In the birth of this bed the wind and sun, as in all happy gardens, had been duly consulted, and the wind promised to keep well behind a thick wall of hemlocks that bounded it on the north and east whenever he was in a cruel mood. The sun, casting his rays about to get the points of compass, promised that he would fix his eye upon the bed as soon as he had bathed his face in mist on rising and turned the corner of the house, and then, after watching it until past noon, turn his back, so no wonder that the bed throve.
Any well-located bit of fairly good ground can be made into a hardy seed bed, provided only that it is not where frozen water covers it in winter, or in the way of the wind, coming through a cut or sweeping over the brow of a hill, for flowers are like birds in this respect, - they can endure cold and many other hardships, but they quail before the blight of wind.
For all gardens of ordinary size a bit of ground ten feet by thirty feet will be sufficient. If the earth is heavy loam and inclined to cake or mould, add a little sifted sand and a thin sprinkling of either nitrate of soda or one of the "complete" commercial manures. Barnyard manure, unless very well rotted and thoroughly worked under, is apt to develop fungi destructive to seedlings. This will be sufficient preparation if the soil is in average condition; but if the earth is old and worn out, it must be either sub-soiled or dug and enriched with barnyard (not stable) manure to the depth of a foot, or more if yellow loam is not met below that depth.
If the bed is on a slight slope, so much the better. Dig a shallow trench of six or eight inches around it to carry off the wash. An abrupt hillside is a poor place for such a bed, as the finer seeds will inevitably be washed out in the heavy rains of early summer. If the surface soil is lumpy or full of small stones that escape fine raking, it must be shovelled through a sand-screen, as it is impossible for the most ambitious seed to grow if its first attempt is met by the pressure of what would be the equivalent of a hundred-ton boulder to a man.
It is to details such as these that success or failure in seed raising is due, and when people say, "I prefer to buy plants; I am very unlucky with seeds," I smile to myself, and the picture of something I once observed done by one of the so-called gardeners of my early married days flits before me.
The man scraped a groove half an inch deep in hard-baked soil, with a pointed stick, scattered therein the dustlike seeds of the dwarf blue lobelia as thickly as if he had been sprinkling sugar on some very sour article, then proceeded to trample them into the earth with all the force of very heavy feet. Of course the seeds thus treated found themselves sealed in a cement vault, somewhat after the manner of treating victinis of the Inquisition, the trickle of moisture that could possibly reach them from a careless watering only serving to prolong their death from suffocation.
The woman gardener, I believe, is never so stupid as this; rather is she tempted to kill by kindness in overfertilizing and overwatering, but too lavish of seed in the sowing she certainly is, and I speak from the conviction born of my own experience.
When the earth is all ready for the planting, and the sweet, moist odour rises when you open the seed papers with fingers almost trembling with eagerness, it seems second nature to be lavish. If a few seeds will produce a few plants, why not the more the merrier? If they come up too thick, they can be thinned out, you argue, and thick sowing is being on the safe side. But is it? Quite the contrary. When the seedlings appear, you delay, waiting for them to gain a good start before jarring their roots by thinning. All of a sudden they make such strides that when you begin, you are appalled by the task, and after a while cease pulling the individual plants, but recklessly attack whole "chunks" at once, or else give up in a despair that results in a row of anaemic, drawn-out starvelings that are certainly not to be called a success. After having tried and duly weighed the labour connected with both methods, I find it best to sow thinly and to rely on filling gaps by taking a plant here and there from a crowded spot. For this reason, as well as that of uniformity also, it is always better to sow seeds of hardy or annual flowers in a seed bed, and then remove, when half a dozen leaves appear, to the permanent position in the ornamental part of the garden.
With annuals, of course, there are some exceptions to this rule, - in the case of sweet peas, nasturtiums, mignonette, portulaca, poppies, and the like, where great quantities are massed.
When you have prepared a hardy seed bed of the dimensions of ten by thirty feet, which will allow of thirty rows, ten feet long and a foot apart (though you must double the thirty feet if you intend to cultivate between the rows with any sort of weeding machine, and if you have room there should be two feet or even three between the rows), draw a garden line taut across the narrow way of the plot at the top, snap it, and you will have the drill for your first planting, which you may deepen if the seeds be large.
Before beginning, make a list of your seeds, with the heights marked against each, and put the tallest at the top of the bed.
"Why bother with this, when they are to be transplanted as soon as they are fist up?" I hear Mary Penrose exclaim quickly, her head tipped to one side like an inquisitive bird.
Because this seed bed, if well planned, will serve the double purpose of being also the "house sypply bed." If, when the transplanting is done, the seedlings are taken at regular intervals, instead of all from one spot, those that remain, if not needed as emergency fillers, will bloom as they stand and be the flowers to be utilized by cutting for house decoration, without depriving the garden beds of too much of their colour. At the commercial florists, and in many of the large private gardens, rows upon rows of flowers are grown on the vegetable-garden plan, solely for gathering for the house, and while those with limited labour and room cannot do this extensively, they can gain the same end by an intelligent use of their seed beds.