12 seed-sown perennials

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Every gardener knows that it’s far less expensive to grow perennials from seed than to buy potted one-or two-year-old plants at the nursery. Nevertheless, most of us crave instant gratification, and the thought of waiting up to 36 months before seeing a single petal can tax the patience of a saint. Vegetables and annual flowers germinate quickly and go about blooming (and fruiting) the moment they’re out of the gate, and recently, the push has been on to hybridize perennials that will be equally accommodating.

When I moved house eight years ago, I had to leave behind most of my favourite perennials, and that first summer, my attention was too closely focused on renovations to worry about the garden. Fortunately, I had the presence of mind to start a nursery bed where I sowed perennial seeds that I knew would flower while I was preoccupied with my home’s interior. Not only did I get loads of colour that first year, it also set me up with a fine stock of virtually free perennials when I was ready to sort out the garden the following spring. It’s a garden trick I always mention to new homeowners.

Although the list of perennials that bloom from seed their first year is still relatively small, here we’ve chosen 12 of the best. Some are short lived (columbine and gaillardia, for instance), but by allowing a few plants to self-seed each year, you can be assured of their continued garden presence. None of these perennials require heroic gestures (like staking); most are happy in average soil and are drought tolerant once established. With just a little effort in spring, you’ll be rewarded with summer flowers that will enchant and delight for many years to come.

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1 ‘ELLAGANCE SKY’ LAVENDER (Lavandula angustifolia ‘Ellagance Sky’)
30 x 25 cm, Zone 6, Deer Resistant, Rabbit Resistant, Attracts Butterflies
Technically a subshrub, ‘Ellagance Sky’ produces fragrant spikes of sky blue flowers on a bushy plant with grey-green foliage. Introduced by Kieft Seeds (Netherlands, 2006) along with ‘Ellagance Pink’ and ‘Ellagance Purple’; probably hardy to Zone 5 with a dry winter mulch (wait for fresh spring leaves to appear before pruning plants back). In colder zones, direct seed in pots for summer display and overwinter in a cool place.

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2 ORIGAMI SERIES COLUMBINE (Aquilegia Origami Series)
35 x 25 cm, Zone 3, Deer Resistant and Rabbit Resistant
Available in a mix or as six specific bicolours (‘Origami Blue and White’ is a favourite). Blooming 22 weeks after sowing, these com­pact plants have upward­facing blooms that attract hummingbirds. Tolerant of partial shade, the plants can be deadheaded to encourage new blooms, but let several to go to seed at the end of the season (columbines are naturally short lived). Three cultivars won a Royal Horticultural Society Award of Garden Merit in 2002 and 2003.

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3 ‘ARCTIC FIRE’ MAIDEN PINKS (Dianthus deltoides ‘Arctic Fire’)
20 x 40 cm, Zone 2, Deer Resistant, Attracts Butterflies
Maiden pinks form mats of fine, grassy foliage that become completely obscured when they’re in full flower. ‘Arctic Fire’ is a fairly new cultivar from the Netherlands with fringed flower petals and a delicate fragrance. These pinks prefer alkaline soil with excellent drainage (soggy soil will cause the centres of plants to die out), and shearing off spent flowerheads will often result in a secondary flush of fall flowers. Divide mature clumps in spring or autumn; perfect for rockeries.

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4 CAMELOT SERIES FOXGLOVE (Digitalis purpurea Camelot Series)
100 x 40 cm, Zone 4, Deer Resistant, Rabbit Resistant
A cross between the common (D. purpurea) and the yellow foxglove (D. grandiflora), the Camelot Series is the first F1 hybrid seed foxglove. Available in white, cream, rose or lavender (all with spotted throats), the flowers are outward facing and evenly spaced around the flower spike. Deadhead first­year spikes, but allow second­year blooms to set seed (plants tend to die out after the second flowering). Tolerant of part shade; toxic if ingested.

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5 ‘EARLY SUNRISE’ COREOPSIS (Coreopsis grandiflora ‘Early Sunrise’) 50 x 30 cm, Zone 5, Deer Resistant, Rabbit Resistant, Attracts Butterflies
Blooming just 12 weeks after sowing, ‘Early Sunrise’ bears golden semi-double and double daisy-like flowers up to five centimetres wide. Best in average, well-drained garden soil, these heat tolerant flowers will bloom all summer with assiduous deadheading. Divide plants in early spring every couple of years to maintain vigour. Plants are short lived, so allow clumps to self-seed (seedlings come true to type). All-America Selections winner 1989; RHS AGM, 1993.

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6 ‘MORELLO CHERRY’ LUPIN (Lupinus ‘Morello Cherry’)

85 x 60 cm, Zone 5, Attracts Butterflies
Some gardeners think that lupins are difficult to grow, but ‘Morello Cherry’ is bound to change their minds. I have the best results when I sow the seeds in situ (lupins don’t like root disturbance); some experts recommend soaking or nicking the seeds before planting, but I’ve never found this necessary. Preferring average, well-drained soil, ‘Morello Cherry’ blooms from seed faster than any other perennial lupin; and its fragrant red flowers attract hummingbirds.

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7 ‘ARIZONA APRICOT’ GAILLARDIA (Gaillardia ×grandiflora ‘Arizona Apricot’)
40 x 30 cm, Zone 3, Deer Resistant, Rabbit Resistant, Attracts Butterflies
A cross between the perennial G. aristata and the annual
G. pulchella, ‘Arizona Apricot’ is a vigorous tetraploid that produces nine-centimetre-wide blooms all summer long. A short-lived perennial that flowers 15 weeks after sowing, it should be deadheaded regularly, but allow a few clumps to set seed in autumn for new plants next spring. Heat and drought tolerant; the apricot colouring is a breakthrough, and less gaudy than traditional cultivars. AAS winner, 2011.

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8 PURPLE MULLEIN HYBRIDS (Verbascum phoeniceum hybrids)
85 x 30 cm, Zone 5, Deer Resistant, Rabbit Resistant, Attracts Butterflies
A short-lived, self-seeding perennial, purple mullein hybrids are underused in Canadian gardens, especially in hot, sunny sites. Preferring average to rich well-drained soil, pastel flowers in shades of white, pink, lilac-mauve and purple are produced on strong stems. Allow several plants to set seed at the end of summer. An old favourite of mine, purple mullein looks best planted at close quarters and when colours are combined in a mix.

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9 ‘CHEYENNE SPIRIT’ ECHINACEA (Echinacea ×hybrida ‘Cheyenne Spirit’)
75 x 65 cm, Zone 5, Deer Resistant, Attracts Butterflies
New for 2013 from Kieft Seeds, ‘Cheyenne Spirit’ is the first echinacea seed strain to produce cream, yellow, orange, scarlet, pink and purple flowers on sturdy, well-branched plants. With a high flower-bud count, deadheading is recommended but not essential for non-stop blooming. Preferring average to rich well-drained soil, it’s drought tolerant once established. Breathtaking when massed together. AAS winner, 2013.

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10 ‘MERLEAU’ HYBRID SAGE (Salvia ×superba ‘Merleau’)
40 x 40 cm, Zone 4, Deer Resistant, Rabbit Resistant, Attracts Butterflies
A cross between S. nemorosa and S. ×sylvestris, ‘Merleau’ and ‘Merleau Rose’ were introduced by Sluis Groot (Netherlands) in 2007. Deadheading flower spikes will encourage new flowers to form. Blooming from seed in 14 weeks, mature clumps should be divided in the spring every three years to maintain vigour. Providing a good vertical accent in containers, the blooms attract humming­ birds and make lovely long­lasting cut flowers; drought tolerant.

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11 WHITE-FLOWERED ROSE CAMPION (Lychnis coronaria ‘Alba’)
75 x 45 cm, Zone 4, Deer Resistant, Attracts Butterflies
The screaming magenta flowers of the species form tend to clash with other perennials, but the pure white blooms of ‘Alba’ are a perfect match for its soft, silver-grey foliage – similar to lamb’s ears – giving it a bright, glittering garden presence. A short-lived perennial, it will self-seed reliably but is never invasive (seedlings can be transplanted elsewhere in the garden in spring or autumn). Content in average garden soil and drought resistant. RHS AGM, 1993.

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12 SUMMER PASTELS YARROW (Achillea Summer Pastels Group)
60 x 50 cm, Zone 2, Deer Resistant, Rabbit Resistant, Attracts Butterflies
Summer Pastels is an F2 seed strain that produces plants with white, yellow, salmon, tan, pink, red and lilac flowers (so gardeners can keep the colours they like and edit out the rest). Yarrow is a good starter perennial: Tolerating poor soil, it spreads quickly, providing dense, colourful coverage. Deadhead to encourage new blooms and to prevent self-seeding; divide clumps in early spring or fall. Bred in the Netherlands; an AAS winner, 1990.

Read more in Plants and Perennials

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