direct sow or not, perennials from seed & more: q&a with ken druse

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HOW’S THAT seed shopping going? On the radio show and podcast, Ken Druse and I covered more of your seed questions, from which seeds to sow indoors versus out; outsmarting animals who gobble up direct-sown seeds; to why some seedlings just sit there, like miniatures, never reaching full size.

My annual Seed Series continues, and with help from Ken, author of “Making More Plants: The Science, Art, and Joy of Propagation,” I also tackled growing primulas from seed, spinach failures, direct-sowing some perennials and biennials, and Ken’s adventures sowing citrus seed and more. (That’s Daucus carota ‘Dara,’ above, that Ken grew recently.)

When we reached out in December to get your Urgent Seed Questions, we got so many that we taped two shows—and even at that, some will be tackled in future episodes with guest experts. As we did in Part 1, when we covered seed-starting basics, we’re giving away a copy of Ken’s book “Making More Plants.” Enter in comments box at the very bottom of the page.

Read along as you listen to the Feb. 11, 2019 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

seed q&a with ken druse: part 2

Q. Have you been on any binges over there, Ken?

A. [Laughter.] Of course.

Q. Yes. What are you excited about this year? What are you looking at?

A. Oh. Oh, my goodness. Well, I’ve already sown Pseudocydonia seed. That’s a Chinese quince, and it’s a species. I’m growing them from my own fruits [above]. They’re up, so I’m going to have Pseudocydonia trees, which have wonderful fragrant fruits, but they have beautiful exfoliating bark. Have you ever seen that or grown it?

Q. I’ve seen pictures. I’ve never grown it.

A. It’s wonderful. Well, I’ll try to grow one for you.

Q. O.K.

A. I’m going to grow some variegated plantain, which is a weed, but the wimpy little variegated ones are … they’re barely weedy. Each one’s different, each leaf is different.

Q. Like the plantain in my lawn? You mean that kind of stuff?

A. Yes. Yes, just like that. I’m going to grow Cosmos ‘Purity’ because it’s so pretty.

Q. What color is it?

A. White, and very good for cutting. I’m going to try Asclepias purpurascens. I haven’t done that before. I’d like to try mignonette because … which is Reseda [odorata] … because I’ve never smelled it.

Q. Oh, right.

A. You read these accounts of it. It’s not pretty, really, but you read these things from the 1800s, 1700s about this incredibly fragrant plant that used to be cut and put in bouquets. People would hold it in their tussie-mussies. Then I’ve read that the seeds are all different strains; some of them are great, some of them aren’t. But I’m going to try that because I want to smell it.

poppies, verbena, angelica, daucus ‘dara’ & more

Q. If I remember correctly, like me, you grow some things that either self-sow well or we sort of push them around a little bit and re-sow them where we want them. Like I have some annual poppies that I love that are technically opium or breadseed poppies [above] and Nicotiana, for instance, that, once you have it, you probably are going to have it for a long time. It sows around, but you can kind of move the baby seedlings around or, when there are seedheads in the fall, you could move the seedheads around. Do you have other things like that that you kind of edit?

A. Well, I sow the opium poppies on the snow. I always have. [How to grow poppies.]

Q. Oh, O.K.

A. I sow larkspur directly outside. They’re hardier; half-hardy annuals. Columbine I sow outside. I don’t sow forget-me-not—I’d love to get rid of them, but people do [sow them outside]. They’re biennials and, once you start that, you just have them forever. You’ve got the Verbena bonariensis.

Q. I do. That’s an annual. I have Verbena bonariensis, the tall verbena [above, with a snowberry clearwing moth sipping from it], which sows every year, comes up by itself, and I have a big sort of colony of it. But I also have Angelica gigas, the Korean angelica that’s a biennial that I … Sometimes I try moving the seedheads around to start it in a new place, but generally speaking, it does best, as do many of these things, where they sow themselves, and I move the babies around early on. I edit the babies, sort of “shopping in your own garden,” as I call it, where you’re picking up things and moving them to another place.

Did you grow that Daucus? [Photo, top of page.]

A. Yes, I was going to say, which is a biennial. First, I got seed, but now it’s sowing itself. I’ll find out how true that is from seed. It’s a Queen Anne’s lace. A Queen Anne’s lace can be a thug. I’m not sure about this one, but it’s in a place where it can’t really get around. I have noticed that it’s self-sowing. They sprout in the late summer, and they overwinter, and they’ll bloom the next year. So once you got that started, you have them. This is Daucus carota, and the variety is ‘Dara.’ Its flowers are red, dark red.

Q. That’s the one you sent me a picture of. They’re amazing colored.

A. Oh, my gosh. It’s so beautiful.

Q. Similar with my Angelica gigas [above], which is a … it’s a little more wine.

A. Yes, wine.

Q. Well, it’s maroon, wine-ish, bordering on wine-colored. Yes, rich colored.

A. They’re both umbellifers. I wonder if they’re … Well, they’re distantly related, I guess. Carrots.

Q. We’ll have to look them up. Do you save the seed of that, or what do you do from year to year or-

A. Well, I started doing that, but now that it’s doing it itself, I just help the seed get to the soil by, when they’re dry, I’ll shake them or something. I do cut off the seedheads and save some to share with people who I know will treat them correctly. [Laughter.]

Q. O.K.

A. Just not throw them out in the field is what I mean.

In the previous show, a couple of weeks ago, we talked about sowing indoors, and watering, and germinating mix, and lights, and heat, and whatever. But there’s sort of the indoor versus what to direct sow, so before we get into crop by crop, some of the things you would direct sow, some of the things I would direct sow, because a lot of people …

Nora wrote about she’d like to do more direct sowing, but the chipmunks, the squirrels, even the birds “are making short work of my efforts,” as she says. Sue says that rodents take her corn seed. She tried ‘Glass Gem,’ that wonderful corn, three times last year, and it was just like gone, gone, gone, but “how to humanely discourage them?” For me, they take pea seeds, and bean seeds, and all the big stuff that’s pretty easy pickings for the chippies.

A. Well, we mentioned the breadseed poppy, which is also the opium poppy. I wouldn’t think anything would eat that. But last year we had a rabbit, one single rabbit because we’re on an island here and it’s very rare that we get any rabbits, but there was a rabbit last year, and it ate the opium poppy, all of them, when they were like 6 inches high.

Q. Oh, when they were up. O.K., so not stealing the seed, which is very tiny, but eating the … That’s interesting.

A. I haven’t had seeds stolen.

Q. Sometimes I’ll plant a whole 20-foot row of seeds, and I do thick rows of my peas early, as soon as the ground can be worked, right, by sort of a pea fence. Sometimes not one seed, of hundreds of seeds, not one germinates. They’ve just picked over the whole row, the squirrels and the chipmunks. [Laughter.] It’s just crazy. I swear they watch me and see when I’m doing it. They’ll take sunflower seeds. They’ll take, especially, those big seeds.

But I find that if I put damp burlap over the area, keep the burlap moist but keep damp burlap over the area until stuff is ready to germinate, so that it’s going to be up and growing, I can kind of outsmart them.

Obviously, you can put shade … excuse me, not shade cloth, but Reemay row cover. Pin that down over the row a little bit loosely so that they can pop up and get up an inch or 2 or 3 before you have to remove it. I find that I need a barrier, a lot of times, to outsmart them.

Various readers chimed in and said they were using combinations of shade cloth with chicken wire on top—Katie mentioned that—and Diane said she uses bird netting, sometimes, over something under the netting. I think that’s part of the thing.

But what do you direct sow besides your poppies?

A. Well, the larkspur and columbine, zinnias.

Q. Right, zinnias and marigolds, things like that are … even the cosmos are pretty easy, aren’t they? Calendulas are easy.

A. Nasturtium.

Q. Yes, yes. Among the vegetables, I tend to direct sow a lot of the large-seeded things that I was just mentioning, my squashes-

A. Oh, like squash, even.

Q. … and pumpkins and cucumbers. I know, in some climates, you can’t do that. The soil doesn’t get warm enough early enough and so forth. I love to use the black plastic temporarily to heat up the row first.

A. I was just going to ask you that. [Laughter.]

Q. Yes, yes, yes. I find that that helps sort of pre-treat, get things cooking, and I get better germination. Plus, not transplanting those larger-seeded things, I think it’s one less setback that the plant has. You know? [How to grow cucurbits.]

A. Right, yes.

Q. Yes. Peas, beans, I obviously direct sow those. Root crops, I would always direct sow all my root crops, but that’s generally it, I think.

Obviously, heat-lover things, the things that … there are long-season heat-lover things like the tender things like tomatoes and whatever. We’ve got to give them a head start so … in our climate, whereas in certain southerly areas, you could technically direct sow them, but I don’t know if anyone does.

A. I don’t think so. [Laughter.]

seedlings just sit there, like miniatures

Q. One or two people asked about what to do when stuff just stops growing, like it just sits there like it’s miniature—it germinates, but it doesn’t grow. Pat said, “What causes seedlings to stop growing? I use peat pots or seeds starting mix, yet I’ve had seedlings stay tiny or even in the cotyledon stage for months. They rarely get large enough to set out.”

Have you had that happen? I’ve had that happen with collards one year, with a packet of collards.

A. No. I wonder if I don’t, because I move them up [to larger pots or cells].

Q. Well, one thing I know, that was one where I went to a plant physiologist. I asked him, because he studies just seedlings, vegetable seedlings: Why do they grow? Why don’t they grow? What’s the best growing technique? What helps them? What doesn’t help them?

He said there’s two things: viability and vigor. But viability, the ability to germinate, is not the same as vigor, which is the ability to thrive and get through to maturity.

A lot of seed, so say when the seed was harvested it was a terrible season, a very rainy, wet season in the fall where it was harvested, and it never really fully matured and dried really well, that seed could be kind of weak. Or it’s very old seed, or it was stored in a hot place and not cool-dry. Lots of factors can mean that it’s still viable, it can pop up and germinate, but then it just sits there. It hasn’t got the oomph. A lot of times, it’s not your fault. Don’t you love when stuff is not your fault? Viability and vigor, I’ll give info on that.

A. [Laughter.]

onions and leeks from seed

Q. People had a lot of questions about failures, Ken. Should we go through some of the earlier ones, maybe, like from early to later crops? They asked about onions. Edward asked about leeks and onions. He says he’s “been having the devil’s own time with leeks and onions, poor to zero germination.” He’s cool, in 60 degrees, standard flats with a cover, potting soil. He’s tried everything, lights, no lights, surface zone covered, no luck. Have you every grown onions and leeks, or have your grown ornamental onions?

A. Well, you mean Allium?

Q. Yes, from seed? I haven’t.

A. Yes, I actually have, but I know that you grow a whole lot of onions, so I want to hear what you do.

Q. Yes. I was so frustrated, like Edward. I called up an onion breeder, Don Tipping, out in the West, and I said, “What do you do?” He said, “Sow them in an open flat. Don’t put them in cells. Sow them in an open flat. Sow them thickly. They need like 10 weeks under lights. Give them bottom heat at first. Take it off as soon as they germinate.” I’ll give the link to the story with all the details, but it wasn’t really that complicated, but sort of setting them free and not putting them in these tiny little cells helped.

He made little furrows. He makes furrows the long way in a flat that doesn’t have drainage. You have to put a flat with drainage inside a flat that has no drainage so that you can water without and then … well, you know what I mean. [Laughter.] If you don’t have cells that have holes in the bottom, you have to have a flat on top of a tray that can hold a little water that can capture the water that runs through.

It wasn’t really that big an epiphany, other than the fact that it was an open flat and sown very thickly, and it just did so much better. I don’t even know why. Cool, they do not want to be hot. They do take, for me, I can have them inside 10, 12 weeks. I take them outside every fair enough day, I take them outside [photo above]. [Growing onions and leeks from seed.]

spinach failures

Q. Spinach: Mary says she’s had spinach fail. It just sits there. Do you sow spinach at all? Have you grown it?

A. No, but I know where you’re going with this.

Q. Why? Where?

A. Well, spinach wants it sort of neutral, slightly alkaline.

Q. It’s an oddball among vegetables, isn’t it?

A. Yes.

Q. Yes, so a little lime in a lot of our acid soils, right?

A. Well, especially if you’re using a peat-based seed-starting mix. It’s acidic.

Q. Yes, so generally, spinach is direct sown, the best luck is with direct sown. Again, I have a story from Tom Stearns of High Mowing Organic Seeds. He talked about why, in many zones including the Northeast, we’re best with a late planting of spinach that overwinters under a row cover, that it comes up fastest in really cool conditions. It hates the heat. [How to grow spinach.]

There’s a lot of different varieties. Picking the right variety for your season and temperatures and situation is really important, but that lime thing is the big tip, so that’s important.

carrots didn’t germinate

Q. Carrots—Caroline says her carrots didn’t germinate. You know me, I always just call up … I called the carrot breeder to ask why.

A. [Laughter.]

Q. You know what he said. He said, “Right after you sow them,” besides moistening the seedbed beforehand and sowing them and … “put a piece of wet burlap over them until germination so you’re watering the burlap, so there’s no chance they’re going to dry out, because if they dry out for a second, they’re dead.” That’s a huge game-changer. I’ve told it to many people, and they’ve been like, “Oh, my God. My carrots came up.” [How to grow carrots.]

primroses from seed

Q. Yes, we had a lot of questions about root crops and all kinds of things, but maybe we’ll digress for a second and talk about some more flowers, because you’ve grown things like primulas and so forth, right? You’ve sown some things outdoors but not in the ground, haven’t you?

A. Yes, perennials, cold-hardy perennials. I do primroses, because I love my primroses.[Laughter.] I have the primroses that like the wet, because I have an area that’s wet—more than moist. I have some Himalayan primroses, and they’re hard to find, and they’re expensive, but you can get the seed, mostly from England. Also, I save seed. I sow them outdoors in the fall in a flat with medium, and I cover the flat with kind of an open flat. You know the ones that sort of have a grid?

Q. Sure.

A. I cover a flat with a flat, and the-

Q. You put the open one upside-down on top of the one that you’ve filled with soil.

A. Right, and then I put a couple of stones to-

Q. To hold it.

A. … weight it down.

Q. O.K., so it’s like a grating.

A. Right. The snow gets on them. The rain gets on them. I just leave them out there, and then they come up in the spring.

Q. O.K. That’s good with other perennials, I bet ,too, that want … We call that vernalization, right, which is a winter before spring sprouting? Vernalization, right?

A. Right. Sometimes you read in very difficult things to grow and also in the back of my book “Making More Plants,” it will say warm-wet, warm-moist, cold-moist, warm-moist, and all that stuff. If you think about that, that’s outside. [Laughter.] It is-

Q. It’s simulating nature where that thing evolved.

A. A lot of seeds need that. Sometimes people see that a seed needs cold, and they put them in the freezer, and that’s not it at all.

Q. Right. You have this sort of outdoor rig going sometimes, too, in advance, to get seedlings, but it’s not involving heat. It’s not involving artificial light. It’s a protected fake outdoor winter thing going on.

A. Yes. I just think maybe critters will get into it or something. If it’s a seed that animals want to eat, that’s especially important, but sometimes if you have just some nice place a squirrel wants to bury a walnut or something, I just don’t want anybody going into it. [Laughter.] You know?

Q. Yes.

A. I don’t have to water, because it’s just nature that waters.

Q. Some of you mentioned primrose’s seed from England and wherever, so like Barnhaven Primroses is a famous primrose place. They have instructions on different species and growing them. American Primrose Society website has instructions for different species, because not all primroses want the same treatment to sprout.

A. Good.

other flowers to try, winter sowing, citrus & more

Q. Tammy had a question: which flowers to try? We’ve mentioned quite a bunch of other suggestions, but she wants to try something a little more challenging. She’s done tomatoes and so forth, but she wants to try some flowers. Any others? I’m liking some of the dried things like the amaranths and the … What are those sort of strawflower things in-

A. Helichrysum.

Q. Helichrysum and Gomphrena, because they’re so fun for arranging, and you get such a long season of use out of them. You know what I mean?

A. Yes. It’s funny you said gomphrena, because I used to grow gomphrena, and all you could get was one gomphrena. Then there were a couple, and now there’s several different interesting gomphrena. They look like little fuzz … not really fuzzy, but almost fuzzy balls on stems, and there are lots of different colors and different shapes. That’s a cool plant. I got to get back into gomphrena.

Q. Yes, it is, and there’s lots of good ones. Joanne was asking: She has seen this thing where people use gallon plastic milk cartons, and they start seeds outdoors, similar to what you were talking about, your protected little thing for your flats with the upside-down flat on it.

What she’s referring to, and a couple of other people mentioned it as well, for things that need that vernalization, that cool before the spring sprouting, it’s sort a trend called winter sowing. There is more information in an article from GRIT magazine, and the winter sowing growing group on Facebook for people who are interested in that and how that works. Not for your tomatoes, though. [Laughter.]

A. Well, except you can … I’ve done this. I’ve cut the bottom off a gallon milk jug and made cloches, and not put the cap on, so it’s like a little chimney in case it gets too hot, and just to extend the season.

Q. Yes. People even asked us about fruit. I mean we’ve got so many more questions we’re going to have to do a third show.

A. [Laughter.]

Q. But what people asked about fruit … Virginia wanted to grow apples and doesn’t get the right apple that the seed came from if she were to grow it, and she wants to know why. You’ve grown lemons, is that right? Lime, lemon?

A. I’ve grown a lot of citrus.

Q. Citrus.

A. Then, also thinking of citrus, don’t forget to sow seeds with kids, because I think it’s a lot of fun, especially when you do something like a sunflower that’s up in a couple of days, but citrus come up pretty fast. You may get fruit someday. It takes a really long time, but it’s not going to resemble the fruit that you started with.

Q. The parent.

A. I’ll tell you, if you’re working with a seedless orange, you’re in big trouble-

Q. [Laughter.]

A. …but you’re not going to get any seeds.

Q. When you say a long time, like 10 years or …

A. Oh, more than 10, maybe more than 10 years.

Q. O.K.

A. That’s true with apples, too. They have to reach a certain point of maturity before they’re going to blossom and fruit. I do grow Poncirus. Now it’s called Citrus trifoliata, so it’s a species, and it’s hardy. It’s the hardy trifoliate orange. I’ve had them go down to minus 10 degrees. It’s not super-edible. It has lots of seeds, but they all come up, which is fun. They’re true, they come true from seed, so you actually do get Poncirus in like 15 years.

Q. Oh.

A. You get a lot of fruit. That’s why most citrus are grafted, so they have the right variety, but also they fruit much earlier. Same with apples.

Q. Oh, my goodness.

A. I grow those just because it’s fun, and it’s a beautiful, dark, rich, green shrub, and it has thorns. It would make a great security hedge under a window, because the robber would be stabbed.

Q. [Laughter.] And you would not be guilty.

A. Right. That’s a fun thing to sow.

Q. Well, there’s so many more questions. I don’t even know how we’re going to accommodate them, but keep them coming, everyone, because it’s kind of fun for us to learn along with you. Ken, I thank you for taking the time again, and I’ll talk to you soon, yes?

A. Always fun, always a pleasure.

enter to win ‘making more plants’

KEN DRUSE WILL BUY a copy of his book “Making More Plants: The Science, Art, and Joy of Propagation,” for one lucky reader. All you have to do to enter is answer this question in the comments box at the very bottom of the page:

What flowers–whether perennial, annual or biennial–have you grown from seed that you recommend? Any tips (or disasters!) to share wit us?

No answer, or feeling shy? Just say “count me in” or something to that effect, and I will, but an answer is even better. I’ll draw a random winner after entries close at midnight Tuesday, February 19, 2018. Good luck to all; US and Canada only.

prefer the podcast version of the show?

MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its ninth year in March 2018. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play Feb. 11, 2019 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

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