A garden pro's top 10 tips

Weekend gardeners might find it encouraging that success eludes even experts like Richard Tilley.

"You get failures, and you don't know why you get failures," says the Wicker Park garden veteran. Spry at age 81, Tilley this month gave East Village Association members his best practices for growing from seed.

He brought results of those efforts as door prizes in his question-and-answer session at Happy Village tavern, 1059 N. Wolcott. Tilley's begonias and geraniums also are likely to propagate the Wicker Park Garden Club fund-raising plant sale on May 3 and 4 in the park, at 1425 N. Damen.

Here are Tilley's top garden tips:

  1. Start as early as New Year's Day. Seed-packet instructions will suggest the ideal dates.

  2. The porous plastic containers that hold grocery-store mushrooms are Tilley's favorite for growing from seed. Use a seed-starter potting soil.

  3. Water seeds indirectly by standing containers in a baking dish filled with water.

  4. Cover seeds with a layer of dirt no deeper than the seed itself. Sift a fine layer of dirt over small seeds with a salt shaker.

  5. Keep notes on what you planted, where and when — if not to show what works, at least to tell plants apart. Snapdragons and coleus are shade favorites. Petunias, violets, pansies do well in container gardens.

  6. Ordinary shop lights, suspended 2 or 3 inches from seed containers, are adequate for growing indoors. A combination of warm and cool-white fluorescent bulbs are a step up.

  7. Handle by the roots when transplanting. Seeds don't need to be fertilized. Once they're transplanted, Tilley uses plant foods like Miracle-Gro, or Bloom Burst for prodigious feeders.

  8. For edging, commercial suppliers such as Ball or Harris can provide large quantities of ageratum or other bedding plans.

  9. Mothballs can keep squirrels away from tomatoes. Pests frustrated Tilley's efforts to grow zucchini, but asparagus and eggplant have done well.

  10. Sage and thyme are robust perennial spices. To restrain aggressive spreaders like mint, plant in a bucket with a hole cut in the bottom.

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