getting organized for seed season, with ken druse

IF YOU THINK nothing’s on the to-do list in winter, fellow gardeners—that we’re all meant to be dormant, like the cannas in the cellar and the herbaceous perennials outside and the flower beds—well, think again.

Most of us in colder zones, especially, may not be actively prepping or planting outdoors at the moment, of course. But even within the realm of seed-related activities alone, there’s plenty wanting our attention.

That’s what Ken Druse and I realized when we got to talking seeds the other day on the phone. And one thing led to another, and even though it’s not yet full-on seed-starting time, we found ourselves with a list of tasks—and no, not just the task of seed shopping (though he did hunt down seed for Eryngium leavenworthii, above).

Ken Druse is an old friend, the author of 20 gardening books, and my collaborator on our Virtual Garden Club online class series. And he’s currently sorting through leftover seeds, and also a pile of seed catalogs, over at his New Jersey home. Seedy tasks for winter days was the subject of our conversation.

Read along as you listen to the Jan. 15, 2023 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

thinking about seeds, with ken druse



Margaret Roach: How’s it going over there, Ken?

Ken Druse: Hi, Margaret. Did you get some snow finally?

Margaret: Oh my goodness, the first actual winter day. I guess we got 8 eight or 10 inches.

Ken: Good for you.

Margaret: Something like that.

Ken: And now it’s 45 degrees and everything’s melting.

Margaret: Yeah, it hasn’t warmed quite that much yet, but yes. Yes, it will. And then we’re supposed to have high winds and whatever. Yay! I think there’s a stretch of cold weather coming for much of the Northeast after this week, so that’ll be interesting to see. So how are you doing with your seedy tasks?

Ken: I thought that there was nothing to do-

Margaret: Right.

Ken: … this time of year.

Juliet small paste tomatoesMargaret: Right. And it’s not just seedy tasks, either. It’s like with the weird weather that we were just speaking about for a second, which has mostly been unseasonably warm till now, I am kind of worried about some of the stuff that’s in storage both in my barn and in the cellar. Do you know what I mean? The temperatures aren’t right in those places. And by “right,” I mean typical in those places.

Ken: Well, I’m glad that we have some snow because we haven’t had snow for a couple of years, measurable snow, and I always think snow: good. That’s the blanket, the insulating blanket for the plants. They do so much better when they have snow. Even though it’s melting, I think we’ll still have a few inches on the ground, so that’s good. And I thought, “Well, I’m going to grow those wonderful tomatoes that I grew last year.” The ‘Juliet,’ right, that you recommended [above]. And they were so successful. They’re like giant grape tomatoes, or very small or tiny plum tomatoes.

Margaret: Yes.

Ken: So I went to where I thought the seeds were from last year because I had plenty left over, and I couldn’t find them.

Margaret: Oops!

Ken: So I looked another place, and another place, and I ended up with—I don’t know—six jars with seed packets, and then all the seed packets of things I had harvested from the garden in a box in another place. And I took a picture [above], which I think I sent you, and then I’ve still found more since then.

So I have got to get this under control. I’ve got to label the seeds if they’re not labeled, put the date on and maybe where they came from. Definitely the date, boy. Especially on my seeds.

Margaret: Especially on the ones you’ve saved yourself.

Ken: Yeah, and maybe the date to sow them, right on the packet, which I can get from your calculator.

Margaret: Right. I have the online seed-starting calculator.

It’s like you just want to look at the new catalogs, and there’s that temptation, but… It reminds me of everything in life. I want to… [Laughter.] “Ooh, look at, maybe I’ll get a new sweater.” Well, you know what, Margaret? Look at the sweater drawer, and how’s that looking? ‘Cause it’s looking a bit of a mess.

And I’m just making up one example, but it’s pare down, tidy up, organize, make an assessment of the status of what’s on hand in all of these things in our lives. And then act, right? To supplement or pare down, or again, even more or whatever; make a decision. But yeah, I have some seeds here or there and everywhere, too, I think.

Ken: I have two sets of clothes. Clothes that fit and clothes that I hope someday will fit again.

Margaret: Oh, I see. Two wardrobes. O.K. [Laughter.] So you’ve been doing that. And again, with the weather and stuff, I keep thinking, “Oh, I need to check in the barn.” Because I have all my Japanese maples out there and I have…

So it is not just where are my seed packets, and what do I need and not need to order again. But it’s also just kind of taking inventory of some of the resting things. Right? Like I went-

Ken: Check on dormant things. That’s right.

Margaret: Yeah, because I went in the cellar and I have a lot of tubers and different things, bulbs. I have all my cannas down there and so forth, and I thought, “It’s not as cool as it usually is; it’s just not.” And I thought, “Well, maybe I’m going to put a little bit of… Maybe a cloth over the top of some of these things, to keep a little moisture in, so to speak.” And yeah. Have you been looking at any of that stuff?

Ken: No [laughter], but maybe after we talk. I keep the Eucomis, the pineapple lilies, in their pots, and I let them go completely dry when they’re dormant. But in the past I’ve had things go so dry that either they’ve desiccated completely, which doesn’t happen very often, or they get a slow start; they’re small. Well, last year some of the Eucomis didn’t bloom at all, and I think it’s because they got too dry. So I’m just going to go check. I don’t want to water them like normal in the summer at all, but it’s just a sprinkle. So the medium is dry, but not desert bone dry.

Margaret: Right. Right.

Ken: Which happens, especially when the heat’s on in the house, even though they’re in a place where there isn’t any supplemental heat, but it’s still… Usually it’s 40 degrees, and this year it’s 50 degrees.

Margaret: So it’s a good time to do that as well. Sort of check that inventory as well. It’s slightly different from checking what seeds we have on hand. But nevertheless important, because this is our stock, and those can be expensive to replace, that’s for sure.

Ken: Well, we’ve talked about storing… I know you store your Japanese maples, deciduous things, in the complete cold. And that’s mostly so the pots won’t break, I imagine. Well, partially for that.

Margaret: Right. It’s an unheated barn. Yes, exactly.

Ken: But I’ve got evergreens.

Margaret: And I have a couple also in there. Yes.

Ken: Oh, yeah? Good. I have a banana shrub, which is Magnolia figo, which is a broadleaf evergreen. And it does so well, just takes a little nap. And then I bring it out in the spring and it blooms and everything. It doesn’t even drop the buds. Illicium, do you know what Illicium is?

Margaret: Yeah. I don’t know what it’s common-

Ken: Hardy anise. Yeah, anise, the spice comes from Illicium and I have Illicium parviforum, and it has yellow leaves that are attractive and they also smell great, the leaves do. So those are a couple of things that I’m going to check on.

You have a fig tree.

Margaret: Right. I have at least one big fig in there. And then there’s a conifer or two. And those are tricky because those are not awake, but they have foliage. So first of all, I position those near a window in the barn, so that there is some light. I mean, obviously it’s not much light, but it’s a little light. And those, I worry if they get a cue from I don’t know what temperature, light, daylength—who knows what—to start to wake up a little bit. I worry because they have all that foliage on that they could really dry out badly, get harmed.

Ken: And you can’t let the medium in those pots dry out completely.

Margaret: No, but I can’t water them, either—thoroughly water them. That’s a problem, too.

So anyway, back to seeds, really, you’ve sort of taken stock of everything. And are you doing germination tests, or what do you do next?

Ken: Next I clean up where I’m going to sow the ones that I sow indoors, and also be mindful of the ones that are going to be sown outdoors. And some of those can get sown right away. And then we talked in the last class a little bit about winter sowing, and we’re going to talk about that more.

Margaret: You mean in our Virtual Garden Club classes online?

Ken: Right. And I’m doing some seeds in the empty milk jugs. Well, they’re empty until I fill them. I have one set out there already…and label them! You know how you sow something and you think you’re going to remember what it was?

Margaret: Yeah, yeah. Sure.

Ken: Label, label, label. I never-

Margaret: It’s so important. So you said you’re sort of getting this spot ready, your indoor seed-sowing gear, you’re getting that all ready. And so are you using the same germinating mix that you’ve always used, or are you experimenting like so many people now with less peat?

Ken: I’m going to use the Johnny’s mix because I have some left over from last year, and I’ve kept it closed. And I know it’s a peat-lite mix, has other things in it, too. So I’m not going to be experimenting this year. I’ve done coir. I haven’t tried the one with the paper called PittMoss.

Margaret: PittMoss, right, a brand that’s I think recycled composted newspaper maybe, or something like that. And yeah, there’s all kinds of different things. Organic Mechanics is another brand that has alternatives, coir and other elements in it, that are not peat. I have a small bag each of a couple of different things, and I’m tinkering.

So if people want to try, and we always warn: Don’t 100 percent change over if you don’t know what a mix is going to be like, because they have different properties. And the watering, and how the seeds respond to them may be different. So don’t lose all your seeds [laughter] by choosing a mix that doesn’t suit your care regimen. So you’re getting all that ready and I assume-

Ken: Yeah, so actually I’m actually sowing for the hardy annuals. And-

Margaret: So you’re winter sowing some stuff.

Ken: Hardy perennials and hardy biennials. Well, maybe some tender perennials, too. I mean things like four o’clocks, we treat them as annuals, but they are perennials, they’re just not completely hardy. So-

Margaret: Not where we are. Right.

Ken: Right. Trying some of those. And I know you could do things like spinach pretty soon.

Margaret: Well, the first thing I always sow will be onions and their relatives, leeks, indoors. And that’s not until February usually here.

But what I found in terms of when I looked around and had that epiphany, what you were talking about where you found seeds all over the place and I found my little stashes here and there. And I kind of looked at the dates and saw, “O.K., I have plenty of this, I have plenty of that, but I’m going to need this and I’m going to need that because these are too old.”

What I found is that there were certain things that I always wish would self-sow outside. Speaking of winter sowing, because the natural version of winter sowing is things that self-sow really well, like a lot of annual poppies do, and Verbena bonariensis does, and I don’t know, larkspur I suppose… I’m thinking off the top of my head of things.

My angelica, Angelica gigas [above], does and so forth. But sometimes they don’t sow where you want them, or in the density where you want them, right? They have a mind of their own, of course, from year to year. And you want to kind of change that up a little bit.

And I thought, “You know, Margaret, there’s a couple of these sort of areas where…” I have one with the tall verbena, the Verbena bonariensis, and I really want it thickened up. I want more plants in this one area that’s between some pavement cracks and crevices. [Below, V. bonariensis with a spicebush swallowtail butterfly at Margaret’s.]

And I thought, “Buy a packet of seats before you forget.” This was last fall, when I was kind of cleaning up the area, and I was thinking, “It’s too sparse here.”

And same with Nicotiana. I was sort of thinking, “O.K., I had a lot this year, as I’ve had for 20-something years, self-sowns, but I don’t have enough of the dark colors anymore. And I don’t have enough of the really tall ones.” I mean, some of them could get to be 6 feet—5 certainly, and even occasionally 6, but like 5 feet for sure. And I thought, “You know what? It’s time to repopulate this a little bit, add a little bit of more genetics into the mix again, refresh it.” And again, heavy it up in the areas where it’s getting sparse. I want more of an oomph kind of look. So I bought some Nicotiana and I bought some Verbena bonariensis.

When would you sow those? Would you sow those—before a late snow or something in late winter or when?

Ken: I’d sow the Nicotiana right now. And maybe not all of them. Maybe do some more… Do them every three weeks or something. I mean Nicotiana is going to be fine, as you know. You were talking about the Verbena bonariensis, a plant I cannot grow. I get these stunted little plants. There’s some kind of… It’s not a disease, it’s some kind of critter that attacks them.

Margaret: Oh, interesting.

Ken: And ruins the leaves. And I always get a couple of plants from last year’s plants. But I was thinking, have you ever tried the new short ones [like ‘Lollipop’]?

Margaret: I’ve seen that. I’ve seen this new variety that’s a scaled-down version, and I have never. And I thought, “Well, but I love how it’s…” Well, the common name is tall verbena.

Ken: They’re like wands, with the flowers.

Margaret: The tall one can be hip height or even taller, and I really love that. But maybe there’s some use for that, the shorter one. Maybe I would like it, or combine the two. I don’t know. I haven’t tried it. Maybe I should add that to my order.

But like I said, I really wanted, with Nicotiana, I wanted some of the darker ones. There’s ‘Hot Chocolate’ and ‘Chocolate Chip.’ There’s one called Night Flight, ‘Select Night Flight.’ Select Seeds had it, and that’s one that can get to be 5 feet or more. And it has dark… Those all have dark flowers. [Above, ‘Select Chocolate Chip’ in photo from Select Seeds.]

And so we’ll see if the experiment works. Right? If where I put them they take, and they bring back the look that I had 10 years ago when I had more of that in the population. Because when things self-sow, they express different traits. It’s not like a hybrid where it’s the same thing every year, where you buy a pack of seeds every year and you get the exact same thing. It’s not like that.

Ken: F1, the tomatoes for the first cross.

Margaret: Have you ordered anything or are you seeking anything the way I was seeking those two particular things?

Ken: Well, I saw a couple of things. I saw one thing this year, which I’ve never grown from seed. Which is we used to call it periwinkle, and we used to call it vinca. These common names are so worthless, but it’s Catharanthus [below].

Margaret: Catharanthus. Yeah.

Ken: Catharanthus roseus.

Margaret: So one of its common names was vinca, but it’s not a vinca vine in the same way. Huh. It’s a lookalike kind of?

Ken: Well, it’s shrubby. It’s like a-

Margaret: Does the flower look like a vinca?

Ken: I guess it does, I guess. But I saw one-

Margaret: What attracted you?

Ken: It’s like the color of grape jelly, sort of. Or even blackberries with a little white eye and it was… I shouldn’t say it, drop-dead gorgeous. That’s what it-

Margaret: Do you remember where you found it?

Ken: Yeah, I saw it at my friend’s garden, she had it in a pot and she used to work at a nursery. So I thought, “I’ve got to track this down.” And I did. I tracked it down from seed, so I’m going to try that.

And last year I saw something that just knocked me out, which was Eryngium, you know like a thistle. It’s Eryngium leavenworthii [photo, top of page]. And it’s an annual, so that’s all I was thinking about. Oh, it’s an annual and it’s magenta and it’s like a little thistle and it’s really beautiful. And then you said to me when we were talking about it a while back,  “Like Kansas,” and I thought, “This is a native plant and it’s an annual?” ‘Cause you never think about… Well, California poppies, but that’s not that cold. But you don’t think about a plant from a cold place that’s an annual. I don’t think of that.

Margaret: Yeah, the Eryngium leavenworthii, the leavenworthii tipped me off that it was probably from somewhere in the middle or south of the United States. And sure enough, it’s throughout Texas and elsewhere sort of above that. And it’s great. Now you said magenta—I think of it as kind of like a shocking purplish almost. I don’t know. It’s really vivid whatever it is.

Ken: Vivid is a great word for it. Traffic-stopping vivid.

Margaret: And I wonder if… Will it self-sow? So you grew it first time last year, did you say?

Ken: Right, so I saved seed and I also bought seed. Well, that’s another story. So I couldn’t find the tomato seeds. I couldn’t find some other seeds in packets. So I thought, “I’ve got to get these again before they’re sold out.” So I ordered ‘Juliet,’ I ordered ‘Sun Gold’ tomato. I ordered a few more things: $30. And then of course, the next day I found them.

Margaret: Of course you did. Yes. It’s kind of like when I find my glasses ’cause I was looking for them for an hour, but I was wearing them [laughter]. It’s not usually an hour, it’s usually five minutes. But anyway, you get the idea.

Ken: It doesn’t cost $30.

Margaret: No, but it’s pretty funny. It embarrasses me for at least $30 worth of embarrassment. So yeah, the Eryngium are great. I mean, sometimes they self-sow to a fault. I love… I don’t know if anyone’s ever seen, speaking of native ones, Eryngium yuccifolium, the rattlesnake master.

Ken: Wow. Yes.

Margaret: Big, tall and silvery, crazy thistly-like heads. And that sharp foliage, that’s common to Eryngium also. And that’s really dramatic and wonderful, more for a meadow-y situation, kind of a wilder area, I think, because again, it’s going to self-sow.

But yeah, I’m stalking seed of tassel flower, Emilia coccinea [above, photo from Select Seeds].

Ken: Oh, that’s pretty. And that’s self-sows sometimes, too.

Margaret: I didn’t have any self-sow, but I grew it in a big container when I grew it a couple of years ago. And then of course, these are things that you’re not going to find at the garden center, and that’s why we’re mentioning be on the lookout for seed. Because if you just want regular marigolds of a common variety, and there’s a lot of great ones, or orange zinnias or yellow zinnias, you’re going to be able to find those. So if you don’t get them or you don’t have room to start them, O.K., you have a backup at the garden center.

But with some of these things you don’t. Like the annual vines. A lot of times they just don’t have the selection that I want and the sort of more unusual ones. But the Emilia, the year I grew that… It has these little, like it says, tassel flowers, like fire-engine orange-y red. There’s a couple of different varieties and so forth, different shades. But this one pot of them, I mean the pearl crescent butterflies were covering it the whole summer during the bloom time. It was amazing. And I see that Select Seeds company has it. So I’m going to definitely get a packet of that.

Have you ever grown calendula? Because I miss mine; I used to always have calendula self-sowing in my vegetable garden for many years. And it’s an edible flower as well, besides being kind of insect friendly and so forth.

Ken: Sometimes they call it pot marigold.

Margaret: Yes, exactly.

Ken: You can add it to soups. And there’s some really cool, wild ones in sunset colors now, too. Used to just be… They looked like marigolds, but now there’s some more interesting ones. Yes. Years ago I grew them and I think I sowed them outdoors ’cause they’re cold-tolerant. They’re hardy annuals, I guess.

Solar Flashback calendula Wild Garden SeedMargaret: Yes. And so they’re easy. And the great thing is you can do a succession. So you can do them really early and have sort of spring into early summer. And then you might a second succession of peas, like you’re going to do fall peas, you could do fall calendula. You could sow more calendulas and have a second crop. You could do that with a lot of annuals. But they’re really good for that because they like that cooler season, again. There’s one, again I think it’s from Select Seeds, it’s called ‘Radio,’ and it’s like a cactus-shaped flower. It looks like a cactus flower. What would you say, dahlias come in cactus flowers and some zinnias, I think, that cactus-shaped flower.

And it’s bright orange and it’s just so distinctive. And I thought, “Oh wow.” There’s a lot of bicolored ones with sort, the backs of the petals are a different color. It’s the Flashback Series from Frank Morton at Wild Garden Seeds. And you’ll see those in other catalogs as well. I mean, there’s a lot of really dramatic ones. [Above, his ‘Solar Flashback.’]

So in the last couple of minutes, what about… What other things, anything else that you’re… I was looking at Nigella the other day. I haven’t grown that in a million years.

Ken: I had Nigella and it was so weedy and there were so many.

Margaret: It was?

Ken: Year after year, but after about probably 10 years gone, never saw them again.

Margaret: And that’s what happened here, too. I had it for a long time and then never again. I was thinking of nasturtiums, too, because you can just kind of direct-sow them after the big frost danger’s past, and you can start them a couple of weeks ahead of time. But there’s kind of trailing ones, the longer trailing ones, what is it, Tropaeolum majus, I think is the species. But then there’s the Tropaeolum minus that are more mounding, that are kind of more petite.

Ken: I don’t know.

Margaret: And they’re great. Like edgers and…

Ken: Edible, too.

Margaret: Edible, too. For the edges of pots, and the colors now are astonishing. So anyway, you could just get… So you want to tell us anything else? You’re still on your to-do list over there.

Ken: I’m thinking about what we’ve been talking about this time of year and some seed… Well, read the packets, because some seeds… They call it stratification. They need the cold.

Margaret: To germinate, right.

Ken: To germinate. So be sure you read that because maybe it is the time of year to sow some seeds and it’ll tell you that on the back of the packet probably.

Margaret: Or to pre-chill them by putting them in a whatever it says. Put them in a plastic bag in the refrigerator. I mean, it’ll tell you some of the ways you can do it.

Ken: It’s usually not freeze, but often refrigerate.

Margaret:. Exactly. All right, so read our packets. I think Select Seeds and I think Johnny’s, too, both have really good growing information. Both of those have really good instructions and tell those details like that.

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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 14th year in March 2023. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the Jan. 15, 2023 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

  1. Anastasia Nute says:

    So…after reading this, no, not after, but during reading this…I’ve ended up ordering $30. of seeds from Select Seeds.
    Oye. Having a shoulder replacement 3/30. Optimistic that I can do any planting. Obviously, I am a sucker to suggestion!
    We shall see!

    1. Nancy B says:

      Thank you for another interesting conversation! Always a pleasure. I remember a podcast or two when you talked about winter sowing as well. I tend to direct sow in Feb or March for seeds that like cold storage, tamping in seeds with the back of my hoe, but maybe someday I’ll get out the mesh and/ or jugs for a more detailed and sophisticated cold stratification.

    2. Jennifer says:

      I was wondering what the comfort level was with spending amounts on seeds. I was not successful last year during a hardening off session that lasted too long. Everything died that one afternoon but that was due to my seed naivete. I said at the time it was not the best investment, but alas what beautiful hope I see featured in the new catalogs. I think I should try again.

  2. Helen Unangst says:

    As always, I thoroughly enjoyed this podcast! I am a huge fan of your work. I have a question regarding heat temperatures. So many temperatures address minimum cold temps. As an avid gardener in the Sonoran desert, high temps guide my planting schedules. For example, your seed starting calculator suggests I start broccoli seeds in Feb and March. However, if I do that, my plants will roast quickly before they can produce because sustained 100-degree days will arrive in May or June. I have learned to start my broccoli seeds in August for planting out in early October. I will harvest until late May. I continue to search for a reliable source for planting in the desert! Do you have any suggestions? It would be wonderful if you could address this on a podcast. I have searched all local sources, and they are not accurate and do not work for my location.

  3. Pam Phillips says:

    Many may think it’s too early to sow seeds, but this is the perfect time for winter sowing. Many hard-to-find natives, such as the rattlesnake master you mentioned, need a certain amount of chilling hours before they will germinate. This is traditionally known as cold stratification and can involve storing seeds in cold storage and later sowing them. Or you can turn a clear plastic milk jug into a mini greenhouse to stratify these seeds outdoors, also known as Winter Sowing.

    For resources, look up your local Native Plant society, or Wild Ones chapter. A number of native plant nurseries, such as Blue Stem Natives in Massachusetts provide workshops.

    Hope to hear you cover this topic soon!

  4. Robert Roggeveen says:

    Your conversations with Ken Druse are always a joy. What a pleasureto be able to spend time with the two of you twice this week – here and as an attendee of your VGC. One the benefits of livng in Central Connecticut is being able to go to Select Seeds end of season sale (you do not, of course, have to live here to order seeds – as I will – in anticipation of the upcoming VGC session that will include a discussion of annual vines). And I will try some winter sowing (I have begun to reserve some milk jugs.

    Winter sowing almost has a feeling of Spring Training! Except that we are where we are, not in Florida or Arizona.

  5. Joan Becker says:


    We have a summer garden, at 2200 feet in northern PA. It is where I have a new, but substantial flower garden for a novice.

    In Philadelphia, where we live I have a studio which faces south has two large troughs in front of it.

    I want to plant sweet pea seeds in the troughs and then transplant them to the summer garden. One, do you think this is possible and, two, any suggestions on timing. I have listened to the sweet pea segment and am in your current class.

  6. Loretta says:

    Vinca is overplanted around here but a lone plant of that particular vinca pictured was at a roadside stand. Had to have it! It even made seeds so I hope I will have more. I think it might have been ‘Ocean Black Moon’.

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