Russell hybrid lupine
Photo/Illustration: Charles Mann
Home gardeners often assume that starting perennials from seed is more difficult than sowing annual flowers or vegetables, when, in fact, it is as easy to start a primrose as it was to germinate that bean in a cup back in grade school. Considering the many benefits of starting perennials from seed, it seems foolish not to do it. Seed is economical, and in short order, you can produce flats of plants that would cost hundreds of dollars to purchase retail, which is great if you have a large or new garden or are on a tight budget. Many plants must be grown from seed because they are otherwise unobtainable or difficult to propagate any other way, and seedlings often establish better than large plants. I am more willing to experiment and less apt to rue plant losses when I know I have an inexpensive, ready source available. Abundant supply also means there are plants to spare and to share.
How does one go about growing perennials from seed, and what are the best plants for beginners to start with? First, dispense with the fallacy that gardeners grow seedlings. Seeds want to grow, and as a propagator, you simply get them started and get out of their way. Success follows if you approximate as closely as possible the conditions the seed would naturally encounter. Rather than cosseting the seeds indoors, for example, plant them in pots outside and let the natural freeze-thaw cycles perform their magic.
As far as timing is concerned, most cold-hardy perennial seeds like a long cold period before they will germinate. Seeds started in December or January will greet you in the spring with more seedlings than you could ever hope for.
The overwhelming majority of perennials grow just fine using my basic seed-starting method (below). There are, however, some genera that are especially easy to grow from seed. Here are 10 surefire plants to try.