Time to start perennial seeds

The snow’s streaming horizontally past the window and the spruces are being whipped from side to side. I braved the elements earlier to put out some seed, and now under the pale wintry sun a host of jostling redpolls is working hard at depleting the store.

They disappeared during last week’s warm spell – they prefer what they can glean when the earth is bare – but in a white landscape, they return. A solitary junco joins them. A blue jay swoops in, grabs a seed, and goes off to consume it, deep in the middle of a shrub thicket.  

I watch them, seated at my desk, a few feet from a blazing woodstove. The sight of a neat stack of wood outside, protected from the blizzard by a tarp, is almost as warming as the stove. I’m working on my seed order.

That’s good, my husband says. “It means that summer’s coming.”

Yes, in the midst of winter we can dream of drifts of Lupin and waving fronds of Indian Grass.

The time for starting perennial seed indoors is January or February. Annuals, which include most veggies, can wait until April or May. I saved quite a lot of seed last year – not as much as I meant to, the birds beat me to some berries – and I divided most of it into half. Half went into pots that were left outside last fall to suffer the rigours of winter and half I will start in pots soon and immediately place outside in a convenient snowbank to suffer the rigours of winter, but just for six weeks.

Most perennial seed needs “pre-treatment,” some way of breaking dormancy. This can mean stratification – a period of cold, either outside, or in plastic bags filled with a moist soil mix, in the fridge; or scarification, which means breaching the tough seed coat in some way – by nicking it with a knife or rubbing with sandpaper. There are other methods of tricking seeds into thinking conditions are just right – fire, acid, boiling water….

I like to keep things simple, so I generally ignore the incredibly elaborate instructions that can be found for breaking dormancy in different species and rely on the freeze-thaw cycle. My success rate is 50 per cent or less, so more diligence would probably improve that. It is worth checking online to see if the perennial you’re planning to start germinates easily without treatment. Some do, but our natives tend to require a taste of winter.

The seeds I’ll start in pots soon will come inside in March and be told, “it’s spring, get going” – so they’re a step ahead. The ones outside stay outside and I’ll hope to see some action in May. May, 2013, that is – although I should be prepared to wait until 2015 because it could take as long as three years. Some perennial seeds need to go through several seasons before they germinate. So don’t give up if nothing happens this spring.

For this order I’ll be turning to Krystl Walek who moved her Gardens North seed business from the Ottawa area to Nova Scotia a couple of years ago. She travels the world (including Ontario) collecting seed. The great thing about her catalogue is that she says exactly where the plant is from.

She’s an expert on germination and she pulls no punches. Take Chimiphilia umbellate (Pipsissewa), which she describes as an elegant woodland plant, native throughout most of North America, with glossy lance-shaped evergreen foliage and delicate waxy and nodding white or pink flowers. What does she tell us about germinating this seed? “There is no known method for germinating this species in an artificial setting. It is believed that a natural fungi found in its environment is required for sprouting.” That sounds like a challenge… maybe I’ll try. Maybe not. Spring is a busy time. 

What I’m really interested in is Krystl’s selection of grasses, of which many are native to this area – and the good news is that she says these are mostly easy, warm germinators, meaning no cold treatment required. One exception is Carex sprengelii (Long-beak Sedge) which grows in shade, especially in sugar maple forest and other rich woodlands. That describes some areas near me very well, so I won’t mind trying harder for this one.

Here’s what you need for starting perennial seedlings indoors.
- Lights. A windowsill doesn’t cut it. You need growlights – they’re available in different shapes, sizes and prices at larger hardware stores.
- A fan. Just a little one will do– I paid less than $10 for mine, it keeps the air circulating around the seedlings and that guards against damping off, a fatal fungal disease.
- Trays, pots and some sort of mix. I generally make my own mix to avoid using peat but beginners should use a commercial soilless mix – all of the ones I've seen sold in Ontario contain peat. However if we all ask for non-peat soil mixes, suppliers will eventually twig and start using the many viable alternatives.
- A spray bottle, to keep humidity levels comfortable.

The storm has abated and a succession of visitors has kept the outside vista interesting – chickadees, goldfinches, mourning doves, a downy woodpecker and a red squirrel. Time to place my order and take the dogs out to explore the winter wonderland.
Diane greenfield
- 21 January 2013 at 10:25pm

Ah. Can spring be far away when the mind has already started dreaming of sprouting.... Yes yes affirm spring on the worst stormy day . An inspiration Kate!
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