On the Importance of Raising Plants from Seed

January 4th, 2010

by Tom Fischer

Outside, OverPlanters, it may be bleak January, but inside there are botanical riches untold—provided you’ve had the foresight to order a few of the wonderful seed lists that bring the cream of the world’s flora within your grasp. (See Mail-order Plants, Bulbs, and Seeds for some suggestions.) Just this week two of my favorites arrived: Seedhunt and Jim and Jenny Archibald’s list (you’ll need to write them; their website is currently nonfunctional: Jim & Jenny Archibald, ‘Bryn Collen’, Ffostrasol, Llandysul, SA44 5SB, Wales, UK). Seedhunt is the horticultural offspring of Ginny Hunt, and most of the seeds come from her garden in Watsonville, California. As you might expect, there are lots of California natives—she always has lots of tempting clarkias, buckwheats, lupines, and ornamental grasses. (Even if you live in a part of the country that’s too cold to grow most West Coast perennials and shrubs, there are lots of choice Californian annuals that will grow just about anywhere.) Seedhunt’s other outstanding strength is its listing of salvias. There are species from Mexico, South Africa, South and Central America, the Mediterranean, the Canary Islands, and, of course, California. Then there are the restios, those reedlike South African plants beloved of the cognoscenti (and sold, helpfully, with a packet of “liquid smoke” to help germination). I won’t even get into the more esoteric part of the list called “The Plantsman’s Pocket.” It is, I hardly need mention, dangerously easy to get carried away.

The Archibalds’ lists (they issue several per year; the current one is dated October 2009) have such breadth and richness that they almost make you dizzy. They’re also arranged geographically, which is actually quite useful and informative, once you get used to it. To summarize the current list’s offerings would be like trying to summarize Proust—there’s just too much going on. I’ll say merely that the offerings of alliums, alstroemerias, corydalis, crocuses, cyclamen, hellebores, irises, narcissus, and trilliums—to list only a handful of the genera present—are plentiful and tantalizing.

Now, you may be thinking you don’t have the time or wherewithal to start plants from seed. And I know some very accomplished gardeners who practically boast that they never bother with seeds. This is a profound and egregious error, for two reasons. First, those who shun seeds are missing out on a fabulous assortment of rare and wonderful plants that never, ever appear in garden centers or mail-order nursery catalogs. Here are just a few of the unusual plants that I’ve raised from seed:

<em>Campanula incurva</em>, a drought-tolerant Mediterranean biennal bellflower.

Campanula incurva, a drought-tolerant Mediterranean biennal bellflower.

This form of Euphorbia rigida has flower heads that turn crimson and hold their color all summer.

This form of Euphorbia rigida has flower heads that turn crimson and hold their color all summer.

Halimium ocymoides, a drought-tolerant Mediterranean shrub related to the rockroses.

Halimium ocymoides, a drought-tolerant Mediterranean shrub related to the rockroses.

Penstemon mensarum, a beautiful, long-lived species from Colorado.

Penstemon mensarum, a beautiful, long-lived species from Colorado.

Phacelia viscida, one of the many charming species native to California.

Phacelia viscida, one of the many charming species native to California.

Thymus mastichinus, a Spanish thyme with fluffy flower heads and foliage that smells like lavender.

Thymus mastichina, a Spanish thyme with fluffy flower heads and foliage that smells like lavender.

The other reason has to do with what it means to be a gardener. I’m convinced, in the depths of my soul, that anyone who professes a love of plants needs to acquire a familiarity with their entire life cycle, from seed to senescence. Otherwise, you’re missing out on something crucial, and your knowledge of the plants you claim to care for will always be fragmentary.

I’m not saying that you need to have a greenhouse filled with flats, or tiers and tiers of fluorescent lights—a single windowsill will do. And if you’re unsure how to go about it, just do an online search or get a basic book like Garden Flowers from Seed, by Christopher Lloyd and Graham Rice.

And the sense of accomplishment and gratification you get when one of you babies finally blooms is like nothing else. You’ve brought beauty into the world. You’re a true gardener.

6 Responses

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  5. Ethan Cramer says:

    Well said,Tom. It’s a stunning reality that seeds turn into plants, something someone who loves plants should let themselves be amazed by, time and time again.
    The genetic variability of seedlings is an additional important pleasure, I think. The first time a Hellebore that was grown from seed blooms, its flower is a mystery revealed. It’s nice to love a cultivar, but perhaps nicer still to love an individual!

  6. Jim Fox says:

    You are so right, Tom, about knowing a plant from seed to senescence. In Alaska it used to be the only way to get many, many plants. I recall going down into the basement of my grandparent’s old farm house to look at the little pots of seedlings under fluorescent lights, noticing how the seedling first appeared – shy, coated in it’s cotyledon, or like many monocots, proud and naked the first leaf. Many so called non-hardy species were sown, germinated and planted outside. In time maybe one seedling would survive a winter or two providing the source of a new hardy strain to Alaska’s rather limited garden palette.
    This technique is how Stanley Ashmore, of Palmer, Alaska, in less then ten years, created several amazingly beautiful and hardy strains of blue poppies- Meconopsis – which are still sold in garden centers across the Lower 48 states.

    Nature has a long memory stored in those seeds she so freely or parsimoniously produces. Thanks for reminding us of this, and the stories she still has to tell us. As do you.

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