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Growing alpines from seed: an update

October 1, 2019
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Growing alpines from seed is a long game. With flowering annuals or vegetables, the wins can come as quickly as the Saturday afternoon football results. Waiting for alpine seedlings to germinate and bulk up feels very different. Most alpine plants grown from seed will not flower in the first year and with bulb seeds, flowering may take several years. A little patience is certainly required when growing alpines from seed!

Last March, I sowed the seeds I received from the AGS Seed Exchange and I’m here to report back on my victories and failures.

The successes

The biggest successes in my seed exchange packages were those from the Easy Pack A. These are plants selected by the Seed Exchange team as being easy to grow and, consequently, suitable for beginners like me. It gives me a warm glow to report that those involved in the Seed Exchange do know their stuff in suggesting these varieties.

I have germination in 9/10 of the Easy Pack A varieties and, in some cases, have a large number of plants potted on. The biggest success has been Dianthus deltoides. I have sixteen plants potted up and they look as bonny as any you might find for sale in a nursery. A close runner up was Silene samojedorum, otherwise known as the Yunnan catchfly; I have ten pots growing with healthy looking rosettes.  Both of these plants should flower next year.

Probably the prettiest of the plants in terms of leaf shape is Aquilegia flabellata. The leaves are cute miniature replicas of the larger varieties in my garden and I will so enjoy growing these on and seeing the exquisite flowers next year.

I have several plants of Erinus alpinus which goes by the appealing common name Fairy Foxglove. These were later to germinate than some of the others but I have half a dozen small plants which should flower pink next year. I also have one or two plants each of Androsace halleri, Draba hispanica and Viola elatior. The Iris lutescens I ordered has also germinated and I have one healthy-looking plant that I’m hoping will flower next year.

The ‘not yet sure’ results

Papaver miyabeanum, the Iceland Poppy, germinated well but I lost many over the summer in their pots. I’m not sure if they were underwatered, overwatered or if they didn’t like my potting medium. I used a fairly free draining sandy mixture to plant them in so I don’t think they were overwatered but I had run out of grit and I suspect they rotted at the surface. Luckily, I have a few that survived so, if I can get them through the winter in their pots, I’m hopeful for flower next year.

Only half of the Easy Pack B (bulbs and corms) have germinated so far and I’m beginning to think the remainder won’t. Scilla peruviana has done the best here and I have several plants. These will take a few years to reach flowering size. I also have three Tulipa tarda seedlings which just look like thin blades of grass at the moment. I also have one interesting looking Freesia laxa seedling and what I think are some Acis autumnalis, although again they are grassy looking wisps.

Only recently germinated, and looking promising, is an Arisaema flavum. The leaf doesn’t look much like those I have seen of this variety online but neither does it look like a weed and even has a miniature bulbil at its base. I’ll grow it on and see.

The failures

Not all the germination in my seed trays are the longed-for alpines. The initial excitement at seeing pricks of bright green in some of the pots soon ebbed away as the leaves developed were obviously blown-in weeds. In some cases, I just knew it was a weed. In others, I’m still not sure and am waiting to see!

My biggest initial joy has become my biggest flop. A non-alpine choice from the Seed Exchange were some seeds of Hibiscus ‘Summer Storm’ and I was looking forward to nurturing a plant to flowering in my greenhouse. Only one seed germinated and I carefully potted it on and nurtured its growth. By mid-summer it was tall but the leaves were worrying me. I’d seen beautiful specimens of a similar Hibiscus at RBG Kew and my plant had leaves that just didn’t look big enough. I reasoned that it was a different variety.

It wasn’t until a friend asked me why I was growing a birch tree in my greenhouse that I realised why this plant has been troubling me. A bog-standard birch it is. Not a handsome Hibiscus: my prince has turned into a frog!

Despite this disappointment, I do consider my first foray into the AGS Seed Exchange to have been a success. I have many plants at minimal effort and with little financial outlay. I’m planning a rockery and it is great to know that I have some plants ready when it’s eventually finished. Having grown plants from seed in the past I know I’ll treasure these more than any bought from a nursery.

The AGS Seed Exchange will be open for orders in late November. Find more information here.

Image of Katharine Woods Katharine Woods

Katharine is a busy mother of three living in the Chiltern Hills. In her diary, she details her experience growing alpine and hardy plants in her own garden.

Katharine also writes her own blog, The Tea Break Gardener, documenting the wide variety of plants she grows, from perennials to houseplants.