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Some Links for Seed School Class 1 August 20, 2011

Growing plants from seed is fun and saves money. I have written about saving and growing seed in both of my regional books Golden Gate Gardening & Wildly Successful Plants: Northern California. The first covers seeds of vegetables and herbs, the second covers many common California garden flowers.

Because Seed School at the Garden For the Environment in San Francisco ( starts tomorrow, I am putting a few links on this blog. The first class is on saving seed, so these are links that will be particularly helpful on that subject.

Here is a link to a series of articles by Tom Clothier, on every topic you can imagine relating to saving and starting seeds from Botany for Seedsavers and Genetics for Seedsavers to conditions for growing many kinds of seeds and dealing with damping off (decay) in seedlings.

I also found his template for folding a seed packet that needs not tape or glue, for those times when you need to enclose some seeds when you are "in the field" with no access to other containers.

To find many wonderful printable templates for making paper seed packets when you have more time and materials, do a Google search for "seed packets" with "template". Here is one example of some of the pretty templates you will find with such a search:

The following link is to native plant seed collection guidelines of the Rancho Santa Ana Botanical Garden. It covers getting permits for collecting on public land, keeping records, guidelines for amount of seed to take, and other important information for those who are thinking of doing this.

Another link of use to those who are interested in native plants is that to the Presidio Native Plant Nursery. They grow native plants for restoration projects and welcome volunteers. Much of what they do is starting plants and tending them as they grow, but they also sometimes involve volunteers in wild seed collecting and cleaning. They welcome volunteers 1-4 on Wednesdays and Saturdays.

 Finally, here is a google search engine that has been set up to deal with all aspects of saving, obtaining, or growing seeds:

Hope to see you in Seed School. In the first class, I will cover the basics of seedsaving, and then we will clean some seeds I've saved and I will advise on ones you may have saved or plan to save.

(If you missed the class and would like to see it repeated, send me a comment and we will see if we can do it again.)


Naked Ladies--Wildly Successful Plant of the Month

In California, August is the month of the naked ladies. They are to be found dancing in gardens and along roads up and down the state. They dance, however, only in the wind, being rooted firmly in the ground--not wild California women, but pink lily-like blossoms of the plant Amaryllis belladonna. The fanciful name was inspired by the fact the plans have no trace of leaf when they are blooming.

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These, in our neighborhood, were planted behind a low privet hedge, so they peek modestly over the top when viewed from the street. (Not everyone finds them shocking, though, in Italy, they have the much more modest common name of Madonna lily, and in Spain, a name that translates to "Girls going to School.")

Below, I shot a cluster of them close up, so you can see the big bulbs at the top of the soil.

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This is a plant of mysteries. The first is the absence of leaves when it blooms. The explanation for their lack is that they have strap-like leaves in winter that you could easily mistake for Agapanthus leaves. They dry up completely well before the flower stem emerges.

The second mystery is why they sometimes refuse to bloom. In the wild, in the chaparrel-like fynbos of the Cape Province, they bloom only after a wildfire strikes--which happens every 5 to 40 years. In gardens, they tend to bloom every year, but if they are in shade in winter and spring, they may not bloom at all. One guess is that the wildfires remove other plants that shade the leaves in winter.

In South Africa, botanists puzzled for a long time about how the flowers were pollinated, considering a hawk moth, carpenter bees, and other bees. Whatever does it there, something also does it here, because seeds do form. They are soft pearly pink or white balls the size of BBs. I germinated them in pots, just to see, but they don't usually germinate in the garden. This is probably because fall rains are later here than in South Africa, so the delicate, fleshy seeds dry out before they can grow.

These plants grow nicely in unwatered parts of the garden. They rarely need any irrigation at all, being from the western, Cape region of South Africa that has a climate very similar to ours--wet in winter, dry in summer.You'd only need to water a bit in an unusually dry winter. And, while the plant has no need for summer water, it can tolerate a moderate amount of it in spring and summer in soil with good drainage, meaning you can grow it in the same bed as other plants that are moderately drought-tolerant. The bulbs are best left alone for a number of years to produce large clumps.

A good time to plant naked lady bulbs is late summer, when they are most dormant. If you are dividing an existing stand, dig them as soon as the blooms fade.

In South Africa, naked ladies are often interplanted with native bulbs that bloom at other times, such as spring blooming Agapanthus or winter blooming Chasmanthe. (Chasmanthe is a tall, orange or yellow-flowered plant often mistaken for crocosmia here.)

These were among the South African bulbs Thomas Jefferson obtained and tried to grow in his greenhouse, though in general, he wasn't a very successful greenhouse operator and soon gave up, deciding to use the greenhouse as a sun room instead. By 1850, the bulbs were introduced to California, which accounts for the fact they are sometimes seen blooming in places where no one lives now. They have survived in abandoned farm sites and on Alcatraz Island, where they were part of the prisoner or employee gardens recently rennovated. (While they persist, and multiply, they don't generally spread far from the original planting, so if they were planted in a row, the row remains, just blooming more profusely after many years.)

Gus Broucaret, instructor of Horticulture at City College of San Francisco tells me that as a boy in San Francisco in the 1930s or 40s, he would have dirt fights with his friends on undeveloped hillsides, and then dig up a naked lady bulb, slice it open and use the sudsy sap inside to clean their hands before going home to face mothers who didn't much approve of their dirtying play.

Naked ladies are deer and gopher resistant and are fragrant. If you have enough to cut as well as ornament the garden, you will find they are excellent cut flowers.

A similar plant, of interest to those with smaller gardens is Nerine bowdenii, which has pink flowers on bare stems to 2 feet tall in late summer. 

There is much more on Amaryllis belladonna and other easy heirloom California garden plants in my book Wildly Successful Plants: Northern California, available in many local bookstores and nurseries. (See cover at right.)