March 20, 2011

Old Fashioned Annuals from Seed

Nemesia, Salpiglosis, Schizanthus, Larkspurs - want old fashioned annuals? Always start your own from seed, follow directions and pray for a long, cold, spring.

Flower seeds are just as particular about soil temperatures, and I was surprised to see how many errors exist on some seed packets ( like Burpee's) or lack of critical cultural information, which will lead you to disaster. SO do some homework, and you will have better luck for we all fall victim to 'lazy gardener' syndrome, and when pressed for time, simply tear open the packs of seed, and fill our trays and flats with seed, cover them carefully with soil, water and either place them all under lights, on a window sill, or even in a greenhouse, thinking that all will be fine. Yet we also all wonder why a certain flat of Snapdragons or Cabbage never sprouts, often blaming the seed company but rarely ourselves. But a little ( or a lot) of homework  is useful for obvious reasons. Your seed source may not have accurate information since even large seed companies can sometimes mislead you with inaccurate information. I will say that some seed suppliers have very accurate informations ( Thompson & Morgan, Johnny's Selected Seed for example) but others either leave critical information off of the seed packet, or they actually use inaccurate information.

Gomphrena 'Fireworks'

For example: This year I am growing a Gomphrena variety called 'Fireworks'. New in the market last year, this 2009 trial plant has impressed just about everyone who has seen it.  Gomphrena 'Fireworks' produces a cloud of magenta tiny flowers on a plant that reaches nearly four feet wide and tall, spectacular in bloom, and it blooms all summer long starting in mid-summer. The only source I could find for seeds, was Burpee's, but their seed packet and web site provided little information, and what it did provide, was confusing and contradictory. For instance: The packet back panel advises one to " Sow in garden soil after danger of frost" but it lists this information under a header titled 'Start Indoors'. It may be a minor typo, but they repeat this copy on their web site too which confused me, should I start these seeds outside now or later? Their web site advised me to sow outdoors, after frost, and then to "thin to 10 inches apart, and ( at the same time?) to transplant young plants when 1 - 2 inches high, ( not sure what that all meant, but I wanted more information, such as can I start these indoors, in the greenhouse, and what temperature requirements do they have for germination. My Winterrowd book offered better advice. 

This particular species of Gomphrena is a different species than the Globe Amaranth you are familiar with ( like Strawberry Fields, which is G. haageana or more typical G. globosa strains.).  This variety is reportedly a form of G. globosa, but native to South East Asia and not Mexico. Young plants must be started indoors in Zone 5, yet the seed can be fussy. Mastering growing this Gomprena from seed requires a few tricks. First,  they requires pre-soaking for one day, and  then germination temperatures of 70 degrees or more to germinate well. The young plants flounder until the hot, summer weather arrives, and that's when they take off. 

 I think I would have just sown the seed in soil, watered it in, and waited...even with a greenhouse, I probably would have had little if no germination.  My seed packet said nothing about this ( thank you Burpee's!). Some seeds require surface sowing, some require cool temperatures, other, need warmth supplied as bottom heat, and then once germinated, moved to a cool location. So read first, before you plant. I highly advise two sources. First, the Johnny's Selected Seeds catalog, which has excellent cultural information with every product, and second, the book by the late Wayne Winterrowd entitled 'Annuals and Tender Plants for North American Gardens'. ( Random House).
Salpiglosis from Seed? Don't expect to find these at your garden center, and if you do, they will not grow. Start your own and carefully transplant without damaging the tap root. Then, pray for a long, cool spring.

Salpiglosis is an old-fashioned border annual rarely seen in gardens today. They can be mastered, but what the seed packet does not tell you is that the seeds must germinate in complete darkness ( I use a black plastic bag wrapped around the flat for a week), and then, the seedling must be allowed to form a single taproot which cannot bend, nor be transplanted without risking the adult plants health ( think - Carrot) Always, a straight tap root. So, seeds MUST be sown individually in large, deep cells, that will allow you to carefully slide them out as individual plants ( before the tap root reaches the bottom of the pot) into the garden situation. Also, Salpiglosis must be pinched, they must never experience temperatures above 70 degrees while seedlings, and they must have fertilizer early on, every two weeks. Notoriously fussy to grow, they are worth it once you overcome their seedling issues, but my seed packet simply advised me to "start indoors 8 weeks ahead of transplanting" with little more information than that.
Tall, old fashioned Stock varieties are fragrant ( with a scent like that of cloves) annual that our grandmothers enjoyed, but one that remains fussy unless you know what it demands. Think: Cool weather.

Stock, make wonderful cutflower plants because they are long lasting as cut stems, and because they are intensely fragrant. Stock, or Mathiola incana really enjoy cool temperatures, and they will flounder once the weather warms up enough where nights remain in the 70's. I love Stock, and try to grow it every year hoping that a long, cool spring will ensure a long crop ( like sweet peas, the love cool weather), and even though you may see Stock sold in six packs at your garden center, avoid buying them for they will most likely be dwarf forms, or be varieties that have been treated with growth retardant, regardless, they will die shortly after planting since Stock are one of those old fashioned annuals which require specific conditions in which to grow, one of them being, never plant them in sixpacks and expect any success unless you start them yourself, and carefully transplant with no flower buds showing. If they are blooming while in a six pack, then that's your show - enjoy it for it won't last long.

 Stock must grow cool - in temperatures which remain below 65 degrees, this means that you cannot start them indoors, but rather, on a glassed in porch, or in a cold greenhouse where temps remain below 70 ( which I don't even have). Sown directly in the garden will also result in failure unless you live in Vancouver, since the seedlings cannot handle frost, even though they love cold temperatures. Fussy bastards. These are the reasons why we rarely see Stock ( and Salpiglosis or Schizanthus) anymore. They remain those old fashioned plants only seen on old post cards, in England, or in the Pacific North West. But, we can all try them and hope for a year where the weather cooperates - it happens. It's worth the price of a packet of seeds.

Stock are very prone to fungus (botrytis - that grey mold we see on leaves and dead flowers under glass) so keep you growing area clean, and well ventilated when grown under glass. I  keep a fan or the vents open with a fan blowing on them, and again,avoid the dwarf forms since even if you can get them to bloom, they are not worth the effort unless you are bedding out for a mass show, and again, only if you live where it is cool all summer. Instead, find the taller varieties that grow 2 feet tall, and grow them as cut flowers, for yes, it will get hot at some point, and they will need to be brought to the compost pile by mid July if you live in Zone 5. 

Stock are related to Cabbages, which should give you a hint on why they like cool temps. Thy want to grow with as little stress as possible, they demand rich soil and lots of fertilizer if good, strong plants are expected. I sow my plants in cells in late March, and grow them on outdoors on mild spring days, bringing them into the greenhouse in late snows or frost is expected, but they prefer buoyant air and temperatures around 50 degrees for best results. If we have a slow, long spring, around June 1st, I will have two foot tall stock plants, with their strong, clove scented blossoms filling vases in the house. If we have an early heat wave, it's all over. 
Nigella, like larkspurs and many poppies, prefer to be sown directly where they are to be grown, never in pots or in seed trays.

Some flower seed simply must be sown outdoors, where it is intended to grow, since either it requires the early frosts and warm sunny days in which to germinate, or they are plants which absolutely reject any root disturbance, and must simply be thinned out rather than transplanted. These flowers include Larkspurs, Nigella, California Poppies, and perhaps the finest of in-situ sown annuals, the opium poppies  (Papaver somniferum and P. paeoniflorum). These, I plant in a special way where I can still 'cheat' a bit, by sowing in rows or drills into raised beds, but then "transplant' some by means of a shovel. My method is simple, I just dig a hole in the border where I want my poppies, and then I visit the vegetable garden and with a large, long handled shovel, take a portion of the garden back to the bed ( with care, so as to not disturb the soil ball - wet soil works best). In this way, I can move some of these fussy annuals around the garden as needed.


  1. I agree on the confusing Burpee seed packing instructions. It's like they haphazardly used copy and paste from different "common" instructions, just to have something there.

  2. Much needed instructions on starting seeds. I too have discovered that Larkspur, self sown in summer do best as they begin to grow in the fall and are already healthy green clumps when the snow finally melts here in Michigan.

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  4. I read this post about 2 hours after I went outside and direct sowed a packet of stocks. Whoops. I also used a "winter sowing" method for sowing them and we have seedlings sprouted and waiting for a warmer spell to put on some height. Thanks for the info. I'll have to get Winterrowd's book.

  5. Wow. What a great set of instructions.

    I've been thinking about growing some of these plants, and will keep a link handy as reference.

    I always try to search the internet for seed starting instructions before embarking on something new or exotic, but I think a lot of the knowledge about traditional plants like stock is really getting lost. Thanks so much for sharing it.

  6. Gomphrena 'Fireworks' rocks! A perennial here in So Cal. Easy from cuttings too.


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