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Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Seed sowing at the Botanic Garden

By Helen Roberts

Last month I met up with Penny Harms, Glasshouse Co-ordinator at the University of Bristol Botanic Garden to explore the many different plants they grow from seed. At the end of May the garden staff were nearing the end of a mammoth seed sowing frenzy in preparation for the summer ahead, but Penny explained that seed is continuously sown throughout the year depending on a particular plant’s germination requirements. 

We entered the glasshouses via the potting house, which contains a whole range of pots, growing media and tools for propagation. There are different shaped tampers for firming down compost, and numerous dibbers and widgers to gently prick out seedlings. The growing substrate typically used for most seed germinated at the Botanic Garden is a neutral peat-free compost composed mainly of composted bark, coir and composted green material. 

Penny explained the finer details of the growing media used, “This compost can be altered by sieving out larger chunks for those seeds that require a finer grade tilth, such as poppy species. Fine and medium grades can be produced depending on the particular size of the sieve pores with perlite often added to help with drainage and aeration.”

Some seeds need constant warmer temperatures

Seed sowing occurs in a number of places within the gardens. Some seed needs a dose of warmth to get germination underway and are sown in propagators in the glasshouses to ensure a stable warm temperature of about 22°C. Others can be directly sown into prepared soil and include many of the ballast seed garden species like Calendula officinalis and Amaranthus caudatus, which form a display in the gardens. Those species destined for the grain barge are grown under glass and have recently been ferried across to the barge and planted. I spied seedlings destined to make the watery journey including Avena sativa (oats) and Eruca sativa (rocket). 

Some of the Amaranthus caudatus Helen has grown from seed
at home. Photo credit: Helen Roberts.
Back in the warmth of the propagation glasshouses, Penny pointed to a number of seedlings planted at the start of April including the beautiful but very poisonous half-hardy annual Ricinus communis var. gibsonii, otherwise known as the castor oil plant. This species is grown for its dark red metallic foliage and is planted out in the hot border once all risk of frost is past. A dark purple bronze variety of this species, equally as lovely, is ‘New Zealand Purple’. 

Penny explained how to grow Ricinus communis, “The species is easy to germinate from seed, but does require a temperature of 20-25°C, so it is best grown in a propagator case in a cool greenhouse where the temperature can be kept stable. Once big enough, it is carefully pricked out and hardened off to then be planted out in June.”

Growing steadily under cover of glass are a number of seedlings destined for the hot border that act as effective border fillers. They include the lovely canary creeper, Tropaeolum peregrinum, a half-hardy annual climber with pale green stems, leaves and yellow flowers, and Tropaeolum majus ‘Black Velvet’, another half-hardy annual with beautiful almost black flowers. Other climbers sown in the glasshouses are the common but wonderfully scented varieties of Lathyrus odoratus (sweet peas). The sunny yellow flowers of Tithonia rotundifolia ‘Yellow Torch’ and Helianthus ‘Mongolian Giant’ currently growing in the glasshouses are also useful border fillers. The latter species is a giant that grows up to four metres high, making it a favourite amongst children. More delicate looking blooms also need the warmth of the glasshouses for germination, such as Digitalis lanata (Woolley Foxglove), which has woolly spikes of fawn coloured flowers with a pearlized lower lip. 

Some seed is worth the wait

Some seed germinates very quickly if conditions are right - sometimes within a week - but other seed can be extremely difficult and requires a great deal of molly-coddling in order to get germination success. Penny carefully pointed to a seedling of Cardiocrinum giganteum var. yunnanense, the Giant Yunnan Lily, which as an adult is a beast of a plant and can grow up to 2.5 metres with huge fragrant nodding creamy inflorescences. This species is normally propagated from either seed or by bulbs and can take as long as 4 to 5 years before it flowers. It is a monocarpic species that will die after it flowers leaving offsets, which will then become subsequent plants. This is certainly a species for a patient gardener; it takes a long time to flower but it also takes a considerable time to germinate as Penny emphasised.

Blooms of the Cardiocrinum giganteum var yunnanense
- the Giant Yunnan Lily.
Photo credit: Col Ford and Natasha de Vere
[via Flicr CC licence 2.0]
“This species can be tricky to germinate,” explained Penny, “This one has taken over a year to germinate so it is quite special.”

This is a species that appeals partly due to the fantastic inflorescences, but it has freaky (and rather scary) looking seedpods that resemble vegetative heads with fangs. In my opinion, the lengthy germination and time to flowering is worth the wait. 

Tropical and subtropical plants that only survive as mature specimens in the glasshouses can be even trickier to propagate by seed. The seed from Passiflora, a large genus of mostly vines needs to be sown quickly when fresh as dried seed takes much longer to germinate. The subtropical vines of the Aristolochia species, aptly named Dutchman’s pipe, require similar treatment. Species grown at the gardens are A. labiata and A. trilobata, and have beautiful ornate blooms of about 15cm. A. labiata flowers resemble the mottling and coloration of a rooster’s comb. Although tropical and sub tropical species can be a bit trickier to grow up from seed, most species can be sown throughout the year. 

Some species do not need the cosseting of warmth and will happily germinate outside although some seedlings, like borecole (kale), are protected with wire mesh to prevent bird damage particularly from pigeons. Species that have germinated and are growing happily outside at the Garden include the mixed colours of Salvia viridus, more commonly known as the Clary Sage. This produces small spires of lovely flowering bracts loved by pollinators. These are intended for the Mediterranean beds along with the tall spires of Echium italicum, the Pale Bugloss, a beautiful pyramidal plant belonging to the Borage family and Viola arborescens, a pretty violet with large lavender coloured flowers. 

Other plants need to be sown at different times of the year and some species have enough flexibility in this that you can sow depending on when you want a plant to flower in the subsequent year. For most gardeners, autumn and spring sowing are the busy sowing months. At the Botanic Garden, for example the open faced flowers of Papaver somniferum, (Opium Poppy), are sown in the autumn.

“These poppies are treated differently to other poppy species,” said Penny, “in that they have been sown in September and will be good strong plants by the time they are planted out the following year, producing flowers earlier than if seed had been sown in the spring.”

Helen Roberts is a trained landscape architect with a background in plant sciences. She is a probationary member of the Garden Media Guild and a regular contributor to the University of Bristol Botanic Garden blog.