starting seeds

Potential Plants

Reasons gardeners grow plants from seed:

  • They need a lot of plants at once
  • They can’t afford to buy plants
  • They’re purists
  • They’re snobs
  • They can’t help collecting seeds and finally decide to do something with them
  • All or some of the above.

After 35 years of gardening, I have a lot of seeds — packets bought for ambitious projects years ago, tail-ends of vegetable and herb seeds from before my veggie patch became the ex-veggie patch, and assorted envelopes containing seeds gathered from my garden or from road- and trail-sides. Most of them are neatly filed away in a three boxes, one labelled “Perennials,” another “Annuals and Herbs,” and the third “Vegetables.”

It’s funny — there are plants I take pains to prevent from seeding (Lychnis coronaria), and others I cajole and pray over, hoping they will produce even a few seeds (Meconopsis, of course, but not M. cambrica — that one is in the deadhead a.s.a.p. category). Then there are those with rare or atypical colours — pink, cream-coloured, and tawny California poppies, for example. I can’t resist saving their seeds. Maybe this colour won’t ever appear again, I think; better get ’em while they’re here. So I end up with half a dozen envelopes — California poppies, 2010, 2011, 2013, etc.

Eventually, the obvious becomes inescapable — there’s no point in collecting seeds for their own sake. Each seed is a potential plant, but that potential will not be realized inside the seed packet. Soil, water, warmth, time, and luck are necessary before that tomato, delphinium, or poppy grows and blooms in the garden.

Unlike wine in the cellar, seeds do not improve with age. There’s no point in hoarding them. Yes, there’s that story about 3,000-year-old viable seeds from Egyptian tombs, but they’re the exception. Most seeds retain viability for only a few years — perhaps five years at most. Tomatoes appear to be an exception; I successfully grew plants from seeds almost 20 years old. Seeds of the Himalayan blue poppies (Meconopsis), on the other hand, must be sown the winter following harvest. A year later is too late.

I’ve grown hundreds, if not thousands of plants from seed. Back when I had a lot of bare earth to cover, I set up a plant factory in my basement — fluorescent lights, a heating cable, lots of suitable containers, and bags of sterile seed-starting soil mix. I made “paper pots” using a clever wooden device called a Potmaker to roll and fold newspaper into pot-like shapes two inches in diameter and about four inches tall. Packed together in a wooden or plastic flat, these “pots” lasted long enough to nurture annual seedlings until they were ready for life in the garden, at which point pot and all could be planted. Much cheaper than peat pots, and a “green” option as well.

Growing some plants from seed is dead easy; others are long-term projects often doomed to failure. Some seeds need exposure to freezing temperatures to induce germination. Others (Romneya coulteri, the California tree poppy, for example) germinate best after fires — not easy to do at home. Then there’s double dormancy, which may require two years before a sprout is seen. Many gardeners give up before that happens, or simply forget what’s supposed to happen in that pot and repurpose it. Working with challenging seeds requires dedication, labels, record-keeping, and space, as well as a good supply of patience.

The emergence of sprouts is always a thrill, no matter how long it takes, and especially if it takes a long time. A few years ago, I managed to sprout four seeds of Lilium columbianum, a native yellow lily. As I recall it, the sprouts emerged the second spring after planting. They went dormant for the summer, at which point I thought they had died, but last spring two tiny plants appeared. (I guess the other two decided to stay permanently dormant). One of the two survivors was cut down by slugs (probably a single slug, actually, because the plant was less than an inch tall). The other persisted for a couple more months, then vanished. Dead or dormant? Imagine what a thrill it was to see a lily-like sprout emerge last week, and a second one today! If I manage to foil the slugs, it’s possible I’ll actually have two plants taller than one inch by summertime, and who knows — maybe in a couple of years I’ll see at least one of them bloom. And if it produces seeds, I can do the whole process again — if I’m up to the effort.

As for all the old seeds I have stashed away in envelopes, pill bottles and other containers, the best thing would be to sort through them and get rid of any that are more than five years old. They don’t have a future, except as sad mementos of plants that have vanished, or that never progressed beyond the seed stage.

As a last-ditch effort in some cases, I could do germination tests — spread a sample of seeds between layers of dampened paper towels and see if anything happens. Unlike other unwanted items, disposal of old seeds is easy — mix them up and cast them to the winds. If any of them manage to sprout, I’ll consider it a gift from the garden gods.

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Tomato seedlings

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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.