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Mid-winter is a philosophical, almost mystical time, for a gardener in a temporate climate. Casual gardeners no doubt forget about gardening entirely at this time of year. Our local nurseries all close from Christmas to New Years – presumably because hardly anyone would show up if they stayed open.
For the plants in the garden, this is essentially a dormant time. They wait in quiet slumber for spring to come, completing the cycle of activity and rest that is common to all living things. This is the time that connects the end of one growing season with the beginning of the next, completing the circle. I might use this space to write about all the fascinating things that plants do in winter, away from our active notice. But instead I’ll share some thoughts on two different ways a garden can move from year to year.
The first way might be called “reinvention”. In this model, trees, shrubs, and perennials are expected to survive the winter and maintain the basic framework of the garden. Annual flowers and vegetables die at the end of the season and are replaced anew from seed the following spring. If the garden is relatively new, we may acquire new perennials and trees as well. We may even cycle through perennials every few years, as the allure of new plants compels us to send the current residents on their way to free up space.
Starting over each spring is truly a great deal of fun. Since I was a teen, I looked forward to the arrival of the garden catalogs in January, and the long hours of temptation and anticipation they provided. There’s always a new tomato to grow, an new iris to collect, a new batch of violas to be set out. When I was young, this was what a gardener’s winter was about!
The second way of bridging the seasons might be called “recycling”. In this way of doing things, most (if not all) of next year’s plants come directly from last year’s garden, either perennials that we have kept going, or annuals and vegetables raised from last year’s seed. We can let desirable plants reseed in place, or – if more care is needed – harvest and save seed for replanting next year.
Recycling your garden reinforces a mindset of sustainability, taking us back to a time when there were no new plants or exotic seeds from far away to provide garden novelty each year. Recycling your garden can offer an alternative to the increasingly commercialized garden industry, which is threatening the biodiversity of our food crops by narrowing the once enormous range of local heirloom varieties down to a small assortment of hybrids obtainable only as new seed each year from commercial sources. I recommend gardeners all acquaint themselves with organizations like the Seed Savers Exchange that are working hard to preserve heirloom flowers and vegetables.
I’ve made a conscious choice to move more toward a recycling garden each year. I’m starting to save vegetable seeds, to encourage ornamentals that reseed themselves, and to explore perennial vegetables, such as asparagus and walking onions. I like the change in mindset involved: the plants in my garden become less disposable commodities, and more like long-term resources.
That said, I think there will always be a place for reinvention in my garden. Gardening is my hobby after all, and it would lose some of its interest if there were no exploration of new plants. Furthermore, my garden is still a new one, and experimenting with new plants seems altogether reasonable when new ground is brought into cultivation. Still, I cannot but reflect that the “reinvention” paradigm has led many a gardener down a perilous path where the need for acquiring novelty outstrips the space, time, and money available. I’d like, in a few years’ time, to reach a state where the garden I loved the year before returns from its own roots and seeds in spring, and changes are modest and measured.
I’m mostly an outdoor gardener. I have a few houseplants (nothing special, the kind you can get at the grocery store) around the house, and I have grow-lights for starting vegetable and flower seeds in the spring. I recently bought a varied assortment of succulents, including a few cacti, for dish gardens in my office at work to replace plants that died when the heating system failed. They will better reflect my current gardening interests than the old spider plant, schefflera, and pelargonium did.
But today I want to share an indoor gardening activity that has turned out to be very fun and to hold my interest better than the generic houseplants: raising cacti and succulents from seed. This is something I’ve done various times over the years. Many people who are not avid gardeners find even the concept of growing cacti from seed startling and even bewildering. We just don’t think of them in that context.
I couple years ago, I ordered a packet of mixed cactus seed from Park Seed, described as a hardy blend. They germinated easily, and although I lost of few over the first few months, I ended up with a happy little assortment:
As you can see, they are all different and interesting. They are almost two years old now, and they enjoy life on the window sill, potted in cactus mix, where I water them once a week. Once they have grown to a suitable size, I will plant them out in the outdoor cactus garden by the driveway. I’m guessing that will be a couple more years, at least. This is not an activity for the impatient, but in the meantime they are fun to look at and make nice conversation pieces.
Last year, I ordered some iris seeds from Rareplants.de in Germany (they have since relocated to the Canary Islands). As a gift, they sent me a packet of seeds of Aeonium hierrense. This tender succulent is a native of the island of El Hierro, and the description on their website says it can eventually grow to be 1 meter across! The packet supposedly contained 50 seeds (they appeared as a fine powder, the individual seeds too small to be seen). They sprouted readily, and I soon had well over 100 (probably more like 200-300) plants! I transplanted about 40 of them, a few to individual pots and the rest to 9-cell plastic inserts:
I’m fascinated by the variation the seedlings are showing in leaf color and markings, as well as size. If these do indeed grow to be a meter across, they will be very impressive houseplants indeed! And it seems I have plenty to share with friends.
Although the seeds available from general gardening sources are very limited in variety, there are hundreds of interesting offerings available from specialist growers and from the seed exchanges of groups like the Cactus and Succulent Society of America. For serious hobbyists, such sources can form the basis of an extensive collection of rare and seldom-seen plants, each carefully identified as to botanical name and place of origin. As a nonspecialist, I’m often just as happy with a mix of seeds from different species. The lack of information and precision is made up for by the simple fun of not knowing exactly what you’ll get and watching each seedling develop into its adult form.
Today, I came across CactusStore.com and am tempted to put together an order: several hardy cactus species for the outdoor cactus garden, and some mixed seed of different succulent genera (lithops, echeveria, aeonium, etc.) just for fun.
For the nonspecialist, it is certainly simple to just go the local garden center and pick out cactus and succulent plants that have colors and forms that appeal to you. Nevertheless, one doesn’t have to be a serious collector to enjoy raising them from seed. The process provides a whole different level of connection with the life cycle of these fascinating plants. There is a special kind of reward in patiently watching as the seedlings grow into mature plants that just can’t be replicated by buying plants that have been grown commercially in a nursery.
Update, January 28: I did order some more cactus and succulent seeds to start inside. Here are some of the seedlings, three weeks after planting!
Welcome to Telperion Oasis, Tom Waters’s gardening blog. The Winter Solstice seems a nice time in the cycle of the seasons to begin a gardening blog. There is snow covering the garden now, and I’m spending lots of time indoors looking at gardening books, back issues of the Scottish Rock Garden Club journal, and visiting seed exchanges and nursery websites.
Winter is a time of anticipation, planning, and reflection. The collection of irises I obtained for my breeding program is essentially complete, and I’m looking forward to seeing them all as established plants in coming years. I’m also dabbling in rock gardening, having built a modest berm in the garden last year. It will be interesting to try out different rock garden plants and see which can handle our hot and windy spring weather.
Although winter cold can threaten the survival of plants in the garden (I lost a number of things last year when the temperature dropped to -18 F at the beginning of February), it poses less threat here in northern New Mexico than does summer. It is a time of trust and faith. The plants are dormant or nearly so, and gradually melting snow provides some valued moisture to the soil. Perennials planted last year that come through the winter will be established and settled, ready to come into their own next year.