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"Don't buy seed of perennials," says British expert!

Achillea 'Summer Berries': easy to raise from seed. Image ©GardenPhotos.com
Which? Gardening is a prestigious British gardening magazine. American readers could think of it as a sort of horticultural version of Consumer Reports. In this month’s issue there’s an article by one of Britain’s top plantspeople and nursery growers, Bob Brown of Cotswold Garden Flowers, about growing perennials from seed.

In it he says: "My experience is that seed of perennials will only reliably germinate if it's sown immediately, certainly within the month. If it gets as far as a packet or a seed catalogue it's already too old." And also... "My advice generally would be not to buy seed of perennials.". Yes, he recommends home gardeners not buy seed of perennial plants. The only exceptions he mentions are "lupins, delphiniums, cactus and other succulents".

Now I have a huge respect for Bob: he’s a fine plantsman, a fine grower and as a judge of the Royal Horticultural Society’s plant trials his insight and unvarnished opinions are invaluable. But, in this case, I’m afraid he’s just plain wrong. The only perennial seeds to buy from catalogues are delphiniums and lupins? I don’t think so. Over the years I’ve raised thousands of perennials from bought seed, fresh seed and seed found in brown paper bags in the back of the shed. Most of it comes up.

It’s a shame that Bob’s recommendation could prevent gardeners from growing a vast range of fine garden plants.

Delphinium 'Guardian Blue': even Bob Brown suggests growing delphiniums from seed. Image ©GardenPhotos.comRichard Oliver, the UK manager of Jelitto Perennial Seeds, whose catalogue lists seed of over 3700 perennials and who’ve been in business for over fifty years, disagrees with Bob: “His comment is frankly wrong. Some of the seed packet stuff may be too old, or more likely, have been stored in really unsuitable conditions, but his comments are otherwise nonsense. For example: Dianthus, Achillea (above, click to enlarge) and Telekia, among others, can germinate over 90% within one week even if stored longer than 10 years. Most of our perennial seed has been tested and has a germination rate of about 70% or more. All the world’s seed banks would be useless if he was right.”

And Derry Watkins agrees. For twenty years she’s run Special Plants in Wiltshire where she not only raises a huge range of perennials from seed but teaches seed-raising techniques to gardeners. Derry told me: “I think he’s mad. Most perennial seed will germinate after 5-10 years if kept cold and dry. It may not be quite so quick or prolific, but you get the plants you want. Fresh is best, but with good storage conditions, old is fine. I sow 2-3 year old seed all the time without a problem.”

Across the Atlantic, the same view prevails. Allen Bush, the Director of Special Projects in the American office of Jelitto Perennial Seeds reminds me: “What to make of 30,000 year old seed of Silene stenophylla? Perennial seed does germinate.” Frozen seed of Silene stenophylla was found in Siberia in 2007 and scientists from the Russian Institute of Cell Biophysics announced last year that they had regenerated plants from seeds carbon dated to 31,800 years old.

I also asked top American grower and plantsman Tony Avent of Plant Delights for his view. “There are certainly some seeds that will not store well, and others that loose viability when they are not stored properly. But most plants in the Asteraceae (daisy) family, for example, won’t even germinate fresh since they require a long after-ripening period.”

So… Sorry Bob, but we don’t agree. In your article you emphasize raising plants from seed collected from our own, and our neighbors’ gardens. Fine. But most commercial seed suppliers know how to store seed correctly, and test it regularly, so that when it’s delivered it’s ready to sow, and ready to grow. OK, some needs special treatment. But advising gardeners not to buy seed of perennials at all cuts them off from an economical way to raise thousands of fine garden plants.
Rudbeckia 'Goldsturm': 99.9% true from seed, and easy. Image ©GardenPhotos.com

The pictures (click each to enlarge):
Achillea 'Summer Berries'
- Mix of fruity colors, easy to raise from seed, germinates quickly.
'Guardian Blue' - One of the best blue delphiniums to raise from seed. Bob excludes delphiniums from his "don't buy seed of perennials" advice.
Rudbeckia fulgida var. sullivantii 'Goldsturm' - 99.9% true to type, easy to raise from seed, germinates quickly.


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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 https://www.facebook.com/graham.rice.9849.

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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