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Still time to start cool-season annual flowers indoors

“Simple and fresh and fair from winter’s close emerging,

As if no artifice of fashion, business, politics had ever been

Forth from its sunny nook of sheltered grass — innocent,

Golden, calm as the dawn,

The spring’s first dandelion shows its trustful face.”

— Walt Whitman, “The First Dandelion,” 1888

A few years before his death, Walt Whitman began writing poetry for the New York Herald, one of the most prominent newspapers of the 19th century. His verse “The First Dandelion,” which celebrates spring, was published March 12. The Great Blizzard of 1888 hit New York that same evening, and the poet became the scapegoat for disgruntled, snowbound readers who apparently thought the storm was his fault.

I sympathize with Whitman for his poor timing. Last week, I wrote about taking advantage of the sunny weather by writing in my garden; however, by the time the newspaper was delivered Sunday, the weather had turned cold and rainy.

Thank you for not sending scornful emails.

Springtime in Southern Oregon is fickle. Nevertheless, I get excited when early buds form on the fruit trees in February, only to feel depressed when a frost in March nips off their heads.

It’s not that spring is trying to fool gardeners into premature eagerness, but to teach us that time is a human invention. The natural world prefers to unfold spring in curves rather than in straight lines.

Yet for enthusiastic gardeners, there’s a lot of planting to do right now. This includes sowing seeds indoors for cool-season annual flowers, which will be transplanted into the garden during March and April.

I recently spoke with Don Tipping of Siskiyou Seeds and Seven Seeds Farm in Williams, who recommends seeding the following hardy annuals now: poppies (Papaver rhoeas, P. nudicale, P. somniferum), English marigolds, bachelor’s buttons, dill and sweet peas.

I believe I’ve had the most success sowing these annual flowers directly into the garden beds. However, I have no recorded evidence of this, so I’m going to try direct seeding half the seeds now and starting the other half in my unheated greenhouse under supplemental grow lights. I’ll let you know which method produces the healthiest plants by summertime.

Other lesser known but equally garden-worthy annuals include cerinthe (such as C. ‘Kiwi Blue’), white finch (Orlaya grandiflora), godetia (Clarkia amoena) and phacelia (P. tanacetifolia). Phacelia is also called bee’s friend because the purple flowers are irresistible to bumblebees and native sweat bees.

Siskiyou Seeds describes each of these flowers in its colorful, mail order catalog and on its website (www.siskiyouseeds.com).

For planting seeds outdoors, remove debris in the garden bed, loosen the earth with a garden fork, and work compost or leaf mold into the top few inches of soil. Sow seeds about twice as deep as the seed is long (I usually plant a few seeds in each hole and thin later), and space them 6 to 12 inches apart. Water gently and add a thin layer of mulch, which will help prevent the seeds from being washed away during heavy rains.

Flowers started from seed outdoors tend to be more robust, but the downside is that the young shoots are easy prey for the season’s first round of garden insects. Floating row cover may help deter these pests.

For starting seeds indoors in an unheated greenhouse or on a sunny window sill, sure to clean your plastic trays if you never got around to doing it last fall. Consider phasing these trays out as the plastic turns brittle and cracks; replace them with wooden trays or soil blocks.

Don told me they make potting soil for seedlings from a mixture of 10 parts sifted, aged compost to 1 part coarse sand, and one quart per wheelbarrow of crushed eggshells and powdered kelp.

Once planted, water with a fine mist sprayer every day or every other day, as needed. I cover my indoor seedlings at night, and check the soil temperature consistently to make sure it stays within the ideal range for germination.

The tricky part for me about growing seeds indoors is to transplant the seedlings outside before the greenhouse becomes too hot (which is surprisingly early). I am reassured by Don’s advice that cool-season annual flowers “like to get planted out when it’s still pretty darn cold outside” (March, early April).

If a rogue blizzard happens to sweep through during March, just chalk it up to the headiness of springtime gardening in the Rogue Valley.

Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at Rnowak39@gmail.com. For more about gardening, visit her blog at http://blogs.esouthernoregon.com/theliterarygardener/ and check out her podcasts and videos at https://mailtribune.com/podcasts/the-literary-gardener, and her website at www.literarygardener.com.