I’ve heard it’s possible to have a garden for many years without ever starting seeds. I’ve even met a few people who claim to have “never bothered with seeds,” so I know they really do exist. I feel sorry for those folks, because they’re missing out on what I think is one of the most fascinating aspects of the whole gardening experience. So, I’ve made it one of my life’s goals to convince as many people as possible to give seeds a chance.
There are so many ways that growing from seed is worthwhile, it’s going to take several posts to get through them all—enough to keep us busy through the winter, at least. Welcome to the “Don’t Be Ordinary” series, in which I hope to convince at least one person to try seeds for the first time, and to tempt those of you who already appreciate seeds into trying something new.
Let’s start off with a simple but obvious reason: Seeds give you the opportunity to grow something easy but just a little different than what everyone else has. Because you’re not ordinary, are you? And you don’t want your garden to be ordinary either. Petunias, marigolds, and tomatoes are about as common as it gets, but they come with some utterly uncommon alternatives to the garden staples you’re used to.
Try a “New” Petunia
In the last few years, quite a few beautiful petunias have come on the market. Some have spots or speckles; some show bicolor blushes or shading; some have gorgeous velvety black blooms. These intensively hybridized strains are stunning, of course. But if you can buy them at your local garden center, then so can lots of other gardeners in your town.
For something different, consider growing a species petunia from seed. One option is Petunia integrifolia (or P. violacea). Long before the big, bold hybrids came on the scene, this little cutie was delighting gardeners with an abundance of vibrant magenta-purple blooms just an inch or two across.
In the ground, Petunia integrifolia tends to form a low, spreading puddle of pretty blooms if it has no close companions. Where there are other low-growing plants, it likes to mingle with them; if taller, branching partners are nearby, the stems tend to weave up through them. Either way, it has a charming way of popping out in unexpected places to form colorful combinations.
Bright red Petunia exserta has slightly larger blooms and leaves—generally, it’s larger than P. integrifolia overall—but it is still daintier than most hybrids. It has a more open, spreading habit in the ground, so by itself, it tends to look a bit straggly, but it’s terrific interplanted with other front-of-the-border plants for pops of red.
My favorite way to use both of these species is in full-sun containers, where the tight quarters tend to keep the flowers near each other, and close companions give them the opportunity to create many eye-catching combinations.
Petunia exserta has also been great for me in a pot by itself, with a wire topiary cone that helps to corral the stems, creating a little petunia “tree.” When the stems start getting leggy in mid- to late summer, I usually shear them back to the form, or even remove the cone and cut all of the stems back to about 4 inches, then put the cone back over it and keep it well watered. It grows back quickly and produces another spectacular show in fall.
The only problem I have with either species is tobacco budworm. The small caterpillars usually show up in late summer to eat the leaves and flowers and chew holes in the seedpods (not just on these petunias—on hybrid petunias too, and nicotiana, and related plants). You can pick them off, clip off the stems they are feeding on, or spray with Bacillus thuringiensis.
It’s unlikely that you’d ever find either of these species petunias for sale locally as started plants, but you may be able to find them online. For the price of the plant and shipping, though, you could buy one packet of seed and grow several to many pots.
P. integrifolia seedlings tend to be somewhat delicate, so I like to start them in small pots or even cell packs, with a half-dozen or so seeds in each pot or cell, then transplant them as a clump and let them grow that way.
P. exserta also starts off small, but it produces surprisingly stocky seedlings that aren’t difficult to separate, as long as you haven’t dumped too many seeds in one spot. I transplant these to individual pots as soon as they are large enough to handle.
A single packet of seed usually contains more seeds than you need for one year, so it can provide plants for the next year or two as well. However, both species have a wonderful way of self-sowing: not enough to be weedy by any standards. If you don’t accidentally pull them out when weeding once the weather gets warm, you may find them showing up in surprising places in the garden, or around the base of the container they were growing in the previous year. I usually start a few new plants from seed in spring but keep an eye out for the volunteers and transplant them to fill empty spots in summer, or just enjoy them where they are.
If you need more seeds for yourself, or for sharing, look for the small seedpods that form after the flowers drop off. Try to catch them just as they turn brown; once they split, the seeds drop out easily and may be gone before you get them. The ripe pods tend to be several inches back from the shoot tips. It’s pretty easy to find the pods on P. exserta.
On P. integrifolia, you’ll have to look closely to find the tiny pods, especially on horizontal or trailing stems (try lifting these stems gently to see if the seedpods are underneath).
Aw, don’t be snooty; even marigolds can be interesting. If you aren’t a fan of the short, squatty ones with super-poofy blooms, there are excellent alternatives.
One reason I enjoy growing signet marigolds (Tagetes tenuifolia or T. signata)—specifically, the strain ‘Lemon Gem’—is because I associate it with a friend who was a bit obsessive about finding it for her garden each spring. I was skeptical at first, because she otherwise had a good eye for worthy plants, and I didn’t consider marigolds as being up to her normal standards. Her enthusiasm for it gradually changed my mind, and I now acknowledge she made a good call on this one.
‘Lemon Gem’ really is a cute thing, with tiny, single, bright yellow blooms that are perfectly in scale with its lacy, bright green leaves. The plants are dense and bushy, forming mounds that typically reach 8 to 12 inches tall. Ruffling the foliage releases a pleasing scent, so I highly recommend planting this one within easy reach: right at the edge of a path, for instance, or in a raised container.
It’s also perfectly at home in an herb garden or vegetable garden, because both the flowers and leaves are edible. Granted, you wouldn’t make an entire meal out of them, but they’re so nice sprinkled over a green salad for a touch of color and flavor.
Another alternative to ordinary bedding-plant marigolds is the old tall kinds, usually attributed to Tagetes patula and called French marigolds, though they are from Mexico and Guatemala. These French marigolds typically reach a few feet tall, with a loosely bushy habit. Just like the signet types, they start flowering in early summer and continue until frost. The flowers are small compared to the size of the plant, but there is a pleasing balance between the colorful blooms and the rich green foliage.
The flower color ranges from yellow to orange to red, mostly in solid colors. For a while, I enjoyed growing the stripey kinds, with alternating red-and-yellow spokes, such as ‘Harlequin’; then I started hearing about a strain from Great Dixter called ‘Cinnabar’, with deep red petals rimmed in golden orange. From what I can tell, this is what the blooms are supposed to look like.
I have twice now purchased seed of ‘Cinnabar’ from what I consider to be reputable UK sources, and each time, most of the flowers look like that; some, however, are a bit more orange, and a few are yellow—all on plants that are consistently around 3 feet tall.
Because of the variation in color, I’m not 100 percent sure I got the true ‘Cinnabar’ either time, so I’ve been thinking of it as ‘Supposedly Cinnabar’. Perhaps the bit of variability is normal–do any of you know? The strain is really pretty, whatever it is.
Both of these marigolds are easy to raise from seeds. They’re quite thin, so just barely cover them with growing medium. I like to get a jump-start by sowing some indoors in a warm, bright spot in mid-spring, but I often start a few more pots outdoors in early to mid-June to have fillers for empty spots that appear in late June or July.
It’s terrific to see some intriguing heirloom tomato varieties appear among the hybrids in garden-center transplant offerings. They are just a teaser, however, of the seemingly endless options you can find if you go hunting for heirloom tomato seeds online. It’s easy to stick with your time-tested favorites each year, but if you have the space for a few extra plants, consider giving something different a try from seed to expand your solanaceous horizons. There are so many fruit shapes, colors, flavor qualities, and origin stories to choose from!
If you really want to go all out on the tomato-to-talk-about front, you can even find varieties that are prized more for their foliage than for their fruits. As a fan of (almost) all things variegated, finding out that there are tomatoes with multicolored foliage was a real revelation to me. The most common of a truly uncommon group is known as ‘Variegata’ or ‘Variegated’. You may also see it sold as ‘Splash of Cream’ or ‘Irish Cream and Green’.
Just look at that variegation! It does come true from seed, but the amount and intensity of the cream-to-white variegation varies through the growing season; usually, it is strongest on new shoots early and late in the growing season.
Shoots can turn solid green, then start producing variegated growth again. The markings often extend into the stems and sometimes even to the flowers, and the young fruits may have faint paler green striping, but I’ve never seen noticeable striping left once the fruits mature to red.
The fruits are roughly plum-sized (though rounded, not plum-shaped). Though the flavor is not particularly distinctive, I think it’s pretty tasty: definitely worth picking, and that’s a good thing, because the indeterminate plants tend to produce moderately but steadily until frost.
Consider letting a few ripen fully on the plant, until they drop off or start to split, and extracting the seeds so you can keep them or share them around. If you miss a few dropped fruits, you may find variegated volunteers in that spot next summer.
Do you prefer your foliage on the golden side? Well, I don’t know of any bright yellow-leaved tomatoes (2023 edit: I do know one now: ‘Keith’s Ailsa Gold Leaf’!), but if you’re willing to go a bit greener, there’s one you might like to try. Introduced by the Livingston Seed Company in the late 1800s as ‘Honor Bright’, it is now also known as ‘Livingston’s Honor Bright’, and as ‘Lutescent’ too.
If you’re a hosta collector, you may recognize “lutescent” as the term used to describe hostas with leaves that lighten from dark green to light green or from chartreuse to yellow as the growing season progresses–as it does on ‘Sun Power’, for example. On this tomato, it refers to the overall greenish yellow color of the leaves, though it stays pretty much the same through the growing season.
To be completely honest, ‘Lutescent’ looks like it could use a good dose of nitrogen fertilizer, especially when it is growing near “normal” tomato plants. Fortunately, it has some other noteworthy features besides the unusual foliage and its long history. For one, the flowers are ivory-white, instead of the usual yellow.
And the fruits are quite colorful—particularly eye-catching when they are at different ripening stages in one cluster, as they turn from ivory-yellow through orange to red. They are flavorful too—perhaps the best reason that this variety has been around for so long. Taken all together, these features make ‘Lutescent’ an interesting addition to any vegetable garden.
Tomatoes are one of the easiest plants for anyone to start from seed: sow 1/8 to ¼ inch deep in moist growing mix indoors in early to mid-spring, under lights or on a warm, bright windowsill. Transplant to your garden once the chance of frost has passed.
Ready to add a tomato-y conversation piece in your veggie garden? I no longer sell seeds of ‘Lutescent’ but do have ‘Variegata’ in my shop, along with several other variegated strains and ‘Keith’s Ailsa Gold Leaf’ too.