Saved seed? Test before you sow

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Provided that you stored your seed in a cool, dry place, it’s important that you test its viability or ability to sprout with a simple test.

Whenever I purchase seeds vegetable and flower varieties that are advertised to be “bigger,” “brighter,” and “better,” I usually end up having lots of leftover seed.  I don’t have enough room to accommodate them in my garden, nor do I want to grow one hundred plants of the same variety.  So, besides trading some seeds, I often end up storing most of them.
The best place to store seeds is in a cool, dry location, since the two most important factors affecting their longevity are temperature and humidity.  Sorry, but squirreling away seeds in dresser drawers and the pockets of jackets and sport coats is not an option.  Place the seeds inside air-tight containers with a packet of silica gel desiccant to ensure dryness.  Use a screw-type container that has a rubber gasket, such as a peanut butter jar or canning jar.  Then place them in the refrigerator.
For longterm storage, seeds will survive for the longest time if they are frozen.  Seed banks in the business of preserving germplasm store seeds at subzero temperatures.  However-and this is an important warning–the seeds must be completely dry or they can be damaged by the formation of ice crystals.  An indicator of sufficient dryness is brittleness.  A dry bean, for example, should shatter when struck by a hammer and not simply be mashed. Most of us gardeners are probably safer storing our extra seeds in an ordinary refrigerator.
Whether you stored your seeds in the fridge or stashed them in in a cubbyhole in your crawlspace, consider testing their viability with a simple germination test. But before you begin, answer these three questions:
1.      How old is the seed?  Seeds remains viable or are capable of germinating over a certain period of time.  When stored under cool, dry conditions, expect these seeds to produce a good stand of healthy seedlings:  1 year or less:  Onions, Parsley, Parsnips, and Salsify; 2 years:  Corn, Okra, and Peppers; 3 years:  Beans, Cowpeas (Southern peas), and Peas; 4 years:  Beets, Fennel, Mustard, Pumpkins, Rutabagas, Squash, Swiss chard, Tomatoes, Turnips, and Watermelons; 5 years:  Brussels sprouts, Cabbage, Cauliflower, Collards, Eggplant, Muskmelons, Radishes, and Spinach.
2.      Is the seed the actual variety you wanted to save?  Expect true-to-type varieties with self-pollinated beans, peas, lettuce, and nonhybrid tomatoes.  However, surprises abound with insect-pollinated varieties cucumber, melon, squash, or pumpkin, or wind-pollinated sweet corn, spinach, and Swiss chard.
3.      Was the seed collected from a hybrid?  Hybrid or F1 hybrid seed is the offspring of a cross made between two parent varieties.  If you prefer the original hybrid, discard them.
If your seeds are worthy of being sown this Spring, perform this simple germination test. Count out at least 20 randomly picked seeds (50 is better; professionals use 100) and space them out on two or three layers of moistened paper towels.  Roll the towels up carefully to keep the seeds separate and place the roll in a plastic bag.  Keep it in a warm location between 70 to 80 degrees F.  Check the seeds in 2 or 3 days and every day thereafter for about a week or so to see if any germinated.  Wait at least 3 weeks outside of the normal germination time for most seed varieties.  If the germination percentage is very low, you may want to discard the seed to make room for those bigger, brighter, and better varieties.
Bob Polomski  © 2016

Properly pruning hat-racked crapemyrtles

On a recent road trip to Dallas, Texas, I encountered an assortment of “hat-racked” crapemyrtles along the way.  It was not until December 30th when we visited the home of the Dallas Cowboys– AT & T stadium in Arlington–did  I find an attractive planting of well-pruned crapemyrtles with full canopies and thick, wide-spreading limbs. Interestingly, none of my Facebook “friends” commented on the grove of well-managed crapemyrtles behind me. (Most of them made remarks about “Jerry’s World”  and how I should have turned left instead of right to get to Sun Life stadium and the Orange Bowl instead of the Cotton Bowl.)

Hat-racking or topping crapemyrtles—or any trees–is an unacceptable practice. Sadly, it’s strictly not confined to the U.S. Recently a former student studying landscape architecture emailed me photos of topped trees in Barcelona. Sadly, no one realizes that when you cut the trunks back to an arbitrary height, you committed “crapemurder.” The large open-faced wounds that result from this mutilation do not “heal” or callus over rapidly. They provide entry points for fungal organisms that can infect and kill limbs and trunks. The butchered crapemyrtle doesn’t die immediately; a few parts die over a period of time–a limb here and a trunk there.  Eventually, the hat-racked crapemyrtle looks so miserable that it begs to be pruned at soil level.

For years I’ve advocated for the proper pruning of crapemyrtles. However, I’m convinced that people who hat-rack their crapemyrtles find beauty in crapemyrtles that resemble sawed-off broom handles.  Interestingly, these butchered trees produce spindly shoots that emerge from nooks and crannies around and below the cuts to transform its appearance to the “Medusa-look”:  a tangled, snakelike collection of loosely attached shoots and stems that bear a smattering of undersized flowers.

If you prefer to exercise your inalienable right to prune your crapemyrtles any way you want, then go ahead and do the wrong thing the right way: pollard them. Pollarding is a safe alternative to topping.

Pollarding has been practiced in Europe for centuries to produce firewood with the added benefit of controlling tree size.Several trees can be pollarded, including London planetree, linden, oak, mulberry, catalpa, and tulip-poplar.

To pollard your crapemyrtle, cut back the long, wispy shoots (1 to 3 years old and less than one inch diameter) close to their point of origin on the trunk. In the Spring, dormant buds will sprout into long, slender shoots. In subsequent years in mid- to late winter, remove the dormant sprouts as close to the original cuts as possible; they will be replaced with a brand new collection of shoots.

After many year of repeatedly cutting back the sprouts to the same position each year, swollen tissues called polllard heads or “knuckles” form. This head or knuckle is rich in starch and contains buds, callus tissue, and branch collars; it becomes the site where vigorous new shoots emerge every Spring. Unlike topped trees, pollarded trees benefit from the annual production of growth rings that keep the sprouts strongly attached to the stem or trunk.

While pollarding crapemyrtles is the healthy alternative to topping, you may be a traditionalist who enjoys thevase-shaped canopy of upward-arching branches growing from the center and long, thick limbs bearing 6- to 12-inch-long clusters of flowers in the summer. If that’s the case, then follow the instructions in the “Crape Myrtle Pruning” fact sheet at the Clemson Extension Home & Garden Information Center (  You’ll find that pruning your crapemyrtle this way takes a little bit of skill and a whole lot of patience, but the rewards this summer will be priceless.

Bob Polomski    2016 ©

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Combat the Winter Blues with the Christmas Rose

In perennial guru Allan Armitage’s tome, Herbaceous Perennial Plants; a treatise on their identification, culture, and garden attributes, he writes: “Unless hardiness is an issue, no garden should be without hellebores. Period!  The budding and blooming of hellebores herald the down of a new season.  Strolling by a clump of hellebores on the edge of a path or on a hillside where flowers nod their greetings, the stroller knows that spring has sprung and all is right with the world.”

Despite their ominous-sounding name, hellebores are outstanding evergreen herbaceous perennials that are well-suited for partially to fully shaded areas of the landscape.  Their claim-to-fame are their nodding bell-shaped flowers that, depending on the species and cultivar, may appear as early as Halloween and as late as April or early May. The most popular hellebores are actually hybrids comprised of several different species. (The Helleborus genus encompasses a collection of 15 species that are native to Europe and Asia.)  The parentage is a bit fuzzy, so taxonomists identify them with the scientific name of Helleborus x hybridus.  Everyone else knows them as Lenten roses.  Throughout the year they look like two-foot high umbrellas with slender, evergreen leathery leaves divided into 7 to 9 segments. The clumps grow 18 to 24 inches high and 24- to 30-inches wide.

Their show-stopping flowers range in color from pure white to ivory, cream, lemon, and chartreuse. Other Lenten roses bear one-inch wide flowers that range in color from pale pink, rose, dusky purple, to near black. They may be single, semi-double, or double flowers.  Often the flowers last up to two months. It’s not uncommon for mature plants to produce 50 or more flowers, which often give rise to numerous seedlings that can be moved or left in place to increase the size of your planting.


Also called the “Christmas Rose,” the warm wintertime flowers of hellebores will brighten your garden and your white to ivory, cream, lemon, and chartreuse. Other Lenten roses bear one-inch wide flowers that range in color from pale pink, rose, dusky purple, to near black. They may be single, semi-double, or double flowers.  Often the flowers last up to two months. It’s not uncommon for mature plants to produce 50 or more flowers, which often give rise to numerous seedlings that can be moved or left in place to increase the size of your planting.

Lenten roses require little care. Plant them in shade and water them occasionally in the summer. To get the best view of the flowers, cut back the old leaves in early spring to allow the new leaves to quickly fill in.  When cutting back the leaves, wear gloves, especially if you have sensitive skin.  Hellebores contain alkaloids that makes them deer-resistant; however, these same compounds can cause a mild dermatitis upon prolonged exposure to the plant sap.

To get the best view of the flowers, cut back the old leaves in early spring to allow the new leaves to quickly fill in. Wear gloves, especially if you have sensitive skin. Hellebores contain alkaloids that makes them deer-resistant; however, these same compounds can cause a mild dermatitis upon prolonged exposure to the plant sap.

Due to their ease-of-culture, the popularity of hellebores has never waned. In fact, as a testament to their beauty and garden worthiness, Lenten rose was voted the 2005 Perennial Plant of the Year by the Perennial Plant Association. It’s one of my top ten herbaceous perennials, partly because of its rugged disposition, but primarily because of its inviting wintertime flowers that help me cope with the cold, dreary days of this season.

Bob Polomski © 2015

Persimmon: Food of the gods


When it comes to choosing landscape trees, I look for trees that have multi-season interest.  I’ve seen too many fleeting beauties that bear a fireworks display of flowers in the spring that lasts for a week or two, and then they disappear into the landscape.

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‘Fuyu’ on the left and ‘Hiyashi’ Asian persimmon on the right.

I like trees that make you look twice.  Spring flowers, lustrous green leaves in summer, and yellowish to reddish-purple leaves in the fall.  When the leaves drop, brilliantly colored edible fruits hang from the limbs like Christmas ornaments.  They can range in size from a plum to a peach, and in color from yellow to deep orange-red. Then in winter, the thick, nearly black bark cut into neat squares looks like the back of an alligator.

I’m writing about persimmons.  You’re probably familiar with our native persimmon (Diospyros virgininana), which can reach a height of 30 to 60 ft.  It’s often found in abandoned fields, along highways, pastures, and roadside ditches.  Native persimmons are prone to suckering wildly, so if you have one, chances are you’ll have a grove in a short time.  The plum-sized, yellow to orange fruit is small and seedy. Firm, unripened fruit will make your mouth pucker up and will teach you the meaning of the word astringent. To avoid the sensation of a mouthful of cotton balls, pick the fully colored fruit when it’s fully colored;  allow it to ripen and soften indoors. It is a misconception that makes persimmons edible. In fact, frost damages immature fruit on the tree.

Native persimmons are usually dioecious, which means they produce either male or female flowers. Rarely are native persimmons self-pollinating. Both male and female trees are required to produce a full crop.

I prefer Oriental or Kaki persimmon (Disopyros kaki) cultivars, which have a refined look and have been bred and selected for their juicy, sometimes seedless, peach-sized fruit. They are self-fertile and are smaller than native persimmons, often maturing to a height of 20 to 30 ft., although some cultivars grow no higher than 10 feet. For improved drought tolerance, choose Kaki persimmon grafted onto native persimmon rootstock.

Oriental persimmons are subdivided into two classes: astringent and non-astringent. The astringent type should be completely soft before eating. The non-astringent types are firmer and can be eaten prior to softening. Oriental persimmons may produce male, female and/or perfect flowers on the same tree and do not need cross-pollination to set fruit. In case you’re wondering, native and Oriental persimmons will not cross-pollinate. If you purchase a Kaki persimmon, chose on that’s grafted onto native persimmon rootstock for improved drought tolerance. Popular cultivars that grow well in our area include the astringent Hachiya, Sajio, Sheng, and Tanenashi. Non-astringent types include Fuyu, Fuyu Imoto, Hana Fuyu, Hana Gosho, Izu, and Jiro.

I discovered that native and Asian persimmons are attractive throughout the year, but most delectable during the Fall season.

Bob Polomski (c) 2015

Harvesting luffa sponges

Harvest the mature gourds of  luffa sponge plant (Luffa aegyptiaca) when they begin to turn brown, feel light and dry, and rattle when you shake them. After the first killing freeze, remove any more dried gourds. Allow the remaining gourds to dry on the vine or bring them inside to a warm, dry ventilated area.

Luffa gourds 10_16_2015You can save the seeds from large, well-formed gourds by breaking off the bloom end of the dried gourd and shaking it or beating two of them together.

The outer skin is easy to remove from mature, dry gourds. Soak the gourds in warm water until the sponge slips out. Slip your fingers between the outer shell and the fibrous material to release the sponge.

To whiten the sponges you can dip them into a 10 percent chlorine bleach solution (1 part bleach to 9 parts water) after you’ve rinsed off the excess pulp. Allow the sponges to dry thoroughly on racks or suspend them in cheesecloth or mesh bags.

The fruits from the luffa sponge gourd plant can be used as bath sponges or scrubbers for pots and pans. The tough fibers are biodegradable and can be discarded in your compost pile when you’re finished using them.

Bob Polomski (c)

Arboretum Adventures 2015 program at Spartanburg Community College

On Oct. 1, 2015 Linda Cobb organized and hosted “Cultivating Conversations: an event benefitting Spartanburg Community College Department of Horticulture Students at the Health Sciences Building on the Spartanburg Community College campus. Bob Head, renowned plantsman and plant propagator, presented “The Truth in Selecting, Growing, and Marketing Desirable Ornamental Native Plants.”
The evening Arboretum Adventures 2015 program (attached) featured Scott McMahan, Owner, Garden*Hood Nursery in Atlanta, who presented “Climbing Asian Mountains, Fording Rivers, and Fighting the Elements: Moments from a Plant Hunter’s Diary.”
He was followed by Andrew Bunting, Garden Assistant Director & Plant Collections Director at the Chicago Botanic Garden, who presented “The Influences of Plant Exploration and Botanical Gardens On Building a Home Garden.” [Mr. Bunting’s presentation begins at 54:41].

Grow this! Confederate rose

Like aspiring Hollywood actors, there are some lesser known fall-blooming garden plants that perform brilliantly in our gardens, but are rarely found in the marketplace.  These plants have beauty, talent, and the ability to make passersby stop for a longer look.  Some of them have even been around for a long time.  Nevertheless, they aren’t as easilyConfederate rose_3 (2) recognized from the street as garden mums, asters, or goldenrods.

As a self-appointed publicity agent for lesser-known plants,  I would like to promote Confederate rose in this month’s issue.  Confederate rose (Hibiscus mutabilis) was new to me when I arrived in South Carolina   I first heard about it from the late Jim Wilson, the former cohost of PBS’ The Victory Garden.  Mr. Wilson told me that this Chinese native has been passed along over the years by generations of southern gardeners.

When I first saw this plant in bloom one October morning several autumns ago, I had to stop the car to take a closer look.  Standing over 10 feet all and taking up more than 5 feet of lawn, this woody, multistemmed shrub had red, pink, and white peonylike flowers—all on the same plant.  I was awestruck.

True to its species name—mutabilis—which means “changing”, Confederate rose flowers open up white and then change to pink and then to red before they begin to fade.   Some cultivars of Confederate rose, such as ‘Plena,’ have double-flowers that change from white to pink.  ‘Flore-plena’ is a common cultivar that has doublConfederate rose_1 (2)e pink, camellialike flowers.  Two cultivars with single flowers include raspberry-red flowered ‘Raspberry Rose’ and the scarlet colored ‘Rubus.’

Confederate rose prefers full sun to partial shade in a well-drained location.  In the Piedmont, the woody stems die back to the ground when temperatures drop to 15 degrees F.  However, new shoots slowly emerge in the spring.

Confederate rose may never get the lucky break it deserves to become famous, mostly because it spends most of the growing season looking rather ordinary with large, fuzzy, sycamorelike leaves.  It’s also relatively pest-free, and so demands little attention or interest from gardeners for most of the time.  It’s not until late September and October when Confederate rose makes its debut that people take notice.  Believe me, it’s worth waiting to see her in bloom.

Unfortunately, Confederate rose is not very common in the nursery trade.  It’s probably because it’s difficultConfederate rose_4 (2) to sell a plant without flowers.  Thankfully, we can always find the opportunity to befriend someone who’s already growing a Confederate rose with the hope of receiving a handful of passalong cuttings.

With the owner’s permission (who has now become your new best friend), take a few cuttings now and root them in water.  Jim Wilson said that his wife Jane used to overwinter cuttings in a pail of water.  In the spring she potted them up and passed them along to friends and acquaintances.   I’ve rooted a few cuttings in water and found that they’re perfect confidence-builders for people who are timid or inexperienced at rooting garden plants.  There’s nothing to it.  Just put them in water and stand back.

One piece of advice that Jim Wilson shared with me: “Don’t plant Confederate rose unless you like havin’ lots of company.”

© Bob Polomski 2015