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.
However, there is a problem with this rosy picture of cheap limitless plants. When growing seed, you have to bear these in mind:
- What you save in money you need to make up for in time, care, effort and attention
- Seeds aren’t offered or available for a wide range of plants
- The plant you want to grow might be sterile and doesn’t produce seeds
- Unstable hybrids grown from seed are not likely to be true to their parent – you could get anything
- Plants grown from seed can take a very long time – many years – to establish and flower
- 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.
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!