Germination Impossible

I’m a very cheap person and don’t like paying money for plants, especially since they’re so keen to multiply themselves without effort – or is that really true? I’m a great fan of raising plants from seed. It’s a brilliantly cheap way of bringing masses of new plants into the garden and there’s nothing quite like sowing the seed, watching it germinate, potting it on, growing it on until it’s ready for the border and then planting it out and watching it integrate, establish and become part of the garden.

Basil and Verbena Seedlings

However, there is a problem with this rosy picture of cheap limitless plants. When growing seed, you have to bear these in mind:

  1. What you save in money you need to make up for in time, care, effort and attention
  2. Seeds aren’t offered or available for a wide range of plants
  3. The plant you want to grow might be sterile and doesn’t produce seeds
  4. Unstable hybrids grown from seed are not likely to be true to their parent – you could get anything
  5. Plants grown from seed can take a very long time – many years – to establish and flower
  6. Seeds can be well near impossible to germinate.

Looking at these points; although seeds are cheap, you don’t get instant plants; you need to coax the seeds to germinate, taking extra care when they’re young. They need sheltering from bad weather and protecting from too-strong sun. Young seedlings can either quickly dry up in hot weather, or can succumb to damping off if the weather turns cold and the soil stays wet. Young plants need to be potted on, first into small pots, then larger ones until they’re strong sturdy plants that look like the ones being sold at the garden centre. It all takes time and effort but it is utterly rewarding and mildly addictive.

Sometimes, plants are just sold as plants and getting seeds is impossible (or very difficult or expensive). Most shrubs and trees fall into this category and you just have to give in and try cuttings or stump up the cash.

Some plants have been bred to the point where the flower is sterile or simply can’t be pollinated because there’s a mass of petals in the way or the stamens have been bred out. The only way to get more of these plants is by vegetative propagation.

Another class of plants – hybrids – while not all sterile, can produce seed that is a lucky dip of the hybrid parents and you could get anything. In rare cases this may lead to an incredibly beautiful new plant, but in most cases the result can be disappointing.

While some seed-sown plants might just about be able to flower in their first year if you start early enough, many seeds can take two years to flower. Some can take several to get established and settled before they will think of flowering. Woody shrubs, bulbs and rhizome plants will take their time getting established first.

Finally, even with perfect conditions, animal sacrifices and all the care and attention in the world, some seeds will just refuse to germinate. Germination will either be unreliable and sporadic, or seeds could take a very long time germinate, perhaps even waiting until they have passed one growing season and only starting in the next – a year after they might have been sown.

Long Term Seeds

I enjoy the challenge and mildly tolerate the frustration of trying to germinate difficult seeds. Here are my previous efforts and current trials:

  • A mango stone: with the help of a lot of soaking and hot summer weather, the stone did split and a mango tree emerged. Just don’t count on it fruiting (or indeed living very long) in the UK weather.
  • Strelitzia Reginae (Bird of Paradise): only one seed made it out of over 15. If I did it again, I’d try a different method. It can take up to five years or more to flower. The lone plant I have from the single seed that germinated is very special to me.
  • Dierama (Angel fishing-rod): was OK to germinate, but it can take five years or more for the plants to flower as they form a rhizome first. At the moment, they don’t look healthy and I’m not sure any will make it to adulthood. They really hate root disturbance, which makes the process of potting on somewhat challenging.
  • Iris Sibirica (Siberian Iris): the secret is to just be patient, they can take months to germinate, but many will eventually get round to doing so. Unfortunately, they also take a very long time to establish, as they have to form the rhizome first. It can take five years for a seed-sown iris to flower.
  • Arum Italicum: germination is sporadic and a long process. I have several pots of some other young plant with an Arum seedling in as I gave up on the Arums earlier and remixed/re-used the compost, only to have the Arum seed in it subsequently germinate a year later. Again, these can take a long time to establish and grow, as they have to form the tuber. Use the freshest seed possible for the highest chance of germination.
  • Sarcococca Confusa (Christmas Box, Sweet Box): these are slow growing plants and also very slow to germinate from seed. They need a cold period (stratification) before germinating. If they don’t germinate one year, they may germinate the next. I have a seed tray of Sarcococca and they are just starting to come through, surprisingly the success rate is pretty good. It will take a long time for the seed to grow into a reasonably sized flowering shrub. Patience is the key with this plant too.
  • Astrantia Major (Masterwort, Hattie’s Pin-cushion): I love Astrantia, but I’m finding them almost impossible to germinate from seed. So far, I have a success rate of about 1 in 20. This is another seed that needs a cold period and may appear next year. Unfortunately the seed is not hard-shelled and may rot long before then.

In the end, seeds really do want to germinate and many plants are very easy to grow from seed, indeed some plants will even self-seed about the garden for you whether you want them to or not. With so many plants and so many seeds, the choice is yours whether you go for the easy, instant-gratification seeds/plants or if you go for the challenge of sowing seeds that might take half a decade before you reap the benefits from seeing those plants flower.

Everyone should have a go, you might find it addictive!

12 Comments


  1. Take the profits from your basil farming and go buy some plants. 🙂 I only grow seeds that are easy to grow and I’m an amazing success. I specialize in plants that would germinate in a post-apocalyptic war zone. It’s a fabulous way to boost your ego.

    Reply

    1. Hi Tammy, I started off with easy seeds too, then wanted a bit of a challenge and just to see what the more difficult seeds were like. I got addicted and haven’t looked back! It’s something about getting lots for little, which is why I like having a go at taking cuttings too.

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  2. This was a great reality check. I was feeling guilty about not sowing seeds and just buying plants to get quicker results. When I read your list of difficult to germinate plants, however, I wished we lived close to one another and that I could just give you some of the many self-sown Siberian irises that pop up in (or more often, near) my garden each year. (I had no idea those seedlings had been developing for so long; I tend not to notice them until a year or two before they bloom.)

    Reply

    1. Hi Jean, I have managed to get Siberian Iris to germinate, but it does take a long time, and yet even more time to flower. I have also managed propagation by division and this is a much quicker way of going about things but the mystery with the seeds is that you can never be certain just what they’re going to turn out like if you have lots of varieties of Siberian Iris about the garden. I hope you have some very unique seedlings!

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  3. Very thoughtful! Your provacative post will surely help some people to go for the challenge! I love the challenge. I now have a very large Yellowwood tree that I started from seed about 20 years ago. The seed was collected from the famous John Bartram’s garden (he was an interesting seed gatherer of another time!) Had to boil the seed 24 hours! Who knew that I could now enjoy a beautiful tree from his original tree – it is a thrill!

    Reply

    1. Hi Jayne, wow – I didn’t think any seed could withstand being boiled for 24 hours, let alone in order to help it germinate! I hope your specimen is in a prime position because these trees grow big don’t they and it’s your claim to fame!

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  4. I’ve wanted to grow stuff from seed, but some of the limitations you mention, particularly time, have gotten in the way. Also laziness and a lack of sunny indoor space. With Iris sibirica, wouldn’t the easiest thing be to get a division from a neighbor?

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    1. Hello Jason, yes, I’ve also taken small chunks out of the Iris to try propagation that way and it does work well and is much quicker than doing it by seed, but I just wanted to get a handle on what it’s like and how long it takes to germinate and grow iris from seed.

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  5. Vegetative propagation is the way forward, Jason! I have spent too many years being unpopular with my nearest and dearest due to trays of decidedly stubborn seeds refusing to germinate (obviously I won’t throw them away, because one day they might finally chuck out a seed leaf) and a fridge filled with seeds pretending it’s winter (that isn’t a popular move when you share a fridge). Now I always select perennials which I can divide straight from the pot (I spent £2 today on a plant which will divide into 4) and then I will be hacking at them for cuttings in no time at all. That said, I have marked a few plants for seed collection… it’s the challenge… it’s irresistible.

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  6. Sunil, my moonflower seeds finally germinated, but I am wondering if I will see one flower before frost. My husband grows all his veggies from seed but I prefer to buy plants at the garden center since my track record with seeds is not stellar!

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    1. Hi Lynn, I had to look up what Moonflowers were, I’m used to them being known as White Morning Glory. They’ve germinated very late, I hope they do manage to reach flower and you see some before the winter! I think the trick with seeds is to start easy then get addicted!

      Reply

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