Growing under lights brings spring closer

Officially, it’s the first day of spring, but it’s chilly outside and it snowed last night, and will again tonight and tomorrow, so it’s lucky I have tiny Lupin seedlings to tell me winter hasn’t long to go.

They’re an inch or so tall, the first set of true palmate leaves appearing under the white glare of the growlights. Unlike other perennial seed I started at the beginning of February and plunged into a snow bank (they’re still out there but will be coming in to warm up under light next week), these Lupins are a warm germinator. They don’t need a cold treatment to break dormancy.

But I noticed on the website of Gardens North, where I got the seeds from, that they should be sandpapered before starting, which is something done to seeds with hard outer shells, so the germ inside can push out easily. I rubbed them between a couple of pieces of sandpaper and soaked them overnight for good measure, popped them into little pots filled with with a potting soil mix, covered with sheet of black plastic and placed the lot on top of the fridge – a nice warm place for germination. They sprouted within two days, on March 9, so I moved them to light and they’ve been growing slowly ever since. Perennials tend to be slow – with none of that explosion of life that an annual will give you. 

These are Lupinus perennis, naturalized throughout Ontario, not so showy as garden cultivars like the Russell hybrids, but a lovely purplish blue, and important because they’re a larval host to several butterflies. While butterflies will visit many species of plants for nectar, the caterpillars have to be adapted to digest the leaves of their larval host. The association is very specific because plants throw up toxins to discourage consumption of their foliage – so it takes evolution for a species of butterfly to develop a digestive system that will allow it to breach its host’s chemical defences. A reduction in the range of a plant, as has happened to the native Lupin, spells doom for its larval dependents. Three of them - the Karner Blue, the Duskywing and the Frosted Elfin make up the evocatively named butterfly trio - are extirpated in Ontario, which means they are extinct in this province but survive elsewhere.

All of which tells me we should be growing drifts of wild Lupins. What gives me pause is the information that this plant does not transplant well because it has a long taproot and resents being dug up. I don’t know that it will be too happy in a pot, for the same reason, so we shall see what fate befalls my baby seedlings, looking so hopeful right now. I didn't use all the seeds I purchased and will start the ones I kept back directly in the ground, which is what the plant prefers, in dry, sandy soil (I have just the spot). It responds well to drought, and to fire, and so the Lupin is a treasure in all sorts of ways. Once established, it self-seeds reliably, they say. 

As winter continues on this first day of spring (at least the maple syrup producers I wrote of recently got their night-time frost, though like the rest of us, they would like somewhat warmer day-time temperatures), I am reduced to a gardener’s traditional source of comfort – the seed catalogue. I need to order seeds for my favourite tomato, the Stupice, which is wonderfully early and unfussy, and produces compact, flavourful fruit that are not given to splitting or blight. Unfortunately, I never see the seed in stores, so a catalogue is the only way.

Browsing around online I discover a company I have not used before, Greta’s Organic Gardens in Gloucester near Ottawa and before I know it I have a list that includes the absolute essentials– the Stupice, a French filet bean (Maxibel is on offer), a red red lettuce and edamame soy beans. I decide to check out a new variety of flavourful pumpkin, Muskee de Provence, instead of the beautiful warty Marina del Chioggia that has been my staple for a few years (a couple of weeks ago, I  cooked the last one saved from last summer’s crop). And, for something new - lentils. What could be more virtuous?

For the rest of my kitchen garden, I’ll get seeds off the shelf, on impulse, as space permits. Aaah, spring feels a whole lot closer. And this year, I have decided i won’t start anything inside except for the tomatoes. I find direct-seeded annuals catch up pretty fast to those that have been nurtured under cover, and too many plants inside can be a nuisance. But tomatoes - it’s always nice to get those going, and they’re so easy. I’ll put the seeds into pots on top of the fridge on March 28 or sometime thereafter and plan to get them into the ground after our last frost date of May 28.
Gardens North (for lupin seed)

Greta’s Organic Gardens (for vegetable seed)
Elaine Stephenson
- 22 March 2013 at 04:33pm

Oh you're creating a monster here! I promised the King I would stop making such a mess every spring with all my little pots & various seedlings & just stick to the outdoor stuff. But I can't stand it! You are right...the tomatoes are a must. I have not heard of the Stupice variety, I'll try to find it. Would also love to try lupins. If you are interested, I have some heritage black cherry tomato seeds saved from last year. The plants did extremely well with prolific very sweet dark colored fruit. Let me know if you'd like a few......Elaine
- 23 March 2013 at 03:50pm

Black cherries sound lovely, yes please Elaine. I'll exchange for some Stupice.
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