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Kip Anderson
Gardener Kip Anderson

February: Falling in Love with Flowers, Again

Another look at our favorite seed catalogs — this time with a focus on their annual and perennial offerings
by Kip Anderson

Still winter, yet with spring in sight: February 15 is the traditional date when we begin the greenhouse growing season. It's time to sow leeks and Spanish onions. Leeks take many months in the garden to attain the robust stature we prize, and a good head start is a big help. The size of the onion bulb harvested depends on the size the plant has reached when day-length triggers bulb formation, so if you want softballs rather than golf balls, an early sowing is a must. February 15 is also the time to sow seed for slow annuals such as geraniums (Pelargonium) and perennials (like foxglove, delphinium and catmint) that will flower in their first year from seed.

In January I downplayed the vegetable seed offerings from THOMPSON & MORGAN, but a second look convinced me that things are never as simple as I might like them to be, and I ended up ordering a number of superb unusual varieties. Even so, this outfit is most famous for their nearly exhaustive listing of seed for ornamental plants. The wealth of choices is not limited to unusual varieties; in many cases it's the species themselves that are strange and unusual. Take for instance Carpanthea, Cephalaphora and Chaenorrhinum — and that's just the C's! One possible aid for winnowing through the huge selection is their notation of RHS award-winning varieties. Three flowers that especially stirred my interest this year are their Sunflower 'Bicentenary', Sweet Pea 'Blue Ripple', and Mimulus 'Andean Nymph'.

If you like to purchase flower seed by individual color (as I do), rather than as a mix, then STOKES SEEDS is a very good place to shop. The range of flowers they offer is quite comprehensive, but more to the point, I know of no other catalog where such pains are taken to isolate colors for so many cultivar series. It took me many years to narrow down my choices, and these are some of the ones I go back to every year: Gomphrena 'Woodcreek Rose', Impatiens 'Super Elfin Blue Pearl', Marigold 'Safari Yellow', and Petunia 'Primetime Light Blue'.

Over the years JOHNNY'S SELECTED SEEDS has greatly expanded the range of flower seed they offer. The annuals and perennials on their pages run from old-fashioned favorites to modern classics and on to cutting-edge curiosities. Their sunflower collection is perhaps the largest I've seen. I was especially taken by the photographs of their new Calendula 'Antares Flashback' and their 'Apricot/Peach Mix' Strawflower. Even more impressive is their herb department: sixteen kinds of Basil, many exotic ingredients for ethnic cuisines, and a veritable apothecary of medicinal herbs.

Every time I open a new BURPEE catalog I know I'm going to be tempted by flower varieties I've never seen before; 2005 was no exception. Rudbeckia 'Hot Chocolate' should look good beside some of the other great new rudbeckia cultivars of recent years. Sunflower 'Honey Bear' is furry, like a golden powder puff. The new Zinnia 'Tequila Lime' is a modern flower arranger's dream, perhaps the successor to 'Envy'. And as always, the best 'white' marigold, their 'Snowball'; it's really a cream color, which is even more valuable than pure white as far as I'm concerned.

One of the deep wells of flower seeds I go back to time and time again is PARK'S SEEDS. Many of their offerings will not be found anywhere else. Their exclusives include Petunia 'Dolce Flambé', and Impatiens 'Shady Lady' and 'Sunny Lady'. Other noteworthy varieties I grew last year: the perennial Balloon Flower 'Astra', which flowered in its first year from seed; another perennial, Dianthus 'Siberian Blues', almost a true blue, which also flowered in its first summer; and the annual vine, Thunbergia 'Blushing Susie', which reached the top of an 11-foot trellis last season.

For as long as I've been gardening, WAYSIDE GARDENS has been a perpetual font of new and exciting plants; not seeds. This year, for example, they're showing off two new Echinaceas, 'Sunset' (orange) and 'Sunrise' (yellow!); perhaps I'll wait until the supply increases, but that doesn't mean you have to. I'm definitely ordering the burgundy-leafed Sedum 'Bon Bon'. And the ferns!: Dryopteris 'Brilliance' shows a coppery color in spring and fall, and Athyrium 'Ursula's Red' is astounding. Heucherella 'Sunspot', with claret markings on yellow leaves is definitely on my list. And I've only skimmed the first ten percent of the catalog.

For many years BLUESTONE PERENNIALS has been a mainstay of mass plantings at the Victory Garden. They offer a broad array of garden-worthy perennials at low prices. Most of their plants come in small pots, and I've developed a trick or two along the way to maximize growth potential: I have my plants shipped early (late March), then repot them and grow them on in the greenhouse. (For obvious reasons this technique works best for late-flowering species.) The result is very robust specimens that hit the ground running in May or June when we are ready to plant them out. If you do not have access to a greenhouse, you can have the plants shipped later to be set directly into the garden at the proper time for your climate; the results might not be quite as spectacular the first year, but you will have made a very good investment for the future. Every year they add many new varieties to their already long list.

And you will get to see a number of the old and the new this year on The Victory Garden when we plant up our new shade garden.

Kip Anderson has been the Victory Garden's head gardener for over 20 years.

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Published August 31, 2007