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September 21, 2013


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Ellie Green

You know, this is kind of sad. I've bought plants from Bob Brown and good healthy plants they were. But such a strange and unrealistic comment and in such a prestigious magazine. Is it that he wants us to buy his plants, and not grow our own from seed? It kind of puts me off buying plants from him I'm sorry to say.

Ruth Rogers Clausen (Brit!)

How does he raise them if not from seed? Not all perennials bulk up quickly enough for vegetative prop. for the trade.

Not everything from noted British gardeners is gospel, any more than it is in this country.

Graham Rice

Bob raises some of his plants from his own-collected seed, many from cuttings and root cuttings and division, and some from tissue culture.

No one would suggest that everything from British, or any other gardeners, is gospel although I have to say, Ruth, that some American gardeners do tend to treat British experts over-reverentially.

Graham Rice

There more interesting comments on this piece from some noted plantspeople over on my Facebook page

Bjørn Malkmus-Hussein

If he says that from his experience seeds would not germinate if not being fresh, then he simply has the wrong sources.

It is simply a question of adequate storage after seed collection to maintain a high viability. In most seeds, a shelf-storage at room temperature will significantly lower viability in a couple of weeks or months. Seeds from several genera within the families Primulaceae and Ranunculaceae are especially prone to desiccation if they are being stored dry and warm. However cold storage in sealed containers may maintain their viability for one or more years.

Other plant families, such as Brassicaceae, Fabaceae and Plantaginaceae (including Scrophulariaceae) include many genera whose seeds will stay viable even under dry and warm conditions for several years, if not even a decade and more in foxgloves (Digitalis spp.) and mulleins (Verbascum spp.), for example.

Many perennials have the strategy to produce different kind of seeds. Some seeds may germinate immediately if they find suitable germination conditions. Others from the same species may stay dormant for one or more years, till they "think" that growing conditions will have become optimal for them. If you had been growing a mullein (Verbascum ssp.) or a bugloss (Echium spp.) in your garden, just turn over the soil where it was growing. And all of the sudden you will find seedlings from exactly this species - even several years after the mother plant had died down. These seeds are exposed many times to moisture, dryness, freezing, heat, etc. - but they will still germinate.

The survival strategy here is that the quickest seedlings may be destroyed by adverse weather conditions (especially very early perennials in spring) and in order to keep the genes alive, several seeds will enter a dormancy after they are released. In case that the first seedlings will not make it for whatever reason, they will take their chance later.

Apart from the above, there are many other reasons why you SHOULD grow perennials from seeds and why you should not buy potted up perennials (not unless it is cultivar which will not come true from seed):

Lower Cost
It will usually save you money as you will be able to raise several, if not even many plants from a single seed package. Thus the price per plant is much lower than buying single potted up plants.

Greater Genetic Variety
Plants raised from seed will usually show a broader range of flower colors and varying growth habit in general. In naturally variable species you will not only have a single standard color or growth type, but a much greater variety. This will give you the possibility to select certain seed raised plants by yourself for their unusual flowers or superior strength under your local growing conditions.

Better Adoption to Your Local Conditions
Seed raised plants will usually be better adopted to your local growing conditions and may establish much faster in your garden. Potted plants are always highly stressed after planting, as their root system is accustomed to a different type of substrate and/or leaves are used to other light and humidity conditions. If potting soil and garden soil differ too much, this may even lead to a complete loss of your bought plants.

Healthier Plants
Potted plants may be infested with pests and diseases, which cannot be detected by first sight. Purified seeds are usually free of these and so are seedlings.

Fun and Satisfaction
It's exiting and it's fun to see large plants growing from tiny seeds, and it may fill you with some pride to follow your plants through their entire life cycle from small seedlings to adult flowering plants. Sometimes you may fail to raise a certain plant from seed at a first trial, the more satisfying it is to have success under different growing conditions in cultivating perhaps a very rare plant.

Graham Rice

Thank you so much, Bjorn. It's rare to find a long comment revealing so much good sense. I would only add that in fact many of us do not want variation in flower colour or other features in our plants as we have a clear idea of what we want for a specific place in the gardens.

It's also true that garden plants with the varying periods of dormancy you mention, when grown from seed repeatedly over the years by gardeners or seed producers, will often end up germinating quickly as each time seed is sown the early germinators will tend to be pricked out and grown and the seed pot then discarded. So unintended selection for early germination takes place.

Thank you again for your very thoughtful comment.

Graham Rice

Bob Brown has asked me to post this comment for him:

"Great!  Maybe this could be the start of some serious discussion.  

"You posted pics of Rudbeckia and Achillea and mention some other perennials that are often raised from seed which I would also raise from seed.  We get decent results from run-of-the mill seed like this (that we've bought) although germination percentages are still less than our own freshly collected and sown seed.

"That still leaves a lot of perennials.  We continue (as a business) to buy seed from Jelitto and from Derry Watkins (for instance) but our experience is that as soon as we venture into seed of less commonly grown perennials we either get poor germination or no germination.  As I state, maybe one or two plants might result.  If we grow these on and subsequently collect and sow fresh seed in future years we then have no problems.  I'm sure that seed firms do their best to look after their seed and store it suitably but this might not stop intrinsic processes taking place within the seed which reduce or inhibit germination.  

"Take field poppy.  Who is to say whether seed sown fresh germinates 95%, 1 year later 60%, 10 years later 6%, 100 years later 0.5%, 1000 years later 0.001% unless trials are done?  Can you really say that the germination you experience with packaged seed is as good or even nearly as good as it would have been had the seed been sown fresh?"

Graham Rice

I agree with a lot of what you say, Bob, and thank you for your response. The problem is that you were so sweeping in your recommendation!

If you'd said something like "only buy perennial seed from reputable companies who store it in the right conditions and ensure that germination rates are good before they send it out" - Most of us would agree with that.

I remember visiting one small seed company where the seed was stored in boxes in a room in the house with no special conditions of any kind. Germination of that seed would probably be very poor.

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