Casaubon's Book

Perennial Plants from Seed

Note: This is a repost from ye olde blogge (which, I am informed by the kind gentleman who is helping me debut it will be back to function by early next week – thank you all for your patience!). Aaron Newton and I are starting up our farm and garden design class today, and we’ll be posting a lot of material on growing of all sorts for the next six weeks. I’ve got a post about winter sowing and stratification coming up next, but thought I would preceed it, since so many people don’t realize this, with the observation that you can actually start an astonishing number of woody and herbaceous perennial plants from seed at low cost.

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(A first year-blooming hollyhock grown from late winter started seed)

Few of us, I suspect, can afford to fill our gardens with all the huge, healthy plants we’d love to own from the best nurseries. And yet what are those with dreams of cottage perennial gardens, food forests or big herb gardens to do if we can’t afford to order plants? Well, one option is to get division or other shared plants from friends, but you can also grow a majority of useful perennial plants from seed. And if you are prepared to wait a bit for them to hit maturity, and deal with a greater variability than you will get otherwise (and for those interested in backyard plant breeding or genetic diversity, variability is often a good thing) you can fill your garden with beautiful plants you’ve known since they were in the seed stage.

One of the great things about starting perennials from seed is that it can optimize space you otherwise wouldn’t be using – no need, unless you want them to flower the first year, say to plant your viola or coreopsis seeds in February, when your windowsill is full of tomatoes and peppers. Instead, you can wait and start them in June or July, and transplant out in early fall when there is more moisture for the plants than in summer – they won’t mind. Or for plants that need stratification to break dormancy (ie, they need to feel they have gone through winter – more on this in a forthcoming post), plant the seeds for your trees or plants in a spare garden bed in fall, and then transplant them before the summer crops go in.

Speaking of sources, here are a few, some of which I’ve recommended before and some not:

1. If you dream of growing all sorts of things you won’t find anywhere else, the catalog for you us Thompson and Morgan www.tmseeds.com. They are spectacular, have Canadian, British and American sites, and really push the limits of what’s available.

2. Join Seedsavers www.seedsavers.org and the herb and flower exchange. You’ll find an astonishing variety of plants you can grow from seed, and people who know how to germinate them.

3. For herbs (and broadly construed herbs) , www.richters.com and www.horizonherbs.com is a stunning source of all things herbal. The definition of “herb” is very broad here, so even those not interested in medicinal herbs will find things – I’ve found seeds of cinnamon vine, running bamboos and many perennials

4. Johnny’s Selected Seeds and Park Seeds www.johnnyseeds.com and www.parkseed.com are two companies that keep a wide range of unusual perennials in stock from seeds. Baker Creek Heirlooms is another that keeps a remarkable selection www.rareseeds.com. So does Bountiful gardens www.bountifulgardens.org

Ok, so what can you grow from seed that you might not have tried? Well, first of all, did you know that both Asparagus and Rhubarb can be grown easily from seed? Both do extremely well, and I find them easier to transplant than by root sections. Steve Solomon observes in _Gardening When It Counts_ that he considers from seed a much better way to get asparagus than from crowns. With asparagus, generally you will want to rogue out (pull up and discard) any seed producing female plants, but you can get essentially the same result as crowns would give you with only one more year to harvest, and for a few dollars at most. Our family can eat enough of both to mean that cheap is important in getting established. These backbone perennial plants are essential in any food producing garden.

There are fruiting plants and trees that can be started from seed – Maximillian Sunflowers, for example, multiplier onions (can also be grown from sets), sea kale, good king henry, skirret, scorzonera, ginko biloba (whose nuts are delicious), sugar maple, chinese chestnuts, mulberry trees, elderberry, hip roses, white oaks (which produce edible acorns), papaya, hickory and hawthorn are among the easier ones to start. Generally speaking, you’ll find that a surprising number of useful plants can be started from seed – you may have to expect a certain amount of variability in quality and taste, but it is always worth trying. And you’ll find that often your home started plants are more vigorous in the long run than those big transplants from the garden center.

I also grow apple, quince and plum trees from seed – it is true that what you get is highly variable, but that’s not necessarily bad if you’ve got space for them. I have wild apple trees that are extraordinarily tasty, and some research on plums suggests that grafted plums produce best when wild American plums are available for pollination.

A lot of people automatically go to the garden center for their herb plants, not realizing how easy it is to grow many perennial culinary and medicinal herbs from seed. Among the ones I’ve had the best luck with are: Angelica, Wild Bergamot, Butterfly weed, Catmint, Catnip, Roman Chamomiile, Dyer’s Coreopsis, Garlic Chives, Regular chives, Culantro, Epazote, Echinacea, Evening Primrose, Fennel, Feverfew, Hyssop, Horehound, Joe Pye Weed, Lovage, Lemon Balm, Lavender, lemongrass, wild marjoram, milk thistle, mountain mint, Meadowsweet, Marshmallow, nettle, greek oregano, California Poppy, Rue, Sage, Salad Burnet, Winter Savory, Stevia, St. Johns Wort, thymes, Valerian, Wormwood, Yarrow.

All of these fall in the category of easy to medium growers. There are some difficult herbs to start (I wouldn’t bother with rosemary from seed unless you really like a challenge) , but we can reserve our precious cash for those, and fill our gardens with an awful lot of other good stuff. Generally speaking if the word “weed” appears in any of its common names, you can be pretty sure that it is silly to buy it .

What about flowers? Even if you aren’t interested in flowers as pure ornamentals (and many of us are), there are lot of flowers out there that have multiple uses – they attract pollinators, fix nitrogen, provide food for birds and insects we value, or have nutritional, dye, fiber or other values. It is possible to create ornamental gardens made up entirely of useful plants that are also useful. It is even better to integrate these plants into your gardens – mixing food producers with nectary or nitrogen fixing plants to improve soil and pollination. Or maybe you just want a beautiful bower – Thompson and Morgan has a great list of easy-to-grow perennials from seed that will bloom the first year if started early enough.

Among the useful ornamentals you might grow are: Hollyhock (black ones are dye plants), Yarrow (nectary, medicinal), broom (nitrogen fixing), False Indigo (nitrogen fixer), coreopsis (dye plant), Agastache (nectary), Dyer’s Chamomile (dye plant), Bouncing Bet (Soapwort), Pyrethum (insecticide), roses (produce rose hips, fragrant petals), dianthus (edible flowers, johnny jump up (edible flowers), Butterfly weed (attracts pollinators), butterfly bush (attracts butterflies), Knautia (attracts hummingbirds), daylily (most parts edible and tasty), Perennial sweet pea (nitrogen fixer), crown vetch (groundcover, nitrogen fixer), mulleins (herbal), ornamental goldenrods (dye plants), lambs ears (that tp thing, good bandages as well), passionflower (fruiting vine), and others.

Now not all of these will be perennial for every climate, and I would caution new seed starters to choose just a couple of these, and really research their growing requirements. But it is, I think, worth remembering that just because something comes as a plant does not mean it can’t be grown from seed.

Sharon

Comments

  1. #1 Cathy
    February 18, 2010

    Glad to hear that the original website will be up and running soon. At work, the computer won’t let me into it now because “Websense” has identified it as a “malicious website”. Must have something to do with the “agricultural revolution: you’ve been supporting! :-)

  2. #2 Claire
    February 18, 2010

    If you want to grow prairie, savanna, woodland, wetland, or such perennial plants from seed, two good sources are Prairie Moon Nursery (www.prairiemoon.com) and Missouri Wildflowers Nursery (www.mowildflowers.net). Prairie Moon’s catalog includes a chart of germination conditions needed for all the seed they sell.

    Another good source of seed for unusual perennials is J. L. Hudson (www.jlhudsonseeds.net).

  3. #3 adrian
    February 18, 2010

    Claire:

    Prairie Moon is great. This fall my students started a postage stamp prairie with a Prairie Moon seed mix. Talk about a long term student project!

    Sharon:
    Useful post. My only caveat is that people should make sure that what they’re starting and growing isn’t invasive in their area. For example, crown vetch should not be planted where I live and butterfly bush is iffy in certain locales.

  4. #4 John Powers
    February 18, 2010

    I’m so happy to see you call flowers “useful.” My gardening is haphazard, but flowers really are a source of joy. One of the joys is seeing insect and honeybee activity. There are more beneficial insects than there are pests. I like J. L. Hudson Seedsman as a source for open-pollinated varieties. Something about old selections and species of ornamentals is they seem to grow better for incompetent gardeners like me. Even if you don’t buy any seeds it’s worth buying the Hudson catalog as a reference for species and culture information on a very wide variety of plants.

  5. #5 Gene
    February 19, 2010

    OK, I think I’ve got you beat! :) I grow winter-hardy cacti from seed. I started this about 5 years ago, and already some of my plants are flowering size–the flowers are beautiful! They remain outdoors all year, seedlings (1-2 years old) do get some winter protection (in the form of keeping them dry). I’m not just talking the easier Opuntias, but I also grow Echinocerius (hedgehogs), Escobaria and others. Like you, I’m in upstate NY in the Hudson Valley (zone 5). Cold is not really the problem, but too much rain in late winter/early spring can be a challenge.

    Did you have any posts about growing local/native plants in your garden on your old blog? If so, would you be interested in reposting here?

  6. #6 Beth
    February 23, 2010

    I have grown from seed: Yarrow and still have the volunteers to prove it:), Epazote (also volunteers well), Hyssop, Stevia, Lemon grass,Lemon grass is very intolerante of frost so this year I am going to grow it in containers, I am growing garlic chives from seeds this year (hopefully, there have been planted). I have grown rosemary from seed for the challange had some minor sucess. I have good sucess growing it from cuttings.

    Happy seed starting, Beth

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