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<em>Echinacea purpurea 'Maxima'</em> is one common perennial that's easy to start from seed. Photo: Ulf Eliasson, CC <a href="">some rights reserved</a>
Echinacea purpurea 'Maxima' is one common perennial that's easy to start from seed. Photo: Ulf Eliasson, CC some rights reserved

Getting a jump on the flower season

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Starting seeds indoors is a mid-winter routine that gives gardeners a nice taste of the coming season: potting mix on the fingers, the fragrance of moist soil. Mostly, the trays and boxes of little seedlings are destined for the vegetable garden.

Cooperative Extension horticulturist Amy Ivy has suggestions this week for starting flowers, perennial, that is, from seed as well.

She tells Martha Foley that starting perennials from seed is generally a more forgiving project than getting vegetable seedlings ready to go. Timing for the getting young flowers ready for transplanting isn't so crucial. One caveat: the timeline to maturity is longer.

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Martha Foley
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Starting Perennial Flowers From Seed

By Amy Ivy

Perennial flower gardening is very popular these days. One reason may be because there are hundreds of different plants from which to choose. There is certainly no excuse for a boring garden! But perennial plants can be very expensive to buy, so what is an eager gardener to do?

Gardening friends can be an important source of divisions if you happen to stop by just after they’ve finished dividing their plants, but seldom are we so lucky. Fortunately, many perennials are easy to start from seed and seed catalogs are full of possibilities. You can either start the seeds in March under lights to be transplanted outdoors in early summer, or if you want less fussing and are not in a big rush, you can plant the seeds outdoors in June in a nursery bed to be transplanted either in the early fall or the following spring.

Not all perennials do well from seed however, and some are possible but so slow that it makes more sense to purchase young plants. Perennials in this group include: astilbe, bleeding heart, daylily, hosta, iris and pulmonaria or lungwort.

This leaves plenty of perennials that are actually quite easy to grow from seed. This group includes: columbine, coreopsis, delphinium, dianthus, foxglove, liatris, mallow, poppy, balloonflower, Echinacea, lupine and rudbeckia to name a few.

Check the seed packet or catalog for any special requirements each type of seed might have. Some, such as delphinium, need darkness to sprout and others, like columbine need light so be sure to not cover these seed with soil. Lupines do best if you soak them for a day or nick the hard seed coat with a file before planting. An excellent reference book for anyone interest in starting all kinds of seeds is The New Seed Starters Handbook by Nancy Bubel.

If the seed packet contains a mixture of colors be sure you keep seedlings of various sizes and not just the biggest and heartiest. It’s surprising, but seedlings of different colors often grow with different vigor. If you choose only the biggest seedlings you’ll probably end up with only one or two colors from a mix that originally contained several colors.

If you’d rather not bother with starting seeds indoors, or if your grow lights are already full of vegetables and annuals, you can still be very successful planting the seeds directly outdoors. The easiest way to handle this is to designate a separate area for your perennial nursery, such as one end of your vegetable garden. Work up the soil well before planting and label each row or section. As the seedlings emerge, thin them to an appropriate distance but realize they probably won’t grow to their full size their first year. By keeping the young plants separate it will be easier to give them a little extra attention to watering and weeding.

Depending on how much growth they put on and how much room is left in your perennial garden at the end of the summer, these seedlings can either be planted into their final location in early September or the following May.

Starting perennial from seed lets you increase your supply and diversify what you grow with a minimum outlay of cash on your part. It’s also a good way to make friends. Chances are you’ll end up with many more seedlings that you can use but you can be sure there’s a gardener out there who would be happy to take them off your hands!


Some perennials easy to start from seed

Some perennials usually difficult to grow from seed

Aquilegia – columbine


Campanula – bellflower and foxglove


Coreopsis – tickseed



Dicentra – bleeding heart

Dianthus – sometimes called pinks

Dictamnus – gas plant

Echinacea - coneflower

Hemerocallis – daylily

Echinops – globe thistle


Liatris – gayfeather

Iris – German bearded and Siberian

Lupinus – lupine

Lilium – lily, tiger lily, Asiatic lily

Malva – mallow and hollyhock

Phlox – garden phlox

Papaver – poppy


Rudbeckia – black-eyed Susan


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