First dates: Plants I’m trying this year

This week, I will share some of the plants I’m trying out in my garden for the first time.

Mina lobata

Mina lobata uses numerous aliases, including firecracker vine, Spanish flag, and exotic love vine. This sun-loving annual grows quickly to 10 feet long and produces lush, trilobed leaves similar to those of Ipomoea batatas, the sweet potato vine, to which it is related. In late summer to early fall, Mina lobata produces red flowers that fade to orange, yellow, and white. Those tubular (as in tube-shaped, not as in surfer-speak) flowers attract swarms of hungry hummingbirds, so plant it where you can enjoy the show. The vine will reseed to come back year after year, but do be mindful that the seeds are poisonous so keep them away from children and pets.

Mina lobata

By Magnus Manske (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Synonymous with Ipomoea lobata, this plant is related to morning glories and I expect similar habits. I’ve not had much trouble with reseeding morning glories, but I keep an eye out so nothing gets out of hand.  Mina lobata is said to cope well with heat and humidity, which I can guarantee in my neighborhood.

I thought I first saw this plant growing at Montrose last fall, combined with Helianthus, cosmos, and other fiery flora. But upon closer inspection, I’ve discovered that what I thought I was admiring was not Mina lobata, but Cuphea micropetalum.

Border at Montrose with Helianthus, Cuphea micropetalum, and orange cosmos.

Border at Montrose with Helianthus, Cuphea micropetalum, and orange cosmos.

This is what I thought was Mina lobata. It's not. It's Cuphea micropetalum.

This is what I thought was Mina lobata. It’s not. It’s Cuphea micropetalum.

To grow from seed:

Scarify the seed (scratch with sandpaper or nick the seed coat slightly) and soak in water overnight or up to 24 hours to improve germination. Sow seed outdoors after the last frost, or sow indoors and transplant after the frost risk has passed. Give its twining stems a trellis or tuteur to climb upon, or train it against a fence or wall you’d rather not see. Like clematis, its roots prefer some shade, and it likes rich soil, neutral to slightly acid pH, and moderate water. Do not overfeed Mina lobata with high-nitrogen fertilizer, or you will have lush vines and few flowers.

If left to dry on the vine, the seed heads may be harvested, cleaned, and stored in a cool, dry place.

 

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Seed viability, part 3: Planting seedlings embedded in paper toweling

The easy sprouts have been potted up, and now it is time to tackle the ingrown ones.

seedlings embedded in towel

Now, the good thing about seedlings growing through their germinating substrate (the paper towel) is that, if you can be trusted with a pair of scissors and have sharp ones to hand (does anyone besides tailors ever have sharp scissors?), you can trim yourself a little seed mat by which to handle the seedling, making transplanting relatively risk-free. Or you can use a box cutter, if you have a sharp blade and clean it first with a bit of rubbing alcohol.

How to Pot Up Seedlings That Have Grown Through Paper Towels

1. As before, prepare a seed flat with moistened, sterile seed-starting mixture. This flat, incidentally, is an upcycled Chinese food take-out container, and it is perfect for such a task.

prepared seed flat

2. Taking care not to cut off the root (which may have tiny root hairs emerging from it), guide the blade of the knife or scissors between the sprouted seeds. Cut a small section of towel to support the seedling:

seedling embedded in paper towel

3. Carefully cut individual seed mats out of the towel. Hold the towel up to a light to help you find the space between the roots.

hold up the seeds to the light

4. Plant the seedlings, giving adequate space to each one. Don’t overcrowd the flat. Gently firm the roots against the soil.

fully planted seed flat

The seed capsules on the soil surface fell off during the planting process. These are not additional, fresh seeds planted in the flat, which would overcrowd the plants.

5. Top the seedlings off with fresh seed-starting mix, up to the base of the seed leaves.

top-dressed flat

6. Water gently, using a rose on a watering can or the spray function of a faucet or squirt bottle, and set in a bright, warm space.

Keep an eye on the seedlings, in whatever form they were potted up, and do not allow them to dry out. Bottom-watering is best: Set the flat in a shallow dish of water and allow the water to wick up through the drainage holes in the bottom of the flat. Once the seedlings have developed one or two sets of true leaves, they may be potted up again.

Seed viability, part 2: Potting up the sprouts

I began the germination test on my hollyhock seeds on January 7. Yesterday, I opened up the bag to find ‘The Watchman’ ready for duty.

germinated hollyhock seed

From your test, gently unfold the paper towel and see what’s happening. The photo above shows an excellent germination rate, and indicates the seed is still quite viable. In fact, of the 17 seeds I tested, 15 sprouted (88% germination rate, or 15/17). I’ve opened up towels to find the seeds exactly as I left them, which is depressing until you remember that that means you must purchase fresh seed.

What to do with them now? Keep them going. And here is a tip: They don’t care to grow on in paper towels. Pot them up!

Potting up bag-germinated seedlings

The seedlings at this stage have only their cotyledons, or seed leaves. Any handling of these seedlings must be done by grasping (gently!) the leaves, not the stem (more properly, the hypocotyl). And to slightly complicate matters, some of the roots have grown through the layer of paper towel.

seedlings embedded in towel

1.  Prepare a seed flat as you would if you were sowing fresh seed (which, clearly, you are).  Use a clean container and fill it with sterile seed-starting mix. Moisten the mix and tamp it down well.

seed pan ready

A clean seed pan filled with moistened, sterile seed-starting mix.

2. Grasp the seed leaves and pull slowly, firmly, but gently. Some of the seedlings may be just beginning to penetrate the paper towel, in which case you may be able to free them entirely. They’ll look a bit like bean sprouts you might find on a salad bar.

bare hollyhock seedlings

3. Make a slit or trench in the seed flat using a spoon or knife. Your finger will work just as well. Lay the seedling into the trench up to where the leaves fork from the stem.

seedling entrenched

4. Gently firm the soil back over the stem and root. Follow the same procedure for additional seedlings, but don’t overcrowd the flat. I’ve allowed six seedlings to a flat 3 inches wide by 6 inches long. None of the roots overlap.

seedlings potted up into the seed flat

5. Keep the flat warm (65-70 degrees) and well lit, either in a sunny windowsill or under a grow light. A fine dusting of sand, vermiculite, or even chicken grit can help to fend off damping-off.

In one more post, I’ll show you how to pot up those seedlings that refuse to release their security paper towel.

Checking seed viability

If, like me, you have flower and vegetable seeds older than your children, it’s not a bad idea to test their viability prior to sowing them. Better to know now whether you’re in for heartbreak, and need to place an emergency seed order with your favorite catalogue.

Seed viability

Seed viability is another term for the likelihood of a packet of seed to germinate. Seeds are living things, and different plant seeds may be viable for longer than others. Onion seed, for example, is generally understood to be viable for one year, while some melons may be viable for longer than 4 years. But these are rules of thumb; if kept in proper conditions, meaning low light, low temperature (but above freezing), and low humidity, seed may remain viable for many years past their average.

A simple way to test seed viability

To test whether those seeds you found in the back of the storage shed are viable, gather together the following supplies:

  • The seed packet
  • Paper toweling
  • Plastic sandwich bag with zippable closure, or a clear plastic container with a lid.
  • Misting bottle of clean water
  • Masking tape and pen or pencil

1. Lay out a sheet of paper toweling and empty a portion of the seeds onto the towel. Ten seeds, or a multiple of 10 for small seeds, makes for convenient estimating.

Hollyhock seeds laid on a clean paper towel

2. Lightly mist the seeds and the paper towel with water.

seeds misted

3. Fold the towel in half, and then in half again. seed towel folded into quarters

4. Lightly mist the folded towel one more time.

5. Slide the folded towel into the sandwich bag or plastic container, and label it using the masking tape. Note the seed contents and the date on which you prepared the sample.

bagged seed viability samples

I’m testing three varieties of hollyhock seed: a “colorful single mixture”; ‘The Watchman,’ a black-flowered strain, and ‘Indian Spring.’

6. Keep the bag or container in a warm place, but out of direct sunlight. I test mine on a corner of the kitchen counter. I also keep the bags for additional seed tests.

After a few days, you’ll be able to check the germination rate. I’ll show you how in a separate post.

Happy gardening accidents: Growing moss

I sowed spinach seeds in early November. They didn’t germinate, and as the holidays drew near I left the seed flat alone in favor of other responsibilities.

I came back to it this week, intending to sow another round of early spring greens and my first round of summer vegetables.

baby moss

Baby moss is growing in the flat.

This isn’t terribly surprising–after all, commercial seed starting mix often contains a high percentage of highly acidic peat moss, and acid soil combined with regular moisture typically yields moss.

While many people view moss as something to eradicate from the lawn, I love its texture, its character, and its ease of maintenance. I know very little about different species of mosses but am so intrigued by this happy gardening accident that I’m going to do a bit of research and nurture this plant along.  I have a low brick wall in the shade that needs some aging.

infant moss

Do you know much about mosses? Please share your insights.

Cyclamen from seed: Presoaking method

The backlog of unsown seeds in my refrigerator and elsewhere in the house makes me no different from any other gardener, I suppose, but I don’t have the seeds of the plants I want now.

A personal law of mine, which I follow from time to time, says I may not purchase more seeds until I have planted the ones I have. Now is one of those times: I deeply want primula seeds, but I haven’t finished sowing my cyclamen yet.

Continuing with my unscientific experiment of propagating cyclamen from seed:

Cyclamen propagation: Presoaking method

Cyclamen have a hard seed coat. Softening the seed coat by presoaking the seeds is said to expedite germination.

  1. Soak the seeds for 12 hours in warm water. Rinse the seeds, and sow into pots.
  2. Cover the seeds with a thin layer of sand or vermiculite, then add a layer of grit or gravel (I’m using chicken grit).
  3. Water well. 
  4. Exclude light: I’m further covering these pots with black plastic, just in case the layer of grit isn’t enough.
  5. Keep the pots cool: They should remain between 60-69° F (16-21° C).
  6. Check back periodically. Germination may take 30-60 days.

Growing cyclamen from seed: A winter experiment

Cyclamen are gorgeous, delicate plants. They bloom in winter when little else does. And bittster tells me it isn’t hard to grow them from seed. So he and I went in together on a seed order from Green Ice Nursery, and the seeds arrived not long ago (along with a little gift).

cyclamen hederifolium ready for transplant

The live plants are tucked into their spaces in the garden, and now it’s time to sow some seed.

Instructions for multiple methods to start cyclamen from seed may be found on the Internet. I’m going to try them all (though not in a terribly scientific way).

The first and easiest method is simple winter sowing, or Letting Mother Nature Take Her Course.

cyclamen seed packets from green ice nursery

Cyclamen need dark to germinate. I am beginning with dark plastic pots, filled with coir. I water the coir and pack it into the pot, using another clean pot to tamp it down:

packed coir

The seeds are quite small. These are of Cyclamen hederifolium. I don’t know if there is a variety or cultivar name, but the nursery describes them as “extreme dark purple flowers.”

cyclamen hederifolium extr dark purple seed

The packet came with 10 seeds, so I’m trying this method on five.

I potted the seeds, covered them with a thin layer of coir, and watered them in, passing them back and forth a few times under the fine spray from my kitchen faucet.

watering in cyclamen seed

Finally, I labeled the pot and covered it with a thin layer of chicken grit to reduce light and to reduce the risk of damping off. My chicken grit is crushed granite, available at farm-supply stores.

Then the pot goes outside on my deck, to suffer the elements and wait until spring.

potted winter sown cyclamen

Today we’re expecting to see the edge of a winter storm, with cold rain definite and freezing rain possible. That should get them off to a good start. We’ll check back in three to six months, which is how long it may take them to germinate.