Seeds for Success

DON’T BUY THAT PLANT!  I see it in your shopping cart and I can foresee an unhappy ending. Just the way I feel when I see some college kids ordering another round of “Fireball” shots. It just doesn’t usually end well.

Just why would it be a bad idea to buy a nice big foxglove? Because you will forget to water it on one warm day and it will look like the Wicked Witch of the West after her bath, a shriveled and pitiful little pile of fuzzy foliage. Dang!

And even if you don’t forget to water it, you will be made well aware of just how much water the plant requires to remain turgid for 24 hours. It is a thirsty plant that came to you with a barely sufficient root system. It has been thriving in the most coddling of environments and now it’s time for the real world. It is this sort of imbalance that makes most people think they have a black thumb.

If this warning isn’t sufficient enough to make you put that plant back on the rack, there is one other thing you should know about your pretty adoptee: She also has been using drugs. Okay, this is not universally true, but many of the plants found on “forklift-friendly”racks have been treated with growth regulator. This allows them to bloom and not bump their heads on the bottom of the bunk above them. Any chance that your beautiful girl had to become the elegant, tall lady you envision has been short-circuited by chemistry. Convenience and marketability have limited her future.

Any chance that your beautiful girl had to become the elegant, tall lady you envision has been short-circuited by chemistry.

This warning is not meant to keep your garden free from the dreamy spires of Digitalis (the botanical name for foxglove). On the contrary, it is meant to encourage you to embrace the beautiful and graceful foxglove, only in a more natural and “horticulturally correct” way. You see, I must confess to having committed the sins described above. After enough gardening “hangovers” it’s time to change our pattern of behavior. 

If you watch the foxgloves in your garden you’ll see how they do it naturally, going to seed and progressing into flowering adulthood. These mature plants flower from late winter through early summer, depending on the harshness of the winter. It is not unusual to find someone blooming even in the off-peak season in my garden, and after this flowering you can watch the seed pods developing. υ

Digitalis seeds are very tiny, almost dust-like—the sort of seeds you dread finding in a packet. How many times did I, in my horticultural childhood, open a pack of campanula seeds to find an even smaller packet inside the packet. This Ukranian nesting doll trickery had me beaten before I started. Handling these types of hopelessly small seeds is for people of science, not a gardener with dexterity and attention-span issues.

And now the good news: You don’t have to handle foxglove seed! If I handle these tiny embryos at all it is only to cut off a ripe stem from an adult who has finished flowering and then wave it around the garden. This demented fairy act is best done in twilight situations or other times when witnesses are not present, but it serves to spread seeds wherever they may fall. This randomness gives charm that no human cleverness could contrive.

“Okay then, how do I get these adult foxgloves in my garden if I can’t buy them in the spring?” I knew that question was out there, so I have some options. First you can buy some smaller ones (usually in four-inch pots or quarts) that are not so oversized for their pots. This gives a more balanced package as far as roots-to-foliage ratio. I find that good local nurseries have these kinds of plants available beginning in fall. And then be mindful of the real key to success with planting potted foxglove: Plant them in the gardening season. That’s right, the gardening season is college football season, or roughly so. 

Get your new plants in the ground while the weather is less stressful. They will become established and behave properly the following spring. Then you will be able to enjoy the fruits of your virtuous efforts while others are scrambling for “color” to stick in their yard. I can already see the smug expressions on many of your faces and you will deserve to feel thus.

Whichever path you choose, I hope these elegant flowering plants become long-term residents in your garden.

Option three is to ignore the preceding advice. You are welcome to go to the big box store and load up on big, growth-regulated foxgloves and prove me wrong. You are probably the one to do it! Whichever path you choose, I hope these elegant flowering plants become long-term residents in your garden. They are biennial, but their self-sowing behavior will make them a perennial presence.

Another plant comes to mind as I think about the nature of foxgloves. It is a flowering tobacco that I’ve admired over the years in some seed catalogs and which I  finally acquired. Its seeds came in the aforementioned packet-in-a-packet and threatened to discouraged me from ever planting them. I remember sowing them on the surface of some compost and watching as two seedlings developed. I cared for these two treasures and finally planted them out. I grew two of the most lovingly cultivated poke weeds ever.

Somehow, as divine grace would have it, the proper plant emerged somewhere in my garden. I am pretty sure I took the “spare” seeds I didn’t feel like dealing with and threw them in some bed or the other where nature took care of the rest. As a result I’ve had Nicotiana Langsdorfii ever since. Just say it. Nicotiana langsdorfii. It’s almost as much fun to say as it is satisfying to grow. Chartreuse blossoms that dangle like tiny skirts on airy stems will draw the attention of anyone who passes nearby. They blend agreeably with almost anything and will spread around your garden to make their
own friends, not requiring your matchmaking efforts.

I hope both of these plants will make themselves at home in your place. Enjoy your gardens, friends.

This article appears in the February-March 2016 issue of Augusta Magazine.

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