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Miss Floribunda: Seed-sowing for sprouting gardeners

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Posted on: February 10, 2022

Dear Miss Floribunda,

My growing family and I moved from a townhouse in D.C. to a house in Hyattsville in November. It has a big backyard where our stair-step kids (ages 5, 7 and 9) have room to play. There’s a basketball hoop there already, but my wife and I are going to buy a swing set with a slide and maybe a jungle gym. It’s also got a 4-by-12 foot raised bed with planks around it that we thought could be scooped out and turned into a super sandbox this summer. However, our 9-year-old says she wants it to be a garden again. Not only that, she wants it to be hers, although she says she’ll “let” us and her siblings help. We’re not experienced gardeners but are willing to give it a try. Can you give us some tips on how to make this fun and not too difficult? 

Newbies On Nicholson Stree

Dear Newbies, 

As it happens, my niece Floribelle Pepper also has a growing family. She and her husband, Jalapeno, have five little ones: Paprika, Piper, Pepe, Perchinka and Cayenne, and they all garden together. They were eager to give advice. Because you already have a prepared space, they think you should order seeds at this time. I’m happy to announce that you can buy a wide variety of Chas. C. Hart and Southern Exposure seeds from the Hyattsville Horticultural Society (HHS) at a competitive price. In the past, HHS has sold these at an annual sale open to the public, but COVID-19 prevents such a gathering. To see what’s available, go to tinyurl.com/3dde69f4. You can find out how to order and pick up purchases by emailing the HHS vice president, Julie Wolf, at wo*******@gm***.com.

Floribelle told me that if the children themselves are going to do the planting, the seeds should be large enough for little fingers to handle. Peas, beans, corn, squash, watermelon and pumpkin seeds are easy to plant. Smaller in size are tomato, radish and sweet pepper seeds; eggplant, lettuce, and spinach seeds are even smaller, but with your help, they can all be started even now in peat pots to be planted outside later. (Check the backs of the seed packets for best planting dates.) Children love anything miniature and will be delighted to poke the seeds into the tiny pots. 

Of course, children also like the other extreme: Huge pumpkins, tall corn and giant sunflowers will thrill them — if you have room. I know your space is limited, but you will have to make choices for other reasons too. For example, if you grow corn, don’t plant tomatoes near them. Patio cherry tomatoes in one or two pots will be more than enough to keep the children supplied with snacks all summer.

Among flower seeds, the largest to handle are those of nasturtiums, sunflowers and zinnias. A little trickier, but manageable by a 9-year-old, are marigold, cosmos and cornflower seeds. These flowers have another characteristic that the little Peppers themselves informed me was important: bright color and fun-to-touch texture. Fragrance matters too, and they particularly like pungent herbs, such as basil, mint, savory, fennel and cilantro. 

The Pepper parents hastened to add other criteria: The flowers and vegetables should thrive on being picked, and not be too easily uprooted by feckless tugging. Because children often find waiting difficult, it’s important to choose the varieties that develop in the fewest days. Because children can become easily discouraged, the plants must be easy to maintain. They should be disease resistant for that reason — and also because you don’t want to endanger your children or pollinating insects and birds by using poisons. In our area, choose varieties that are not sensitive to intense summer heat and humidity. The sight and feel of fungi might repel some sensitive little ones. Southern Exposure vegetable varieties are resistant to such problems.  For flowers, I’d recommend Hart’s Easy Care Children’s Garden collection. 

Imaginative children will be attracted to flowers with names like snapdragon, ox-eye daisy, larkspur and foxglove. Brown-eyed Susans, Johnny jump-ups, sweet William, rosemary and Shirley poppies will pique interest in children sharing those names. The romantic child will be drawn to flowers with such names as love-in-a-mist and forget-me-not — and a lettuce named Sweet Valentine. The more artistic youngsters might be intrigued by Rainbow of Lights kale, the Moon and Stars watermelon, and the Glass Gems ornamental corn. Horse lovers might want  the Black Beauty eggplant, and Star Wars fans the Spacemaster cucumber. Even the most finicky kids might actually be willing to grow and eat the Dinosaur (aka lacinato or Tuscan) kale — which has a fan-like display of large, ridged, almost gray leaves that mimic a prehistoric monster; the long and skinny Pencil Pod beans; the humanoid Little Finger carrots; and spaghetti squash, which shows noodle-like strands when cut open.

Pandemic permitting, the Hyattsville Horticultural Society hopes to have an open-air sale in the spring. Please keep checking the HHS website, hyattsvillehorticulture.org, for information.

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