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Hamptons Life

Jan 2, 2017 11:06 AMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Verna What?

Trollius are just one of hundreds of plants that you can grow from cold-germinating seed but the seed has to be started outdoors and has to stay out in the cold all winter to be vernalized. ANDREW MESSINGER
Jan 2, 2017 11:06 AM

Santa’s workshop had shut down for the year, but on Christmas Day, as the Hampton Gardener patiently waited for everyone to wake up and begin the present opening, he was down in the basement workshop getting ready for the 2017 gardening season. Nails and screws ready, the workbench cleared of the previous year’s clutter, it was time to renovate, rejuvenate and resurrect. Say what? Well, here is the rest of the story—and a few of the missing pieces, all critical to the garden of 2017 and the years to come, especially if you want to broaden your gardening skills and grow things that others can’t.

During the growing season, I’ll see a plant—while hiking, or in someone else’s garden, or in mine—that I want more of. Sometimes, lots more—like, scores or dozens more. If I’m lucky enough to choose a plant that’s not a hybrid, I make a note or get a GPS fix and return to the plant repeatedly during the growing season, patiently waiting for it to set seed, and for the seed to ripen.

But in the world of perennials and many trees and shrubs, these seeds can’t simply be harvested and then sown in a flat; you don’t just add water and, two weeks later, they germinate, then, just transplanted into cells, grown on for a month or two, and then are transplanted into the garden. That would be way too easy and would take some of the challenge out of growing these plants. And, most importantly, it’s not how Mother Nature planned it.

There also are some plants that go out of favor and the commercial nurseries stop growing them, or only one nursery grows a plant and we remembered too late that we wanted more of them. Such is the case with the prairie winecup, or Callirohe involucrate. It’s a native wildflower to the Southwestern United States, but it grows in areas where the winters are cold and the summers are hot and often dry.

Due to my excellent and extensive record-keeping, I have no idea where mine came from, or when, but it’s a wonderful plant that needs virtually no care once established, and it seems that the only thing that might do it in is heavy, wet soil. It has foliage somewhat similar to perennial geraniums, and the flowers resemble small poppy flowers but in a bright magenta pink. It presently roams my bed of Echinaceas, where the flowers rise above the other plants to show their wonderfully contrasting color. I could find only one nursery in New Mexico that had any, and since I waited so late in the season, they were, of course, sold out.

Mine had just started to bloom, though, so I watched and watched to see if they would set seed. Peter, the local rabbit, had other plans, though, as I noticed one morning, so I fenced the plants and, weeks later, I had my handful of seeds.

Off to Norman Deno’s seed books (which are now available free online in PDF form). I discovered that the seeds would need vernalization. Verna what? Vernalization. That’s the method of stimulating germination that many seeds need and can include any of several regimes of cold or freezing temperatures. And, no, you can’t do this in your freezer. It needs to be done outdoors—and that presents a challenge.

This vernalization stuff isn’t new, and gardeners have known for eons that some seeds need special treatment to get them to germinate. Many of these seeds were sold by Thompson and Morgan in their catalog, and for years gardeners would buy them and, not able to germinate them, simply quit. The German seedsman Klaus Jelitto then put together some very specific germination regimes in his seed catalogs, then Dr. Deno did his groundbreaking work, and all of a sudden we had instructions for germinating just about every garden seed we could come up with. But the regimes can vary, and success or failure can also come from the way in which the seed is stored.

But one thing was sure: If you put these seeds in the freezer, as most of us had done, your chances of success were close to zero. The bottom line is that if you take a seed out of the garden and put it in a freezer, you kill it. Mother Nature’s tricks for germination are much more complex, much more interesting and, yes, obviously much more successful. She can take her time, though.

So, for this seed and several others that I’d collected, I would need to germinate the seed outdoors, subject the seeds to alternating periods of cold and less cold, then cold again, while at the same time making sure I knew where the seed was, and protecting it from mice, birds and other marauders, and had kept it reasonably moist in the winter and not allowed to dry out in the spring.

This is what got me into the workshop on Christmas Day.

It was time to renovate my seeding boxes, which I make just for the purpose of germinating the otherwise useless seed. You can make your own seeding boxes, and some garden centers sell them pre-made. The boxes need to be made of wood, and the wood needs to be a rot-resistant type. One of the best woods to use is northern white cedar, as it’s rot- and insect-resistant, and a well-made seeding box of this material will last five to 10 years, though other woods like red cedar can be used as well.

You’ll not only need to find this wood, but you’ll also need to be able to “rip” or saw it, or have someone else do that for you. If you have a table saw, you can do all the work at home, from ripping the boards to cutting them down.

You can make the boxes any dimensions you want, but mine are 17¾ inches long and 10¾ inches wide. The sides are 2¾ inches tall, and the bottom slats can range from 2 to 3 inches wide, as long as they square around the bottom sides and edges. One of the challenges in making these boxes is nailing or fastening the side boards and bottom boards to each other; I’ve used wire nails and paneling nails.

Don’t build the flats with the bottom slats touching each other. The bottom slats should be at least 1/8 inch apart to allow for drainage.

With the flats 2¾ inches deep, you have more than 2 inches of soil depth, which is plenty for germination and many weeks of root growth. If you want to use a single flat for seeding several varieties of seed, you can use cross slats from the bottom to the top as dividers. Just be careful, when you sow multiple varieties of seed in one flat, that you cover each separate seed section with newspaper, only leaving one area of soil exposed for seeding. This eliminates the wrong seeds going into the wrong section.

Next week, with boxes built, ladies and gentlemen, let’s sow some seed!

Keep growing!

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