Sprout, Dang It! When Seeds Forget to Read Instructions

There will be times you’ll wish that seeds would just get on with it and sprout, dang it!

Sprout, dang it!

Sprout, dang it!

You’ll start to crave the sight of green, the delicate hesitant shoots of a seedling peeping out of a peat pot’s soil.

You’ll begin swearing at the fine print on seed packets. “But the package says ‘Seeds will germinate in 1 to 3 weeks’ – it’s been TWENTY-TWO DAYS!”

You’ll be tempted to call up the seed company and point out the misleading “Guaranteed to Grow” stamp on the back: “But you PROMISED!!”

Best Lesson: Nobody told the seeds when to sprout

99% of the time, the expectations that need to be adjusted are our own, not those of the seed.

Seeds are very poor readers. Sure, the package says one to three weeks. But the seed is on the INSIDE of the package, where no instructions are printed.

Seeds don’t sprout overnight (in most cases). If the package says one to three weeks, don’t fret when nothing happens in one to three days.

Seeds don’t sprout just anywhere (in most cases). Does that particular seed crave 99% humidity and deep shade? Do you live in a suburb of Las Vegas? Maybe it’s safer to gamble on something else sprouting, like sagebrush or salt cedar.

Seeds don’t sprout under every condition (in almost all cases). It’s critical to know your hardiness zone – and know what hardiness zones are about.

Sometimes seeds don’t sprout, period. That’s what happened in my ventures with cardboard palms and eucalyptus seed. After over a year of waiting, I had to just admit that basking in the shade of my very own cardboard palm wasn’t in my future (and not just because the pictures that I found of cardboard palms show them growing very low to the ground).

Next Best Lesson: Ask for help – wisely and armed to the teeth

Ginger and basil working together with astonishing results

Ginger and basil working together with astonishing results

I will keep repeating this until you are muttering it in your sleep: Know Your Hardiness Zone.

When asked for help, most people are going to lead with “Where do you live?” — that determines what advice they give you or where they point you for more information. If you live in Miami, the advice will be different from what you’ll receive if you live in Seattle or Bangor, Maine.

When something fails to happen according to my own imperfect expectations, sometimes I call my friendly Master Gardener and sob on her shoulder. She’ll sympathize and not laugh too loud, remind me that we live in a hot dry desert in temperatures akin to the surface of the sun (see above regarding Know Your Hardiness Zone),

… then she’ll cheer me up by pointing out that hardly anyone living on the surface of the sun gets XYZ to sprout without first soaking the seeds in hot magma at 40,000 degrees Fahrenheit and dedicating the burnt seed packet to Aphidistracia, pagan goddess of annoying insects that chirp and eat concrete.

(Sorry, Mia. I know you wouldn’t use those exact words!)

… then I point out that, even though it’s 127F outside, I garden indoors mainly because we live in a hot dry desert in temperatures that make the surface of the sun jealous.

I hop on the Internet and search for “how to get eucalyptus seeds to germinate without moving to Melbourne for the winter.” Sometimes the results are amazingly informative. Sometimes, though, I have to remind myself that not everything on the Internet is gospel or even anywhere near true, and that soaking seeds in hot magma at 40,000 degrees Fahrenheit is total fiction. Please don’t try this at home or on the surface of your nearby sun.

I visit two of the behemoths of gardening lore: Wikipedia and Dave’s Garden. Dave’s Garden is a lot easier to navigate than when I first visited a few years ago. Both are packed full of advice and knowledgeable people. Check out the Dave’s Garden Community, and dive in.

Next Best Lesson: Fail gracefully and go plant something else.

Sometimes the best lesson is the one learned by knowing when to go do something else. If that eucalyptus seed is not sprouting in your garden in Juneau in March, there’s probably a pretty good reason. (Hint: see above advice – Know Your Hardiness Zone)

I’ve got no problem at all admitting that something just ain’t gonna. If nothing happens after I’ve followed the instructions to the letter, I don’t mind ditching the whole project into the drum compost bin and trying something else.

I keep my failures —or at least photographic evidence— to remind me what works and what didn’t. It helps keep the successes in perspective.

Failure only happens if you try. When you’re facing a failure, remember that it’s a sure sign that you’re trying!

To your garden success!
Casey – the Garden Lass

Cardboard Palm Fate in Hands of the Saints

The now-famous Cardboard Palm Project almost came to a halt earlier this month after “meeting” Mia Myers of SmartSeeds by email. I got some straight scoop about cardboard palms from her, without boot-piss.

Cycad, cardboard palm

At the rate mine are germinating, this cycad must be ancient!

Cardboard Palms without Boot-Piss?

Let me take a side road a moment. A dear friend of mine from New Jersey mentioned that she appreciated my candor about a topic we were discussing recently, because (as she put it), I would not “piss on my boots and tell me it’s raining.” When she said that, I had to laugh. Her comment reminded me how much I also appreciate people who don’t piss on my boots – and Mia is no boot-pisser.

Cardboard Palm / Cycads are Old-Man Slow

I should have gotten a clue when comment after comment lamented that cardboard palm are “slow to grow.” If you have a Gardener Decoder Ring, you’ll find this means “a rock will germinate faster.”  One group of forum posters over at PlantSwap.net was encouraging each other along as they waited for their cardboard palms to germinate. I stopped reading after a year – and no germination.

(I went back today and read further – one cardboard palm did sprout after a year and a half, on page 6 of the forum posts!)

Cardboard Palms May or May Not Germinate in my Lifetime

Somewhere up there in my family tree is a very strong branch of Scottish blood, complete with never-say-die mentality and the ability to withstand properly hideous moor weather. This Scottish backbone got itself in a twist when it came time to drop the wee darlin’s on the trash heap. Well – ah cannae do aet, lass. I paid good coin for that batch of seed and by Saint Jude, Saint Andrew and Saint Maud (Queen Margaret of Scotland), I will get $9 worth of gardening entertainment out of ’em if it’s the last thing I do.

Bottom Line

Well, we’ll just see about that, won’t we? I kicked the planter full of procrastinating palms under the supplies shelf in the planting room, not so close I can trip over it, but not so far that I can’t imperiously toss a jug of water its direction when I so choose. We’ll see.


Cardboard Palm, Take Three

So it’s been a month or so since I put in Take Two cardboard palms, soaked in boiling water overnight and planted per instructions into peat pots, kept moist and very warm – just like the instructions say. They joined Take One on 8 July 2012  – hot water soak and planted per instructions into peat pots on 31 May 2012.

Sawing Into the Cardboard Palm

Zamia furfuracea or cardboard palm

Zamia furfuracea or cardboard palm is of the cycad genus.

So this time the seeds were placed in boiling water and left to cool down overnight, then two more nights – to the point that now they’ve been soaking for nearly a week. I’m told this won’t hurt anything – in fact, tomorrow morning before I put them into their starting pots, I’m going to run a steak knife down the edge of each one in an attempt to break the seed shell.

Stubborn is Just the First Part

So this will be the third method of “shocking” the cardboard palm into germinating. If it does germinate, maybe it’ll send a message to the first two batches that it’s ok to come out into the sunlight. As it is, these have now been soaked, boiled, steamed, sliced, slashed, steak-knifed and begged. It seems like something should have happened by now, but time is a strange mistress for the new gardener. I swear it’s been YEARS since I treated the first batch, when in reality it’s only been 5 months.

Meanwhile I found out that these cycads (cardboard palms are not even real palms, dangit!) are very very poisonous. Every bit of them. This means that even if they do manage to sprout, they’ll have to be stored completely out of reach of our predatory felines who think anything that grows is being grown for their enjoyment and munching.

Since they’re poison and stubborn and prima donna and diva par excellence, why the heck am I working so hard to get them to hatch?

Beats me!



Mold and the New Gardener

Mold should confine itself to expensive unpronounceable gourmet cheeses and stay out of my gardening hobby.

foil covering cardboard palm encourages mold

Don’t be this person. The one who covers seed pots with tinfoil – like me.

I may have mentioned that I was starting a second set of cardboard palm seed pots using a different approach – soaking the seeds overnight after an initial shock with boiling water. So far so good, right?

Well, if I had just stopped there, I wouldn’t be writing about mold.

I had in the back of my mind that, given what I’d read about the germination problems of the cardboard palm, I’d give it a space to rest and meditate while it decided if it was going to grow. So…

Mold Thinks Foil is Just Like Underground

So I covered the rack of seed pots with a layer of cling wrap and then, just for good measure, added a nice layer of aluminum foil.

I didn’t stop to think that where there’s a nice dark humid place, mold will grow quite happily.

When I peeled off the foil layer to check on my dark-dwelling seed pots, hoping to see a wee forest of cardboard palm sprouts, I found a nice thick layer of white cobweb’y mold instead (Fig. 2).

Don’t Panic – It’s Mold, Not Godzilla

So, being a well-brought-up Suzy Homemaker from the 1950s, the first thing I reach for is the bleach bottle. In the heavyweight bout of Mold vs Bleach, Mold is going to lose. So will my nostrils – but that’s a sure bet either way the fight goes. I’m allergic to way too many things on this planet, the biggest one being hard work.

Mold on plant soil is called saprophytic. No need to take notes – there won’t be a test later. It grows naturally in unsterilized soil that’s been amended with organic materials like bark and peat. When it gets a nice humid dark home, it assumes it’s underground and it grows like mad. Here’s a few notes from a potting soil provider.

Mold growing happily in dark damp conditions (Fig. 2)

Put away the bleach bottle, though – it’s not needed. You’ve got two cboices:

  • Get some light onto the pots, hold off watering for a few days and let things dry out – and the mold will go back underground where it belongs, or
  • Gently scrape off the mold and discard it, then refill with fresh potting soil. This works best for unseeded soil or pots where the seed is planted very deep.

Bottom Line

Molds are natural and always around us even if we can’t see them. No reason to panic when we can (unless the mold is growing on your wall). Stay calm and put the bleach bottle away.

Cardboard Palm, Take Two

More cardboard palms that you can shake a stick at – no sticks yet.

Since the original planting of cardboard palm seeds hasn’t shown any signs of life since the initial seeding on 31 May, I decided to give it another shot.

Boiling Over the Cardboard Palm

Instead of soaking the seeds in hot tap water this time, I brought the water to a rolicking boil.  When I dropped the seeds in, each made a most satisfying sizzle and sneeze, bubbling water up all over the place.

Why boil? Well, I did some research (after the fact – I know, I know), and stumbled onto a site called PlantSwap.net where a group of gardeners were waiting for their cardboard palm seeds to germinate. Days turned to weeks, which turned to months, and apparently at the end of a YEAR, some participants still had no sign of palm. I stopped reading at that point; too discouraging.

How Stubborn Can a Cardboard Palm Possibly Be

I remember reading someplace that some stubborn seeds grow very durable protective coatings and need to be ‘shocked’ into germinating. The ways to be shocking include scraping, soaking, cutting, steaming, burning, boiling, slicing, slashing, pounding, and setting on fire. In fact, some evergreens require a hot forest fire to make their seeds to open and scatter. Since I’m not going to toss seeds into the fireplace and hope a palm tree grows there, boiling water sounds more logical.

Hawaii Found in Southern California Sunroom

Right now I have both the first planting (back row) and the second planting (front row, with their peat pots propped into little oval butter containers) perched on a box in the patio room – aka sunroom – aka hotter’n Hades’ hinges room. I tell myself that this is to give the cardboard palm seeds a nice warm place to nestle in and wait for germination day.

I tell myself this because there’s no air conditioning or swamp cooler inlet back there.  I’m trying to convince myself this is Good For The Plants, because that same room also acts as a great humidity chamber. This hasn’t helped the first planting at all, but then again all they got was a hot tap water soak over night, not the full boiling treatment.

So now both the original cardboard palm plantings and the Take Two seeds  can sit around with the ginger root, which craves hot humid places with plenty of indirect light and lots of daily rainfall. Two out of three ain’t bad. And if the daily rainfall in our house is more than an inch a day, we’ve got more than just a gardening problem on our hands!



Preparations for a plentiful patch of palm

cardboard palm tree seeds being prepared in cold tap water

Cardboard palm tree seeds being prepared in cold tap water

Many thanks to Sherry Venegas for introducing me to this graceful tree, the cardboard palm. While we were busy debating the identity of Vote The Tree, she brought this to my attention. So I raced off to Amazon to see what was available, and came back with this. Well, not literally. The seeds arrived in this afternoon’s mail, about three days before I expected them to. Good job on ya, Hirt Gardens. And a hearty high-five to Sherry!

Still leery from my experience with the tamarind and the trek it took to identify it once it had sprouted, this time around I’m taking double – nay, Triple – precautions. I have my carefully hand-lettered pot signs. Well, ok, they’re not signs. They’re strips of painter tape that I know full well will pull loose and end up on the floor within a few days. So I’m also hand-lettering some cardboard strips to mark my cardboard palms.

Also still leery from my experience or lack thereof with the staghorn sumac, this time I’m not only reading the directions that come with the seeds, but also doing a fair bit of research online. In my typical belt-and-suspenders-and-trench-coat-and-five-suitcases approach, I seem to have ordered about ten times the number of seeds I’ll need. I thought I was getting three; I got 30.

So I’m taking advantage of an apparent lack of reading skill on my part, and soaking three seeds in each of two ways before planting them tomorrow morning. Three in a hot tap water soak, and three in a cold water soak.

I figure this way I’m prepared for anything, and when one of the six seedlings pokes its head above potting soil, it will be well marked, labeled, prepared and documented – and it won’t be a tamarind.

Cardboard palm trees seeds being prepared in hot tap water

Cardboard palm trees seeds being prepared in hot tap water