February is the perfect time to get a head start on a lush, low-maintenance garden by starting perennials from seed. This isn't difficult; but it does require time, patience and TLC. Kathleen Rieman, green goods buyer for the Grange Co-op, calls this process a commitment of love — perfect for the valentine's season!
If you have big garden dreams and a small garden budget, you'll be rewarded with lots of plants for a low cost. Andy Fischer of Sacred Earth Ecological Design says you can also enjoy rare varieties that aren't commercially available as starts, making for a unique garden.
Since starting perennials from seed is a "commitment of love," choose your seeds carefully. Matching them to a favorite hobby will help maintain your commitment between sowing and planting.
What about year-round flowers?
Rieman suggests beginning with easier types including columbine (Aquilegia), lupine (Lupinus ), purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) and wildflowers. Other easy starters for the Rogue Valley include yarrow (Achillea millefolium), dianthus, mallow (Malva), bee balm (Monarda), oregano (Origanum), California poppy and perennial sage (salvia).
More challenging options that require some seed preparation include butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii), clematis, cyclamen, delphinium, bleeding heart (Dicentra spectabilis), St. John's wort (Hypericum perforatum), lavender (Lavandula), catmint (Nepeta cataria), phlox, black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) and aster.
Winter and spring sowing should be done indoors in a heated greenhouse or in a heated cold frame. Start six to eight weeks before planting outside, about six to eight weeks before the last frost for tender annuals, and early for hardy annuals. Rieman suggests planting 25 percent extra seeds to account for any loss or germination failure.
Check seed packets or garden guides for specific preparations, so you'll start out right. Seeds with thick coverings should be soaked overnight. Some seeds need to be nicked to allow water to enter for germination. To nick seeds one by one, use a blade or emory board. For faster progress, try rubbing them between pieces of sandpaper, or shake in a can lined with sandpaper. Those that don't swell or soften after overnight soaking should be re-nicked and soaked again until swollen.
Some perennials require a chilling period, called "stratification," to simulate winter conditions. Leave them in the fridge for about one month or prepare them for germination, then plant in a protected cold frame.
Once seeds are ready for germination, place them in a starting medium. Fischer and Rieman recommend commercially prepared mixes for beginners. If you make your own from garden materials or reuse a previous batch, bake it for one hour at 200 degrees. This will sterilize it and kill any fungi that would otherwise cause damping off.
Start seeds in flats, egg cartons or other small containers. Plant at a depth according to packet directions, which typically ranges from surface placement to 1/4-inch deep, and locate in indirect light away from drafts. For ease of maintenance and monitoring, plant varieties that have similar germination times together. Rieman suggests using a soil thermometer for accuracy, since soil temperature is cooler than air temperature. Cover seed containers with plastic and check daily to ensure they stay moist. When water is needed, sprinkle or mist gently or try underwatering. Place water in a shallow tray below the containers.
In a few weeks or longer, depending on the variety, your seeds will sprout. Remove the plastic cover and give them a little more light. When the second set of leaves develops, transplant to larger pots filled with soil or potting soil. Start hardening the plants in another week or two, putting them outside for a few hours a day and bringing them in at night. Plant outside after the last frost. Pay special attention to them the first year as they become established — then watch your efforts bloom!