Tag Archives: seedlings

it’s a girl

Maybe three years ago I started some coyote bush from local seed. This species, Baccharis pilularis is a pretty easy plant to reproduce this way, pretty close to “just add water.” It produces plants that are either entirely male or entirely female in the kinds of flowers they produce, or “dioecious” in botany-speak. When you grow them out from seed you have a pretty even chance that a single plant will be male or female.

Each gender has its uses in the garden. The males are great if you want a fast-growing reliably green mound of foliage that keeps requires close to zero added water in a garden situation. Virtually all coyote cultivars are boys.

The females are also fast-growing reliably green mounds of foliage that keeps require close to zero added water in a garden situation. But unlike the males produce thick foliage-obscuring quantities of white seed heads in the late fall and early winter when most other plants aren’t quite so glamorous. They’re spectacular, but come with the down-side that the seeds can flit about and land all over, populating your garden with little coyote bushes. This is why most named cultivars in the nursery trade are males. The sole exception, which was pointed out to me by Barbara of Wild Suburbia, is Centennial, a believed hybrid of this species and B. sarothroides.

Some closeups of the seed heads…

I’ve waxed poetic about the hillsides shot with flashes of white like this one that you see at this time of year.

Now I guess I’m putting my money where my mouth is. How bad is it having a female coyote bush in the garden? I’m about to find out, and I’ll report back here. But I doubt it’ll be any worse than a few other plants in the garden that spread themselves about. And if a few plants find their way into the bleak rental next door where the only things the renters are growing in their dirt-patch of a garden are mastiffs and bulldogs, how can it be a bad thing?

thank you rob!

Before the holidays got in full swing I got some pitcher plant seed and seedlings from Rob of The Pitcher Plant Project. Rob is super-enthusiastic about the genus Sarracenia and his blog bounces along with his energy. Check it out!

Rob’s a couple years ahead of me in making his own custom hybrids and has some really cool plants coming along. Here are some shots of the seedlings he sent me.

These first all come from the cross of Sarracenia Bug Bat x Diane Whittaker. This cross combines the seriously snakey-looking hood of S. minor with the frilly hood and wild patterning of S. leucophylla. The plants are young, but you can begin to see what promise they have. You can also see some of the variation that’s possible in a complex hybrid.

Two views of a seedling from the complex cross of Sarracenia ((purpurea ssp. pupurea x jonesii) x (leucophylla x rubra ssp. gulfensis)). All four parents of this hybrid share a rare recessive genetic mutation that prevents the leaves from producing red pigments, leaving this hybrid green green green from chlorophyll. One of Rob’s special interests is in these so-called “anthocyanin-free” (“AF”) plants, and I think they’re pretty amazing too. It really focuses your attention on the architecture of the pitchers.

Even if you’re only moderately technically-oriented you can make a lot of sense out of what’s going on with these AF plants in a paper by Phil Sheridan and Richard Mills, first published in Plant Science and now available online at Meadowview Biological Research Station: [ Presence of proanthocyanidins in mutant green Sarracenia indicate blockage in late anthocyanin biosynthesis between leucocyanidin and pseudobase ]. According to the paper the mutation that makes these plants green is one that affects the final stage in the metabolic pathway that creates red anthocyanin pigments.

And the plants kept going… Here are some first-year seedlings of the cross of Sarracenia Godzuki x ((flava x oreophila) x flava var. rugelli)…

And finally a big pile of seed from some really interesting crosses:

  • S. oreophila “Veined” x Adrian Slack
  • S. (oreophila x Royal Ruby) x Adrian Slack
  • S. leucophylla x Adrian Slack
  • S. (leucophylla x oreophila) x Brooks Hybrid
  • S. (leucophylla x oreophila) x (Ladies in Waiting x Judith Hindle)
  • S. Bug Scoop x Brooks Hybrid
  • S. alata, Texas x flava var. maxima

They’re now in individual bags of damp sphagnum moss in the lower veggie crisper of the fridge. A couple more weeks of the cold treatment and then they’ll be ready to pot up.

If I manage to keep all the plants and even half of the new seedlings I germinate alive I’ll be up to my ankles in hungry young carnivores. To some people this might sound like a 1950s B horror movie, but as far as I’m concerned life doesn’t get much better than that!

Thanks, Rob!

why a greenhouse?

I find that I’m asking myself whether I need the greenhouse anymore. Left over from an obsession with warm-growing orchids a couple decades ago, it sits in the middle of some prime real estate in the every-shrinking back yard.

Its current incarnation is more shed than greenhouse, with bags of potting mix and pots taking up most of the space. Still I continue to use it for some propagating. Because of the famous greenhouse effect temperatures inside during the daytime can climb ten to twenty degrees higher than outdoors–and that’s with heavy shadecloth on the western exposure. Even at night it stays a little warmer than the outdoors. Before sunrise during a cold snap a week and a half ago I looked at the thermometer inside: 42 degrees. Pretty cold, but it was but four to five degrees higher than a nearby thermometer outside.

The new patch of lettuce outside. Where's the lettuce?
Here's a little recycled sixpack that I seeded with lettuce five days earlier. Unlike the bare patch outside, the seeds are germinating.

The extra warmth can help seeds germinate a few days earlier than outdoors. And once the plants are up they can grow quite a bit faster. The warm spa temperatures inside the greenhouse, combined with some protection from marauding nature, can give you a leg up on the season.

I showed this photo of germinating bladderpods a couple of weeks ago. These plants are less than two weeks old.
And these are the same bladderpods last night, showing lots of luxuriant growth. I'll be repotting these soon and getting them ready for planting in the garden.

If you’re occasionally impatient like me it’s nice to see bigger plants sooner.

And this last photo shows another advantage of the extra warmth. These are yearling seedlings of the North American pitcher plant, Sarracenia. All three pots were started in the greenhouse a year ago, but the one in the middle spent most of the summer outside in strong sunlight. These plants are supposed to like the intense light, but you can see that they were more partial to temperatures that reminded them of the South than intense sun. For plants that ordinarily take five years to mature, it’s looking like the extra warmth can take a year or two off of the usual time. It’s cool to have a greenhouse to save a few weeks but having it help shave one or two years is pretty persuasive.

So as I talk myself through all this it’s looking like I’ll still want to have some sort of greenhouse, even in Southern California. But it might not be this really inefficient and poorly located greenhouse. And did I mention that the current building has termites?

The replacement might be separate little structures. Maybe they could be enclosed carts and have wheels so that they could be repositioned to take advantage of the best sun angles. And if they’re on wheels they could be stuck in a corner of the yard if they’re not being used for propagation. And something like a cart wouldn’t waste space on aisles to walk down.

Well, there are lots of possibilities, and I’ll be thinking about what to do. I’m one of those people who likes to stare at a problem for a long time, but maybe in a few months you’ll be reading about the next big garden construction project.

from seed, the labor-intensive version

While my last post was dedicated to an easy seed propagation project, this one details a couple that were a little more labor-intensive. Still not hard, just a little bit more work to pull off.

Sarracenia Night Sky, a hybrid of S. leucophylla and S. rubra gulfensis.

I’ve posted about my pitcher plants a few times before–Sarracenia species from the American South and some hybrids–and this is the first year I’ve tried sowing my own seed. All eight species (or nine, or ten or eleven, depending on the expert you listen to) are inter-fertile, and hybrids between all of them are possible and have been made at one time or another. The hybrids, too, are generally fertile, and you can go crazy with the genetic possibilities.

Sarracenia Dainas Delight, a complex hybrid of S. xWillissii and S. leucophylla.

For creative sorts you can arrange garden plants in interesting ways, but with this genus you could also design the very plants that you grow. If you live in the heart of pitcher plant country, this might be a problem. Bees could carry pollen from your hybrid plants to nearby native species and create some new unnatural hybrids. But the genus never crossed to this side of the Mississippi River so Californians can play Doctor Frankenstein all they want without worrying about messing with the native population beyond our castle walls.

A ripe Sarracenia flava seed pod, picked mid-November.
Mature seed pod of Sarracenia flava.

So…I began in the spring making some hybrids, and the pods began to ripen in August, with the last pods just finishing up ripening right about now.

Closeup of the previous Sarracenia flava seedpod. This one contained almost 500 seeds. You can see them practically jumping out of the pod.

The seeds require a cool, damp period in order to germinate. I emptied the pods and put the seed in a plastic bag with a few strands of moist chopped sphagnum moss, one bag for each cross. And into the fridge they went for four weeks.

After this period of cold stratification I sowed the seed on the surface of chopped sphagnum moss which I’d layered on the top of post filled 50/50 with a sand/peat mixture.

Next, I put the pots into a clear plastic box, poured in half an inch of standing rainwater, closed the lid, and put them near a window that faces south-southeast. If everything goes well–and it looks like it did–the seedlings begin to emerge in two to four weeks. Warmish weather is best, though you don’t have to be too fanatical. This batch experienced the recent 90- to 100-degree days as well as many cooler days in the 60s. As long as the seed think it’s spring, they’ll begin to germinate.

That’s pretty much it. Some people place the seedlings under constant bright lights and 70-plus degree temperatures for up to three years to speed them up to maturity. I’m hoping that bright daylight in a warmish interior spot will give them enough of a boost that I don’t have to resort to the equivalent of putting the plants on steroids.

Yearling sarracenia seedlings of the cross S. (Melanorhoda, Triffid Park x rosea luteola).

And here you see the reason why people might try to accelerate growth. These are year-old seedlings from a cross by Brooks Garcia that I sowed a year ago, thinking I’d practice on someone else’s cross before attempting my own. I grew these in my unheated greenhouse which has fairly low, less-than-ideal lighting conditions. They did get some bottom heat during the coldest months of the year.

Drosophyllum lusitanicum, a couple months old.

The other carnivorous plants I’m propagating this fall are of this Mediterranean-region species, Drosophyllum lusitanicum. While virtually all carnivorous plants are creatures of swamps and bogs, this one is unique in that it comes from fairly dry areas with be limited summer rainfall. Unlike the preceding sarracenia bog plants, this species could actually thrive in California’s wet-winter, dry-summer climate without too much additional life support.

Its common name is “Dewy Pine” because the leaves have little tentacles tipped with sticky bug-catching fluid that looks like dew. But Barry Rice mentions a much cooler moniker: Its Portuguese name translates into “Slobbering Pine.”

This plant and the preceding Sarracenia do catch insects. It’s a contradiction I’m trying to come to terms with. I plant a lot of California native plants, which provide nectar and other food for all sorts of winged and crawling creatures. And then I have these little monsters that actively trap and consume them. Call me a man of contradictions. In the end I hope I’m doing lots more good than bad.

I only know of one seller who ships Drosophyllum so you pretty much have to grow your own from seed if you want one. (I got my seed from the seed bank of the International Carnivorous Plant Society.) The little black seeds have a hard coat that slows down germination. If you have some 220-grit sandpaper around that’s not a problem. Just lightly–and I mean lightly–rub the seed between two sheets of the sandpaper until a patch of the black seed coat is worn away to reveal the white layer underneath. Then pop them on top of the same mixture you’d use for germinating Sarracenia and keep the mix moist with good-quality water. Germination for me was about two to six weeks, no cold stratification necessary.

There you have it. With both of these kinds of plants it was a little more work than my last post growing bladderods from seed. But really, it isn’t that hard if you’re patient.

from seed, the easy version

Fall: Prime time to sow many seeds in California’s mediterranean climate. Self-sown generations of clarkia, poppies, baby blue eyes, buckwheats and lupines are showing up all around the garden.

But this year has pulled me in lots of directions and I haven’t put a lot of effort into sowing seeds. Also, part of this lack of motivation is an attempt to accept the reality that the garden is pretty full as it stands, and I try resist the delusion that a plant growing from a tiny seed won’t take up as much space as a nearly mature one from the nursery. Consequently the only active seed-sowing I’ve taken part in has been limited to two very different kinds of plants: the California-native bladderpod and some carnivorous plants.

The bladderpod was mainly an experiment. The pods that give Isomeris arborea its common name are full of seeds the size of dried peas. How easy would they be from seed?

Very easy, as it turns out. I opened up a couple pods and buried the seeds about a quarter to half inch in these pots just two weeks ago. Here they are, showing almost 100% germination and phenomenal seedling vigor.

The more upright of my two young bladderpod plants

Now that I see they’re really easy from seed I can check out the other thing thing I was curious about. I have two bladderpods in the garden. One is slow-growing but is assuming a nice upright posture. The other is an exuberant floppy mess of green-gray leaves and yellow flowers. Both forms have their use in the garden, but I was really hoping for more upright growth patterns when I put them in the garden.

My seedlings come from the more upright plant, so we’ll see whether they follow mom’s growth habits when placed in various locations around the yard. Is the difference in growth habit nature or nurture? Might I have a consistently strain of upright-growing bladderpods on my hands?

In the native plant community growing specific strains or cultivars is often looked down upon as reducing natural variation and dumbing down the gene pool. But in the garden it’s useful to know what kind of plant you’re getting. A gardener might be disappointed to end up with a low mound instead of an open upright shrub. The customer might never buy another native plant again and instead fill their yard with hydrangeas. They’d spend thousands of gallons watering their hydrangeas, there’d be no more water for people and plants, and civilization as we know it would collapse.

Anyway, so far this has been really easy. Next post I’ll look at my more high energy-input efforts to grow some carnivorous plants from seed.

unusual october

October usually throws some ridiculously warm and dry weather at us. This was the month that in 2003 and 2007 saw monster wildfires racing through the county, including the largest fire to hit California in recorded history (in 2003).

We’ve a few of those warmer days, but what’s been surprising has the the cool, wet foretaste of winter. Here’s a little example: This is my parking pass for work, where I usually go in to the office Mondays through Thursdays. Each big dark X corresponds to a day when it was too wet to ride my scooter in to work. Add to that another morning when I got a bad weather report and arrived pretty drenched.

Over the last two weeks it seems like half the mornings looked a little like this, with mist–or outright rain–turning the pavement wet.

Finally, the line of repurposed cat litter buckets that had looked so forlorn all summer at the drip edges of the roof were beginning to fill with water. In fact my two rain big barrels are now full, ready to have their contents shared back into the garden.

In response to the cooling trend plants are leafing out; seedlings are germinating. Readers not in mediterranean climates might think they’re reading a garden blog from the southern hemisphere. But no, this is California, which shares this wet-winter/dry-summer climate with less than 5% of the earth’s surface. To make up for being so special we’re treated with almost 20% of all the world’s plant species. More than a fair trade for long summer months with close to no water.

I was out in the front yard over the weekend, tidying up growth that had hit its expiration date. Mixed in with branches that had truly died were plenty belonging to drought-deciduous plants that were coming back to life. On the left is our local chaparral currant, Ribes indecorum, turning from brown twigs to leafy twigs. On the right is Verbena lilacina, a plant that can stay looking fairly green over the summer if you give it more water than I do.

Everywhere I stepped I had to avoid mashing tiny little buckwheat seedlings, or these guys, itty bitty little chia plants (Salvia columbariae). Early this summer when I took out the dead plants of this annual I made a point of shaking the seed heads over the dirt. Still I was worried that I wouldn’t have enough germination to repeat the amazing show of last spring. Looks like I didn’t need to be so concerned.

In the back yard seedlings of baby blue eyes were pushing their way through the mulch. The mulch really does help keep down the weeds, but this species fortunately doesn’t seem overly daunted by my attempt to save myself a few dozen hours of weeding. Various creatures do find these seedlings extra-tasty–including the cat, which seems to think these are almost as good as catnip. Once they’re larger the cat doesn’t seem to pay them any attention. I’m hoping for a nice half dozen or so survivors.

And there were even more seedlings. These are a few days away from showing their first true leaves, but I’m hoping that they’re the beginnings of clarkias that surrounded this patch of bare dirt. If not clarkias, they’re likely seedlings of this really noxious weed that shared the space with the clarkias. We’ll soon find out…

Yes, it’s been an unusual October. But I’ll take plants leafing out and seedlings pushing their way out of the ground any day over another round of brushfires!

two reasons to mulch


One of the weekend garden projects was to put down some mulch around a couple of the fruit trees. I’d resisted doing it earlier because I’d been using the bare ground at the edge of the little orchard as a place to sow various annual wildflower seeds–clarkia, baby blue eyes, poppies, fun things like that. Mulch would have prevented the seed from germinating.

A little garden of annual wildflowers sounds really cool, but it’s a lot of work to keep going. Bare ground during the wet winter and spring weather is an open invitation for all the dormant weed seeds to set up house, and keeping the bed weeded was a several-day-a-week chore.

Add to that that we’re re trying to do more to conserve water. Mulching around the trees to conserve water was making too much sense to not do. Come winter I’ll be glad for the reduced weeding.


The raised bed with the fruit trees still contains some ornamentals near the edges, and I mulched up to near the edges of most of them. This is the local Dudleya edulis, combined with blue chalk fingers, Senecio mandraliscae, from South Africa.


Some of the other plants in the bed were so low-growing that mulching would have covered them entirely. I left a couple little patches of the native Dichondra occidentalis with mulch only at the edges. Hopefully the plant will be able to grow up through the mulch a bit.


This little San Miguel Island buckwheat seedling was large enough to not bury, but a couple seedlings nearby were specks in the dirt that would have never seen the light of day.


For these tiniest seedlings, I left the ground bare. In addition I erected a couple little goalposts to mark the location so I wouldn’t stomped on when I walk through or pull them out thinking they’re a weed. It’s a technique I use whenever I plant some seeds in the open ground. The little upright twigs usually stay around long enough for the seeds to germinate and get to a safe size.

I’ll miss the little meadow in the spring months, but not the weeding. And I feel better that the fig and plum will be able to get by with a little less water. Come fall, if I decide I’d still like some annuals to liven up a garden spot with the bare branches of the trees overhead, there really wouldn’t be anything stopping me from clearing little patches of dirt through the mulch, sowing some wildflowers, and erecting little goalposts to protect the plants from marauding gardeners.

Hmm. I’m not sure why it took me so long to do this…

winner of an ugly contest

Last summer John and I were at the farmer’s market in Ocean Beach, a funky, alternative neighborhood of San Diego. We were looking over some of the offerings at a stall when someone behind me starts laughing and shouts out over my shoulder, “Look at those ugly-ass tomatoes!”

Obviously someone used to the perfectly shaped (and perfectly tasteless) grocery store tomatoes, he was pointing out a pile of Cherokee Purple tomatoes to his girlfriend. “They’re, like mutant. Who’d buy that?” To be sure, the tomatoes were flat, irregularly shaped and sized, partly green and partly reddish-purple. Nothing to win a spot on a pinup calendar of tomato varieties. But these tomatoes have their rabid followers, and I count myself one of them. They’re like the best tomato you’ve tasted, and sliced up they’re actually pretty attractive.

The above is a picture from the Seed Savers Exchange catalog [ source ]. These are prettier examples than you usually find of this variety.

One person even has a domain name, cherokeepurple.com attached to his blog entries about trying to grow this variety (without much success) in Arkansas. I might not be that rabid, but last year I decided to save some seeds from the best examples of Cherokee Purple from the farmer’s markets so that I could grow my own. This is an heirloom, open pollinated variety, so they should come true from seed.

I consulted Saving Seeds, an older book by Marc Rogers that’s still available via Amazon (and probably a few other sellers). If you own the book, give it up–You’re a plant geek. There, the basic instructions were to first clean the seeds as best as you could. Next you drop them into a jar full of water for a few days until the gummy pulp surrounding the seeds ferments and liberates the seeds. When that happens, the previously pulpy seeds–which floated–would sink to the bottom of the jar. Finally you drain and dry them and store them away. I followed the instructions, but I was worried that there was still some pulp attached to some of the seeds when I was done with the process so that not all of them sank.

The acid test came three weeks ago when I put some of the seeds into pots. Maybe not all the seeds were processed perfectly, but I’m now the proud parent of six pots of Cherokee Purple seedlings!

I have a few spots around the yard selected for them, places where I’ve never put tomatoes, so I’m hoping they’ll take to their new locations and thrive. I’ll probably give them a couple more weeks in their pots, and then it’s time to set them loose. I’ll post the baby pictures as they grow up…pictures so ugly only a parent and lover of Cherokee Purple could love.