Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Seed Race

I have a secret: I have silently scoffed at those that start plants from seeds. Why waste the time, just buy a few plants at the garden store and be done with it! But that was before I had a whole yard at my disposal, and after only 6 weeks of glorious summer I am bored to tears of the myrtle monoculture I have acquired. Now, I secretly long for lush, tall borders of easy care, deer-resistant perennials. But at $15 a plant, all I can hope for is a tiny postage stamp of a garden.

Enter seeds. I don't have a great history with seeds. I'm haunted by childhood memories of molding peat pots, with nary a green spec to lighten the mood. And those were tried and tested varieties from the Burpee catalogs that my parents favored. Whatever am I doing with tough perennial seeds, where the jargon is tinted with unfamiliar vocabulary like "scarification" and "stratification?"

Not to mention the fact that it is midsummer! But, there may be hope. There are some in the blogosphere that sing the praises of starting perennials in June and July, with the thought that ample light and a half season head start will make for successful beds next summer.

So I ordered a sampling from Swallowtail Seeds, chosen for their excellent selection of deer-resistant perennials. Echinacea in 3 varieties (including the most common), Echinops (blue globe thistle), Salvia in Rose and Merleau, hardy Geranium, Balloon Flower, Foxglove (poisonous Digitalus!) and several varieties of Yarrow. And, just for kicks- Basil seeds-- I know, either perennial nor a flower. I just wanted some Basil, and I needed to make $30 to get free shipping!

I decided to go for the coffee-filter method of germination, for two reasons: 1) the possibly irrational fear of moldy peat pots (see above) and 2) the immediate gratification of seeing seeds sprouting!

I also happened to have a bunch of unbleached coffee filters just sitting around, so they were perfect for the task. Plastic baggies and a permanent marker (for keeping track of varieties, methods, and dates) were also readily available. Shown above: tiny balloon flower seeds (Platycodon grandiflorus, "Astra Blue").

The method is simple. Moisten the coffee filter (wring out any excess water). Sprinkle seeds on half of the filter. Fold into quarters, so the damp paper is in contact with the seeds. Place in a labeled baggie. (Above: Echinacea Purpurea, Purple Coneflower).

And then, there is the question of stratification or scarification. Basically, the idea is that perennial seeds expect to lay on the ground through winter, then come up in the spring. Stratification simulates the cold of winter. Scarification simulates the beating the seed coat might take over the course of a winter. The seed packets did not specify either... so either the vendor has taken care of this, or they think it is unnecessary. I suppose I could call and ask for clarification (none is given on their website)-- but I haven't done this. There is no clear consensus from any source I have found on the web, although I really like this database of seed information from "The Backyard Herbalist."

I'm conducting my own little experiment. Some seeds go right out onto the porch, where it is warm and they get lots of indirect light. These are the seeds I'm pretty sure won't need any extra help-- the Basil and the Globe Thistle (Echinops), and a few Hardy Geranium seeds (I have no idea what to do with these). Samples of almost all seeds have gone into the back of the fridge-- I figure I'll leave them there for at least 2 weeks. And some, I have frozen in ice cube trays for 48 hours.

These will either be a great success, or a dismal failure! Most sources say you will kill your seeds if you freeze them. Logically, though-- what better way to simulate winter, than a bit of ice? Stratification and scarification all in one. Anyhow, it's only a few seeds of each variety. After their 48 hour deep freeze, I put them on coffee filters in baggies on the warm porch.

I don't know how keen I am on the ice-cube tray thing overall... some of the seeds were very hard to handle, and I ended up spending a bunch of time fishing out little tiny seeds, one by one, from melting ice cubes. The Salvia seeds had the added challenge of producing a slippery, gelatinous coating... beautiful though!

I started my seeds 2 days ago... and my basil is already sprouting! There were signs of life after 24 hours. Incredible. I'm waiting for the first pair of leaves, then I'll transplant, carefully, to soil.

And after 48 hours, a single sprouting Globe Thistle (Echinops) seed. Which is also remarkable... germination times are listed as 15-30 days! But this is not so surprising... the thistle is like a weed, it makes sense that it is quick to sprout.

Incidentally, I am reserving a portion of my seeds for an experiment in winter sowing. All of the Foxglove is on hold... from what I've read, foxglove can behave sort of like an annual, and is very easy to start from seed with winter sowing. I also plan to try winter sowing the rest of the Echinacea and Echinops. And anything else left over!

The great seed race is on!