About Good Scents

The cut flower business ended in 2011 but I continue to post other items about gardening.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Constantly Moist but not Wet

There are a number of plants, particularly those for partial shade such as astilbes, primroses, trollius and ferns that prefer or require consistently moist but not soggy soil. I have never had a garden that naturally provided these conditions and for years I struggled with all these plants. No matter how many times I told myself that this year I would remember to regularly water them, I always sooner or later forgot. Eventually I would notice the wilted trollius or crispy astilbe and pour on the water, but by then it was usually too late. I managed to keep the plants alive but they would never thrive.

When I started Good Scents I really wanted to be able to grow astilbes and trollius for cut flowers so decided to try to artificially create the conditions they need. The solution I came up with has worked surprisingly well and so I wanted to pass it on. I created large 4'x25' beds but the same system could probably be used on a smaller scale. The basic idea is to create a growing area that drains slowly but is also higher than the surrounding ground. This way the crown of the plants will not flood, but the roots will always have access to plenty of moisture. This is what I did:
  • Construct a raised bed frame around the new bed using 2x8 lumber. If you are doing a smaller area you can probably skip creating the frame as long as the resulting bed is higher than the surrounding ground.
  • Excavate about 18 inches of soil from the bed. This will make a big mess and yes, it is really hard work. When you are done the distance from the top of the frame to the bottom of the excavation is about 2 feet. If you aren't using a frame it will be about 18 inches.
  • Line the bottom and sides of the excavated area with a single sheet of heavy duty (6-8mil) plastic. Plastic like this comes in 10 foot widths so there should be plenty if the bed isn't too wide. If you are using a lumber frame, the plastic should extend to the top of it.
  • Use a pitchfork or other tool to punch holes in the plastic. I made maybe 5 pitch fork punches along the 25 feet. The holes prevent too much water from accumulating in the bed.
  • Put the soil back into the bed, adding plenty of compost, peat moss and fertilizer as you go.
  • When you're done the soil will be well over the top of the lumber frame. Much of this will settle so don't be alarmed.
  • Plant your thirsty plants in the new bed and mulch.

Over a couple years I constructed 4 of these beds and have never before grown such great astilbes and trollius, not to mention other damp loving plants like primroses. I do water them occasionally when the weather is really dry, but for the most part the soil in the beds stays constantly moist but not wet.

One caveat - if your soil is dry because you have surface rooted trees like maples, pines, or cherries nearby, this method will probably not work because 1) excavating the bed will be impossible and 2) if you do manage to clear the roots from the bed, they will quickly return.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Starting Alchemilla (Lady's Mantle) from Seed

Alchemilla is fairly easy to start from seed but plants are readily available in small sizes in May at the Coleman's Market in Ypsilanti or other stores selling small perennials. The seed is a little smaller than poppy a seed, and like most tiny seeds it should be surface sown. The seeds are a little slow to germinate, taking 2-3 weeks to sprout, and the seedlings grow quite slowly at first. Because they are such slow growers, I started mine today.

Alchemilla (Lady's Mantle)

Alchemilla mollis is a plant usually grown for its attractive leaves. The grayish-green, fuzzy leaves are sharply pleated, hence the common name Lady's Mantle. The pleats and the fuzz cause dew and rain drops to bead up on the leaves in a way that is very beautiful and delightful if you've learned to appreciate the subtle pleasures of foilage in the garden. They grow very well in partial shade but will tolerate full sun and are often used as an edging in a perennial border.

Alchemilla mollis foliage

In additon to the pretty leaves, Alchemilla produces flowers, though I never appreciated them much until I started growing cut flowers. The chartreuse flowers are tiny but produced in panticles that are 6-8 inches long on stems up to a foot long. The overall effect in the landscape or a vase is a "foamy" filler, kind of like baby's breath only less trite and with a more interesting color. They bloom in the first couple weeks of June and the flowers are green enough to blend with pretty much anything.

Alchemilla mollis flowers

They arrive at the same time as the big, flashy early summer flowers like peonies and delphiniums and provide a needed gentle balance to them.

Chartreuse Alchemilla accents peonies, bell flowers, salvia and rose

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Starting Delphinium From Seed

Delphiniums are easy to start from seed if you provide some simple requirements.

  1. Use fresh seed packaged for this year. Older seed germinates poorly.
  2. Chill the seed after sowing at 35-40 degrees for about 3 weeks.
  3. Maintain darkness until the seeds sprout.

I sow the seed at 2-3 seeds per cell pack since the seed won’t be good next year and the package always contains more than enough. I cover the seed with about 1/8 inch of soil mix, mist with water, and then place the flat in a black plastic garbage bag. To provide cold I put the bagged flats in my unheated garage but you could also use a refrigerator. After 3 weeks of chilling, bring the flat back inside into a typical winter temperature room, 65-70F, but maintain darkness by leaving it covered with the plastic bag. Check daily for the first sprouts - they will appear in a week or two - and then remove the bag, cover with a humidity dome and place under lights.


Delphiniums are one of my favorite summer flowers so I grow plenty and use them generously in bouquets. I mostly grow Delphinium elatum, which produces dense 1-2 foot spikes of flowers in deep blue, pale blue, purple, pink, white and lavender. Each floret in a Delphinium elatum spike has a white or dark brown contrasting center that is picturesquely called a “bee”. I also grow a few Delphinium belladonna, which produces less dense spikes in electric and pale, icy blues.
Purple and lavender delphiniums with salmon lily, white astilbe and daisies

There are numerous delphinium seed strains available but the most common Delphinium elatum series are ‘Pacific Giants’, ‘Magic Fountains’ and ‘Clear Springs’. ‘Pacific Giants’ grow 6 feet tall or more and are striking in a perennial border but they must be staked. For cut flowers I prefer ‘Magic Fountains’ and especially ‘Clear Springs’. Catalogs claim ‘Clear Springs’ grows 30 inches tall but mine usually reach 4 or even 5 feet and still do not require staking. I have less experience growing ‘Magic Fountains’ which seems to grow a bit shorter for me, around 3 feet. There are fewer Delphinium belladonna seed strains, the most common being the pale blue 'Clivenden Beauty', the dark blue 'Bellamosum', and the white 'Casa Blanca'.

I love delphiniums for cut flowers because of their shape, color and long bloom season. The tall spikes contrast beautifully with large round flowers like peonies, lilies, zinnias and dahlias. I also like them combined with lisianthus. I like to combine blue delphiniums with yellow, white or pink and the purple ones look great with orange. Most pink delphiniums are a kind of dusty rose color which looks nice with green nicotinia or deep purple lisianthus. Delphiniums sown in January or February will bloom in July of the same year, and the following year will flower at their normal time in early June and will rebloom in August and September. This means if you start some each year you can have delphiniums in bloom for two months or more of the year.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Starting Lisianthus from Seed

Most cut flower growers who grow lisianthus
start with plugs - tiny seedlings sold by large commercial growers. They do this because lisianthus grow extremely slowly for the first 3 months and are a little finicky about growing conditions when small. However, for someone with a small business like mine, starting from seed can be a good option. The pluses for me are it is cheaper to grow from seed than buy plugs and I can succession sow to get lisianthus for a longer season.

Pelleted lisianthus seed

Lisianthus take about 6 months to bloom from seed so I start the first ones in early January. I start some more in late February and a third batch in mid-April. The ones sown in January will bloom in July, the February sowing blooms in August and the April sowing blooms September and October. The commonly available seed varieties (Echo, Cinderella and Twinkle) are best sown in January or February.

Lisianthus seed are like dust, smaller than poppy seeds, so they are sold pelleted. Each seed is coated with a substance that dissolves when moistened. The pelleted seed are still small but can be handled individually. Because the seedlings grow so slowly I start them in 100 or 200 cell plug flats to to conserve space. Lisianthus seed are surface sown, misted with a sprayer, covered with a humidity dome and placed under the lights. The seedlings will emerge in 1 or 2 weeks but are almost impossible to see.