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Past Articles Library | Tips for Growing Balsam

Balsam is an annual that belongs to impatiens family.  The traditional type of balsam grows to be a mature height of 1 to 2 feet.  It produces green leaves that are shiny with a pointed end.  Blooms are trumpet shape and can be found in shades of pink, white, purple, yellow and even red.  In recent years, bicolor flowers have been created. 

While this plant during Victorian times was very popular, the desire to have cottage garden fell out of favorite.  Today though, balsam is having a resurgence again as a plant for cottage gardens.  To meet the demand for smaller plant material, dwarf varieties have been created that grow to a mature height of 10 inches.  These dwarf varieties are perfect in hanging baskets, as border plants, and even as bedding plants. 

As any other plant, the balsam can be found by a different common name, which is “touch-me-not.”  The reason for this name comes from the seedpod.  Once the seedpod has been formed, you can just touch the pod and the seeds will disperse.  This physical characteristic is why this plant easily reseeds itself. 

Balsams are propagated by seed that can be directly seeded or started early 8 weeks prior to your local frost free date.  When it comes to directly seeding your balsam, the first step of this process is to pick the best location.  As far as the balsams go, the best location is a partially shaded area to full sun.  The soil needs to be rich while well draining.  Once you have your location selected, remove any unwanted plant material and add a good amount of well seasoned compost to the soil.  Mix in this compost and smooth the soil surface over. 

Once that is done, pull out your ruler and plant your seeds so that they are 1 inch apart.  Top the seed with 1/8 inch of soil and water the seed in gently.  In 8 to 14 days, you will begin to see little dots appear on the soil surface.  This is evidence that your seeds have germinated.  Continue to monitor the soil moisture and water as needed.  After the balsam seedlings have two sets of leaves, it is time to thin them out again.  At this stage, thin the balsam seedlings so that there is 12 to 18 inches between plants. 

When the seedlings are about 2 inches in height, it is time to feed them.  The best fertilizer to use is a slow released, balanced formulation.  Do not know what a balanced formulation is?  Take a look at the numbers.  A 10-10-10 or 15-15-15 is an example of a balanced fertilizer.  While you can use a traditional fertilizer once a month, to save time utilize the slow release variety.

If you really want to get a jump on the gardening season then start your balsam indoors.  The start of this process begins with cleaning and sterilizing your container(s).  This should only be done if you are using plastic or terra cotta container(s).  To begin the cleaning and sterilizing process, one will need to fill a basin with water and add one capful of bleach.  Place your chosen container(s) in this water and soak for a few minutes.  Next, scrub the container(s) to remove any soil and plant debris.  Once that is done, rinse the container(s) in clear water and allow to sit out to dry.

After the container(s) have dried, fill with a good, all purpose potting soil.  If you choose to utilize peat pots, simply fill them with an all purpose potting soil.

Once you have your container(s) prepared, the next step is to plant the seed.  If you have enough pots, you can just plant one seed per pot or pull out your ruler and plant seeds 1 inch apart.  Cover the seeds with 1/8 inch of soil and water in the seeds.  Place the container(s) on a sunny windowsill and wait for your seeds to germinate.

Move your container(s) to a location that receives 10 to 12 hours of direct sunlight once you see evidence of your seeds’ germination.

Continue to monitor the soil moisture and move the seedlings outside to harden off about a week prior to your local frost free date.  Once the seedlings have been hardened off and your local frost free date has passed, plant your balsam in the garden space.

While balsam plants are pretty disease and pest free, there are few problems that can arise.  One of these is powdery mildew.  This plant disease will appear on the leaves and resemble sprinklings of powdered sugar.  Powdery mildew is brought on by improper watering techniques and unacceptable plant spacing.  The first line of defense when it comes to this plant disease is to use plants or seed varieties that are powdery mildew resistant.  The second approach is to only water from the bottom.  If the balsam is planted in containers, this is easy and only requires you to put the container in a bucket of water.  Soil’s capillary action will water the plant for you without getting the leaves wet.  But when it comes to the garden, the best approach is to lay down drip lines for irrigation. 

The third approach is to make sure that there is plenty of air moving around the plants.  To do this, space your balsam 12 to 18 inches apart.

The last problem comes from nematodes.  While there are beneficial soil nematodes, the ones that attack balsam are those who are parasitic.  These are normally introduced into the environment through planting nematode infected plant material.  The best line of defense is to only plant nematode free plant material.  If your garden is already exposed to nematodes, the only thing you can do is crop rotation and/or soil sterilization.  A crop rotation is what it indicates.  You plant different plant at least every two years.  Soil sterilization, on the other hand, is a little more complicated but it can still be done by even a beginning gardener.  To sterilize your garden space only requires one to spread out a sheet of black plastic and secure it to the ground.  The key is to make it as tight as possible.  As the sun hits the dark color of the plastic, heat will build up and sterilize the soil.  Keep this plastic on for at least a week to kill all pests.  Once the week has passed, remove the plastic and plant as usual.


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