This section is from the book "How To Make A Flower Garden", by Wilhelm Miller. Also available from Amazon: The Well-Tended Perennial Garden: Planting and Pruning Techniques.
Several years ago I found myself too much of an invalid to be out in the garden sowing seeds, and with no one at my service who, in my opinion, could be trusted to do it for me. A summer without flowers was too dreary a prospect to be contemplated. This was long before I had learned the value of hardy perennials, and depended almost wholly upon annuals for flowers. Necessity thus set me to inventing, and I had my garden of flowers after all.
I secured a half-dozen wooden boxes about the size of common soapboxes and had them sawed so that they were each four inches deep. These boxes were so small that when filled with soil they could be easily lifted about. I had the boxes filled with soil from the garden; and now imagine my comfort as I sat at a table sowing my seeds! There were no cramped limbs and aching back, as was usually the case when I had sowed my seeds in the seed-bed.
I find by consulting my "notes" of that year that I sowed the seeds April 9th. They came up quickly and far more satisfactorily than seeds sown in the garden. But to say that this first attempt to grow seedlings of annuals in the house was a perfect success would not be exact truth. Nevertheless, I had that year as fine a display of annuals as I ever had when the seeds were sown in the garden, in spite of the fact that the weather did not get warm enough for it to be prudent for an invalid to sit on the ground to transplant them until between June 9th and June 16th. Although this late transplanting was exceedingly harmful to their growth, they began to come into bloom the first of July.
I was so well satisfied with the experiment that I have repeated it every year since. The method has merits sufficient to recommend it to any one who does not have a hotbed to grow seedlings in. It is so late when seeds can be sown in the garden up here in Maine that by the time annuals grown in this way come into full bloom they are killed by frosts.
Instead of giving the details of my first experiment, I will give my method of later years, which will be of more value from having been perfected through past mistakes. I have studied to avoid all unnecessary work, and a plant-table lined with zinc has proved a great saving of labour, as the seeds and seedlings may be watered without being carried to the sink and without any drip upon the floor. A plant-table four feet long and two and one-half feet wide would afford sufficient capacity for growing seedlings enough to fill two hundred square feet of beds. Tables or rough boxes are rather unsightly objects, and I keep them in the kitchen until the weather will permit keeping them in a more out-of-the-way place.
Our grandmother's four-o'clock set In a good place.
I find that the time the seeds should be sown depends upon the time the seedlings can be transplanted to the garden. If one's health will permit the transplanting of seedlings as early as it would be warm enough for them, about April 6th would be the right time for sowing in New England; an earlier date would not be at all advisable. My experience has shown me that five weeks from the time of sowing the seeds is as long as the seedlings can be kept in the boxes without injury; the roots fill the soil, their growth is stopped and they become stunted, never making the fine plants they would had they been transplanted at the proper time.
I use soil just as it is taken from the garden, as the addition of fertiliser causes an unhealthy growth. I aim for a slow, sturdy growth. The soil is heated very hot in the oven to kill the weed seeds. The first year I failed to do this, and found weed-pulling made too much of an upheaval among seeds and tiny plants. I sow the seeds in rows an inch and a half apart, and three-fourths of an inch apart in the row to allow for some of the seeds failing to germinate. When I am sure that the last seed that will grow has made its appearance above ground, I thin the seedlings out to an inch and a half in the row. I find it necessary to allow this space, as the plants soon become crowded with less, and thinning them out then will disturb the roots of those which are to remain.
When the seeds are sown I place the table in a sunny window and give the earth the treatment required as regards light and sunshine, that it may be ready for them the moment they break through the earth. I keep them as close to the glass as possible, and roll the shades high. The first year I thought this unimportant when the seeds were coming up, and before I knew it some of them were shooting up in the air more than an inch, though still encased in the seed-shells, and by the time the seed-lobes were freed they were carried an inch and a half high. Since then I give all the light and sunshine possible from the moment I discover the first seed breaking the soil, and thus keep the seed-lobes as close to the soil as possible. An abundance of sunshine and strong light is a necessity, for without these the seedlings become long-drawn and leggy and have no strength to stand upright. In a mild spring I find it advisable to remove the seedlings to a room where there is no artificial heat, as the two greatest drawbacks to growing annuals in the house are excessive heat and shade. I soon begin to give them air during the warmest part of the day by opening the windows or setting them in an open door where the sun will shine upon them.
After a short time I set them on a sunny piazza - any sheltered place would do - during the middle of the day, then soon put them out in the morning, taking them in at night. As soon as all danger of freezing is past I let them remain out day and night, only taking them in from beating rain. The plants are not properly hardened off ready for transplanting until they have had full exposure to wind and sun; and they should be set by the beds where they are to be planted out a few days previous to taking them out of the boxes. In starting any kind of plants from seed indoors in early spring it is important to have the seed-boxes in a handy place where one cannot help seeing them many times a day. If a seed-box is put out doors on the porch, the soil will dry out before you realise it and the tender seedlings will be checked or ruined. It is very fascinating to watch the growth of seedlings. In growing annual flowers I always get the best results from sowing seeds in boxes indoors about fifty days before the soil outside is in perfect condition, and for this purpose I use a plant-table, which is a great convenience. It is a home-made affair which any one can duplicate at a small expense and which will soon prove to be an indispensable convenience.
Plants can be watered on such a table with no drip upon the carpet, and if sand is filled in around the pots and kept moist it will be found an excellent way of supplying that moisture to the air which plants must have in order to flourish. The most valuable as well as essential feature of the plant-table is a zinc-lined false top. Almost any stout table of suitable size will do as a basis, but in this case an old-fashioned "lamp stand" was used that we happened to have in the attic.
A sweet pea garden near Springfield, Mass.
A plant-table for holding boxes of seedlings.
My husband, who makes no pretense to being a carpenter, fitted a large top to this stand which can be removed by simply lifting it up. For material he used what he could pick up about the place, which happened to be a spruce board an inch thick and a basswood board one-half inch thick. He sawed the spruce board into pieces three feet four and a half inches long. These he placed side by side with the planed side up, and they measured, as thus placed together, two feet and one-half inch across; then he secured them in place by nailing a cleat half an inch thick and one foot nine inches long and two inches wide at each end. These cleats were nailed at equal distances from the ends and two feet and eight inches apart, measuring from the inner side of each cleat. The cleats were nailed on the side to be placed down upon the top of the stand, and being put the same distance apart as the top of the stand was long, the top of the stand would thus fit in closely between them, giving no chance for the false top to move back and forth lengthwise. A narrow cleat about four inches long was nailed at each side of the false top the same distance apart as the real top of the stand was wide, and thus the false top was held from moving about either way.
These cleats at the ends and sides of the false top were placed close enough together so that, when it was placed in position, it was necessary to exert a little strength in order to force it completely down upon the top of the stand, and it was thus held so firmly in position that it could never become displaced. Around the edge of the false top strips of the half-inch basswood three inches wide were nailed. These strips were placed below the inch board of the false top one-half inch, to hide from view the top of the stand. This made the false top boxlike, an inch and a half deep measuring from the inside. The bottom and sides of this were lined with zinc, which we did ourselves, the zinc costing from forty to sixty cents. It was somewhat difficult to fold the zinc at the corners without breaking it, as was necessary to make it water-tight. An easier way, and one that would have made nicer work, would have been to cut an inch and a half square from each corner, and then solder the edges together to make the corners tight.
Under side of zinc top, showing cleats.
The zinc was tacked along the edge at the top of the basswood sides with large tacks.
The stand and the basswood sides of the false top were treated with a coat of walnut stain and varnish, and as the legs and rod of the stand were quite prettily turned, my plant-table made a very fair appearance in the sitting-room.
Madia elegans, yellow, with a brown eye. The flowers close in the sunshine, but open in the morning and evening.