Over the years I’ve purchased my fair share of seeds that didn’t germinate. Just about all have not been annuals and none have been vegetables. Often they have been trees and native herbaceous species though not necessarily native to my region. Rarely have they been cultivars. I followed the instructions to the letter: x days of cold stratification in the refrigerator and plant in starting mix with bottom heat at a certain temperature range for y days. I even tried winter sowing them but that didn’t work either. At first I thought that the seed supplier had provided poor seed but after purchases from a fair number of different seed suppliers, I realized that probably wasn’t the problem. And so I concluded that it was Mother Nature at work – sometimes you got lucky but mostly you didn’t.
Last year, after another round of disappointing failure, I more or less gave up and didn’t order seeds this year if the indication has hard to germinate or cold stratification required.
One of the plants that I’ve been interested in growing is hawthorn. There are a number of places where you can buy seeds of the different Crataegus varieties – FW Schumacher and TreeHelp.com. Last year I ordered 4 varieties of Crataegus and not a single one of the total 160 seeds germinated. I followed the germination instructions exactly and I did research to see if there was anything that I might be missing. I found published papers that used different variations of cold and warm stratification. One stated that:
Propagation of hawthorn by cuttings is difficult at best, and propagation from seed can be disappointing if the proper sequence of treatments is not known and followed. Consistent year-to-year availability of seedlings is dependent upon proven workable seed treatments.
And so I determined to sow no more hawthorn seeds unless they were gifted to me or swapped. But I didn’t entirely give up on hawthorn. I did find a seedling source – Lincoln Oakes Nursery – for a particular hawthorn that I was looking for – Arnold Hawthorn “Homestead” (Crataegus arnoldiana). It’s supposed to have relatively large edible fruit. There was quite a bit of back and forth because they have both a wholesale and retail operation that I wasn’t aware of but all web links point to the wholesale nursery that doesn’t have a functioning shopping cart. Eventually, I got an order form which I emailed back to them. After quite a while, I received a phone call about the order. During the course of the discussion, I was able to get the website confusion sorted out, get to the correct website and place an order online while they were still on the phone. At the end, while chatting a bit, I asked if there was anyone that I could talk to about propagating hawthorn from seed. Sure, I was told, The nursery manager’s standing right next to me. I’ll put him on. I briefly explained how I’d been having no success with the techniques I’d been trying and asked him how they were having success that allowed them to sell large seedling quantities. He said that the previous manager had used the techniques that I was using with 40% or less success but that he didn’t use those techniques. He simply planted the seeds in pots outside and came back 18-24 months later to seedlings. He said his success rate was around 90%. I looked back at some of the research that I had and noticed that they did talk about the long dormancy but were trying to find ways to successfully break the dormancy. And their conclusions that hawthorn was difficult to propagate have become horticultural wisdom that is repeated over and over whenever you read about hawthorn seed germination.
I suddenly realized that once again, here was man trying to control Nature rather than just letting Nature get on with it. In some instructions that came with some Blackthorn, Sloe (Prunus spinosa) seeds, notoriously difficult to germinate, that I ordered this year and just received, there is the line “It has been found that fluctuating pre-treatment temperatures can give the best germination results and I myself have had excellent results by keeping the mixed seeds in a cold shed through the winter for the cold storage of their pre-treatment and allowing the temperature to fluctuate naturally.” And there it was – my Aha! moment: Naturally = winter sowing but over two winters as Lincoln Oakes was doing!!!!!!! Two years means a lot of tending especially during the summer when the seed mix will dry out. And there’s the distinct possibility of the seed rotting because of too much moisture somewhere during that time. After a bit of thinking about the problems involved, I came up with a process that I’m going to try that replicates Nature as much as possible but in a way that reduces some of the randomness.
I’ll sow seeds in pots filled with ProMix BX. That will provide the seeds with a tailored, proven germination mix that stays moist without water-logging and has Mycorrhizal fungi to aid root development after germination. I’ll cover the pots to keep the snow from building up and giving a moisture problem when it melts. In the spring, I’ll sink the pots into the ground in an area that gets early morning or late afternoon sun and cover them with a plastic bag to keep the moisture in as well as weed seeds and animals out. Being out of the direct sun will keep the greenhouse provide by the plastic bag from overheating. To avoid possible rotting, I’ll add no water to the pot but rely on whatever moisture is inside the bag and in the soil mix. I’ll be able to see moisture beading on the inside of the bag which will tell me that there’s enough surface moisture to start germination. If there’s no beading within the first few hours of being covered, I’ll remove the bag to do a very light misting of the soil and then re-bag the pot. I can check one a week or so as I move around the garden doing other things. Hopefully, this benign neglect approach to letting Nature determine the germination cycle will produce the same kind of results with any difficult-to-germinate herbaceous and woody perennials that Lincoln Oakes has in its nursery programme.
In reflecting on this essay, I’m struck by a couple of questions. Why do we think that fixed temperatures are better that the fluctuating temperatures during germination? Why do we think that we can do better than Nature which implies that Nature is wrong? That kind of thinking has taken us down and continues to take us down so many wrong paths, many of which are increasingly looking like dead ends at best or, at worst, lead over the cliff.