We have all been enjoying our gardens this summer. Our ability to leave home was limited in March and almost everyone responded first by paying more attention to what they had growing at home. Many homeowners have added to that, resulting in plant nurseries and garden centers doing a booming business.

Now that it is August and things are loosening up a bit – not like they were in 2019 but better than they were in April and May – it’s time to look ahead to 2021.

If there is one thing the pandemic has taught us, it’s that we have no idea what next year will bring. But making some improvements now will make next year better, no matter what happens after the nongardening months of winter have gone and the you-have-to-do-something months of March to May have arrived.

First, get a soil test, done by the Maine Soil Testing Service, which gives complete instructions on its website – although soil containers come from the local University of Maine Cooperative Extension office. If some of your plants didn’t do as well as you would have liked this year, improving the soil will help. And, if you get the test done now, you can do improvements – adding compost and/or lime are the likely choices – before the snow flies. The testing service will give you detailed instructions on what to add and how much.

If you are really into this or just looking for online classes, the Extension is offering a soil-improvement class with an emphasis on cover crops, led by Caragh Fitzgerald, on Aug. 17. You can sign up at extension.umaine.edu, which I might do myself because the only cover crop I have ever used is oats, and I probably could learn more.

So, improving the soil is good, and important, and, dare I say this as a garden columnist: BORING. Do it, and move on.

You want more plants, ideally beautiful flowering plants that produce blossoms later in the season than when every common plant like rhododendrons, lilacs and daffodils produce theirs.

You can do it with seeds, rather than seedlings, assuming your soil worked well this year or you have improved your soil the way the state says you should. Growing perennial flowering plants from seed is less expensive and will also provide a challenge and give you a sense of achievement – assuming you succeed.

Don’t wait too long for this. The recommendations are to plant the seed no later than a month – some say six weeks – before the average frost date in your area. For readers in the cooler, inland sections of the state, that means doing it in the next week or so. We along the coast will have a month or more.

The planting can be done anywhere. If you have a naked section of garden where you will want these perennials, improve and smooth the soil and put the seeds there. Either draw yourself a map of your garden with the seed sown area carefully drawn in and/or mark the sown area with small stakes or some leftover pieces of garden fencing. Otherwise you will forget what you planted where and, perhaps, accidentally weed out the baby perennials.

You also can create a seedling bed – as an example, in the vegetable garden where you have pulled your pea vines. The seeds will sprout and continue to grow until the ground freezes. In the spring, you dig them up and transfer them wherever you want.

You can also sow your seeds in plant pots, but there is a problem. Soil in containers gets colder than the soil in the ground because the frigid nighttime temperatures surround the sides of the container as well as the top. You might want to have the containers in an unheated garage or shed during the coldest months or sink the plant pots into your garden in an out of the way area.

Some of the easiest plants to grow by seeding in summer are biennials, such as foxglove and hollyhocks. These live only two years in nature, and survive only by self-seeding. It is easy to give them a bit of help. Others that I like are rudbeckia (black-eyed Susan), echinacea (coneflower), monarda (bee balm), asclepius (milkweed) and (I love it when the botanical name is also the common name) aster, coreopsis and heuchera.

All of the Maine-based flower-seed sellers (Pinetree, Johnny’s, Fedco and Wild Seed Project) are filling orders, but some seed varieties, with everybody gardening this year, are sold out. You also can buy seeds from many local nurseries.

Planting seeds at this time of year is an almost a no-lose proposition. Seeds are cheap, so even if you fail – which is possible but unlikely – you are out less than the amount you’d tip the person who brings the curbside dinner to your car. Most years, I would advise shopping for perennials at your locally owned garden center, because they often have fall sales. But everyone is gardening. The selection might be less varied and the discounts smaller.

But you can try a nearby nursery – you will be able to walk among the plants outdoors where social distancing is easy, and you just might find something.

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

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