A New Jersey gardener relied on handfuls of seed packets to transform her 3-acre lot into a Country Gardens® award-winning colorfest.
With a little planning and patience, this gardener in New Jersey coaxes seeds into color-drenched plantings.
Barb Stiehl’s insatiable thirst for color could be a problem. Her fervent desire for a yard that goes from the first pansies of spring to autumn’s final rudbeckias without a pause in the rainbow might have seriously drained her and husband Russ’s bank account if it weren’t for one critical mitigating factor: Her need to look out the window and see flowers galore is matched by an equally strong passion for nurturing seedlings. For Barb, winter in Hardwick, New Jersey, is bearable because she is preoccupied with sowing more than a hundred packets of seed in anticipation of spring warmth and sun.
While some gardeners shy away from seed, the 15 years Barb spent working as a buyer for her local garden center opened her eyes to the goodies that could fill her garden. As a job perk, she could bring home stock too damaged to be sold at season’s end and nurse it back to health. Many perennials and shrubs came to her garden by that route. In addition, her job also exposed her to annuals grown from seed: Alternanthera, amaranth, clock vine, angelonia, Mexican sunflower, and other flowers beyond most gardeners’ typical selections.
From mid-february onward, Barb tends seeds and seedlings in her basement. Even before that, she dives into stacks of seed catalogs
immediately after the holidays. To snag rarities and new introductions, she orders ultraearly. When the seeds arrive, she studies every seed packet to discover when the contents should be sown. “Each envelope explains how many weeks prior to your last frost date the contents should be planted. I count back from May 15, which is our last frost date,” she says. Barb organizes the packets by sowing date in a wooden shoebox-size container custom-made for that purpose by her father. Impatiens (“They take forever”) and geraniums start the sowing cycle in cell plugs under lights. From start to finish, it’s a continual relay leading up to a garden packed with pizzazz.
Barb’s efforts are not confined to annual flowers. She dabbles in perennial seeds as well. She bolsters her inventory with locally purchased potted plants that she uses for accents; these include the immense pillars of mandevillas and other masses of color she craves. And she grows beds bursting with tomatoes, watermelons, winter squash, and other edibles for tasty meals, too.
Her obsession with seeds means Barb not only has sufficient fodder to fill her garden with all the color she could desire, but she also can grow extras for her garden club to plant in their stewarded public spaces.
The economic edge is not the only reason Barb goes the seed route. Fond of certain color combinations (plenty of orange and purple is a must), she prefers not to depend on the inventory available in local nurseries. With a pile of seed catalogs on hand, she can experiment with novelties new to the market and plan the color spectrum of her dreams. The combo she can’t live without? “Orange marigolds beside purple ageratums.” With seeds, she can produce enough dianthus and impatiens to run long borders in front of beds. And annuals keep pumping out the color when perennials pause in midsummer.
The result of her steady work and careful planning? Containers line the deck, hanging baskets cascade from the gazebo, colorful vines climb trellises, and flowers to cut are companion-planted between the vegetables. Barb has so many surplus blossoms that she moonlights as a florist. Plus, her grandchildren spend the summer in a flower-saturated playground. The rewards are well worth the work, and Barb savors every step of the process, from selection to sowing to the big, colorful thrill in summer. Says Barb, “It’s so fulfilling.”
20th Annual Garden Awards
TOP A young ‘Reliance’ peach, surrounded by peonies, oregano, sunflowers, and a hydrangea, grows near a path. Clematis ‘Jackmanii’ climbs up to the birdhouse. ABOVE Barb Stiehl wields a watering can in front of her greenhouse doorway shaded by a bower of ‘William Baffin’ roses interlaced with Clematis ‘Huldine’.
TOP A gazebo provides a sheltered spot from sun or rain and also offers a prime view of the gardens. ABOVE A cherry red rocking chair matches a tall pot spilling with heliotrope, sweet potato vine (Ipomoea), and umbrella papyrus (Cyperus alternifolius).
1 4 2 ABOVE Sun-tolerant annuals step in to fill a border of earlier-blooming Siberian iris and peonies in front of the vegetable beds. Although the garden features color galore, Barb echoes hues to keep the garden from reading like a riot. She also repeats perennials and annuals. 3 6 7 8 5