Growing perennial flowers from seed: Save money and create lush abundance!

Posted by Anne Fletcher on

In the middle section of our garden, between the veggie beds and the open, family play area, there are two garden beds that I hope will someday look a little like this:

Picture of beautiful perennial flower border
This stunning border is in Gravetye Manor in Sussex, the former home of garden designer William Robinson.  (You can see a the whole episode of Gardeners' world dedicated to his garden here. -- that's where I got this screenshot!)
Looking closely, I see dahlias, roses, heleniums, verbena, salvia, some ornamental grasses in the background, and a lot of white flowers that I can't identify.  In this relatively small patch of flower border, there are dozens of individual plants, mostly perennials. 
A mistake that many gardeners make is to put way too few plants into their borders, leading to lots of bare dirt and a forlorn, lonely look. 
I'm definitely guilty of this!  When I'm at the nursery choosing plants, I usually think that 3 or 4 of a particular variety is enough.  Especially at $8 each or so for perennials, it seems crazy to buy more.  But then I get home and plant them.  Sure enough, I needed 20 plants instead of 3 to get that dense, lush look.
And it's not just about looks!  If you want to maximize the number of pollinators you're attracting, or have a significant harvest of herbs mixed in with your flowers, you really need to fill that space, with no dirt uncovered.
This year, I've finally gotten organized in time to plant hundreds of perennial herbs and flowers from seed, in order to have an over-abundance ready to go for our autumn perennial planting window.
Here's how I did it:

Planning

Picture of computer, lists and books, showing the process of garden planning for planning for growing perennial flowers and herbs from seed

Planning ahead for the plants you'll want 3 or 4 months out is *hard*!  It's all so very abstract, looking at pictures, reading about what conditions a plant needs, imagining how big it will get and how it will look with other plants.  It really does make my head spin!

But the good thing about doing all this from seed is that if it doesn't work out, you've only lost the $5 or so you spend on seeds, plus maybe another $10 or so on potting mix.  And if you have 40 plants of a particular variety, you can plant them in different spots to see where they thrive in your particular microclimate.

The main criteria I was searching for while planning were the following:

  • Well adapted to a summer-dry climate.  We often get lots of water in winter, but then go 6-8 months with no water at all.  These aren't necessarily desert plants, but those that cope well with an intense soggy season followed by a long drought.
  • Edible or medicinal value for either humans or pollinators.
  • A variety of leaf shapes and textures for visual interest
  • Flowers in a harmonious range of colors.  I've chosen peach, pink, orange, dark purple, and white.  
  • Different heights and habits to create interesting 3D shapes in the border.

Here are the plants I've chosen:

  • Mullein Wedding Candles
  • Anise hyssop Tango and Apache sunset
  • Winter savory
  • Oregano za'atar variety
  • Lady's mantle
  • Roman chamomile
  • Yarrow Favorite berries
  • Rubus creeping raspberry
  • Spanish tarragon, Tagetes lucida
  • Lemon bergamot
  • Russel Lupin

If you know me, you'll know that I don't sugar coat things.  It's really not fair to say, "Oh this is so super-duper easy!  Give it a go!" when it's actually a lot of work.  It makes you feel like a failure for not succeeding with something "easy."  Anyway, another day for my soap box on misleading internet tutorials . . .

Suffice it to say, planning for the perennials was a challenging job with a lot of lists and Google time.  You can definitely do it, if you're prepared that it will take some time and some mental effort.

But then it's all worth it when this starts to happen:

Anise hyssop seedling sprouting in Orta self-watering seed pot
That's Anise hyssop germinating ⬆⬆. Look how teeny-weeny it is!

Sowing and caring for perennial seedlings

The biggest difference between perennial seedlings compared to veggies is that for the most part, the seeds are eeny-weeny!  Like dust-like.  

(If you're new to seed starting and want to learn more about the easier process of starting veggies from seed, click here to receive our free complete handbook for starting veggies from seed.)

All seeds are a bit different, and it's important to read the package.  For the varieties I sowed, most required light to germinate, and so I scattered them on the surface of already moist seed-starting mix.  I was very, very careful to get the itty-bitty seeds evenly distributed over the mix, and then I watered extremely gently with the "mist" setting on my sprayer, just enough to settle the seeds into good contact with the soil.

Because I was using Orta self-watering pots which water from below, that was the only time I watered from above.  With really small seeds, top watering can scatter them and hurt their chances of taking root.  You don't have to use Orta seed pots, of course, but you should definitely have a plan for bottom-watering or seriously gentle top-watering if you're growing very small seeds.

Here are some Anise hyssop seedlings (foreground) about 2 weeks after sowing:

Anise hyssop seedlings in Orta self-watering seed pot

And here they are a 2 1/2 weeks later:

Anise hyssop seedlings in Orta self-watering seed pot
You can see the lower left corner how there are no plants -- I watered there by mistake (when I was watering something else) and washed the seeds away!  If you look carefully, you can also see that there are two types of seedlings growing together. I made the super silly mistake of leaving my seed-starting mix outdoors on the potting bench, and verbena seeds from a plant nearby blew into the mix.  So - this is Anise hyssop seedlings, and verbena.  Sigh.
I just teased them apart and planted the Anise hyssop up into bigger pockets to give each plant room to grow on.
Anise hyssop seedlings in Orta self-watering seed pot
And here you can see them now (top center of the picture below), 2 weeks to the day after they were transplanted.  I'll be potting them up to 4" pots this weekend.
Anise hyssop seedlings in Orta self-watering seed pot along with roman chamomile, mullein, yarrow and winter savory, all in Orta self-watering seed pots
And speaking of potting up, here are some pictures of potting up the Spanish tarragon and Yarrow that I sowed 2 weeks ahead of the Anise hyssop.
Yarrow seedlings in Orta self-watering seed pot
Yarrow seedling plug being removed from Orta self-watering seed pot
Yarrow seedlings transplanted from Orta self-watering seed pot to 4 inch pots
Spanish tarragon, tagetes lucida seedlings in Orta self-watering seed pot
Spanish tarragon, tagetes lucida seedling plug being removed from Orta self-watering seed pot
yarrow, spanish tarragon, rubus seedlings awaiting transplant
We're 4-6 weeks now from prime perennial transplant season.  I'm going to keep tending and potting up these seedlings until then, hoping to have an over-abundance of plants to set out.  If the plan works, they'll settle in and grow deep roots over winter, and then burst into healthy, robust top-growth next spring.
Stay tuned for part 2 of this series when I finish potting up all the seedlings and plant them out to the garden!
If you want to follow along in real time, sign up for my weekly(ish) newsletter.  I've been posting about this project since July as it happened.  Kind of like a slow-motion live tweeting event for the gardening set.  😂
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So, to summarize, here are all the steps I've done so far to start perennials from seed:

  1. Decide what criteria your perennials need to satisfy.  It's not enough to know your UDSA zone.  You also need to choose based on water usage; sun or shade; edible, medicinal, or pollinator uses; aesthetics.
  2. Do your homework:  Use books, google, friends and neighbors to find plants that fit your criteria.
  3. Learn how each of your selected plants is best propagated.  For those that grow easily from seed . . .
  4. Order seeds!  You'll probably have to order from several different specialty seed companies.
  5. Sow seeds according to package directions, 2-3 months before your best season for planting out.  Perennials are more varied in their needs than the standard annual veggies we're used to!
  6. Tend your seedlings, pricking out and potting up as needed to make sure they keep growing strong and fast.
  7. (I haven't done this yet.) Plant out young plants!  In all but the very coldest parts of the United states, it's best to set out perennials in fall when the soil is still warm, but days are getting shorter.  This concentrates growth to the roots to help them overwinter and grow away strongly in the spring.

 

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