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Planning for the Sunny Days: Starting Perennials from Seed
by Caleb Melchior - December 2013

Astrantia sp.

A few gardeners I know see winter as a relief. They’re totally happy to slouch back in an easy chair, pour themselves a glass of mulled cider, and settle down in front of the TV.

I’m not like that.

I’m a little obsessed with growing things.

Rather than heaving back into an easy chair, I’ll pace around the sullen garden. No pile of leaves is safe — I’ll prod through them with a stick, looking for the first green shoots nudging their way out of the frozen ground.

And many of the gardeners I know practice the same behavior of denial.

If you, like me, suffer from the extended sensual deprivation of winter gardens, it might be useful to consider the possibility of diverting that suppressed energy into productive activity. Rather than bothering your dormant plants and removing their protective winter mulch, prepare for a fantastic summer by starting perennials from seed.

Few people grow perennials from seed. Unlike annuals, which germinate quickly to mature and flower, many perennials are slow to bulk up and rarely flower in their first season from seed. Some have specific temperature or chemical requirements to stimulate germination. However, there are strong benefits to growing perennials from seed.

First, the length of time that it takes to grow perennials from seed makes it particularly rewarding when they grow and mature. Secondly, while you can easily pay $10 dollars or more for a choice perennial, it is easy to grow an entire drift of them from seed for a fraction of that price. Thirdly, many rare perennials will not be available locally as plants. Additionally, growing perennials from seed offers the potential for variability, with each plant expressing a range of traits which would not be apparent in clonally-propagated nursery stock.

Different perennials germinate in response to varying circumstances, based on ecological cycles in their natural habitats. Columbines (Aquilegia sp.), musk mallows (Malva sp.) and lilies (Lilium sp.) all typify different needs for germination and starting from seed.    

Columbines (Aquilegia sp.)

Columbines (Aquilegia sp.) are particularly useful to grow from seed. They’re flowers to enjoy in drifts and banks and masses, not as puny individual specimens. Therefore, it only makes financial sense to grow them from seed. In addition, many of the choicest varieties, including specific color strains, are rarely available in nurseries.

Winter-crazed gardeners have two options for growing columbines from seed. If you are so fortunate as to have a cold frame or cool porch, simply fill low pots or seedling flats with potting mix, scatter the seeds over, water in, and wait for spring. When warm weather arrives, the pots will soon fill with growth. Individual seedlings can then be pricked out into larger (3- to 4-inch) pots to mature before being set out in the garden.

If you lack a cold frame or sheltered area, it is possible to expedite the chilling process by storing packets of aquilegia seeds in the refrigerator for 4 to 6 weeks before sowing. Wait to sow the seeds outdoors until the weather has warmed, once the last hard frosts have passed. Again, seeds should be sowed in low pots or flats and pricked out into larger individual pots once they have several pairs of leaves.

Musk mallow (Malva moschata)

Musk mallow (Malva moschata) and its cultivars are also difficult to find in nurseries. They look straggly and often rot out on nursery benches, but thrive in many garden situations. Their tissue-paper flowers in white and pale pink help lighten the solid mass of the late spring garden.

Mallows are easy to grow from seed. Chill the seeds in the fridge for 2 to 4 weeks before the weather warms. Musk mallows grow a deep taproot and resent transplanting, so sow them directly into the ground after chilling. Thin a few weeks after germination to give each plant room to mature. Before planting musk mallow, check to ensure that it is an appropriate plant for your region. It grows well in most of the central United States. However, it and other mallow species can be overly aggressive in some regions.

Lilies (Lilium sp.)

Lilies (Lilium sp.) are among some of the most challenging, but also the most rewarding, plants to grow from seed. While columbines and mallows can be chilled directly in the refrigerator, lily seeds are particularly sensitive to drying out. I have had success in the past with opening the packet of seeds, spreading them on damp paper towels, enclosing them in a plastic bag and leaving them in the refrigerator for two months or more. The seeds will actually begin to germinate inside the bag, sending out fuzzy white rootlets. Once the seeds germinate, they should be planted into individual pots and grown out for a year or two before being planted in the open garden. Most lilies won’t bloom for a year or two after being started from seed. Growing from seed offers the possibility to bulk up a considerable lily population with minimal financial outlay.

Columbines, mallows and lilies all require different treatment, but are fun and easy to grow from seed. Most perennials have germination requirements that are similar to these three perennials. For further information on growing different perennials from seed, refer to state extension publications, reputable seed catalogs and perennial propagation guidebooks.

If you, like me, are pacing your house and fiddling with dormant plants in your garden, find a way to productively channel that energy. Open the seed catalogs, fill in the forms and get growing. Get those seed packets chilling in the refrigerator and prepare yourself for a fantastic summer. Just remember to tell your family. You wouldn’t want any confusion when they’re searching through the refrigerator. They might not expect to find a baggy of lily seeds chilling next to their yogurt.

Photos courtesy of Caleb Melchior


Caleb Melchior is living the prairie dream as a graduate landscape architecture student. He looks forward to the day when he, once again, has a garden of his own in which to grow all the plants that catch his eye and tickle his fancy.


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