Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Seeding dreams

Hybridizing is as bit like seeding clouds to encourage rainfall, except instead of clouds, you're seeding your dreams.  Instead of silver iodide, dry ice or table salt, you're dumping seeds into your dreams in the hopes of producing  remarkable bud counts of gorgeous colors floating over undulating waves of green.

A seed with the radical just beginning to grow

After harvest, I dry the collected seeds for 48 hours, drop them into a masking tape labeled 2"x 2" Ziploc, and refrigerate them.  Easy if you've harvested the entirety of the cross on one day, time consuming if it's a long cross whose pods ripen over an extended period of time.  That requires storing some crosses in a "Not Done" bin.  Since I sell some 35,000 seeds a year plus produce 5,000-10,000 for me, the process of pollinating, recording crosses, labeling them on the plant, harvesting seeds, labeling and drying seeds occupies from late June through late October and sometimes even into November. 

And yes, I admit to having plant sex dreams.  I have pollinated in my sleep; sometimes, I even have respect for the crosses the next morning.   

About half of my seeds are taken out on New Year's Day.  Their masking tape labels are transferred to jar lids, the seeds are dumped in and the jars are filled with a solution of 1 tablespoon bleach to one gallon of water.  I search out jars with plastic lids.  While rusting metal doesn't seem to bother seed germination, checking seeds through rusty water bothers me.  My favorite plastic-topped jar, a tall, very skinny thing, also holds one of my favorite foods: Goya Pickled Tabasco Peppers.  In the 16 years since I first started growing daylilies from seed, I have consumed over 120 jars of pickled Tabascos and would have eaten 3 times as many had I not started growing my own hot peppers the instant I moved from shady Niagara Falls to full sun Burt.  Here's where my method differs from most and why I am writing this entry: once filled and closed, I put the jars in the fridge.

The seeds swim and eventually sink in the fridge until I take some out on Groundhog Day.  (Do I not know how to celebrate the holidays or what?).  Some stay soaking in the fridge for up to six weeks.  I've been using this method for 8 years and can attest to the fact that the seeds do not drown and the germination rate is greater than room temperature soaking.  Cold moist stratification is recommended by AHS (check out "Stratification" in the Daylily Dictionary on the AHS site); this is uber cold moist stratification.  The seeds are easy to check, unlike the moist paper towel in a waterproof plastic bag method.  There's no need to pick the seeds out of any moist medium and no need to rinse them off to see them well enough to plant them.  Just dump the jar contents into a strainer, dump the strainer contents into a bowl and away you go.  As long as your fridge maintains at about 40º your food, and your soaking seeds, are safe.  The black phytomelan within the seed coat, made up of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen, may bleach out from some of the seeds, but the seed coat is still intact and germination is not affected.

Unlike the germination of Lycopersicon cheesmanii, a wild tomato that requires transit through the digestive tract of the Galapagos tortoise or a half hour soak in a brutal 50% household bleach bath, the bleach in the daylily soak isn't there to encourage germination.  It (some folks use hydrogen peroxide instead) is only there to help control the growth of bacterial and fungal pathogens.

A bunch of crosses had to be removed after only 3 weeks this year because they'd started to germinate so, unplanned, I celebrated National Squirrel Appreciation Day by planting seeds on January 21.

Any seeds that don't germinate in the fridge after 6 weeks are immediately planted and usually sprout within 7-10 days.  Pre-germinated seeds sprout in 6-7 days.  Some seeds will linger and not show their pointy little green noses for a month or more.  And there's always some that were just as hard and plump as their siblings when removed from the soak that were really duds in disguise.  One very frustrating example: I've never gotten more than 40% germination from String Bikini seeds with soaking at room temperature, cold moist stratification or cold wet stratification.

I pot my seeds in half gallon and quart cartons that once held milk or orange juice (with calcium, of course) or half and half.  I am mighty peeved that real milk no longer comes in paper cartons, and just as peeved that Tropicana has switched to plastic jugs.  Orange juice consumption has declined 40% in the last 15 years.  The industry blames increased cost and a change in the breakfast habits of Americans.  If Tropicana wants me to drink their oj, they'd have to switch back to paper cartons.  The benefits of milk cartons over plastic pots is that they tend to be deeper, can be crammed more closely together because they have straight sides, and best of all, there's no knocking the plants out of the pots, you just slit the sides of the carton.  I have successfully raised 104 diploid seedlings within the 4" x 4" surface area of a half gallon carton.  Because I ship plants from mid April through May, I don't start planting the seedlings into the garden until June at the earliest.  All 104 of those seedlings survived; not a one of them produced a keeper.

I cut out as much of the bottoms of the cartons as possible, cover the resulting 2 large holes with a double layer of paper towel, drop in a few packing peanuts and fill the pots with moistened Promix with lots of perlite added.

A carton holding 3 crosses
I use cut up milk jugs to both label and divide pots to hold multiple crosses.  Hybridizing is my best method of warding off osteoporosis.  I plant the seeds, cover them with no more than ¼" of the mix, then rubber band a clear plastic bag over the top and set them on a tray in a warm room until the sprouts are showing.  The pots then are placed under 4' long shop lights holding regular 40 watt fluorescent bulbs.  I let the surface of the pot get bone dry but check the bottoms and water if they are dry.  As soon as most of the seedlings are 5" or taller, they all get a haircut which allows the shorter plants in shared pots equal access to light.  I then set up an oscillating fan and instantly have a waving sea of green.  And no fungus gnats.  Oh, I'll eventually see a few because every potting mix has fungus gnat eggs, but they don't fly well enough in the wind created by the fan to meet up and create a new brood, and they really do hate dry soil.  Freezing does not kill them.  These critters also live outside.  If they and their eggs froze to death, we sure wouldn't have fungus gnats in western NY.  Granted, the fungus gnats in my wood chip pile may not be the same as those in my potting mix. Over 1700 species within the fungus gnat family of Sciaridae have been identified!  So far. 

My objective in starting daylilies indoors is to get plantable plants, not to shorten the seed-to-bloom time, so I only use a tiny amount of water soluble fertilizer.  I also don't harden them off.  I just take the 70 half gallon and 133 quart pots out in April and place them in part shade for a few weeks before putting them in full sun.  Frost doesn't seem to hurt them any worse than sudden sunshine.  Many of the leaves turn yellow and die off during this time.  I water more frequently once the plants are outdoors and new leaves sprout. 

Another benefit of adding perlite is that it makes it much easier to rip the seedlings apart come planting time.  Despite all this rough treatment, I usually see at least one quarter of the seedlings bloom the following year, and 90% or more by the second year after planting.

There was one glorious year where I was able to direct sow into prepared ground shortly after Thanksgiving.  Germination was excellent.  Since then, however, we've had rainy autumns, plus seedlings now must be planted into beds where 3 year old seedlings are growing.  The loser 3 year seedlings need to be tilled into micro particles that are brought up to the surface and dried to death, then a bit of hand digging must be undertaken to extract the survivors that will show up over the next 2 weeks.  Because we often have heavy snow cover that compresses the miserable silt soil here, tilling in spring works best for me and produces a nice crumbly plot ready to accept skinny little baby daylily plants.  So, I start my seeds indoors.  I've thought about winter sowing in pots in small covered enclosures, but that would entail braving the cold and trusting that deer, fox, mice and squirrels (who I don't really appreciate) would  leave them alone.

So, exactly what are the dream makers in that carton of 3 crosses?  I planted 5 seeds of Heavenly Tiger Tails X my current favorite tet seedling, [(Ondine x String Bikini) X Blushing Octopus #5]:

56 seeds of Unicorn Eraser X Free Wheelin':

and 17 seeds of (Lavender Light x Blue-eyed Curls seedling # 22) X
[Waiting in the Wings x (Swallow Tail Kite x Lavender Arrowhead seedling # 36)}:

I plan to introduce the wiwstklad-36 seedling in 2015 because it's a bluer purple than Applique, Wind Master or any other similarly patterned narrowish daylilies I've seen.  That's one of a million dreams fulfilled.




  1. Linda, Your writing is hilarious and informative at the same time!

  2. Thank you for the too-kind words, Cheryl.