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.

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