The persistence of seed

I’ve been growing things from seed for decades.  Odd things such as tuberous begonias and eucalyptus, which aren’t odd in themselves but which might be for the average teenager.  A Saturday trip to the movies for ‘The Return of the Jedi’ and then a Sunday spent wondering if all his begonias will die from damping off disease can get complicated #teenproblems1983.  As usual I digress, but one thing so often repeated is how much patience I must have and how complicated it must be.  I just want to take a moment to say I don’t and it’s not.  To prove that point lets take a look at the seeds I started over a year ago which have been sitting in the refrigerator ever since.  A few days ago I finally made the effort to go through them and to be honest it speaks more of laziness and absentmindedness than anything else.

deno method rose seedling

A single Rosa moyesii seedling sprouting on damp paper towels.  Nearly perfect after a full year in a plastic baggie in the fridge.

The scene was not pretty.  Many of the seeds had molded up (or even sadder) sprouted and then died from my neglect, but one ziplock bag contained an amazing surprise.  A single pale yet perfect Rosa moyesii seedling had edged its way out of the folded paper towels and was just waiting to be freed from its cold, dark prison.  Better gardeners check their baggies every few days and not every few years, but luck was on my side this time and I now have a seedling of something I’d been hoping to sprout for several years.  Of course luck would also have it that my fat clumsy fingers snapped the delicate little stem during planting (so we will never speak of this seedling again) but fortunately I also found a few hellebore seedlings, one of which still had enough flicker of life in it to plant.

hellebore niger seedling

A single hellebore niger seedling.  Given another three years it may amount to something, but for now I’m just happy to see it alive.  Note the other healthier hellebore seedlings in the pot behind it.  These were sown last summer and then sat neglected for three months on the driveway, a method which I’ll have to recommend from now on.

Some seeds wait for other triggers to start the germination process, and for a few baggies the warmth of the dining room table was just what they were waiting for.  Within a week of taking the seeds out of the fridge I had three seedling of the hard to find, yet hopefully amazing, Chinese red birch (Betula albosinensis var. septentrionalis).  I may be overstepping my optimism with these size of a pencil point sprouts, but given a decade I may be enjoying a brilliant grove of pink and red peeling bark backlit with the low glow of a late winter sunset.  Or not.  Patience will be required for this one, but in a few weeks I’ll be distracted by snowdrops, then tulips, then iris, then roses, and then before you know it I’ll be wondering why there are birch trees in the spot where I was planning a dahlia bed.

betula albosinensis var. septentrionalis

Betula albosinensis var. septentrionalis seedlings.

Not all my seed adventures are purely theoretical.  Two years ago I started a packet of Cyclamen coum seed which would hopefully produce the intricately lined, pale pink flowers of Green Ice’s Porcelain strain of this plant.  Fast forward two years and they did.  What a delicate flower, you wouldn’t suspect this one could survive the driveway germination method but fortunately it has.

cyclamen coum porcelain

Cyclamen coum ‘Porcelain’.

In general the Cyclamen growing in the back of the garage are filling the space with some very welcome winter color.  At this time of year I leave the house before dawn and return after dark and it’s nice to be able to go back there and visit with a few of my plants before going to bed.  It’s a lot safer too.  I can only creep through the garden with a flashlight so many times before having to explain to one of the neighbors that the warm weather is bringing up the snowdrops way too early.

cyclamen coum indoors

Cyclamen coum flowers filling the winter garden.  They’ve been better in years past but still put on a great show.

One final seedling.  Last year I wanted to try a few new primula so I ordered seeds through the American Primrose Society’s seed exchange.  They open their exchange to everyone once members have had their chance, so the sight of dozens of premium varieties still available for ridiculously low prices was irresistible.  Who would think that even these could survive the driveway treatment, and although my seedlings are nothing to bring to a flower show I really can’t believe that one of my ultra cool Primula auricula seedlings is planning to bloom.  I guarantee if it makes it you will see plenty of photos show up here…. and if it doesn’t make it,  please don’t ask what happened since it will likely I did something stupid again and it will be several months before I’ll want to talk about it.


A Victorian favorite, Primula auricula lays claim to thousands of cultivars and several societies devoted to its growing and showing. At this moment I think it’s my most amazing plant, your opinion may vary 🙂

My newly found primrose enthusiasm had me rushing back to the Primrose Society’s Seed exchange.  I thought I was ok last year but for a dollar a packet who could resist?  Actually if I became a member it was less than $0.50 a packet so might as well join while I’m at it and be in a great position next year when the seed exchange first opens.  So I did join and we’ll see what trouble I get into.

Have a great week!

Plant of the Year 2015

I’ve been enjoying several year end reviews on other blogs and although I would love to do the same here I just don’t have the desire to go through 2015 again.  Don’t get the impression it was a bad year, it’s just that with the weather stuck in a late autumn holding pattern I’ve already spent way too much time browsing old photos, reliving old posts, and imagining what 2016 will bring.  The idea of doing it all again with a purpose sounds too much like work, and I think we all know how I feel about excess work 🙂

Instead of a review I’ll fill in one of those glaring gaps which has been haunting me since mid July… the naming of 2015’s Plant of the Year.  Nothing like waiting till the last minute.

Solanum pyracantha,  porcupine tomato

2015’s plant of the year: Solanum pyracantha, the porcupine tomato

It seems ungrateful to pass by all the old reliable sunflowers, snowdrops, and phlox which bring such joy every year but there can be only one, and this year the porcupine tomato wins that dubious honor.  It’s been a long time coming though, probably four or five years ago was when I first caught sight of this plant on Nan Ondra’s Hayefield blog.  Since then I’ve been on the search for one and finally last summer I came across a fruit laden plant during a garden tour.  With the blessings of the owner was able to pocket a few seeds, and six months later I had my own little seedlings.

Solanum pyracantha porcupine tomato

Like a cute little baby eggplant, the porcupine tomato starts off innocent enough… but then the spines start.

At first the seeds gave some trouble, but finally they got going.  My guess is that like other members of the tomato family the seeds often need a good molding up in order to break down the chemicals which keep the seeds from germinating inside the fruits.  My collected seed would only germinate after sitting between two damp paper towels for a few days, growing mold all over the seeds, being rubbed clean, and then sitting for a few more days between fresh damp paper towels.  This process isn’t all that different than the advice given for collecting tomato seed, which involves allowing the pulp and seed to ferment and mold over in a bowl for a few days before rinsing and drying.  You can bet that it takes a good amount of convincing and distracting to be allowed to keep a bowl of rotten tomato guts on the windowsill, especially once it begins to mold over and develop an odor 🙂

porcupine tomato pyracanthum

A little sparkle of dew gives the leaves a crunchy crystalline look.  Sort of like those sugared fruits or flowers used as cake or desert decorations, except this one comes with its own built in toothpicks.

Nan Ondra refers to this plant as an “anti-social” solanum and I’ll have to agree.  Everything about this plant from the orange spines and leaf veins, to the thick velvety foliage, to the yellow eyed purple blooms is set up to attract you over, but then one inadvertent run-in with the spines and you’re suddenly giving the plant an offended glare.  “After all I’ve done for you, this is how you repay me?”

solanum pyracanthum flower

Flowers on the porcupine tomato (Solanum pyracanthum) look innocent enough, but then again even the most unsocial flowering plant can’t go around offending bees.

But that’s often how things often go.  For as hard as you try someone always gets hurt and in the words of most every Taylor Swift song, sometime the high is worth the pain.

Happy New Year and all the best from suburbia, and if I can promise anything it’s that this will be the only time Taylor Swift is referenced in a blog post on porcupine tomatoes, 2015 or beyond!

When the going gets tough….

The tough get sowing 🙂

Young 'masquerade' hot pepper seedlings, some onions, and other stuff.

Young ‘masquerade’ hot pepper seedlings, some onions, and other stuff.

I guess for as cold as February was spring is almost on schedule.  Maybe a week late.  I should be cleaning the yard and getting things ready, but nothing’s ever perfect, and as long as there’s not a couple bikes laying on top of the hellebores I think there’s no rush and it will all work out just fine.  In case you’re wondering I started a few more seeds to sooth my anxiety.

lunaria annua rosemary verey seedlings

Money plant (lunaria annua) ‘Rosemary Verey’ was one of my oops plantings.  They surprised me by sprouting in the fridge, so out of the wet paper towels they came and under the growlights they went.  They’re a purple foliage version of the regular moneyplant, and I think their dark purple stems look extremely promising!

I’ve never been this bad with seed starting.  My thinking is that as long as I have the seeds I might as well plant them, so besides the ones sprouting under the lights I have a bunch outside in pots exposed to the cold as well.  Also I suppose I should fess up to the dozens of baggies of seeds folded up in damp paper towels in the fridge which are also getting a nice cold treatment.

Why do I need dozens of hot pepper seedling?  Not important.  Why do I need non-hardy South African velthemia bracteata seedling?  Because I can.  (that’s a nearly direct quote from Chloris btw).  So I’ll just continue sowing and growing more seedlings than I’ll ever need until finally I can get outside without a facemask and gloves.

veltheimia bracteata seedling

The first of possibly five veltheimia bracteata seedlings just sprouting.  I’ll report back in a couple years to let you know how this turns out… 

I’m ready for warmer weather.  There’s still snow sitting in every shaded nook of the yard and far too many not-up-yet bulb plantings, but  I want to see them now!  Plus I need warmer weather in order to think over where the approximately 30-40 Magnolia Grandiflora trees will go.  I potted those seeds up today.

That wasn’t smart 4.0

Seed starting isn’t the worst thing to do in the winter, but having your May seedlings sprouting in February is definitely not a good idea.  It all started with last year’s massive seed starting failure.  As usual I filled a few dozen pots and set them out in the cold to wait for spring, but the results were far from good, and only a few things sprouted.  I thought it might be the weather, but now I’m leaning more towards a bad batch of soil.  So this year for a bunch of seeds I figured I’d skip the soil and go back to the Deno method (click here to see how that works) of sprouting seeds in plastic bags.  I set up a bunch of seeds which I thought would benefit from a nice bit of cold before sprouting, but also thought it might be a good idea to give them a week or so of warmth first.  You can guess what happened.

deno method seeds sprouting

Just five days later and I have a mess of sprouting seeds to deal with.  After having failed twice already with these Californian thistle seeds it looks like they didn’t need a cold treatment after all!

So now I’m faced with a bunch of seedlings which will somehow have to survive my care under lights for at least 2 more months.  Even with the cool temperatures out in the winter garden slowing down their growth it will still be a long haul. Another not so smart thing was finding a baggie of needle palm seeds which I must have given up on two years ago.  Apparently there was a (now brittle and cracked) outer shell which I didn’t know about and which probably should have been removed prior to sowing.  It will be a true testament to the lives of seeds if these go ahead and sprout now.

needle palm seeds

Seeds of the hardy needle palm. Stored moist for a year, bone dry for another, cracked out of their shells, rubbed along the file and replanted this month. Not likely to lead to success but you never know 🙂

I’m much more optimistic about seeds I received from this year’s HPS seed exchange.  I potted up this happily sprouting red buckeye (aesculus pavia) seed yesterday and will try and find a cool spot for it until things warm up outside.  Also arriving pre-sprouted are two packets filled with Southern Magnolia (m. grandiflora) seeds…. don’t ask about that, I don’t need one borderline hardy southern magnolia let alone two dozen, but I should have plenty of time to think that one over since I’m hoping they’ll be slow growing.

sprouting chestnut seed

Some seed need to be planted immediately, so it helps that the donor of this seed ‘moist packed’ the seeds in damp peat when collected and then sent them in to the exchange. Sure beats receiving a dried out seed that will never sprout (such as my palm seeds became)

The rest of my seed exploits should also be in better shape.  I did go traditional and put out two trays of little pots to suffer through the rest of winter under the deck, and they will hopefully not run into problems this year, but the rest of my perennial seeds went into baggies and are sitting in a box in the fridge.  It all feels pretty promising to me.  Even the ones that had already sprouted in their baggies are coming along nicely after a few days under the growlights.

seedlings under grow lights

Carefully planted into soil the little seedlings greened up and sprouted normally. I’m pretty sure I’m the only person in my end of Pennsylvania who has half-hardy Californian cobweb thistles (cirsium occidentale) growing along indoors under lights. That must mean something, I’m not sure what.

My little primrose continues to make me happy, and I’m sure you’ll also welcome seeing yet another picture! 😉

yellow primula polyanthus under lights

The first yellow primula polyanthus in full bloom. A little sparse, but still perfect….. and the cyclamen aren’t too shabby either!

Never fear, I also have a few onions sprouting so not everything is odd and nearly useless flowers…. but I also have to warn you there are two more primrose divisions on the cool windowsill which are only now starting to put up buds.  If the weather keeps going as cold as it is you might be stuck looking at them all through March!

Get those seeds planted!

Not that she was bragging, but Amy over at MissingHenryMitchell posted about having her new cyclamen seeds planted at least a full week or two before things finally kicked into gear over here…. (and she even got them a few days later than me!)  But peer pressure finally did its magic and I got my own cyclamen going.  My five selections from Green Ice Nursery in the Netherlands went into water filled baby food containers (fyi it doesn’t come in glass jars anymore) with a tiny bit of dish soap mixed in to help break the surface tension and wet the seed.cyclamen seed

A body in motion tends to stay in motion, so while the seeds sat for their overnight soak, I kept going and decided to plant as many spare seeds as were in my little seed box.  Most everything is fair game, the only exceptions being some hot weather annuals who’s seed would freeze to death, some biennials which would be better sown in mid summer (why bother earlier, they won’t bloom till the following year anyway), and some plants which I’ll start indoors early for a head start.  Today’s seeds (mostly perennials) are going outside to brave the winter and then hopefully sprout in the spring.  My first step is line up pots and shove a scrap of newspaper into the bottom to keep the soil from falling out the drain holes. starting seeds

I’m not a serious seed sower, I don’t scrub the pots clean with a 10% bleach solution, I’m careless with my soil mix, and I don’t research the exact germination needs of my seeds (all good ideas).  If you have some special seeds or want to take a dip in the waters of serious seed starting science, I’d suggest this post by Nancy Ondra over at Hayefield blog.  The stuff on the Deno method is really interesting and I was pleased last spring when I tried it out myself.

Soil and labels are the next step.  I use a mix of 3 parts whatever potting soil I have with about 1 part sharp (sandbox) sand.  Labels are cut out of the old vinyl vertical blinds that came with the house.  I’ve heard many people like cutting up the slats from mini blinds…. another good idea- but this is what I have 🙂cheap plant labelsWriting out the labels probably takes the most time.  Name, notes, date, and source written with a plain old pencil.perennials from seedI fuss a bit over seed depth, but not as much as I should.  According to my highly non-technical methods, seeds are just dropped in and covered with chicken grit(crushed granite).  Larger rounded seed are planted as deep as 3/4 inch(~2cm), flat, light seed such as lily and fritillaria covered lightly, and anything fluffy (think dandelion seedheads) are barely covered and often still exposed.winter sown seeds Once the seed are laid out at their sorta proper depth, grit goes on.  Anyone who has ever tried to keep a gravel walk weed-free knows that gravel walks and patios make a perfect seed bed, the grit protects the surface and seeds from splashing around over winter and keeps the seed moist.  In fact if I have any really fine seed I’ll just start with a thin layer of grit first and then sprinkle seed on top.perennials from seedAnd that’s it.  I planted the cyclamen seed the same way (deeply) the next day, and although I’ll overwinter them in the cool garage (and hope for some germination), the rest will go outside sometime next week.  In a perfect world I would have done this in November and given them a patch of warm weather before they freeze, but this will have to do.  We’ll see what shows up next spring 🙂

Thankful for Seeds

Being the non-cooking type has its advantages on a day like Thanksgiving.  Other family members were busy baking and broiling but I was settled down at the kitchen table going through my seed donations for the HPS (mid Atlantic) seed exchange.  It’s my first time ever contributing to this type of seed exchange and the sharing part is great, but better yet is the fact that as a donor I get to add a few extra packets on to this year’s wish list!seed saving

I’m sinking deeper and deeper into seed addiction.  Catalogs are nice enough, but for some of the really special things seed exchanges are a great deal, and around here the HPS exchange is a great place to start for hundreds of annuals, perennials, bulbs, shrubs and even trees.  An annual membership is $25 and includes meetings and events, but since I live further away I really joined for the seeds.  When the exchange opens in January members can choose 25 packets for something like $15 and it’s kind of like Christmas after Christmas.  Not to rub it in but I’ll be choosing 35 this year with my donor status….. hopefully what I sent in passes muster and isn’t laughed at!

There are several other great seed exchanges.  I’m doing the North American Rock Garden Society’s exchange (as a non-donor) and the basics are the same.  Small fee=many cool seeds.  The NARGS exchange also does a bonus round where you can pick through the leftovers after the first flush of orders are filled and although many selections may be scarce it’s an even better deal.  Just last week I unearthed my haul from last year. NARGS surplus seed All kinds of goodies were re-discovered just in time for fall planting, I think it was something like 20 packets for $7 and I picked out 40.  Who can’t use a few more lily seedlings coming along or a couple packets of winter aconite seed?  NARGS keeps previous lists online, so if you’re curious to see if it’s something you might be interested in, click here.

There are plenty of other places to feed a seed addiction.  Most plant societies run their own exchanges, and in the trenches there are other plant crazy gardeners willing to put in the time, resources, and tedious labor required for collecting and preparing seeds.  Amy has a blog over at Primrose Hill Woodlanders  and is the magic behind the Primrose Society’s annual seed exchange, and if you’ve never checked out Nan Ondra’s blog Hayefield, you really should.  Nan just wrapped up her big seed giveaway, and all told packed and sent out around 1,000 packets of over 100 unique and hard to find varieties to her loyal blog readers.  Just thinking about keeping track of who wants what and all the collecting and cleaning makes my head spin, so I’m happy enough to send my dozen seed varieties in as bulk donations and wait for the list to come out!

Have a great weekend…. and before I go, if you haven’t been tempted by seeds you may be tempted by late season bulb clearances.  Brent and Becky are having their traditional after Thanksgiving clearance sale.  50% off all remaining stock!  My fingers are crossed for a warm spell so I can still plant them in the garden and not pot them all up 🙂