How To Deceive Smart Seeds

Some seeds need help to germinate.

Plants could not proliferate as they do if they were as unintelligent as they seem to be. Actually, much of their activity would be considered quite ingenious if it could be observed in a more ‘human’ perspective. From their exploitation of pollinators to their aggressive tactics for competition with other plants, the behavior of plants is obviously very deliberate and purposeful.

Because they are so reliant on the weather, pollinators and so many other environmental factors, the life cycles of plants are on strict schedules. They must also adapt to diseases and all sorts of other pathogens. Fires and grazing animals are problems for many, but advantages to most.

Most seeds develop during summer and autumn. When they fall to the ground, they need to know to delay germination until spring to avoid frost and the likelihood of getting eaten. Seeds of many plants, particularly those from more severe climates, germinate only after being ‘stratified’ by a specific duration of cold weather. Such seeds need to be artificially stratified by refrigeration in order to germinate any differently from their natural schedule, or where winters are not sufficiently cold.

Many seeds require ‘scarification’ by digestion by animals that naturally eat them, or by the quick heat of a wildfire, to break or soften a hard outer coating that otherwise inhibits germination. Seeds that need to be digested actually rely on animals for distribution. Seed that need heat want to be the first to regenerate after a wildfire, before competing plants recover.

Goldenrain tree, and many maples and pines produce so many seeds that even if less than one percent germinate in the garden, they seem to be prolific. However, for more reliable germination of a majority of seeds, they should be scarified. The seeds of many pines that crave fire can be heated briefly in an already hot oven to simulate fire, just enough to heat the seed coat without roasting the seeds. Some people actually prefer to spread them on a piece of paper, and then burn the paper. Seeds that only need their hard outer coating to be damaged slightly might need only to be sanded lightly on sandpaper. I actually prefer to rub my canna or Heavenly bamboo (nandina) seeds on a brick or bit of sandstone.

My niece loves!

My neice finds seeds for most of her favorite vegetables, flowers and herbs, like this prolific chamomile, at Renee’s Garden.

Even after a few years of trying most of the seeds available from Renee’s Garden Seed catalog, my niece still wants to grow them all every year. Sadly, her compact garden and landscape designer father who thinks he owns it can not accommodate all the seeds that she wants. She is therefore forced to limit selection to her favorites and those that she has not yet tried.

‘Cupani’s Original’ and ‘Perfume Delight’ are still her favorite sweet peas because they are so very fragrant. The big softly blushed pale yellow flowers of ‘April in Paris’ are a close second. Although not as fragrant, I wanted her to try ‘Electric Blue’ for its shaggier darker green foliage and smaller but refined deep blue flowers.

Perhaps as a strategy for an alliance, my niece’s oppressive father planted ‘Buttercream’ nasturtiums, which was a new variety with semi-double cream colored flowers. She rebelled with the brilliant red shades of ‘Copper Sunset’. The softer orange shades of ‘Creamsicle’ was a diplomatic compromise.

Both could agree on the soft lavender and pink shades and white of ‘Gulf Winds’ alyssum, the rich deep pinks of ‘Mountain Garland’ clarkia, and the traditional ‘Mrs. Scott Elliot’ columbine, since all three are so complaisant with mixed annuals and perennials. Taller and more vigorous cosmos got their own space. ‘Dancing Petticoats’ provided a mixture of cheery pink shades. ‘White Seashells’ looked sharp against the deep green privet hedge.

Since utilitarian vegetable plants are inconsistent with such a designer landscape, my niece grew vegetables that are as flashy as foliage plants. I suggested richly colored ‘Scarlet Charlotte’ chard, with a bit of ‘Italian Silver’ that exhibits distinctive white petioles and veins. She went for the more colorful ‘Garden Rainbow’, ‘Neon Glow’ and ‘Bright Lights’.

Some (but not all) of Renee’s Garden vegetable seed mixes have a distinct advantage of color coding. The various seeds withing these mixes are dyed with different colors so they can be planted separately if desired. Since seed packets usually contain more seeds than are actually needed, vegetable seed mixes are a practical way to get fewer but enough of a few different types of seed in single packets.

More varieties of seeds are available from the online catalog of Renee’s Garden Seed at than at retail nurseries. Yet with so many fun varieties to try, the retail seed racks certainly have more selection than any garden really needs. If it were at all possible to try them all, my neice would have figured out how to do it already.

The Need For Seed

Seed for some pines is easy to collect as their cones open during warm summer weather. However, some pine cones must be dried or even heated to release their seed.

Lily of the Nile is so easy to propagate by division of congested old plants that not many of us bother to grow it from seed. No one wants to leave the prominent but less than appealing seed pods out in the garden long enough to turn brown and ripen after the blue or white flowers are gone anyway. Besides, only the most basic old fashioned varieties reliably produce genetically similar seed, and even these often revert between blue and white. Yet, collecting seed for propagation is still an option for those who do not mind the risk of genetic variation.

The natural variation of flower color among seedlings of some plants can actually make gardening a bit more interesting. No one really knows if naturalized four o’ clocks will bloom white, yellow, pink or red until they actually bloom. The few types of iris that produce viable seed almost always produce seedlings with identical flowers, but oddities sometimes appear. (Most bearded iris have serious potential for genetic variation, but do not often produce viable seed.)

Cannas are likewise likely to produce seedlings that are indistinguishable from the parents. However, seedlings of many of the fancier cultivars are often variable. Their seed are very hard so should be scarified before sowing. However, I find that I get so many canna seeds that even if less than half germinate without scarification, there are too many anyway! (Scarification involves scratching or chipping the hard seed coat to promote germination. It can be as simple as rubbing the seeds on a file or sand paper, but should not be so aggressive that it damages the seed within.) 

African iris are just as easy to divide as lily of the Nile are, and are as easy to grow from seed as naturalized four o’ clocks are. The difference is that they lack genetic variation, so are always indistinguishable from their parents. The only problem is that they are so easy to propagate that they can soon dominate the garden.

If seed capsules have not been groomed from the various perennials and annuals that can be grown from seed, or if they have been left out in the garden intentionally so that they can ripen, this would be a good time to collect them for their seed. (Four o’ clocks should have been collected earlier though.) Seeds from certain trees, such as silk tree, redbud and the many specie of pine, can likewise be collected. Most seeds prefer to be sown about now to chill through winter, since cold winter weather actually promotes germination when weather warms in spring. However, seeds for annuals and frost sensitive perennials, like cannas, that might germinate early and get damaged by frost, should probably wait until the end of winter to get sown.

Online Plant Purchases Have Certain Risks

Many seeds can be found online.

So many plants that were difficult to obtain years ago are now much more available online. The internet does more than give everyone access to nurseries and seed suppliers that sell online. It also makes it possible to communicate with others who might want to share plants and seeds from their own gardens. The advantages are obvious, but there are innate problems with so many plants being too available.

Before humans started to relocate plants all over the world, plants were much more confined to certain regions. Once relocated to new regions, some plants naturalized and became problematic for the plants that were already there. Exotic (non-native) plants often had the advantage because pests that troubled them back home had not come with them.

For example, pampas grass had been confined to the Pampas region of South America. It was imported to California and Oregon because its fluffy flowers and graceful texture are so appealing. The problem now is that it naturalized, and continues to proliferate and crowd out native plants in coastal ecosystems, without natural pathogens to slow it down. The availability of so many more plants from so many more regions seriously increases the potential for the importation of invasive exotic plants, as well as plant diseases and even insects!

Another potential problem is that common names of plants can be very different in different regions. Now, this can be an advantage when seeds from a common yucca in Lubbock, Texas might actually be from the very uncommon plains yucca (Yucca campestris, which I recently purchases on Ebay!). The problem is that the yucca known as ‘Adam’s needle’ in Georgia may be a completely different species from what is known as such in Pennsylvania, Oklahoma or anywhere else. A plant described as a ‘mimosa’ could be a silk tree, a jacaranda tree, or any of several different acacia trees!

Collecting Seed For Another Season

From one year to the next.

Seed that is available in hardware stores and nurseries came from somewhere. Plants just like those that such seed grows into produced it. Someone, or many someones, collected all that seed to make it available to others. Similarly, several plants in our own gardens produce seed. Anyone who is interested in collecting seed to grow more of the same plants could make good use of it.

After bloom, most flowers deteriorate and disappear into the landscape. Some leave behind desirable developing fruits or vegetables. Many of the flashiest flowers are too extensively hybridized to produce seed. Many produce some sort of seed structure that typically gets removed, or ‘deadheaded’. This diverts resources from seed production to subsequent bloom or vegetative growth.

If not removed, such seed structures can mature to produce viable seed. Those who enjoy collecting seed often intentionally leave a few seed structures for that purpose, instead of deadheading completely. For plants with long bloom seasons, this technique should involve the latest blooms. The same applies to vegetables that normally do not mature prior to harvest, like summer squash.

Such seed or fruiting structures, including vegetables, must be completely mature before collecting ripened seed from them.

Sunflower, cosmos, calendula, marigold, campion, morning glory, columbine, hollyhock and snapdragon are some of the easiest flowers for collecting seed from. California poppy, alyssum, phlox, and several other annuals are happy to self sow their seed, although collecting seed from them is not so easy. Nasturtium and honesty (money plant) seed is easy to collect, but self sows as well.

Collecting seed is limited only by practicality. Some plants, particularly hybrids and exotics (which are not native and may lack pollinators), produce no viable seed. Extensively bred varieties are likely to produce progeny that are more similar to the basic species than the parent. Once collected, some seed need special treatment in order to germinate. All seed should be sown in season.

Horridculture – eBay

I certainly got good deals on these recent acquisitions. However, I have no idea what I will do with them.

It is such a bad habit! Even if I spend no money, I spend too much time perusing what I could spend a little bit of spare cash on. On rare occasion, I actually do spend a little bit on something that I can get a good deal on, not because I actually have any use for it, but merely because I got a good deal on it, . . . or because I believe that I may not be able to find it for sale again later.

Now, I have more than two hundred seed for Pygmy date palm, Phoenix roebelenii. They certainly were inexpensive, costing less than a few dollars. Most of the expense was for postage. It really was a good deal. However, I have no plan for so many Pygmy date palms. I do not expect all to germinate; but I have no plan for just half of them. Actually, I have no plan for just one.

The other seed to the right in the picture are for muscadine and scuppernong, Vitis rotundifolia. Although I purchased them as a ‘mix’, the seller kindly separated the two varieties. They are easier to accommodate than two hundred palms, and I really do have plans for them. I know growing them from seed is riskier than growing known cultivars, but I wanted them to be ‘wild’.

Regardless, I really should not have purchased even muscadine and scuppernong seed while there is so much other seed here that can not be accommodated. I really must sow all of the old seed this autumn or winter, whether I have plans for it or not. I suspect that most will not germinate. Some of the most questionable seed can be sown out in the garden rather than in flats.

No more eBay!

Sole Survivor

One is the loneliest number. (It is in the middle of the far edge of the flat.)

By now, I can safely assume that any of the various old seed that were sown late last February that have not yet germinated are not likely to do so. They were all so old that I knew at the time that their viability was questionable. Nonetheless, I could not discard them without confirming that they were no longer viable. Four months later, this empty flat just about confirms it.

So far, the sole survivor is a seedling of a California fan palm, Washingtonia filifera. It looks silly all alone in the otherwise empty flat. Yet, even if no other seedlings germinate, the effort will have been worth this dinky palm seedling. California fan palm happens to be my favorite palm; but I would have been just as pleased with something that is not a favorite.

This little seedling is still too young to be pulled and canned. It will therefore wait and grow in the flat for now, and perhaps until autumn. I still hope that other seed will germinate during that time. Even if they do not, the empty flat will get set aside where it will continue to be irrigated as needed until late next spring. Viable but old seed may be unusually slow to germinate.

I can not help but wonder if some of the seed did not get enough chill after they were sown late in February. Maple, ash, elm, birch and arborvitae might require more of a chill through more of winter to be convinced that the warm weather afterward really is spring. I am not quite ready to give up on them yet.

There are still many more very old seed to sow this autumn. For most, I do not expect germination to be any better than it was for this previous batch.

This little California fan palm seedling certainly seems determined to survive.

Summer Vegetables Like Warming Weather

Summer Vegetables Like Warming Weather

Tomato, pepper and eggplant plants should be out in the garden by now. They typically get planted only a few weeks after the last threat of frost, so that they can start to disperse their roots early. Growth above ground accelerates as the weather gets warmer. Fruit develops and ripens through summer.

These three types of vegetable plants get planted as seedlings for two main reasons. First, when they go into the garden, seedlings are bigger and more established than seeds that need to take time to grow are. Secondly, the cost of the few plants needed for an average garden is not much more than the cost of seeds.

Now, zucchini, melon and summer squash can be done either way. Not many plants are needed, so the expense of seedlings is minimal. However, seedlings are a bit more fragile than those of tomato, pepper and eggplant. Seeds grow so efficiently that they get established almost as readily as seedlings do, so are just as practical.

Regardless of how they get planted, the weather has been so odd this year that there has been only minimal advantage to planting seedlings and sowing seed on time. Tomato, pepper and eggplant plants that were planted early may not be much more mature than what could be planted now. Harvest will be delayed either way.

Bean, cucumber and corn all grow best from seed. Seedlings take more time to recover from transplant than seed take to germinate and grow. Besides, so many plants of each type are needed that seedlings would be expensive. A single package of seed is cheap and goes a long way, so is probably sufficient for an average garden.

Corn is one of those vegetables that produces on a rather tight schedule. Seed that gets sown at any particular time matures at the same rate, so that all the fruit finishes at about the same time. This is why corn gets sown in phases. If timed properly, a subsequent phase begins to produce as the preceding phase gets depleted.

Winter squash, including pumpkin, are similar to summer squash, although they are more tolerant of unusually cool spring weather. They too can either get planted as seedlings or sown as seed. They take their time to produce fruit that ripens by autumn, so have more time to catch up.

Horridculture – Neglected Seedling

They are so cute when they are young.

This was not planned very well. Actually, it was not planned at all. While sorting through the seed for a vegetable garden, I found a can of seed for winter squash that was a few years old. They might be close to five years old. I really do not remember. I did not expect them to be viable, but did not want to discard them without at least trying to test them for viability.

Rather than just put them in damp rag for a few days, I plugged a few seed into a spider plant on a windowsill, and forgot about them. I really did not expect to see them again. When the first one emerged, I though it was a weed, so plucked it out. When I realized what it was, and that it came out intact, I felt badly for it, and like the original seed, could not discard it.

I do not remember why, but at the time, I did not want to go out to can it in a real pot. Nor did I want to plug it into the garden while I was still getting other seed situated. I therefore planted into an empty eggshell from those drying for coffee. I scraped a bit of medium from a potted bromeliad. It was happy on the windowsill for maybe a few weeks.

The other seed germinated too, but were more carefully removed and plugged into the garden. Since the seed was still viable, I sowed more around the junipers outside. Somehow, in the process, I neglected to put the little seedling in the eggshell out into the garden with them. It has not been happy in here, so has not grown much at all.

Now that the winter squash are already growing well outside, and the summer squash are already producing, this unfortunate seedling still needs to go out to join them.

If I were to grow seedlings inside again, I would do so in some of the cell packs that we recycle from work. They are more efficient, less wobbly, and they do not look so ridiculous.

Now it wants out!