Sunflowers are excellent candidates for direct sowing into your garden. Michelle Lee Photography/Shutterstock

Since we didn’t take our usual late-winter vacation this year, I was momentarily tempted to set up a seedling-growing station and plant peppers, tomatoes and other plants instead of buying seedlings, as we’ve done for the last 15 years. Sanity prevailed, largely because we’d got rid of the equipment (grow lights and trays) long ago, and these days, the space where we used to grow seedlings is used for other things.

Instead, I am making plans to direct-sow seeds outside, both more flowers in our vegetable garden (and many of our vegetables, as well). Planting seeds is far less expensive than buying seedlings from local nurseries. Also, planting by seed will give me a closer connection to the growing process and, thus, relieve my boredom.

In this column, I’m focused on the flowers, and I’m mostly writing about tender annuals, which can’t be planted outside until all danger of frost is past. That means Memorial Day weekend in most of Maine – at least it did in a pre-climate change world. So most of what I am doing now is planning, not planting.

Even if you miss that Memorial Day deadline, all is not lost. Late last June, I discovered some seeds that I’d forgotten to plant, so I gave them a go regardless. Despite their late start, the nasturtiums and zinnias bloomed beautifully. The tithonia, commonly called Mexican sunflower, never did blossom, so this year, I’ll be sure to get it in the ground on time.

While it’s more common to plant annuals by seed, perennials will also work, and in their case you only need to plant them once. When we were starting our gardens, we planted echinacea (commonly called coneflower), rudbeckia (brown-eyed Susan) and hyssop from seed. Not only do the perennials come back the next year, they’ll often self-seed too. Evidence: Last year, a rudbeckia sprouted among the violets in our back lawn.

Here are a few of the easier and most desirable plants to grow from seed.


True sunflowers are simple to grow from seed, and we have often done so. They can grow more than 6 feet tall and will self-seed. Beware if you bring the huge blossoms inside, though. They’re messy, dropping pollen, petals and seeds everywhere.

Zinnias are prolific bloomers that come in a wide range of colors. They make nice cut flowers, but also look beautiful outside. Our zinnias struggled last summer; the rain and clouds delayed the blooms until August, but the previous year they were gorgeous, blooming from late June until the first frost.

A morning glory, planted outside from seed, attempts to camouflage the heat pump in columnist Tom Atwell’s garden. Photo by Tom Atwell

Another favorite that my wife, Nancy, has planted for years from seed are morning glories. The vine grows up to 10 feet tall, producing delicate trumpet-shaped flowers that, as the name implies, show up early in the morning. The light blue ones Nancy grew on a trellis in an attempt to camouflage our heat pump were especially attractive. Heads up: These morning glories are annuals and go by the horticultural name Ipomoea. Do not confuse them with the perennial invasive, Convolvulus arvensis, which shares the common name morning glory.

Nasturtiums grow well from seed. Last year, I planted trailing variety that wandered through some late peas – it was quite a nice look.

Other annuals that are fairly easy to grow from seed are cosmos, marigolds, cleome (sometimes called spider flowers). While I haven’t tried these from seed myself, I may give them a shot this year.

Planting the seeds is a straight-forward process: Loosen the soil and add a little fertilizer. Follow the directions on the packet for depth and distance. Planting in both rows and patches will work. And water regularly.


OK, despite what I told you at the start of this column about waiting until Memorial Day to plant flowers by seed, I actually planted some – perennials rather than annuals – in mid-February. The backstory: I attended a program that month at my local library on seed bombs. During the program, we created seed bombs from sundial lupines, Lupinus perennis, which are native to Maine and beneficial to local birds and insects.

The big-leaf lupine more commonly seen in Maine, Lupinus polyphyllus, is not native to Maine, and some Mainers consider it an invasive (although the state still allows local nurseries to sell it). In any case, a photo of our garden with the big-leaf lupine appeared with my Feb. 18 column and drew comments from people who said we should replace it. The big-leaf lupine has already self-seeded in our garden, and we’ve dug out and composted several of the new plants. Not all of them, I confess, because Nancy likes the tall blue blooms.

Back to the seed bombs: You create them by flattening out a special clay, adding seeds and compost in the middle, and forming it into a ball. I made two with sundial lupine seeds. I left one by the road so that Laura Simonds-Rumpf, who lives nearby and co-taught the library workshop, can keep an eye on it. I put the other in our vegetable garden, where I hope, with help from me, it will outcompete the big-leaf lupine invaders.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at:

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