I’VE BEEN THINKING and worrying a lot about the bloodlines of plants we keep lately. Now, the rock garden posse, as a whole, aren’t greenhorns at making plants from scratch, since that’s what makes them happy: growing things they can’t buy at the big box store, let alone garden centers. But times are a-changing, and there’s a generation gap. Young plant lovers are not going into nursery work yet, so the baton is getting dropped between them and the old guard, the great librarians of rock garden plant genes. I’m afraid we’ll wake up one day to find that no one has kept up certain plants. Now don’t think I’m crazy, I’m a spring chicken among the old timers, but I’ve seen it, and it’s happening more and more! Folks have to go back to wild places and collect the same plants again – not to refresh the bloodlines, but restart them. Why didn’t we keep enough around to keep these plants going?
Don’t think you don’t have plants in your garden that must be shared and passed on. More gardens than not have a plant, maybe an old forgotten but beloved conifer, which is no longer in catalogs, or in this country. Valuable bloodlines live in your garden; it’s your responsibility to keep them going. If someone hadn’t done that when you were a new rock gardener, you wouldn’t have the garden you do. No matter how fancy or rare some plant may be, you better get it a mate, I say.
Fact is, some great known rock garden plants have been lost. I heard a story from Panayoti Kelaidis about the elusive orange phlox: how it grew along a dirt road in Mexico, was collected, grown, even showed up in garden plant encyclopedias. And now? No one’s seen it lately in gardens. And the original wild patch? Turned under the bulldozer for a big four-lane road. Even if they are not extinct or endangered, plenty of hidden treasures in backyards have lived out their natural lives amazingly but gone no further when the reaper came for them. I think a lot of folks don’t know how easy it is to participate in keeping the bloodlines flowing.
Seeds from Afar
This internet thing has blown your seed options wide open. You can get narcissus seed from Australia, iris from the Holy Land, and some pretty crazy onions from Sweden (I didn’t know anything but fish came from there). And we’ve got these plants clubs like NARGS, Scotland’s The Rock Garden Club, Alpine Garden Society, special plant societies, and local clubs like the Alpine Garden Club of British Columbia in Vancouver, which have seed exchanges to distribute seed among their members. You’ve got no excuse for not giving or taking a share to get those fresh genes flowing into your garden.
Next time you’re in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, stop by Stephanie Ferguson’s crevice garden, and you will see one of the wildest herds of vegetable sheep you can imagine. She grows almost every plant herself from seed, and almost all of those come in envelopes from places with funny names, so her place is the biggest candy store of botanical pleasure. I’m sure it’s taken years to even get herself on mailing lists of these unpronounceable characters who climb volcanoes and glaciers for seeds, and she’s put the postman to work, an ounce at a time, over the years, with all the envelopes of seed coming home. She didn’t buy her garden from a garden center, and as a result, people from around the world come to see this real zoo of variety.
The truth is, bringing in seeds from farther away means you have a lesser chance of finding something that likes your climate, but you’ve got a much better chance of finding something rare in your neck of the woods. You bring in dozens and dozens of tiny glassine envelopes from Scotland and everywhere else, just hoping one of them hits its mark and proves to be your next good plant. It’s worth the risk: just imagine how gratifying it is when those stallions you ordered from New Brunswick that did so well can be put to stud and shared with your friends!
Seed From Near
Your friends and buddies have the best plants, ever notice? Because their plants survived, and might even have adapted to, your local climate, they are the best source of blood for any given species. Your friends have gone through the trouble already of losing the weaklings and getting them used to their new home. Of course, some friend’s seed and plants might do too well and become weeds, so watch out for that with your gun and vigilant fork-tongued trowel.
Seed from Home
The only thing better than your friend’s seed is your own. You grew it, you like it, it likes you. It’s right there, easy to grab seed, and easy to cross-pollinate if necessary. And you’ll get lots of it- not a packet, but a cussed paper bag full! You can grow a lot of plants from that! And if you can’t grow it all, you can pass it on to someone who will. I’ve gotta admit, these years, I’ve been taking a little break from all these real fussy foreign damsels, like those Persian princesses Dionysia, or oncocyclus irises. While there is great satisfaction in working hard – real hard – to get that seed, germinate ten, lose nine, plant one, pamper away for years, and then finally get down on your knees one fine spring to take a picture of that one surviving bastard, lately I’ve taken the easy road. There is a lot to be said for grabbing a fistful of my own seed, having it come up like dog’s hair, finding them to survive when I forgot to water, having dozens more than I need even after planting out a proper herd of them in my place and leaving me dozens to give away. Easy plants are a legitimate pleasure, I say, and you’ll find those in your garden already.
The fishhook nipple cactus, (Mammillaria wrightii) is a terrible plant name, and not originally from places as cold as here. But a friend of mine convinced some to grow, killing most of them, and gave me seed of the survivors. They were easy to sprout, and in a year I had thumb-sized babes to stick in my garden. Half of those died, but the other half bloomed in summer with flamengo-pink pinwheels in summer, months after the main cactus flower show in the garden. And they kept blooming and making little fruit like grapes. They were delicious, and the ones I didn’t eat had seeds, which I grew again. They grew up faster this time, and now none of them die in winter.
A great man from ranching stock himself, Kelly Grummons, once told me that in the greenhouse world a few decades ago, bitterroot (Lewisia) “were considered ungrowable.” But after years of trying and selecting some good growable stock, now they are breeding them for goofy colors, and you can buy one of the damn things at a grocery store!
The progeny of plants in your garden will be better suited to your garden. The more generations, the more they’ll be used to the local weather. African stuff starts to grow better in Colorado, natives who have been “too wild” start taming down and acting nice in the fence. Give it enough time and they might even get weedy, if you’re lucky. Harvesting seed from your own plants is when the game starts to open up and things get interesting.
Making Young’uns from Seed
Wintertime is sowing time. Gives you inside gardening to do when it’s snowed outside. If you don’t do this, you might be a lazy person, and you should consider trying it. There is a low barrier to entry and the satisfaction returns are high. First, you just need to have realistic expectations – because you are kicking butt if half of the foreign seed pots you sowed come up.
Look at someone else’s small-time home winter sowing setup. It can be the size of a regular beer cooler, nothing crazy. Find a spot outside that is north or maybe east facing that you can water once a day in summer and ignore all winter. If it’s covered, like a porch, you’ll be stuck watering. And I know you city-slickers have a lot of little porches I see not being used. Maybe put the dog’s water bowl there so you don’t forget to water. Now you’ve got a nursery.
I’ll suggest choosing pots that you have lots of already, like the ones you bought your plants in, or coffee cans, whatever you’ve got laying around. I tell you what, just get yourself one of those trays they’ve got at plant sales, it helps you keep the pots together and standing.
Soils are a subject on their own, but I’ll just say don’t over think it. Make sure you’ve got something to hold moisture and something to let it go. Half perlite and half peat is a good example. I’ve been disappointed with sand; it seems to clog up the airways unless you engineer it just right. My favorite mix now, which seems to please the jungle, mountain, and desert plants alike, is equal parts peat, perlite, and expanded shale. Expanded shale is glorified kitty litter. Snoop around and see where you can find it or something that works the same. The old boys at Kew Gardens more than a hundred years ago in Queen Victoria’s time used crushed pots. Clever buggers. I feel I should also mention peat. While it ain’t great that the stuff doesn’t grow back very fast out in the bogs, it’s been hard to swap out in a mix. Coconut coir is full of promise and tropical smells, but unless it’s diluted pretty well, it screws with most plants because of something called “phenolic compounds.” Whatever they are, I’ve experienced that most of our plants don’t like ‘em. I’ll keep working on that, and let you know what I find. In the meantime, all the happiest plants and still-living plants are growing in that equal-thirds mixture.
Sow fine seeds on the surface and cover with a little grit or gravel, and push bigger seeds down; the basic rule is four times the size of the seed is the depth to bury. I won’t tell you how to make tags for your plants; everyone’s got their way; just make sure you put lots of information on them. Where the seed came from, when you sowed it, maybe how many seeds. Just before you stick them outside in your spouse-approved shady spot for the rest of the winter, give them a watering. When they are cold and wet, maybe even turned into little ice cubes in that tray, they start counting, and when they’ve counted their secret number, which is 3-5 weeks under 40° F (4° C) for most, they are poised to sprout when the spring warmth comes. The magic of winter sowing is that the seedlings will come up at the exact perfect time all by themselves. I usually seed new sprouts starting in February and different kinds keep popping up until May.
About the time you see your first sprouts is when you’ve got to start paying attention and checking to see if you need to water, but mostly to take in the pleasure of watching tiny baby plants start up. You’ll find yourself watering once a week in spring, and daily at the peak of summer. Daily might seem like a lot of commitment, but it takes hardly a minute to do it with a fine sprinkle from a water-can.
Most alpine and rock garden plants are plantable in size by the following fall or the next spring, or at least ready for separating into their own pots. I like fall planting – there isn’t so much a danger of under-watering those newlings – and you will have the right size of plant if you are one of those crevice garden fanatics who loves jamming plants in cracks so they grow smushed between rocks.
Raising the young plants is where we tend to kill a few off. Now, don’t cry, this is a good thing. Even intentionally throwing away stragglers is cleaning out the bloodlines, cutting the fat from the genes. You don’t want to encourage plants that want you to work too hard, do you? I find I lose as much as a quarter of my little tiny fancy plants; many go right after they are transplanted. If I’m feeling real lazy and clever at once, I’ll stick sedum or sempervivum pieces right on top of a pot recently vacated and have half a tray of happy sedum instead of half a tray of dead twigs. Keeps your morale up!
Finding Sweet Spots
Of course, it’s not all on the plant to thrive. That means you might have to kill a few to find out where they want to be planted. Maybe that lewisia, which only grows in rocks facing south in British Columbia, wants to grow on the east or north side in Colorado. Now how do you think someone figured that out? I bet you right now they killed a few. I’ve been killing those heavenly blue gentians trying to find out where you put them in the desert to make it. Making your own plants, and doing it in numbers, gives you the power to find the best (and worst) places for a plant.
There is a portion of a batch of plants you should let die. Or even cull yourself. You got 11 Acantholimon seedlings from some man with the unpronounceable name? Two or three are weak and thin, maybe came up after the others? Do the future a favor and send them to the great compost bin in the sky – or the one in your back garden. You should cull harder from stock you have lots of, of course, and more from stock you grew. Precious threes and fours from overseas you can hold onto as broodmares for now, but once they get settled in, be hard on their kids.
I guess this also means that when some plant you liked in the garden kicked the bucket, you can call it an “intentional cull” in your “program to find locally adapted genetics” while you hide your tears. No matter how bad a gardener you are, there are so many plants on this planet that there are at least hundreds you can’t kill. So go find ‘em and don’t cry when a new recruit disappoints you.
I once planted a mess of hardy living stone (Aloinopsis spathulata) in Denver. Some from a friend in Salt Lake, some I grew, and some from a nursery which grows everything in a greenhouse. My friend in Salt Lake grows plants from the survivors of his cold winters. I grew mine from plants which make it through my mild winters. Well, these three bloodlines of plants were put to the test during a nasty, cold, wet winter. Half of mine died. All the greenhouse plants died. And none of Salt Lake stock did.
Finding Sweet Performers
Now, this is where the satisfaction comes. It’s realizing that one of your plants made it. Not only made it, but has become an outstanding flower machine, galloping along and making you happy every time you see it. Take note of the plants that are easy to grow, that bloom and are still alive in that corner of the garden you stopped looking after five years ago. Take note of your friends who don’t take good care of their plants and see what is doing well in their gardens!
Now don’t just stand there and be pleased with yourself at finding a good plant. If you found a gem, mine it! Share some of the wealth, or, when the day comes to meet its maker, you will be sorry you didn’t put it out to stud. Collect seeds, take cuttings or give cuttings to someone who does that. Tell them the only price for the cuttings is to return a rooted plant or two! It’ll only make you happier to have two or three more of something you liked so much by itself.
Sometimes you’ve got to put some work into making stock when the birds and bees – and I mean that literally here – don’t do the trick for your plants. A bunch of plants are self-incompatible and don’t do the dirty when they are by themselves. Or sometimes they need some screwball exotic bug to stick its special nose thing in there, and there aren’t any of those where you live. Try looking it up and see what kind of kitchen or bathroom gadget will get the job done. Obviously, too, this means getting another plant (or planning for this by keeping and planting in numbers from the outset) but sometimes, and just sometimes, this means borrowing a stud.
My friend Trina down the road has one of those Brazilian golfball cactus Notocactus haselbergii on her windowsill like I do and those suckers are apparently self-incompatible. They just don’t want to hanky-panky by themselves and prefer it the old-fashioned way. So once a year one of the plants goes over to the other’s house for a sleepover. No pajamas – just a little paintbrush. Usually, both plants will get knocked up and sprout little green preggo fruits on top, like they are blowing tiny bubbles. We share the seeds, and I swear the ones that we get from our own seed are so vigorous they grow like little beach balls hooked onto an air compressor.
Super rare plants that you won’t find in the stable down the road might require reaching further afield. I had to get pollen from a fella from Kansas to wed with my Iris paradoxa. We happened to meet in Denver and he happened to have a flower to stud out. Twenty-one seeds in a pod a month later was completely worth the trouble. This is where clubs help a person’s effort. The NARGS Rocky Mountain Chapter’s own Rod Haenni has brought up the idea of a pollen exchange. I think this is something to figure out one day. But until there is an organized method any two people can share pollen in the way I learned from Tony Avent. Take the whole male bits (stamen) off of the flower, and set them in a little kitchen strainer over a bit of tin foil, and let that sit for a day, dry, inside. Knock all the pollen you can into the foil - the main thing is that it’s completely dry - and fold the foil up to keep in an envelope in the fridge for up to a year. But you’ll send it away to someone who needs it before that. The recipient will apply that pollen straight from the foil or with a brush or cotton swab onto the right (lady) part of his or her flower. Find out for sure where that is because I was embarrassed to realize that even though I’d been looking at iris flowers since I was short enough to see one eye-to-eye, I didn’t know where the pistil was. (It’s a tiny wave, a delicate downward-looking fold on the hood which hangs over the beard.)
The next step is gathering your seed. Some things drop it all at once, some things over time, and some things don’t drop it at all until you come up and nab it. There are a million kinds of plants and dances they do with their seeds, but the easiest thing is to cut off the dried up flower stalks or pods or whatnot and stuff them in a paper bag. Let it dry for a week or so inside if need be. The bag will catch the falling seed and you can toss that stem out to the chickens. You can screen the seed with actual screen, which can be as simple as leftovers from that screen door the wind took off last year, or a set of “geological classifiers,” which are worth their spendy price for the quickness they work. Or, you can gently scrape a credit card over the seed pile and you’ll find that it tends to separate the “chaff,” or useless bits, from the good seed, even though you look like a bonafide drug dealer while doing it.
Put those seeds in glassines, which you can order for NARGS, or just “coin envelopes” sold by places that sell staplers. My last strong opinion for you on this is to keep your seeds in the fridge if they aren’t going somewhere important in the next couple of months. There are different ideas on this, but they are all wrong; keep them in the fridge. It seems to me that seeds stored at room temperature or warmer just don’t come up well after a few years. My better half doesn’t mind that the bottom half of our home larder is shoeboxes full of seed packets, all inside a big trash bag in case something catastrophic like a beer spill happens in there. Because beer is for drinking, and fridges are for storing seed.
Now, once you’ve satisfied yourself and secured your investment, it’s time to do your due diligence and share!
I like to put a quarter of a seed harvest away (in the fridge, you hear?) as backup in case my future self is better at this than I am now. The other three quarters? Here’s where you get to pay it forward and join the cool dudes who get “donor status” in the seed exchanges. It doesn’t take much. I think a lot of people don’t realize that on a Monday afternoon in May, walking through their garden, they have passed by seed heads on the five plants which could have been their five taxa for the NARGS exchange.
When it comes to sharing, start nearby, then go far. And what if you think “The Gothenburg Botanical Garden would have no interest in seeds of this yucca I sometimes run over in my driveway?” You have no idea how those European boys love the wild wild west and imagine tumbleweeds and Conestoga wagons; they like our wild plants! Make ‘em happy with a taste of the west.
Do the work. It’s not much, but it is important. Ever wonder how you came to have plant choices that are so broad you could fill barns with them? It’s been thankless work, shameless work, a constant pressure fueled by an excitement for something new, constantly taking little bites out of the boringness of gardens. It’s making our lives better. Wouldn’t you like to be part of something like that?
Truly, any movement of bloodlines into, out of, and within your garden, is good. Just bear in mind a few things: keep numbers of one thing, notice plants that treat you well, and do what it takes to pass their genes on.