing from seed is the best way.”
One note: sunflowers and nasturtiums germinate or take less time to sprout than other flowers and vegetables.
“The germination rate on nasturtiums is probably close to 100 percent.” So, those are seeds that go directly into the ground instead of into a seed-starting tray, Barnes said.
Other plants need a cloistered, temperate environment if started from seed.
Blackstone has a greenhouse as well as a chunk of her basement with shelves and grow lights devoted to seedlings.
Early in the season, Barnes will have already started onions, leeks and shallot. Arugula is another early crop.
Onions are “daylight sensitive,” Barnes said. “The sooner you get them in the ground the better.”
On a late March day, Barnes also had sown seeds for cauliflower, parsley and Sonora coneflower (Rudbeckia hirta ‘Sonora’). “It’s an annual and it goes good in pots,” he said. “It doesn’t get very tall.”
Dianthus, delphiniums and a native plant called mullein (Verbascum) all have begun to grow in the greenhouse.
“I have moved increasingly to focusing on the use of native plants because of their enormous benefit for supporting the biodiversity of our environment,” Blackstone said. “Nurseries have some standard native plants available but many native plants are actually best propagated from seed (often outdoors) and there is much more variety in what is currently available from seed versus plant stock.”
That goes for all plants, not just native varieties.
“I have literally 100-plus fat seed catalogs in my living room and the vast majority of what’s in those catalogs are not available as seedlings in this area,” she said. The catalogs include Johnny’s, Fedco, Pine Tree, Prairie Moon, Wild Seed Project, Select Seeds, Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, Renee Seeds, Parks, MacKenzie and Burpee, just to name a few.
The pair are growing a dozen varieties of amaranthus, including Love-Lies-Bleeding, which Blackstone said are all “spectacular, architectural plants” she wouldn’t be without.
Hundreds of varieties of sunflowers are available as seeds as well as old-fashioned cut flowers such as tall African marigolds and tall cosmos, Blackstone continued.
Back in the greenhouse, Barnes has a well-hewn routine for planting seeds. Using seed-starting trays, Barnes packs each cell with a seed-starting mix. He used Jiffy certified-organic seed-starting mix this year. Don’t be stingy with the mix. Barnes packs each cell solidly.
After filling the cells with mix, Barnes uses a black marker to poke a hole in each cell for the seed. After putting a seed in each hole, he pushes the seed farther down with the marker.
“I want good soil contact,” he explained.
He usually plants more than a couple varieties in each seed-starting tray.
“Always make sure to mark them,” he said.
“I try to plant things that will germinate at the same time,” Barnes said.
Don’t forget to water. Barnes puts water in the base of the tray and then puts the cells in so the seed-starting mix soaks up enough water. He can tell by lifting a tray if the seeds have absorbed enough. If the tray feels light, it needs more water.
Back to the crops, Barnes sows lettuce seed every three weeks so there’s a fresh supply of greens into October. He doesn’t plant lettuce in the ground because, as he puts it, “you’re just going to pull them up.” Lettuce gets planted in a hip-height canvas bin.
Do you have a problem with seedlings that get too leggy before it’s time to plant them? The plants aren’t getting enough light.
Have you ever painstakingly planted a tray of seeds, covered it with a plastic dome lid and put it outside only to find seedlings sprouted but then died by scorching?
The plastic domes are the issue.
“Don’t use those outside,” Barnes cautioned. “They hold heat in and moisture in, which is what seeds need.” But, the lids keep the seeds and mix too hot when used outside in the sun.
Back to the crops. Celeriac, collards, artichokes, cauliflower, peppers, eggplant and broccoli are all started indoors early in the season.
“Artichokes take a long time,” Barnes said.
Peas are planted outside the first week of April, basil the second week and fennel the third.
At the end of April, they’ll put sunflower seeds in the ground as well as calendula and verbena.
Barnes starts beets in soil blocks in the greenhouse because beets don’t like to get their roots disturbed.
In May, they’ll start okra, which Barnes says grows pretty well. May means sowing cucumbers and summer squash inside.
For a fall harvest, both broccoli and Chinese cabbage get started indoors in June.
Flower seeds are being planted throughout the season.
The duo is growing more than 15 varieties of sweet peas (Lathyrus odoratus) this year.
Blackstone also is a floral designer and will grow flowers specifically for weddings she’s been hired for.
Barnes said he starts sweet pea flowers from seed in 2-inch peat pots because they don’t like their roots to be disturbed. If you’ve got seeds left over from this season, keep them for next.
Blackstone said how long seeds will last depends on the species, variety and the conditions under which they’re kept.
“If kept under ideal conditions, something like tomatoes have been known to last a very long time, maybe as much as 16 years,” Blackstone said. “Peppers, eggplant and beans maybe as much as five years. Many other seeds will keep at least three to four years, but you may not get a great rate of germination.”
However, onion, parsley and parsnip are the exceptions. Those won’t produce much germination after a year.
The pair also save seeds from most of their crops each year. Barnes said he always collects from heirloom tomato varieties.
Are you wondering how Barnes and Blackstone keep all of this planting and growing organized?
There is a detailed, color-coded schedule, which Blackstone says is being converted to a computer this year.
Of course, life intervenes with seedlings and plants no matter how many decades of experience in the garden.
The gardeners recalled a year that mice buried dried amaranthus seed in left-over seed starting mix.
“The next spring, the first things we planted were germinating in a forest of amaranthus, which germinates quickly and grows vigorously,” Blackstone said.
“One thing we continue to work on starting is larkspur,” she said. “We tried planting indoors and transplanting out and we’ve tried planting in the ground at various times — fall and spring — and we’re still not getting the vigorous plants I want to grow.”
The Ellsworth Garden Club will hold its annual plant sale and Pink Tulip Festival starting at 9 a.m. on Saturday, May 19, starting at Donald A. Little Park on State Street in Ellsworth.