Perennially yours, starting from seed
Three spectacular flowers — calla lilies, a tough little bright-blue campanula and red valerian — captivated me on a recent trip to Ireland. Along with all the old enchanting castles and abbeys, those flowers will always remind me of that green, green island. While recreating a similar extravagant stand of calla lilies might be a bit of a stretch for my gardens here, that Irish campanula and the valerian may well be suited for the rocky coast of Maine.
But just try to find them on this side of the Atlantic. I’m not even certain what variety of campanula I saw in Ireland, and I already know it is impossible to locate plants of the particular valerian here. That’s where my seed search kicks in. The two are perennial plants, and I suspect both self-seed well on their home turf. So starting them from seed here should be a snap.
It’s always been my contention that starting from seed is one of the best ways to garden. We certainly have already done our share of that this spring, getting the vegetable garden up and running. For example, I like to start small seeds, like those of lettuce or spinach, in flats and then transplant them into the garden when they are about three inches tall. When planted right in the garden soil, I have to disturb the little seedlings to thin them out. Start them in flats, then transplant the small plants with healthy root systems to give them a leg up over those that are direct-sown.
Starting squash, pumpkins and cucumbers in small containers makes them less susceptible to insect pests early on when the very small, succulent plants can get chewed up by slugs or cutworms as soon as they poke their little heads above the soil when direct-sown in the garden. And after one frustrating experience of having to replant sunflowers three times when chipmunks ate the seeds out of the soil before they ever got a chance to germinate, I now prefer to start sunflowers in small pots too where I can keep them protected from the chippies. And there are the second-crop plantings waiting in the wings to pop into the garden later in the summer.
So just when we thought we were done with starting seeds for the season, along comes the prospect of starting perennials from seed. It’s actually a great idea! Not only is starting from seed a very economical way to get a number of perennial plants, but many seed companies put their 2012 seed selections on sale this time of year. Then there’s the issue of choice — like my difficult-to-find selections. I’ve discovered that the impressive valerian is Centranthus ruber, also called Jupiter’s beard. Its young leaves can be eaten in salads or cooked. Even its roots are edible, and I’d guess that is one reason this lovely and useful plant is found all over the island. Late summer and early fall are recommended times for starting seeds for this selection, which my source lists as hardy for Zones 5-9. With seeds you can choose exactly which varieties you want and need, some of which can be difficult or impossible to find for sale anywhere. Choice, cost and convenience, starting perennials from seed does it all.
The temperatures now are just right for many seeds to germinate without worry of protecting the little seedlings from frost or cold. Even though it is doubtful that there will be any blooms this summer, you should have a number of healthy plants to put into the ground late in the season which will have plenty of time to acclimate themselves before the ground freezes without the stress of producing blooms. Then next year those plants will be able to spring into action. The same goes for biennials such as foxgloves, hollyhocks, lunaria and lychnis for example which ordinarily only produce foliage their first season. Start them now and they too will bloom next summer.
Some perennials are a bit more particular than annuals when it comes to germination, so be sure to read seed packet instructions which explain planting depths and spacing. Some seeds require sunlight to germinate, and are simply surface sown. Sow the seeds into moist growing mix, and set the flats or pots outdoors in a sunny protected area. Or you can sow the seeds directly into a “nursery bed” right in the garden, watering and weeding them as needed over the summer. Come fall, your seedlings will be large enough to either stay in a nursery bed until spring, or be transplanted directly into their ultimate homes.
Choose perennials suited for your growing conditions, and place the seedling plants according to seed package spacing suggestions. Here are some perennial suggestions for starting from seed:
And don’t forget this is a fine time to start biennials like hollyhocks, foxgloves, lunaria and lychnis that will bloom next summer. (See my blog for an explanation of the differences between annuals, biennials and perennials: http://gardeningonthego.wordpress.com/2011/06/14/defining-annuals-perennials-and-biennials-2/).
Find seeds for these and other choices from sources such as Renee’s Garden Seeds (www.reneesgarden.com), John Scheepers Garden Seeds (www.kitchengardenseeds.com) and the Jupiter’s beard from Richter’s Herbs (www.richters.com). The campanula, I’m still searching.
Growing your own perennials from seed can be one of the most inexpensive and satisfying ways to garden, nurturing a bounty that you can also share with family and friends. Perennials make wonderful presents and hostess gifts, or contributions for spring plant sales too.
Spare that beetle!
They are here. They are on the roses, the raspberries, butterfly bushes, climbing hydrangeas, green bean and fruit tree foliage and more. Japanese beetles are holding conventions in our gardens, and the outcome isn’t going to be pretty. Before you reach for the spray, know that it will probably do more damage than good. No one wants to eat produce that’s been sprayed with pesticide, and more importantly spraying food crops and ornamentals will often kill more beneficial bugs than harmful beetles.
We do have one ally — and only one — in the battle against the destructive insects. That’s the Tachnid fly, which lays eggs on the Japanese beetles. Those eggs eventually hatch and destroy the beetles. But if you kill the beetles before the flies can hatch, both are gone. So, here’s what I propose: Inspect each Japanese beetle for the telltale opaque-white dots that are a bit smaller than the head of a pin located right behind the beetle’s little head. If you see one or more dots on a beetle let it go so that the eggs have the opportunity to hatch. More Tachnid flies mean more allies in our battle against Japanese beetles. It’s simple and it’s easy. I’m finding that about 15 to 20 percent of the individuals I inspect from my garden are carrying eggs.
Here’s the tricky part. The best way to inspect the beetles is to catch them by hand. But don't worry. They do not bite. They do not sting either. Let the egg-bearing beetles go, and either drop the beetles with no eggs into a jar of soapy water or to make the job quicker, just squash them between your fingers. I know — ICK. But it is quick and easy with just a little smush. Trust me, you get used to it, and there is even a perverse pleasure to derive from the practice.
Better yet, show a child how to find the beetles with eggs and how to squash the other beetles. They’ll love it! Happy hunting.
Lynette L. Walther is the recipient of the Garden Writers Association’s Silver Award of Achievement for 2012, National Garden Bureau's Exemplary Journalism Award and the Florida Magazine Association's Silver Award of Writing Excellence. She is a member of the Garden Writers Association, and she gardens in Camden. Got questions, or comments? Visit her blog, and join in the conversation at: gardeningonthego.wordpress.com or “friend her” on Facebook.