About Good Scents

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

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Centaurea macrocephala

I really like Centaurea macrocephala. To me most Centaurea look like little pineapples when in bud and this one especially so. The flowers are bright yellow and the base of the 'pineapple' is covered with shiny, fuzzy brown scales. The plants 3-4 feet tall and bloom in early June. The flowers can be a couple inches across and should be cut while still in this 'pineapple' stage.
I started about 25 of these five years ago and they have faithfully come back year after year. This year I decided I could use a few more and got another packet of seeds from J.L. Hudson for $2 - what a deal.

Setaria italica (Limelight Spray Millet)

There are several ornamental millets grown as cut flowers but this is the only one I know of with green flowers. The panticles emerge from the top of the stalk and gradually bend over as they lengthen. After it bending over they expand and opens out a bit like a fluffy squirrel’s tail. They are pretty at all stages but I find them easier to integrate into bouquets before they start to curve over too much. The flower plume provide interesting contrast with its bright lime green color, unusual shape and fuzzy texture.

Green spray millet with purple Lisianthus 'Twinkle Deep Blue', white Lavatera 'Mont Blanc', and Ammi majus 'Green Mist'.

Molucella laevis (Bells of Ireland)

Bells of Ireland are popular with florists and you will often see them in bouquets at the market and also by the stem at flower shops. The easiest way to grow these is to sow them outside and then they will self-sow for you forever.

Bells of Ireland are very cool looking but are not the easiest thing grow and harvest. They must be staked or grown through support mesh of some kind or they fall over. When using support mesh or string you usually have to use two layers because the stems are fairly weak. You might luck out and get away with not staking other floppy flowers but not this one. Once it falls, the flower spike will quickly turn upward and will look silly if you try to prop it up after that, so figure out how you will support them early and keep an eye on them. The stems are a bit spiny – nothing like a rose bush, but picky enough that you want to be careful. The flower stalks themselves have leaves growing from them which must plucked one by one to achieve the perfect green spike like you see at the florist. These are not the easiest flower to grow but worth the effort for an unusual cut flower.

Green Bells of Ireland with pink and white lisianthus.

Nicotiana alata ‘Lime Green’ (Flowering Tobacco)

I love the GeoSeed catalog description of this flower: “Intense sulphuric green hue, a classic among ornamental tobaccos. If the devil were jealouis he'd wear this in his lapel.” It is more chartreuse than pale green, and I really like it with dark purple lisianthus. There are many ornamental tobaccos but most are not used for cut flowers. You usually only see the shorter bedding tobaccos sold as plants, so this one usually has to be sown from seed. Sow thinly and don’t cover the minute seed because it has a high germination rate and requires light to germinate. All flowering tobaccos are prolific re-seeders so once you have it you will probably always have it. If you like the color, this plant is quite ornamental in the garden.

Clarkia (Satin flower)

Clarkia are very pretty with soft pink, white, red and salmon flowers. They also have a long vase life. However, they are native to the Pacific Northwest and really do best in climates that stay relatively cool and have slower springs than we do. I have been experimenting with them for the past 3 years and each year I get a few more usable stems. If you get any of these in your bouquets this year, take a good look because the harvest season is only a week or two. They burn up quickly if the weather turns hot and are difficult enough in this climate that I would not recommend them for the home garden.

Clarkia used to be called Godetia and you will often see it listed as that. The seeds I am growing this year were listed in the GeoSeed catalog as Godetia 'Flamingo'. For those new to flower gardening (I don’t hear of this much among vegetables) taxonomists are constantly deciding that they have mis-classified something and changing the botanical name. The old name often persists for years so things get confusing. When you look up the botanical name for Feverfew you may find it listed as Tanacetum or Matricaria or Chrysanthemum. While generally deploring the confusion these name changes cause, Alan Armitage in Speciality Cut Flowers, approves of the Godetia to Clarkia change, since it is named for William Clark of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Lily Forcing Update

These lilies were planted in their crates about 5 1/2 weeks ago. After about 3 weeks in the garage at around 50F, the lilies started to sprout and the crates were moved to my tiny greenhouse.

If the greenhouse were kept at a constant 70F, the lilies would develop more quickly, but I can’t keep it that warm at night so the lilies have to get by with 70F during late morning to late-afternoon and then down to 45-55F at night. This slows down the forcing by at least a couple weeks and also makes the stems longer.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Signs of Spring

A few more signs of spring around my place. A few crocus are blooming against the house in addition to the snowdrop that has been there for a couple weeks.

There are also some snowdrops now blooming in the open in the shade garden. They have actually been blooming out there for more than a week but the camera took an 8 day vacation to Florida without me, so no pictures until now.

While I was taking pictures of the snowdrops I also noticed these seeds sprouting:

These are seeds of Scilla siberica, the little intense blue scillas that will begin blooming in a few weeks. The seeds begin germinating under the snow in March and by April will look like little blades of grass. I mentioned this once to a friend of mine and a horrified expression came on her face as she said, "Oh NO! I thought they were grass and spent hours pulling them all out!" If you leave those little blades of grass year after year you eventually get that "field of blue" effect that looks so cool in spring.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Platycodon grandiflorus (Balloon Flower)

Platycodons get their common name because the buds puff up before opening like little balloons. The flowers are usually blue-ish purple, but there are also pink and white varieties. There are a number of seed strains and I have grown a double called 'Hakone Double Blue' and the 'Florist' strain for cut flowers.

If you grow from seed or buy plants and want to use them for cut flowers, check seed packet or plant tag for the height, since there are also short varieties. You can find these as 3" perennials in spring at Coleman's in Ypsilanti.

Like so many nice cut flowers, balloon flowers need to be staked. If you don't stake them before they fall over, the stems turn upward and they will look goofy if staked up afterward.

Balloon flowers are not hard to grow but do have a few quirks. They are taprooted and do not do well (i.e. often die) when moved, so site them thoughtfully. As perennials go, they are slow growing and may take 3 years to reach full size, so you have to be patient. However, like many slow growing, taprooted perennials, they are long lived - you will have them a long time. Lastly, they disapper completely below the ground in the winter and emerge late in spring, after nearly everything else is well on its way. When they finally come up the shoots look like tiny asparagas. Because of this late awakening, you need to mark or somehow remember where they are and not assume they have died or that you somehow left an open spot in your perennial border.

Platycodons share all these quirks (aside from looking like little asparagas when they come up) with Asclepias tuberosa which blooms at the same time. They also look nice together*, making them one of the "plant marriages" you read about in the perennial books.

*Blue balloon flowers look good with orange asclepias, the pale pink ones will look terrible.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Erigeron speciosus (Fleabane)

There are two common seed varieties of Erigeron speciosus, 'Pink Jewel' and 'Azure Fairy' and I grow both of them. The flowers are pink and pale purple with yellow centers and look like finely fringed asters. They are about 1"-2" across and are borne in clusters on top of the stems in mid t0 late June.

Fleabane is perennial and does not bloom much if at all the first year. It is also relatively short-lived and for me at least a third of the plants die within 3 seasons. But, the seed is really cheap and easy to start so I start some every year or so and always have plenty. The seed is surface sown and comes up within a week. I planted mine today and since I like both colors I grow equal numbers of each.

Erigeron is another one of those flowers I appreciate as a cut flower because of the size, color, texture contrast it provides for other, shower flowers like delphiniums and lilies. Because it is short-lived, I am less fond of it for a perennial border. It is apt to start dying off just as you decide you really like how it looks with your blue delphiniums or your white lilies. On the other hand, if you don't cut all the flowers and are not a compulsive weeder it will self seed a bit and you might have it forever.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Rudbeckia hirta (Gloriosa Daisy)

There are many different species of Rudbeckia that are grown for the garden. The most common is Rudbeckia fulgida, the perennial black-eyed susan. These are sometimes nice in the garden but I think they're a little, well, vulgar so I never user them in bouquets.

The one I do use is Rudbeckia hirta, a short-lived perennial in Michgan that is usually grown as an annual. Rudbeckia hirta has been selected into a dozen or more strains for the garden and cut flowers, and some of them are really quite nice. They come in singles and doubles with brown and green centers. Many are golden yellow but others are burnt orange or mahogony or blends of all of these. I really like a variety called "Chim Chiminee" that has quilled petals.*

The best picture I have shows a mahogony double and some bi-color red and yellow singles. I like Rudbeckia hirta because of the different flower forms and the rich colors. Some of the doubles can be quite striking but for the most part they are not flowers you sit and stare at in awe. They are nice "supporting players", providing notes of contrasting color.

Rudbeckia hirta don't usually rebloom much but they can be succession sown. I started my first set today and am growing "Cherokee Sunset", "Goldilocks" and "Maya" (all doubles) and "Prarie Sun", a huge golden yellow single with a ligher yellow center. I'll try to post some pictures of these varieties later this summer.

*I don't know who cooks up the names for these flowers. This one originates from Thompson and Morgan. A friend of mine liked the pictures of "Chim Chiminee" in the catalog but refused to buy it because the name offended her!

Tanacetum parthenium (Feverfew)

Feverfew is a nice filler flower. It forms clusters of half inch very double white flowers. There are single varieties that look like little white daisies with yellow centers but I have never grown them. The foliage is dissected and pale green and has a bitter smell, but it isn't very noticeable on the flowers. This is a useful flower for me because it will flower the first season and can be succession sown. In addition, most of them also make it through one winter and begin blooming in mid-June. By succession sowing and overwintering, I have several waves of this flower.
Like most fillers, feverfew doesn't look like all that much by itself (you can see them surrounding the lily, delphium and lisianthus below). However, it is easy to grow and can be combined with almost any other color or shape which makes it very useful.

Feverfew is simple to grow from seed, just surface sow and they will appear in days. I started my first sowing today.

What Makes a Pleasing Bouquet?

I had no training as a florist or flower arranger when I started Good Scents, and the first couple years I spent an embarrassing amount of time fussing with bouquets to get the effects I wanted. I sum up the trial and error method I used those first two years (and still resort to occasionally) as:

Keep adding flowers until the bouquet looks 'right' and if it still doesn't look good, take it apart and start over.

'Right': Green Bells of Ireland with pink and white lisianthus.

I still have no formal training but over time I’ve developed a style which my customers seem to like. The bouquets are always informal but hopefully also beautiful, exuberant and occasionally even elegant.

What makes a pleasing bouquet? I ask myself this all the time when I create one that looks perfect and another that looks not so great. What is the difference? What is wrong with the not so great one? It is hard to put into words but this is what I think makes a bouquet look 'right':

Harmony and contrast of color, shapes, sizes and textures to enhance the beauty of individual flowers while maintaining enough balance that it is still beautiful viewed as a whole.

I know this sounds kind of baroque and is a pretty tall order for an arrangement of flowers delivered in a mason jar and held in place with a rubber band! I don’t mean to make too big a deal out of it, but I enjoy thinking about this stuff and after 25 years writing software I’m always looking for rules and patterns. Wherever I go I try to notice what works or doesn’t work in flower arrangements, patio planters, perennial borders and home landscapes. It is really the same factors that apply in all these situations and what works in one case usually translates to another.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Verbena bonariensis

Verbena bonariensis is a fun addition to bouquets and to an annual or perennial bed. It forms a basal set of leaves but flowers on top of long, thin 2-4 foot stems. The thin stems make the lavender flowers appear to be floating in the air. Some people also call them a “see through” flower because they can be planted in front of shorter flowers which will still be visible behind the “see through” stems. These long, thin stems can also look very interesting in flower arrangements. The tiny bright lavender flowers are held in little elongated clusters that are 1-3 inches long. It will rebloom if you keep all the flowers cut.

Verbena bonariensis likes warm weather – they bloom in August and September. It is a tender perennial that is not hardy in Michigan. However, because it blooms the first year and re-seeds easily it can be grown as a self-seeding annual. Once you acquire it, you will always have it unless you cut every single stem.

I have had mixed results starting this flower from seed indoors. Germination is irregular and slow and some years I have planted lots of seed and only gotten a few plants. This doesn’t matter much for home gardeners who only want a few plants anyway. In future years there will be plenty of self sown seedlings to move here and there.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008


There are dozens of different eucalyptus but none are hardy below about 15-20F. J.L Hudson offers 28 different varieties and if I have some extra space some year I’ll order seeds for a few different ones and see how they do. I'm especially intrigued by ones described as lemon scented or peppermint scented. Anything I try has to be fast growing because none can over winter here unless I tried one of the dwarf shrubby ones in a pot. J.L. Hudson sells almost everything for $2 a packet so it's cheap thrills if you like growing stuff from seed.

The two that most people grow as annuals are Silver Dollar and Silver Drop. Silver Dollar (pictured above) has larger leaves, perhaps half dollar sized here in Michigan, while Silver Drop’s are the size of dimes or nickels. Both are nice although I usually grow Silver Dollar because it seems to grow a little faster. In a single season each plant grows into a little shrub about 3 feet tall with lots of useable side branches. They could be fun to grow in an annual bed just for the unique silvery blue foliage and the scent.

They are simple to grow from seed, the Silver Dollar I planted this year on March 8th were all up in about a week.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Sweet Peas (Lathryus odoratus)

This post was originally written for and appeared in Project Grow's Community Gardener. I don't use sweet peas in Good Scents bouquets very often because the stems are fairly short, but I still grow them at home for the house.

Over the last few years I've become a real nut for growing sweet peas (Lathryus odoratus). It started when I became interested in growing fragrant annuals. I began reading all kinds of fragrant plant catalogs and books and they all talked about the wonderful fragrance of sweet peas. I had never seen, much less smelled a sweet pea, but they sounded great, so I bought a packet of seeds. The seeds looked like garden pea seeds only smaller, so I sowed them in early spring like garden peas. However, they didn't come up quickly like edible peas, and when they did come up, they took their own little sweet pea time growing. While the sugar snaps were merrily romping up their trellis, the sweet peas sat there poking along. Sometime in late July they finally produced a few flowers and promptly died. Needless to say, I was discouraged, but also intrigued because the scent of those few flowers was unforgettable.

Sweet peas don't smell like anything else. There is something fresh, organic and just wonderful about the fragrance of sweet peas. The scent is floral, like a rose or lily, but also sweet and fruity, like a butterfly bush, and it never carries the heaviness that you sometimes detect in lilies or lilacs. It is also one of those scents that you can catch in the air just walking near the plants. Sweet peas make nice cut flowers and their fragrance lasts for a couple days after you bring them inside. Like the smell of many flowers it can evoke old memories, and when I was growing them at County Farm many people came up to me and said the scent reminded them of their mother's or grandmother's gardens.

References to grandmother are not surprising because sweet peas are no longer as popular as they once were. My old copy of Wyman’s Gardening Encyclopedia (1977) says they were popular 50 years ago (1920’s). Compared to some flowers like roses or lilies, sweet peas have not been in cultivation very long. They were discovered by an Italian monk named Cupani, in 1699, and you can still get an unimproved "wild" sweet pea named after this monk. “Cupani” is bi-colored with the top of the flower blue and the bottom red-violet. By 1870 there were still only about 9 separate strains of sweet peas. Then, they caught the attention of breeders in the U.S. and Britain and by 1900 264 different varieties were available. The turn of the century was the heyday of sweet peas, and varieties from this time are now usually called old-fashioned or grandiflora sweet peas.

In 1904, a sweet pea mutation appeared with larger, ruffled flowers at the estate of the Earl of Spencer. This plant was used to develop the Spencer Varieties. These bloom later than the grandifloras and are less fragrant, but have larger flowers and longer stems. Most sweet peas being bred today are Spencers. I have had some success growing these newer varieties, but the fragrance, which I think is the main reason to grow sweet peas, is very faint. I have been happiest with the older varieties. You can usually spot them in catalogs even if they are not identified as grandifloras. Eleanor Perenyi writes that their names - Miss Willmott, Queen Alexandra, the Honorable Mrs. Collier - , “summon up an Edwardian dinner party”. I have been happiest with a strain called “Royal Family”. It is a mix of colors including scarlet, white, blue and pink, and has the strong heady scent typical of grandifloras.

Sweet peas, like garden peas, prefer cool weather. They are very cold tolerant, but do not grow well in temperatures over 85F. Like most true annuals, if allowed to go to seed, they quickly die. As I discovered when I first tried to grow them, in areas like Michigan where high summer temperatures come quickly, the bloom season will be very short if they are direct seeded. It works better to start the seeds inside so they have more time to grow and flower before the really hot weather sets in. I usually start my seeds under lights in peat pots or Jiffy-7’s in March and then plant them out in the garden in mid to late April. Once I started doing this I began to get sweet peas for a long season. I still found them slow to germinate until I read the following two suggestions:

  • Take a file and score the outside of the seed coat enough to see the lighter inside.

  • Soak the seeds 24 hours in warm water before planting and only plant the seeds which swell up.

I now do both of these and often have near 100% germination in a matter of days.

If you start sweet peas early inside you need to keep pinching them out or else they will start growing into tall vines too early. Pinching will also encourage them to branch into multiple stems. I usually start pinching them out after they get the first set of true leaves. After the stem branches and another set of true leaves appears on each branch, I pinch again. I continue this process until the plants are ready to go outside in mid April. If they have been hardened off in a cold frame they will easily withstood hard frosts. After mild winters they even sometimes appear as self sown seedlings. Plants started in March and set into decent soil in mid April usually start blooming in early to mid June.

All the books say you're supposed to prepare the soil in the fall to a depth of 18 inches, amend it with manure, and let it mellow all winter. I only ever manage to dig about a foot deep and add City of Ann Arbor compost in the spring. Maybe with extra preparation they grow better, but mine usually grow well enough. I usually prepare a planting bed about 18 inches wide and about 10 feet long. I then set the plants out in two rows about a foot apart, with spacing of about 6-12 inches between plants in the row.

Sweet pea vines will often reach 6 feet so you will need to provide some kind of support. I have used both 6” plastic mesh and lines of string between stakes. Anything that works for garden peas will work for sweet peas, too.

Sweet Peas All Summer
One of my favorite garden writers is Henry Mitchell, who gardened in Washington D.C. and wrote the Earthman gardening column for the Washington Post. Mitchell said he was able to keep sweet peas blooming all summer if he picked all the flowers every day so the plants never went to seed. Sweet peas all summer sounded great, and like compost or ice cream, I figured I could never have too much. So, I started about 30 plants in early March, and when I planted them out in April the 30 plants made a double row about 12 feet long.

By the first week of June I was getting sweet peas in ever increasing numbers, and by mid-June I was cutting about 75 stems per day, every day. This is about two big handfuls, enough to fill a couple medium sized vases. Because they last for awhile after they are cut, I soon found myself running out of vases. I was bringing them in to work and handing them out to neighbors and visitors. As Henry Mitchell himself might have said, I felt like a rich man, indeed.

I don’t know if they really keep blooming all summer because despite my best intentions, I never manage to keep them all picked. As the summer wears on, I start to get tired of coming home every day and having to go out and pick the sweet peas again. All you have to miss is a couple days and they start to set seed and that finishes them for the year. But, even if they stop sometime in July they are still worth the effort. Get some seeds this spring and rediscover this great annual.

It used to be hard to find many different kinds of sweet peas at local retailers and I usually mail ordered my seeds. However, this year I went into Downtown Home and Garden one day and found they had all the varieties I used to mail order plus more. They carry Royal Family in a mix as well as in individual colors, and other antique varieties to help you fill the guest list to your very own Edwardian dinner party. In addition, they have numerous newer varieties from the Renee’s Garden Seeds. Sweet peas must be making a come back!

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Dianthus Barbatus (Sweet William)

I really love Sweet William. From the name you’d expect them to be fragrant but they are not particularly. What they are is robust, productive plants with flowers on long, strong stems in a range of jewel-like colors. They last a long time in a vase, too. The flowers are borne in rounded clusters at the end of the stem, kind of like a 3 or 4 inch ball at the end of a stick.

The individual flowers are about a half inch across and they get prettier and prettier the closer you look at them. Some have white centers surrounded by a red rings. On some the individual petals appear to have a pattern etched on them in similar but contrastring color like a damask table cloth. There are also double flowered strains where each individual flower looks like a little rose.

Sweet William is another flower often sold in grower bunches at the Farmer’s Market, which is a shame because I think they are shown to much better effect when displayed with other flowers. They are like great character actors, interesting and great fun by themselves but really at their best when interacting with bigger stars.

Like foxgloves and canterbury bells, Sweet William is a true biennial. Seeds planted this year will grow a good sized tuft of leaves but not flower. Next year they will flower in early June, go to seed and die. They are easy to start from seed, even planted directly into the ground. They usually self sow if you don’t cut all the flowers.

There are some really cool Sweet William seed strains. Some of my favorites are:

  • Auricula-Eyed – these are ones with the white centers and red rings. Plants from a mixed packet like the one sold by J.L. Hudson Seeds will all be unique with different sized eyes and rings and contrasting colors. I grew a bed full of them a couple years ago and it was fun to look at all the variations and try to decide which was prettiest.
  • Newport Pink – is a pale salmon pink. Not peach or melon, but pink with a bit of orange in it.
  • Scarlet – all the other red Sweet William are crimsons – they have lots of blue in them. These are scarlet, with no blue and leaning toward orange.
  • Nigrescens (sometimes listed as 'Sooty') – A really, really dark maroon red with slightly lighter throats.
  • Duplex Mixed – these are the doubles that look like clusters of tiny roses.
  • White – perhaps not as useful to home gardeners, but I always like plain white flowers for making two color arrangements - red and white, blue and white, yellow and white etc. These are great for this purpose.

Last year I started some of each of these and I will try to include pictures once they start flowering. Regular dianthus seed like the ones above are inexpensive and usually come in generous packets. The seed stays viable for years.

In addition to all of the regular, biennial Dianthus barbatus, there are also a number of hybrids which have been bred to bloom the same year they are sown. The one I have had the best luck with is the Amazon series which comes in Cherry Neon, Purple Neon and Rose Magic. Neon Cherry and Neon Purple are also sold in a 50-50 mix as Neon Duo. Neon Cherry is not what I would call red - to me it is a deep pink but still very brilliant. Neon Purple is a bright pinkish purple, not a royal purple or a lavender. Neon is a good way to describe both of them because they are really brilliant colors. They are very pretty but not always easy to pair with other colors. Rose Magic blooms with multiple shades of pink in the same flower head. The individual flowers change color from white to pale pink to dark pink – or maybe it is the other way around but all three colors are together at once. Some people think Rose Magic looks a bit washed out and wimpy by itself, but I think they are beautiful fillers for bouquets containing blue, white, crimson and pink.

Amazon dianthus lack the color variety of the non-hybrid varieties and the seed is really expensive (Stokes charges about a 10 cents per seed). Nevertheless, growers, including me, rave about them because they can be succession sown, have strong, thick stems, and will re-bloom on shorter stems if the first stems are cut at the base. By growing both the biennial and the Amazon Sweet Williams I am able to use them from June until the end of September.

Friday, March 7, 2008

First Sign of Spring

There's still about half a foot of snow on the ground but on the south side of my house, under the overhang, there isn't any snow but there is one snowdrop.

People who are not gardeners don't appreciate things like this, but gardeners understand the significance of not just seeing a snowdrop, but seeing the first snowdrop in your own garden. It is because we notice things like this little snowdrop that gardeners know spring is returning even as the temperature is in the teens and the snow is still falling.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Antirrhinum majus (Snapdragon)

I never once grew snapdragons before I started selling cut flowers. I had seen them in grower’s bunches at the Farmer’s Market and they just didn’t appeal to me. They are still not one of my favorites – I prefer delphiniums for spiky flowers – but they are useful and have many good points. First, they come in a wide range of colors – scarlet reds, pale yellows, pinks, crimson, bronze plus some unusual bi-colors I discovered last year. Second, they are quite productive and each plant will re-bloom later in the year. Lastly, as annuals they can be succession sown so you can have wave after wave of snapdragons for much of the summer.

Most of the snapdragon plants sold at nurseries and the Farmer's Market are shorter kinds that are intended as bedding plants. The cut flower varieties usually have to be started from seed. There are many different kinds of snapdragons used for cut flowers. The most common field grown snapdragon is the Rocket Series. If you see grower bunches of snapdragons at the Farmer’s Market, they are probably Rocket.

White snapdragons with orange and yellow rudbeckias, purple lisianthus and white feverfew.

There are also some fancier “greenhouse” snapdragons. These have been bred to flower under different day lengths and are typically grown by big growers in huge greenhouses, though some can also be grown in the field. One of the advantages of growing snapdragons in a greenhouse is that the lower flowers in the spike drop off once the flower has been pollinated. This means field grown snapdragons have relatively short flower spikes. There are few if any bees in a greenhouse so the lower flowers remain on the spike longer and the result is a longer spike of flowers. When you see tall snapdragons at the florist, they are greenhouse grown.

I don’t have greenhouse space for snapdragons but a couple years ago I did try covering the beds with row covers to keep the bees out. This worked remarkably well and I had really nice, long spiked snapdragons. But, I had problems making a framework to support the row cover. I used PVC pipe and it worked but was more work than I’d prefer. Last year I didn't manage to do this so the spikes were shorter, but I hope to figure something out for this year. The row covers definitely made nicer flowers.

This year I’m going to start three different varieties of snapdragons in seven different colors. I am growing red, yellow, white and rose from the Rocket series. I am also growing the Opus series of greenhouse snapdragons in bronze and appleblossom, a white and pink bicolor. I'm also going to try Madame Butterfly, an "azalea flowered double". I have no idea what that really means but it sounds cool, doesn't it?

Starting Asclepias tuberosa From Seed

For years I had problems growing Asclepias tuberosa. The germination was irregular and the few plants I got failed to thrive, sputtering along and then dying after a year or so. Even when I tried buying 3" pots they never did well for me. Most of the time if I fail with something a couple or three times I just give up - there are plenty of other things I can grow really well so why sweat the failures? I felt this way about butterfly weed until I saw one growing all by itself out in the middle of an empty lot on (of all places) Research Park Drive. It was the nicest butterfly weed I had ever seen, thriving among a bunch of weeds and grass and apparently unfazed about getting mowed over every 6 weeks. Surely it can't be that finicky if it grows well under those conditions! This was a few years ago and I decided to read up and figure out what I was doing wrong.

The germination problem partly stemmed from inconsistent directions. Some catalogs say to just plant the seed, no special directions. This is what I had tried before. Stokes Seeds , which usually provides detailed and accurate germination information, says to press the seeds into the soil without covering them, pre-chill the planted seeds at 34-40F for four weeks, and then warm them up to 65-70F and expose to light. On the other hand, Norman Deno, who is usually considered the final authority on how to start anything from seed, says to pre-chill but that the seeds do not require light and should be covered.

I ordered the seeds from GeoSeed and had planned on following Deno's directions but forgot to start them early enough to pre-chill. I figured the seed wouldn't be good the next year so I just planted them in a flat, and this time they came up like radishes! The seed source may have made the difference, maybe it was luck, I don't know.

When looking into the "failure to thrive" problem I found that Asclepias tuberosa is taprooted and does not transplant well. Alan Armitage writes in Specialty Cut Flowers, "If the taproot is broken the plant takes two years to recover - if it survives". Armitage suggests transplanting the seedlings into 4" pots by the time the second set of true leaves appear and then later gently moving them again into the field. I didn't have time or space to deal with 50 4" pots so instead I decided to plant the tiny seedlings directly into their final positions in the field. I had to fuss with them a bit, keeping an eye on the weeds and watering, but most of the little plants survived. The following year I was finally rewarded with a bed full of robust Asclepias tuberosa that bloomed profusely and even re-bloomed later in the summer. I liked them so well that I decided to start some more this year. I'm going to start some with the pre-chill method and some without and will report how it goes.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Seed Starting Update

Two weeks make a big difference. Here are the same flats of lisianthus, alchemilla and delphinium I showed on February 18th.

The delphiniums really need to be moved to the greenhouse but I'm holding off until after the cold snap we have coming later this week.

Not much is happening with the other seeds so far. After bragging about my success with trollius
last year, my hubris is being repaid with lousy germination this year. So far I have two (2) seedlings to show for the 200 seeds I planted. Even they just appeared last week so hopefully the others will be coming soon. The sea hollies planted on 2/18 and the columbine on 2/20 have not shown up either, but I expected those to take at least 3 weeks.

The bellflowers I started on 2/10 have come up but they still very small - I will include them next time.

Chrysanthemum coccineum (Pyrethreum roseum, Painted Daisy, )

Painted daisies look like shasta daisies except they come in pink and crimson instead of white (they’re painted daisies). That alone probably makes them worth growing to see how well you like them. Painted daisies are simple daisies, meaning they look like shasta daisies before Luther Burbank got a hold of them. Burbank hybridized shastas to have larger petals with more substance and thicker stems, improvements painted daisies could really use. The stems of painted daisies are long and nice for cutting but with the first rain or windstorm they fall over. Then the flowers twist upward toward the sun and the nice straight stems become crooked. If grown for cutting, they must be staked or supported with some kind of horizontal mesh.

Painted daisies can be nice in a perennial border if you don't mind a little flopping or like to putter, stake and tie. Sometimes a few of the petals are not held exactly perpendicular to the stem which can look charming or shabby depending on your taste. The pink is a nice, clear medium pink while the crimson as really more of a deep pink than a red. It is a very assertive color.

Even if you see these things as flaws, painted daisies may still be worth growing because they bloom during the late-May slow time I keep complaining about. Late May is just as slow in a perennial border as it is for cut flowers so painted daisies may be worth a try.

Painted daisies are easy to start from seed indoors, just sow, lightly cover, and the seedlings appear in 2-3 weeks. Like most easy to start perennials you can also pick them up at Coleman's in Ypsilanti in the spring.

Asclepias (milkweed, butterfly weed)

Asclepias is the genus of the butterfly weeds or milkweeds. I grow three different species of them for cut flowers, two perennial and one annual. All bear their flowers in clusters. Close up the individual flowers look very similar but they are all useful because they are different colors and bloom at different times.

The first perennial milkweed is Asclepias incarnata or swamp milkweed, which bears rounded clusters of white or pink flowers in mid to late June. The flowers have a sweet, vanilla or candy-like fragrance. It is fairly mild, it won't knock your socks off, but it is still pleasant. I know nothing about butterflies but they do seem particularly attracted to flowers with this type of scent. Asclepias incarnata is native to this part of North America but I have never seen it growing wild.

The second perennial variety, Asclepias tuberosa, is another wildflower native to this part of the country. It has brilliant orange flowers and you occasionally see it growing along roadsides. The flowers are borne on pointy clusters and appear in July. If you like the combination of orange and purple/blue flowers (one of my favorites), then you could try pairing this asclepias with blue balloon flowers (Platycodon grandiflorus). I have not written about balloon flowers yet but they bloom at the same time as the asclepias, and both are long lived and do not require division.

The annual milkweed I grow is Asclepias curassavica. The flowers are bicolor yellow and red with bronze stems and leaves. The flowers are borne in loose clusters and if cut for the house or deadheaded will re-bloom until they are killed by frost. Of all these milkweeds, this is the one people most often ask me about. These will frequently self-sow a bit in the garden but have never been a pest.