This section is from the book "The Gardener's Monthly And Horticulturist V20", by Thomas Meehan. See also: Four-Season Harvest: Organic Vegetables from Your Home Garden All Year Long.
Tree and shrub seed are most conveniently sown in boxes two or three feet square and four inches deep. The soil needs only to be rapidly mixed and pulverized with a shovel, thrown into the boxes, pressed, so that no settling will occur, and sown broadcast, the seed being covered with finer soil. The seeds of all conifers, such as Juniper, Cypress, and Fir, sprout slowly, and require moisture, light covering, and a cool atmosphere to make them grow. Our best plan is to use a covering of laths, and sow the seed early, about the first of December, covering them with fine sand. When the young plants are just coming through the ground, affairs begin to approach a critical and troublesome period. Many people manage to learn the secret of sowing seed, but comparatively few understand the care of young seedlings during the dangerous portion of their existence, from the time they sprout to the appearance of the second leaves. If you sowed too thick they come up in bunches, and lift the soil, thus exposing the roots. Hardy plants survive this evil, with a little thinning out, but tender plants require a little sprinkling of sand to fill the crevices. Sand is also good, if the soil gets too wet and covered with green moss, to dry the surface.
If the plants get too much heat they wither; if too much damp they decay, and suddenly perish; if too much shaded or crowded they spindle, or become, as gardeners express it, "drawn, " that is, they increase in height without a corresponding strength, the cellular tissue being merely lengthened, without additional width. Light, warmth, and moisture are the watch-words for most plants at this period. Avoid all extremes; do not let the surface get so dry that it crumbles to dust, or so wet that green scum forms on the top. Conifers need shelter from the direct sun, but tropical seedlings may be placed in the warmest place obtainable.
Seedlings of all kinds ought to stay in the seed boxes until the second leaves appear, and it is usually best to leave them until the third or fourth pair of leaves are seen, and the stem has become somewhat hard. Plants that flower the first season ought then to be spaced in other boxes, giving them rather more room then they had before. Tree and shrub seedlings may with safety be left in the seed boxes for the first year, and then planted in rows in the open ground. The various Palms and Draecenas must be potted off early, or the roots grow so that they cannot be handled. Blue Gums, Eucalyptus globulus, sown in August, and spaced once, are fit for planting in Spring. The garden flowers, such as Carnations, Asters, Balsam, Petunias, etc, will become stocky, and gifted with fibrous roots, after one or two transplantings. They can then be put in the garden, in masses, little groups, or as single specimens, as preferred. For handling small plants, use a knife blade, or a trowel not larger then a teaspoon; for moving larger plants, and for garden work generally, a seven-inch, steel blade garden trowel will be needed.
Seeds, although carefully planted and watched, are subject to various living enemies, first among which may be mentioned mice, they are excessively fond of some kinds of seed, notably the Blue Gum, and will find exposed boxes, scratch up the surface, and take out every seed, leaving little hulls, in bitter mockery. Pine seed is another mouse delicacy. A greenhouse should be made safe against mice, and if one sneaks in occasionally, he can be circumvented. Where seed boxes, are however set on a porch, or in a shady place out-doors, the mice often commit depredations. The boxes can be covered with glass, or surrounded by strips of tin, and poison can be used with good effect.
The small red and black ants are also among the enemies of horticulture in general, and of seed sprouting in particular. We fervently advise every novice in the ancient art of gardening to study the ways of these restless and impudent rascals. If the flavor of any kind of seed suits their fastidious palates, they will form in sedate military lines, and carry off every seed in the box before you really discover the trick. I believe that ants are responsible for at least a few of the failures usually attributed to poor seed. If the seed they fancy are too large for one to shoulder, a number will unite, or else they will dig into it, and carry off the kernel piecemeal. I have watched several minute red ants thus dissecting a Canna seed and displaying as much zeal as if they were scientific men trying to discover the secret of life. Now and then they stop to consult, or to announce progress, thrusting their antennae close together, then, with renewed energy pushing the work of excavation, till all the kernel was removed. Against ants, therefore, we must declare war of the relentless order. To save the boxes attacked make a heavy mark with chalk or tar on the edge of the box, trace the marauders to their nests, and drown them out with boiling water.
Move your boxes and pots occasionally, and if they have started fresh colonies make matters unpleasant for them. It is not cruel, because it is better for them to move out-doors, and study nature. Besides - and here is the gist of the matter - we want the flowers.
The greatest danger which threatens seeds planted out-doors, and also small plants, especially conifers, arises from the presence of so many small birds through the winter in our mild climate. Salpiglossis, Nemophila, Ten-week Stock, Lobelia, and many other flowers, will be eaten off as soon as they appear. Vegetables often suffer. Pines and Cypress, whilst small and tender will be completely destroyed. If it were otherwise, field culture would be the cheapest way of growing our hardy evergreens, but the little birds snap them off as soon as they appear, and skip on the bushes saucily when the excited owner comes along, to astonish him with a flood of twitters, and a multitude of vibrant, melodious calls that half atone for the injury. The only effectual method of saving the plants is to cover them with lath frames until they are a couple of inches in height.
The growth of plants from seed, to sum up all in a sentence, requires the most patient, endless vigilance. It is the straight forward, natural way of propagation, but it is beset with minor difficulties. No one can start seed, except by accident, who does not think of their welfare, and examine them several times a day, until they are up, and large enough to transplant. Bye-and-bye you will learn how long it takes this and that kind of seed to germinate, you will know just how they look as they shake the soil from their brown garments, and unfold their new apparel of green; you will discover that from their very first appearance no two plants are precisely alike, and you will study their habits and progress. So seed planting will become the delight of delights, and seed-growth the mystery of mysteries.