Garden Q&A: Is it too early to start flower seeds indoors?

How can I have better success starting flower seeds indoors? Few of my seeds sprout, and those that do die of fungus. I'm determined this year, so I'm starting them super-early in January.

Whoa! When starting any transplants, check the seed packet of each species to calculate the planting times. Most seeds should be planted indoors six to eight weeks before planting in the ground. If you plant extremely early, your plants may get very tall and spindly from lack of light or require lots of repotting as they outgrow their flats. Here are some more tips:

•Throw away old seeds and start with fresh.

•Check whether seeds should be covered by soil or not — some need light to sprout, some don't.

•Use cool-white fluorescent tubes for lighting.

•Place seeds at the proper soil depth. If too deep, they may never germinate.

•Wet potting soil before you plant, so that pouring water over the seeds doesn't wash them around. Until they are well-rooted, mist or water from below. Don't overwater or keep them too humid — that leads to fungal disease.

•Thin crowded seedlings with scissors; don't pull, which disturbs other roots.

On our website, study our publication, "Growing Vegetable Transplants."

Our planning group recommends only Leyland cypress for an evergreen screen, but I've seen them blow over. Aren't there some other alternatives?

Leyland cypress grows very quickly, but the tradeoff is that the root system can't always keep it upright in a stiff wind. Homeowners often don't realize that Leylands grow 60 to 70 feet high under normal conditions and can reach 100 feet — overpowering many home landscapes.

Good alternatives include thuja (arborvitae), including both Oriental arborvitae or the American arborvitae, known as Northern white cedar.

Cryptomeria or chamaecyparis are other needled evergreens that provide good screening.

Read the tags of any species to be sure you buy a variety whose height suits your needs. Mix it up with broad-leaf evergreens such as holly or Southern magnolia. Remember that a large planting of a single species is an invitation to diseases and insect pests. A variety of species stymies them.

University of Maryland Extension's Home and Garden Information Center offers free gardening and pest information. Call 800-342-2507 or send a question from the website at

Plant of the week Kousa Dogwood

Cornus kousa

Kousa dogwood is the Asian counterpart to our beloved native flowering dogwood, Cornus florida. While you may be aware of kousa's creamy white flowers held above the foliage in June, its fleshy raspberry-like fruits and good fall color, you may be surprised that it is also beautiful in the winter once it is old enough to acquire its bark-shedding habit.

When the smooth gray bark of young trees matures, it exfoliates, showing muted shades of tan, cinnamon and olive green, similar to the lovely legs of crape myrtle. Kousa dogwoods are upright, vase-shaped trees in youth, becoming more rounded and spreading to about 25 feet tall and wide. Planted in acidic, well-drained soil, where it gets full to part sun, kousa should be fairly drought-tolerant.

- Christine McComas

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