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rets2013February has given us almost “normal” weather this year – consistently cold (although never extreme), and a bit of precipitation (although not as much as we could use). The first of the spring bulbs (Iris danfordiae and other reticulata irises) are coming into bloom now, a few weeks later than in previous years. Outdoors, I’ve prepared the area for the blue grama grass restoration, and burned some weeds and clutter from last year to clean out some areas.

coldframe2013I’m trying something new with the hardy perennial seeds I received from the NARGS seed exchange or purchased locally at Plants of the Southwest. These enjoy a period of cold treatment to stimulate them to germinate in the spring, so I’ve planted them in plastic inserts and set them in an open, unheated cold frame outside. Curious to see if this treatment suits them.

sdlgs_lightsIndoors, seedlings of vegetables, herbs, flowers, succulents and hardy cacti are thriving under the grow lights. A few of the cactus and succulents have not germinated. Perhaps they are waiting for warmer nights?

I’ve noticed just this week that the one- and three-year-old cacti that I’m growing inside are starting their spring growth spurt, getting a little plumper and greener. I’ll resume watering them weekly now.

My new Meyer lemon tree was attacked by gray aphids. A vigorous hosing off outside seems to have addressed the problem, at least for the time being.

Winter is a good time to enjoy some garden reading. I’ve been on an iris history binge this month, working through the American Iris Society bulletins from the 1920s, which are available on line to e-members. I’ve also had the good fortune to acquire a complete set of publications of the Dwarf Iris Society, and have been reading Walter Welch’s DIS portfolios from the 1950s.

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The garden in January

The garden in January

January is in many ways the beginning of the gardening year for me. This is when I plant most of my seeds for growing under lights indoors. It is also when seeds from seed exchanges (mostly irises, in my case) tend to arrive. These get planted outdoors in pots sunk in the ground. The exposure to winter cold and varying moisture helps them germinate.

We moved into winter steadily and gradually this year. Snowfall early in January was followed by a week or so when temperatures never rose above freezing and lows were near 0 Fahrenheit. Things are warming some now (highs in the 40s), and the snow is melting…very slowly.

succulent seedlings

succulent seedlings

Two weeks ago, I planted succulent and cactus seedlings for growing indoors under the lights. I got many more of these than in previous years. The cacti are all hardy species native to New Mexico. After growing them on for a few years, they will be planted outside. The seeds all came from Mesa Gardens in Belen. Echinocereus coccineus, Escobaria vivipara neomexicana, Escobaria missouriensis, Mammillaria grahamii, Mammillaria meiacantha, Mammillaria wrightii, Pediocactus simpsonii, Sclerocactus mesa-verdae, and Sclerocactus parviflorus. The succulents are indoor plants that looked like they would be fun and interesting to grow: lithops, conophytums, Adenium obesum, Euphorbia obesa, Haworthia margaritifera (I think this means it will bring me margaritas), and Talinum caffrum. Except for the adenium, these came from cactusstore.com in Phoenix. Most of these have already sprouted, as have some of the cacti. I was quite surprised at the spindly appearance of the Euphorbia obesa seedlings. From the look of the mature plants, I expected the seedlings to be more cactus-like.

This weekend I planted tomatoes and peppers of several different sorts, herbs, hollyhocks, and Shenandoah petunias. I also planted some seeds I had harvested from my Mammillaria prolifera cactus and my Meyer lemon tree. This is earlier than the usual recommendations for starting the transplants, since our average last frost is not until the beginning of May. However, conditions are so harsh here in spring that I find it is better to set out larger plants and give them plenty of time to harden off and acclimate to the outdoors before planting.

grow lights

grow lights

The grow lights have proven to be one of my best gardening investments ever. Being able to grow plants from seeds not only saves money, but is a very satisfying and fun process. Furthermore, it allows me to try things that would be difficult to obtain any other way. And I sometimes end up with extra seedlings to share with friends.

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:

cactus seedlings

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:

Aeonium hierrense seedlings

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!

Aeonium seedlings

a mix of Aeonium species

Escobaria vivipara seedlings

Escobaria vivipara

Echinocereus seedlings

Two species of Echinocereus

Lithops seedlings

A mix of Lithops species