Gardening Tips: Perennials

Editor’s Note: I spoke with Michelle Smith this week, and she says it’s time to start gardening again, so the Spectator will resume publication of timely advice from her archive.


What to do this week

Most of the vegetables we grow from seed in our gardens are annuals. These seeds are programmed to grow quickly and set seed themselves in a single season. Generally speaking, this means they are easy to germinate, since their reproductive strategy is to hit the ground running. However, some seeds in the vegetable garden and even more in the flower garden are biennial or perennial and are programmed to hold off on germinating. These may need a little extra coaxing, but the effort is worthwhile. One decent perennial costs $5 at the garden center compared with $3 (or even less) for a whole packet of seeds of the same plant. If you want to establish a perennial bed in your garden, starting your own from seed is the way to go. And there are a number of tricks you can use to encourage them into sprouting.

Poppy seedlings. (Source: Lambley Nursery

Poppy seedlings. (Poppy seedlings. (Source: Lambley Nursery)

First, read the packet. It sounds obvious, I know, but a reputable seed company’s packet will tell you if the seed needs light or dark to germinate and if the seed should be planted when the soil is toasty warm or if early spring soil is warm enough. Hollyhock and nicotiana seeds, for example enjoy light and warmth, whereas phlox needs dark and cool conditions. Salpiglossis, an unusual, old-time favorite, also needs to germinate in the dark but needs warmth to do the trick. Ideally, the preferred growing conditions will also be in the catalog, so you can use that as a handy reference.

Many hard-to-grow perennials are helped by a period of stratification. This is a way to fool the seed into thinking it has already waited patiently in the soil for a winter. I sow the seeds in small plastic containers, cover them with a plastic bag and put them in my fridge for a week or two. I bring them out into the warmth and they are ready to wake from their sleep. This technique also works well for parsley and celery seeds, which usually take a long time to germinate. I let them grow in the plastic container until they start to put out their first true leaves – these are distinct from the pair of rounded cotyledons the plant first puts out. I then thoroughly soak the soil and prick out the individual plants and place them in soil blocks.

Some, like tree seeds, need repeated stratification in order to germinate. Nuts, in particular, sometimes even need a freeze-thaw cycle to break down the shell and allow for growth. I have started butternuts and chestnuts by putting them in a dedicated garden bed on the south side of my house which freezes and thaws regularly through the winter. It was death on the perennials I tried to plant there, but the nuts need it.

Some seeds, such as nuts but also those like four o’clocks, lupins and sweet peas, have a very hard outer shell that resists absorbing the water it needs to soften and begin to grow. This is a significant strategy for some plants that have evolved to ensure a suitably moist environment for optimum growth. You can circumvent this by carefully nicking the seed coat with a sharp paring knife or by putting a crumpled up piece of coarse sandpaper in a jar, and shaking the seeds in it. I much prefer the latter method as it is easy to go too far and damage the seed with your knife.

For fine seed that dislikes transplanting, like poppies or buddleia, I sow a few on each soil block, pressing them gently into the moist block. If, as is likely, more than one germinates, I pinch or snip off all but the strongest in each block.

Finally, as with vegetable gardening, try not to start more plants than you can reasonably put in the garden you have. Flowers especially dislike the competition they’ll face from weeds in a bed you are trying to reclaim from sod. A few extras, of course, can be given to friends, passed around your gardening club or contributed to the library spring plant sale. By starting them indoors, you can often encourage plants that are perennial or biennial to flower the first year instead of having to wait for the second. A little reward for your diligence!

Featured image: Vintage sweet pea seed packet. (Source: The Little Garden Shop, Etsy)


Market gardener, farmer, workshop leader, seed-saver, political candidate and mother, Michelle Smith has spent over 30 years coping with the challenges of our bioregion and in the process has built a store of practical and technical knowledge. The Inverness resident has served on the board of Seeds of Diversity Canada and represented Alternative Producers with the Federation of Agriculture but can do nothing about her hair. She is pictured with a head of Club Wheat, a seed that shares her approach to hairdressing.




Backyard food gardener Madeline Yakimchuk caught the food-security bug in the early ’90s through Cuba’s Urban Agriculture Department, taking her first permaculture course and planting her first garden. She can often be found discussing food security, nurturing a plant-based lifestyle or trying to give away vegetables. Professionally, she is GRYPHON media productions but sometimes uses la bruja in her volunteer work, most notably in managing the garden column, which begins life as a telephone interview.