April for us is usually all about the first Tulips, Anemones and Ranunculus. However this winter has been rather unique in my experience. We haven't had a cold snap (yet!) and the plants in the garden have been feeling a bit confused by this. Most of the plants we grow in this country need a period of 'vernalisation', simply a period of cold weather, to know where they are in the year. Without a good freeze plants can start flowering too early in the mild weather that we've had and to some extent this has been happening at Black Shed. As I write this in March, we've had a wonderful display of Anemones and the first Tulips are well on their way. I keep reminding them that two years ago we were covered in snow!
We started sowing our seeds back in February and I suspect that many of you'll be busy sowing now. There are a couple of things to bear in mind if you want maximum success. Many seeds can only break their dormant phase and germinate if subjected to freezing temperatures. You can understand how and why they've developed this strategy, it makes no sense to germinate before a really cold period and natural selection will have favoured those strains which have adopted this rather sensible behaviour. In order to break the dormancy of such species, we have a couple of ways to encourage this. We can either sow in the Autumn and leave the seed trays outside to brave the elements, to be subjected to our usual Winter frosts and freezes, or we can mimic this by a technique called 'stratification'.
This involves placing the seeds in the fridge for a couple of weeks to simulate the winter freeze, either sowing the seed in trays and somehow finding room in the fridge for them, which is not exactly practical for most of us! You can pop the seeds between sheets of damp tissue in a plastic bag or freezer box, or mix them with a little damp sand or compost. This uses less space and is less likely to give you an unexpected ingredient in your supper! Once they've had their chilly spell, then they can be sown as normal and hopefully they will pop up their eager heads in short order. We tend to sow early and let the Winter do it's work naturally, we also don't have room in the fridge!
There are other methods including soaking the seeds in the naturally occurring plant hormone Gibberellic acid, which stimulates plant growth and germination in species which are otherwise reluctant to break dormancy. There is another route, which is to buy seeds which have been pre-treated, either by artificial vernalisation, or by chemical treatment. The German seed company Jelitto, offers a fabulous range of seeds of otherwise very tricky to germinate species.
They don't disclose their methods but whatever they do, their seeds, even the most challenging of species, germinate in days. Which, if you're like Helen, Tabitha and I, is ridiculously exciting. All that new life! A wonderful pre-cursor to all the floral joys we are about to witness.
All text and images ©Paul Stickland. First published in The Sherborne Times April 2020