Perennials and Herbs From Seed

Sharon February 3rd, 2009

Few of us, I suspect, can afford to fill our gardens with all the huge, healthy plants we’d love to own, ordered from the best nurseries.  And yet what are those with dreams of cottage perennial gardens, food forests or big herb gardens to do if we can’t afford to order plants?  Well, one option is to get division or other shared plants from friends, but you can also grow an astounding number of useful perennial plants from seed.  And if you are prepared to wait a bit for them to hit maturity, you can fill your garden with beautiful plants you’ve known since they were in the seed stage. 

One of the great things about starting perennials from seed is that it can optimize space you otherwise wouldn’t be using – no need, unless you want them to flower the first year, say to plant your viola or coreopsis seeds in February, when your windowsill is full of tomatoes and peppers.  Instead, you can wait and start them in May or June, and transplant out in early fall when there is more moisture for the plants than in summer – they won’t mind.  Or for plants that need stratification to break dormancy (ie, they need to feel they have gone through winter), plant the seeds for your trees or plants in a spare garden bed in fall, and then transplant them before the summer crops go in.

 This is by no means a comprehensive list of plants you can grow from seed, merely a list designed to give us some sense of the possible and to find sources for them. 

Speaking of sources, here are a few, some of which I’ve recommended before and some not:

 1. If you dream of growing all sorts of things you won’t find anywhere else, the catalog for you us Thompson and Morgan  They are spectacular, have Canadian, British and American sites, and really push the limits of what’s available. 

2. Join Seedsavers and the herb and flower exchange.  You’ll find an astonishing variety of plants you can grow from seed, and people who know how to germinate them.

 3. For herbs (and broadly construed herbs) , is a stunning source of all things herbal.

4. Johnny’s Selected Seeds and Park Seeds are two companies that keep a wide range of unusual perennials in stock from seeds.  Baker Creek Heirlooms is another that keeps a remarkable selection.

Ok, so what can you grow from seed that you might not have tried?  Well, first of all, did you know that both Asparagus and Rhubarb can be grown from seed?  Both do extremely well, and I find them easier to transplant than by root sections.  With asparagus, generally you will want to rogue out (pull up and discard) any seed producing female plants, but you can get essentially the same result as crowns would give you with only one more year to harvest, and for a few dollars at most.  Our family can eat enough of both to mean that cheap is important in getting established.  These backbone perennial plants are essential in any food producing garden.

There are fruiting plants and trees that can be started from seed – Maximillian Sunflowers, for example, multiplier onions (can also be grown from sets), sea kale, good king henry, skirret, scorzonera, ginko biloba (whose nuts are delicious), sugar maple, chinese chestnuts, mulberry trees, elderberry, hip roses, white oaks (which produce edible acorns), papaya and hawthorn are among the easier ones to start.  Generally speaking, you’ll find that a surprising number of useful plants can be started from seed – you may have to expect a certain amount of variability in quality and taste, but it is always worth trying.  And you’ll find that often your home started plants are more vigorous in the long run than those big transplants from the garden center.

 A lot of people automatically go to the garden center for their herb plants, not realizing how easy it is to grow many perennial culinary and medicinal herbs from seed.  Among the ones I’ve had the best luck with are: Angelica, Wild Bergamot, Butterfly weed,  Catmint, Catnip, Roman Chamomiile, Dyer’s Coreopsis, Garlic Chives, Regular chives, Culantro, Epazote, Echinacea,  Evening Primrose, Fennel, Feverfew, Hyssop, Horehound,  Joe Pye Weed, Lovage, Lemon Balm, Lavender, lemongrass, wild marjoram, milk thistle, mountain mint, Meadowsweet, Marshmallow,  nettle, greek oregano, California Poppy, Rue, Sage, Salad Burnet, Winter Savory, Stevia, St. Johns Wort,  Thymes, Valerian, Wormwood, Yarrow. 

 All of these fall in the category of easy to medium growers.  There are some difficult herbs to start (I wouldn’t bother with rosemary unless you really like a challenge) , but we can reserve our precious cash for those, and fill our gardens with an awful lot of other good stuff.  Generally speaking if the word “weed” appears in any of its common names, you can be pretty sure that it is silly to buy it ;-) .

What about flowers?  Even if you aren’t interested in flowers as pure ornamentals (and many of us are), there are  lot of flowers out there that have multiple uses – they attract pollinators, fix nitrogen,  provide food for birds and insects we value, or have nutritional, dye, fiber or other values.  It is possible to create ornamental gardens made up entirely of useful plants that are also useful.  It is even better to integrate these plants into your gardens – mixing food producers with nectary or nitrogen fixing plants to improve soil and pollination.  Or maybe you just want a beautiful bower – Thompson and Morgan has a great list of easy-to-grow perennials from seed that will bloom the first year if started early enough.

Among the useful ornamentals you might grow are: Hollyhock (black ones are dye plants, all are medicinal), Yarrow (nectary, medicinal), broom (nitrogen fixing), False Indigo (nitrogen fixer), coreopsis (dye plant), Agastache (nectary), Dyer’s Chamomile (dye plant), Bouncing Bet (Soapwort), Pyrethum (insecticide), roses (produce rose hips, fragrant petals), dianthus (edible flowers, johnny jump up (edible flowers), Butterfly weed (attracts pollinators), butterfly bush (attracts butterflies), Knautia (attracts hummingbirds), daylily (most parts edible and tasty), Perennial sweet pea (nitrogen fixer), crown vetch (groundcover, nitrogen fixer), mulleins (soft leaves make great toilet paper, herbal), lambs ears (that tp thing, good bandages as well), passionflower (fruiting vine), and others.

 Now not all of these will be perennial for every climate, and I would caution new seed starters to choose just a couple of these, and really research their growing requirements.  But it is, I think, worth remembering that just because something comes as a plant does not mean it can’t be grown from seed.


13 Responses to “Perennials and Herbs From Seed”

  1. Billon 03 Feb 2009 at 1:55 pm

    Another nice seed source to add to your list is Horizon Herbs ( Extensive website with lots of info and good service too. They also have comfrey cuttings avail at a good price.

  2. Rosaon 03 Feb 2009 at 2:17 pm

    Thank you, awesome post.

    It was just a few years ago that I realized most people *don’t* start from seed. I could never figure out why my coworkers think gardening is expensive.

    Do you know of a seed source for multiplier onions? I never did find one last year.

  3. Laneyon 03 Feb 2009 at 2:24 pm

    When I was researching passionflower last year, lots of folks considered it invasive. I’m going to forage for it and only plant it (carefully) if my family loves it…

  4. Green Assassin Brigadeon 03 Feb 2009 at 3:02 pm

    Richters is a great place for unusual seeds and for those of us who live down the road from it, they’ve more varieties of potted herbs than I new existed, oregeno, mint, sage each have at least dozens varieties. Basil maybe 2 doz.

    They are also getting a fair number of medicinal plants including ones I did not expect like Ephedera, they also have a few surprising things people might buy for recreational use like diviners sage, apparently canadian drug laws are not keeping up with street use.

    Since I’m trying to build up a personal seed bank for emergency preparation (consumption or trade) I also picked up sugar beets, opium poppies, tobacco, to go with the more normal perenial herbs and fibre flax and cotton.

    Making your own molasas is not that hard, separating the sugar looks like it might be more work and might also need special equipment, it might be worth while so I bought a pack.

    Having opium poppy gives you a way make your own pain killer (Laudenum) should you need to ease a family members chronic pain or depending on your beliefs, helping someone end their suffering.

    Old habbits die hard and tobacco like Booze might be an ideal trade good.

    Not that I expect or want to spin and make my own clothes, but Flax and cotton seemed like something someone else might decide to try and I am trying to anticipate others needs not just my own. If only cannabis seeds were not $100+ for 10 I’d try to store some of those too. I’m sure if order collapses no one will care about a few plants in the woods.

  5. Emilyon 03 Feb 2009 at 3:44 pm

    Have you actually TIRED using Mullein as TP? Steve Brill says it raises a rash, and I’ve not wanted to chance it myself!

  6. DEEon 03 Feb 2009 at 3:49 pm

    Husband tried growing tobacco once…the bugs adored it! Imagine it is a very sprayed crop commericially. He thought he’d have some for his pipe. Rhubard is easy to grow from seed…we have had no luck buying roots that will grow in the south but the plants seemed to settle right in…the kind is Glaskin’s Perpetual from Pinetree–$1.30 pkt and they grew. Last year was the first time we had strawberry-rhubarb pie since moving form MI 20 years ago. As we did there we buried it in rotted horse manure last fall. Our neighbor grew sorgum and made syrup each year but sadly he passed away this winter…his dear wife says she’ll help us learn how if we put in a patch so that is a big summer goal this year…that and planting some of Harry’s sweet potatoes to keep them going. No idea what variety but he has grown them for years and years. DEE

  7. Sharonon 03 Feb 2009 at 3:53 pm

    Hi Emily – Not on me it doesn’t. But people do have different reactions to things. I can see why you’d be cautious ;-) .


  8. Jenon 03 Feb 2009 at 4:59 pm

    I just read the other day that Park Seed, about an hour from me, gets a lot of Monsanto seeds? I was going to order from them but…?

  9. [...] Casaubon’s Book » Blog Archive » Perennials and Herbs From Seed Few of us, I suspect, can afford to fill our gardens with all the huge, healthy plants we’d love to own, ordered from the best nurseries. And yet what are those with dreams of cottage perennial gardens, food forests or big herb gardens to do if we can’t afford to order plants? Well, one option is to get division or other shared plants from friends, but you can also grow an astounding number of useful perennial plants from seed. And if you are prepared to wait a bit for them to hit maturity, you can fill your garden with beautiful plants you’ve known since they were in the seed stage. [...]

  10. Sharonon 04 Feb 2009 at 7:47 am

    Jen – Seminis (owned by Monsanto) is one of the largest seed suppliers in the world. Almost every catalog that doesn’t explicitly reject them gets a lot of their seeds from them – and I certainly don’t blame you for that priority. That said, however, sometimes Seminis is the only source for a variety – and I certainly wouldn’t rather have the variety go extinct than have someone give them a little money. That’s not always the trade off, of coures, but for some real oddities, there may not be a good set of choices – for most garden vegetables and common plants, though, there are.


  11. deweyon 04 Feb 2009 at 12:21 pm

    Wow, your medicinal selection is amazing.

    I have had seeds from Richter’s grow up the wrong species THREE times. Once is okay, three p***ed me off permanently.

  12. Claireon 04 Feb 2009 at 5:46 pm

    Sharon – how did you start butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) in detail? I’ve tried three or four times, stratified and not stratified, and never got it going.

    Let me add a couple things to your list of perennials to start from seed: hickory and peach trees. For hickory, stratify the nuts in cold, moist conditions. The ones I got germinated quite well using this approach. Keep them in a critter-proof location when you are stratifying and germinating them; I lost some seeds to critters before I was successful. I started my peach seeds long enough ago that I don’t remember exactly how I did it, but I think it was a warm moist stratification followed by a cold moist stratification, basically mimicking first late summer and fall, then winter.

    My favorite seed source is Fedco

  13. Green Assassin Brigadeon 05 Feb 2009 at 1:36 pm

    Fedco looks to have a great selection but what a nasty site and catalogue to manuever.

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