Month: February 2014

Growing Plants from Seed: a Botanical Gamble

This morning I did something I haven’t bothered with for several years — I prepared a couple of containers of seed-starting mix and added seeds, with the intention of someday seeing sprouts of Asphodeline lutea and Eryngium alpinum. The seeds came from plants in my garden. My single plant of A. lutea had struggled along in an unfavourable spot for years. When it became obvious that it was on the way out, I moved it to to a better spot and it survived to bloom last summer. I collected a few of its angular seeds (that look like very coarsely ground coffee beans). The Eryngium did succumb a couple of years ago after doing quite well, but fortunately it produced a good quantity of seeds before expiring. With luck I’ll be able to reintroduce this elegant, drought-tolerant plant to the garden.

That’s the thing about growing plants from seed — it’s a bit of a gamble. My copy of Thompson & Morgan’s little booklet called Successful Seed Raising (which accompanied orders from that eminent seed house years ago) says that both of the plants I seeded this morning have slow and irregular germination. From experience I can say that includes no germination at all, but many of the plants in my garden began in just this way — seeds shaken out of a paper envelope, introduced into a soil-like mixture and left in a favourable spot (top of the hot water tank or a south-facing window, depending on whether light is needed for germination). Seeing the first tiny sprouts is always a delight, hope transformed into reality. With luck and care, a number of them grow into healthy plants and take their place in the garden.

That’s when the ever-present ironies of gardening manifest themselves. Sometimes a gardener experiences beginner’s luck, as I did years ago with the annual Nicotiana langsdorffii, a small relative of tobacco whose small green flowers have navy blue anthers, a feature I found totally charming. For a couple of years they were so numerous in one of the beds I feared they would become a weed. Then they all disappeared. I suspect an extra-thick layer of spring compost one year prevented the previous year’s seeds from germinating (the T&M booklet tells me they need light).

Gaura lindheimeri has a similar history here. I grew my first batch of plants from seed. They settled in well, so well I thought I would have to exercise firm control on their tendency to self-seed. Then most of them died after a February cold snap. I still don’t know why, because they are supposed to survive in Zone 6. Poor drainage could not have been the problem either; the soil here is a very sandy loam. I think it’s the Curse of the Naive Gardener — fate permits easy success followed by harsh reality, perhaps to test one’s mettle.

Other seed-grown plants have developed weed-like tendencies. It’s hard to believe I brooded anxiously over seed pots of Linaria purpurea, Lychnis coronaria or Corydalis lutea. Now I exert myself to control their multiple progeny from taking over the garden. But then, that’s the essence of gardening — trying to maintain the tenuous balance between natural forces and one’s vision of perfection.

Growing plants from seed is something every gardener must do at some point, whether to maintain a prized heritage tomato variety or to acquire plants not available at the local garden centre. For example, I couldn’t find Gaura lindheimeri for sale anywhere last year, neither the common white variety nor any of the delightful pink types. I hope my solitary plant of the white has survived, because there is nothing quite like its cloud of dainty white flowers dancing in the late summer breeze. Moreover, it’s totally drought-tolerant and blooms well into the fall. I think I’ll check my collection of saved seeds and grow a few plants, just in case.


Writers — Don’t Submit, Publish!

I am not a big fan of the word “submit” when it refers to sending one’s writing to publishers with the hope of getting published. In fact, I wrote a blog post all about this antipathy.

Which is why I was happy to see this blog post by author Hugh Howey and this comment on it in Publisher’s Weekly by Smashwords founder Mark Coker.

These gentlemen cover the topic more than adequately, so I will add only that this is another reason for indie authors and those with the temerity and courage to bring forth their works to the world to take heart. Write! Publish!

The Power and Peril of “Free”

From September 2012 until last week, the first book of my Herbert West Series, The Friendship of Mortals, was available as a free download. When I re-launched the series with new cover images, I changed its price from $0 to $0.99.

During the 18 months that it was free, The Friendship of Mortals was downloaded 2 to 3 times a day. I suspect that many readers make “free” their primary search criterion when trolling for ebooks on the internet. Giveaways on Goodreads and Amazon’s KDP Select program are touted as good ways to create interest in a series and encourage purchases of its other books. On the other hand, some say that most free ebooks languish unread because having no value they are not valued by those who acquire them.

I braced myself for uptake of The Friendship of Mortals to slow to a trickle, but was pleasantly surprised to find that 8 copies have been purchased since the price change, more than I expected. It will be interesting to see what happens over the next six months, especially after I make the series available for purchase on Amazon in March.

In the meantime, readers of this blog who missed acquiring The Friendship of Mortals while it was free may do so for another two weeks, until February 28. I participated in a program on self-publishing at my local public library last week, at which I distributed handouts with a coupon code for a 100% discount on that book:  SWS50. Just go to the book’s page at Smashwords and enter that code when you check out.

The (Abandoned) Garden in January and Early February.

All right, so in January and the first part of February I was too preoccupied with the writing side of my life, re-launching the Herbert West Series, to pay attention to the garden. Moreover, for the past week we have been in the deep freeze here (that’s -5 C or 23 F) and I didn’t want to look at the sad, collapsed mess that many of my “winter interest” plants have become. The bergenias flopped, the hellebores and their emerging flower buds looked like someone had let the air out of them. Today, finally, the cold snap has ended (8 C or 47 F this afternoon) and the plants seem to have recovered.

Just before the cold episode began, I managed to do this year’s quota of magnolia pruning. This magnolia (whose name I am too lazy to look up) is a lily-flowered variety with dark pink, rather floppy flowers. It does look quite impressive in full bloom and exudes a rose-like perfume, but it’s a huge shrub with a tendency to grow sideways. Therefore, I have been judiciously removing two or three major branches every year to reduce the bulk and heaviness that result when the plant is carrying its full load of leaves in late summer. Having read that magnolias are susceptible to diseases that enter through large pruning wounds, I paint any cut larger than 1/2 inch with green wound paint.

Magnolia after pruning

Magnolia after pruning

Another thing I managed to do just before the descent into minus temperatures was prepare a small pot with seed-starter mix and scatter seeds of Meconopsis, produced last summer, over the dampened medium. I left it on the hot water tank for three days, then put it outside to experience freeze/thaw cycles for the next couple of months. This has resulted in good germination in past years. It has certainly gone through one such cycle now.

Otherwise, my observations have been pretty skimpy. One night I noticed the wonderful, deceptively spring-like perfume of winter honeysuckle, and possibly that of the little green flowers of the spurge laurel (Daphne laureola). Neither plant is much to look at, and the spurge laurel is an invasive alien here, but they certainly add a hint of glamour to winter nights, triggering feelings of longing and nostalgia (at least in this gardener).

Winter Honeysuckle

Winter Honeysuckle

Spurge Laurel (Daphne laureola)

Spurge Laurel (Daphne laureola)

Herbert West, Re-Launched

Goodbye, Trilogy in Four Volumes, hello Herbert West Series! The new look may be seen on my Smashwords page and at the Herbert West Series page on this blog.

The most visible difference is the new cover images. This is what they look like:

The Herbert West Series_final

In addition, I have rewritten the brief descriptions and added longer descriptions. Within the books themselves, I corrected typos and other errors and added afterwords and a preview of the next book (to Books 1-3).

Book 1, The Friendship of Mortals, was available as a free download from September 1, 2012 until February 6, 2014. Now it costs $0.99. Despite that trivial price, the change from free to not-free is huge. I feel that it’s an appropriate change, given the value-added features.

It will be interesting to see the effect of these changes.

Preparing To Re-Launch

It’s coming on to four years since I published the first book of the Herbert West Series. Two years after that, in 2012, I published the other three. Now I am planning to upload revised texts with added content and professionally designed cover images to replace my homemade and, to be truthful, rather lame creations. As I write, I am awaiting what I hope will be the final draft of the cover images. It’s been a thrill to see what a graphic designer has created from my descriptions of the works.

And the trilogy is now a series. I decided the whole “trilogy in four volumes” thing didn’t work. The middle two books of the series are still Islands of the Gulf Volume 1 and Islands of the Gulf Volume 2, but Volume 1 is now The Journey and Volume 2 is The Treasure. You wouldn’t believe the amount of brooding and fretting I did before deciding on those words, but I’m satisfied with them.

And only cataloguer-librarians would be able to appreciate my reservations about introducing all this complexity. Instead of simple titles and a series, those two books now have volume numbers, series numbers and part-titles. Once all this is done I will have to create catalogue records for them, coded in MARC format, just for fun. Then there’s the whole question of edition. If I were reissuing these books in print, they would be new editions. But ebooks are different. I think. Sort of. (Non-cataloguers may safely ignore this paragraph).

I have also rewritten the descriptions of the books — brief ones of fewer than 400 characters (60 words), and longer ones in the neighbourhood of 2,000 characters (about 400 words). The short descriptions are the sort of thing you see in a publisher’s catalogue; the longer ones are more like jacket blurbs (interesting word, “blurb;” check Wikipedia for its origin). For the blurbs, I started with texts of short synopses I’ve written over the years, but swiftly realized the fundamental difference between a synopsis, which is intended to encapsulate a novel for presentation to a publisher, and the tantalizing jacket blurb that tells the potential reader just enough to make them want to buy the book. You definitely don’t want to create “spoilers” for your own books!

Right now I am working with my Word documents, adding extras such as Afterwords and excerpts from the sequels to each book, as well as creating hyperlinked tables of contents. Once all that’s done and my new cover images are ready, I will re-launch all four books. That may happen as early as next weekend if all goes well.

What with work and all this activity, I have neither time nor mental capacity for other blog topics. The garden (which isn’t doing much) and further thoughts on hypocrisy (which is everywhere) will just have to wait.