Sunday, March 2, 2008

The Circle of Life

Early March seems the appropriate time to discuss the growing of plants from seed, but it’s an activity that I enjoy (too much for my own good) all through the year. Watching plants germinate, especially after having sown their seeds many months before, is one of the most amazing events I can imagine, and it’s a relatively cheap thrill. In my garage right now are about a dozen fluorescent shop lights mounted on shelves left behind by our home’s previous owners, and they afford me the space and opportunity to garden throughout the darkest part of the year.

This facet of my gardening obsession began when I was a child. Every winter I would lie on the floor in my grandparent’s den and pore over the seed catalogs Granddad would get in the mail. One of my earliest memories of using math was in filling out his annual order to Burpee for tomato seeds – always Better Boy, and in later years, Celebrity. About a month later (the mail moved more slowly in those days), we’d repair to his furnace room out back and start the precious seeds in peat pots next to the small windows. About every other weekend we’d visit, and I was always amazed by the progress the little plants would make. In those days, I wouldn’t even consider eating a raw tomato (that attitude has changed dramatically, but, sadly, too late for Granddaddy to know about it); it was all about growing the plants for me. I still grow a few tomatoes from seed these days, but just a few grape varieties which are draped over the outside of the greenhouse during the summer to provide shade and drip clusters of fruit (most of which never make it into the kitchen) through the open vents. There are, however, thousands of other seedlings which pop up throughout the year in the garage garden, in my coldframes, and in various and sundry “recycled” containers tucked in corners throughout the property. I never know exactly where they’ll end up, since there’s no possible way to grow all of them to maturity on our tiny lot, but that doesn’t seem to deter me at all. In February and March I’m inundated by Hellebores; the only secret to germinating these is that the seed needs to be fresh when planted (usually May or June in these parts) and kept evenly moist for the next several months. They are a true “set it and forget it” project that never fails to produce amazing results. From seed to bloom may take 3 or 4 years, and often the results are disappointing (I’m not as careful as I should be in my hybridization, since they bloom at one of the busiest times in my work schedule), but a few from each batch are always worth keeping, and none is completely unattractive. Cyclamen, likewise, are a long-term project, since the seed ripens in June and waits until late fall to germinate, but they are totally rewarding to grow from seed, if one has the patience and can provide perfect drainage for the young plants as they grow.

Even more amazing are the genera which produce seed no bigger than dust – a tiny pinch of seeds or spores is more than enough to produce all the gesneriads and ferns that anyone could ever need, and then some. The seedlings are nearly invisible on germination (some, such as Ramonda myconi, are still nearly invisible 3 years later!), but soon form a film of green “moss” across the surface of the pot. Eventually leaves begin to differentiate, and the painstaking process of pricking them out and thinning must be undertaken to allow room for growth. This is tedious, and usually takes place on a dark winter night on the kitchen table, sometimes with the use of a magnifier. Bifocals are not a big help in this process, either. One must also be blessed with a patient partner to pull this off (plastic drop cloths can also go a long way toward preventing family strife.) Still, persistence yields results – all of these Coniogramme japonica (an evergreen fern I’m trialing for hardiness here) resulted from a tiny pinch of spores produced two summers ago. In the last year I’ve begun growing Bletilla orchids from the seeds which are produced by the many species and hybrids I've collected. I’d grown terrestrial and epiphytic orchids for over 30 years, but had never attempted seed culture, since most orchids have to be sown under sterile lab conditions on an agar-based medium, then grown on in flasks until they’re big enough to face the world. Having nothing to lose is a great motivator, though, and I tried sowing the seed from these beautiful, hardy-ish terrestrials just as I do gesneriads – the minute particles are tossed with very fine sand to aid in their distribution on the soil surface in a plastic container filled halfway with a combo of milled sphagnum moss and vermiculite, then spritzed with a mild fungicide solution and covered with a clear lid. Incredibly, hundreds have now germinated, and the first batch began blooming recently in the cool greenhouse. It’s been fun to create my own complex hybrids from these garden-worthy orchids, and I’m greedily hunting for space in the garden to allow some of these the room to grow and bloom.

Members of the Amaryllis tribe are another of my pet projects, and they are so ridiculously easy from seed (as long as they’re planted immediately upon ripening) that this year I’m considering planting out hundreds of assorted habranthus, cooperanthes, and zephyranthes (collectively known as rain lilies) in what we loosely call the lawn. I just can’t bring myself to discard the glossy black seeds that develop about 2 weeks after each bloom in the summer and fall, and as a result I have hundreds of pots bursting at the seams with tiny, crowded bulbs of every species (not to mention the hybrids produced by the bees). Crinums form enormous, rubbery seeds, some of which are the size of ping pong balls. They often begin to germinate before being detached from the scapes, and are great fun to grow with children, although it could be years before blooms are produced. Rhodophiala and Cyrtanthus are prolific (and fun to hybridize) as well, and I plan to test lots of these for hardiness this year as well. That’s one definite perk related to growing from seed – with lots of spare plants, I can afford to experiment. Another thing I love about growing from seed is the interaction with other gardeners on a global basis. I have Arisaema flavum and sikokianum just popping up from seed which arrived from Italy last month, and Heironymiella (an obscure Amaryllid for which I can find almost no cultural information) which traveled from Argentina in an envelope. The aforementioned Ramonda seed came from Wales, where they probably would rather have spent their lives, out of our sweltering summer heat. In an age where international shipping of live plant material has become increasingly difficult due to CITES and import regulations, seeds are still pretty easy to exchange. For someone whose travel opportunities are limited, this aspect of the gardening hobby helps to partially satisfy feelings of horticultural wanderlust.

Some seeds may never germinate. I’m still waiting on pots of Franklinia which have spent over a year tucked away in a shady corner, maintained in fairly consistent humidity within their zip-lock bag “ark”; I will admit that my hope for these is waning, since I recently read that isolated specimens (which mine is, for now) may fail to produce fertile seeds. I’ve learned, though, not to discard pots of seeds too quickly; tree peonies take two years to show themselves above ground, but they do eventually appear. So far I’m still waiting for blooms from blossoms pollinated nearly 9 years ago, but I consider this therapeutic; patience is not one of my virtues, and for this type of gardening, developing it is a necessity.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve decided that true wisdom may be based on the ability to see the cycles of nature, life, and human behavior with the perspective which can only be gained by living for a while. Growing plants from seed (especially those which are the product of one’s own garden) offers a window on this process, and a template for discerning the larger, more esoteric sequences of events which shape our lives, our nations, and even our planet. Pretty lofty stuff, and all from a handful of “dust”.

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