Everything ready to go. Saved seeds from last year (left), a No. 2 pencil, labels and several small flats filled with soil (not tamped down). The disposable gloves (top) are used to keep hands dry and clean while the soil is being mixed with warm water. ANDREW MESSINGER
The seed sown, flats covered and labels taped to the tops so they don’t get lost. The water bottle to the right has a tiny sprinkling head attached that allows for gentle watering without disturbing the seed or causing puddles. ANDREW MESSINGER
Small take-out food trays about 8 inches long, 4 inches wide and 2 inches deep are perfect for starting small quantities of perennial seeds. The clear plastic tops are needed to retain moisture and warmth during germination. ANDREW MESSINGER
An oval galvanized bucket available at hardware and garden centers is perfect for holding the soil while it’s moistened and mixed. The plastic labels are used to identify the seed as well as notes on germination and transplanting. ANDREW MESSINGER
Columbine seed is about three times the size of the Dianthus seed and much easier to handle. Remember though, columbines are light germinators. They get gently pressed into the soil but never covered. There are about 100 seeds here. ANDREW MESSINGER
Seeds from cottage pinks (Dianthus plumarius) are tiny and hard to handle. They should be evenly sprinkled on the medium, lightly covered with a layer of the soil, gently watered then the flat covered and labeled. ANDREW MESSINGER
Below the dime is a single columbine seed. While small the seed can be handled with two fingers or gently with a tweezer. ANDREW MESSINGER
This is a wooden flat (available at some garden centers) with a wire mesh cover to keep rodents out. This is the type of flat that’s used outdoors for cold or “frost” germinators. ANDREW MESSINGER
Cyclamen coum flowering at the base of a maple tree in mid-March. This plant can be grown from seed once you have some experience and patience. ANDREW MESSINGER
If you have any gardening experience at all, you’ve probably grown something from a seed. Maybe it was a vegetable or an annual. But did you know that there are over a thousand perennials that you can grow from seed?
Some are as easy to grow as a marigold and others will be the most challenging to just germinate, let alone get to flower. Many are plants you’ll never find at garden centers. Instead of spending $15 for a Lupine, Echinacea or Delphinium, these are only going to cost you a nickel each or less. One thing you will need, though, is a bit of patience as most will take two years to flower — but a few will flower the first year.
The basics for growing perennials from seed are pretty much the same as anything grown from seed. You need a flat, a pot or a space in the garden. You’ll need some seed-starting soil and that magical liquid we call water. Then the challenges set in. Some perennials are what we call cold or frost germinators, and they need to be sown on the ground or in a flat that will stay outdoors during the winter. No, the freezer doesn’t work. These seeds germinate in the spring after several winter freezing and thawing cycles. You’ll need to know if the seed is a light or dark germinator or if it cares at all. A few will need your help in nicking the seed coat or outer covering of the seed so moisture can penetrate.
Cyclamen coum, one of my favorite early-spring blooming perennials, plays a trick, though. The seed will germinate, and you’ll never know it. Unlike most other plants, it doesn’t throw up a stem and leaves when it germinates. Instead, it drops a few roots, and over a period of a year or two while down in the soil it develops a tiny bulb. The bulb then sends up leaves on wiry, inch-long stems. In early March, when little else is blooming, they burst into flower.
A few things that you’ll need: Flats or trays to start the seedlings. These can be the small black take-out food containers that you get at salad bars and some restaurants. You’ll need the clear plastic tops, so make sure you save them. You need seed germination soil and some plastic labels. I use only plastic labels because they last for several years and are reusable. Write on them with a No. 2 pencil and it won’t wash off.
The soil needs to be moistened before you put it into the containers. Use warm water and mix it well. The soil should be moist and never dripping wet. And speaking of wet, always make sure that when you are handling any of the seeds, especially the small ones, that your hands are dry or seed will stick to them. Once the seed is sown, very gently apply a light spray of warm water to the top of the soil then cover the flat. Don’t force the cover down tightly because you want a tiny bit of air circulation. Keep the flat in a bright, warm spot where the sun won’t hit it. Check daily for germination, and once half the flat has germinated the cover can be raised or slightly moved to the side to allow air in and the next day it can be removed. Germination will still continue, so not to worry if not every seed has sprouted yet.
The flat still needs to be watered, but don’t let the soil get soggy and remember that excess water has no place to drain, so be careful. Keep the flat in a bright spot but, again, if the sun hits it the seedlings will dry out quickly and you may lose them if you ignore them for a day.
Start with some simple perennials. Digitalis purpurea, often called the strawberry digitalis, and Digitalis ambigua have tiny seeds that can be planted in a small flat indoors in February or March. Some primulas have even smaller seed but are handled the same way. Germination takes only a week to 10 days, and you can start to “prick” out seedlings for planting in small pots about three weeks later. These are grown on and can be planted directly into the garden late in the summer for blooming plants next year. No fertilizer.
Columbine seed can also be started in the same way, but the seed is much larger than the digitalis and easier to handle. About 100 seeds will cover the face of a quarter and will result in at least 75 seedlings. This is a light germinator, though, and if you cover the seed it will never germinate. Just scatter the seed evenly on the soil then use a small piece of wood or foam core board to gently press the seed into the soil.
Dianthus barbatus seed is even larger and easier to handle. If you don’t want to sow this larger seed in a flat, you can easily sow the seeds into a cell pack or pot. These seeds get planted no more than a quarter inch deep. Put at least two in each cell or small pot (2-inch pot, no larger). The cottage pinks seed (Dianthus plumarius) are much smaller, though, and should be sown in a small flat then transplanted.
Those are a few of the easy ones. If you want to grow your own lupines, you can buy seeds for the Russell Hybrids (red, white, pink and blue) for about 12 cents each. These large seeds need to be nicked, soaked overnight or gently filed with an emery board before sowing so the moisture can penetrate the seed coat. The seeds can be individually planted in small pots or cells. They don’t tolerate transplanting other than directly into the garden. These are short-lived perennials at best, so if you want a lupine that is truly perennial get seed from lupine perenne and sow it directly where you want it to flower.
If you’re tired of spending $15 to $20 on echinacea, you can buy seed for the Cheyenne Spirit coneflower for about three and a half cents each. The seed is large enough to handle so you can plant individual seeds into small plastic pots or peat pots with a tweezer. Plant at least two seeds per pot and leave only one seedling. This variety may flower the first year from seed.
If it’s butterflies you’re after, then get seed for Echinacea “Magnus.” This is the traditional purple variety and, if started this year, it may flower late in the year or next year. I think you’ll find that this variety will attract butterflies in large numbers unlike the expensive hybrids, which are not great pollinators and don’t attract more than a few flutterers that may be passing by.
All of these perennials can be started early indoors or in April you can sow the seeds in situ where you want the plants to grow. This is a bit more complicated because you’ll need to keep the birds and mice from eating the seeds, the rain for washing them away and you’ll still have to thin them out. I’ve done this direct planting with columbines to create large drifts of them. I mark the four corners of the seeding area, remove all the debris and leaf litter, rake the soil smooth then scatter the seed. Remember not to cover the seed, and it will need to be pressed to the soil. Germination will take a few weeks (water every few days if there’s no rain). When the seedlings have four or more leaves, they can be thinned or transplanted.
Most seed catalogs have a handful of perennials in their selections, but only a few. If you want an outrageous selection, look at the Jelitto catalog, which you can download here: jelitto.com/out/pictures/wysiwigpro/JelittoCatalogue2020-21.pdf.
There are over 1,000 perennials as well as a key and directions for germinating each one. The seed comes from Germany, but you can order them online with a credit card and they’ll arrive by mail.
There are also a couple of great texts available for free on germinating perennials from seed. It’s a bit technical. If you want the link or if you have questions on this fun, challenging and exciting way to grow perennials, drop me a line. But, it’s nearly spring and I can hear my garden calling, so don’t wait until April and expect a same-day answer. Keep growing.
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