Category Archives: Gardening

Growing Cyclamen from Seed

The Backstory

A couple of years ago I bought a cyclamen.  I was having a bunch of people over for Thanksgiving and the patio off the dining room looked like death.  The large volume of red flowers on the Cyclamens at the hardware store was an easy fix.  I’ve heard they are hard to grow and that they usually die after the winter, but I was willing to give it a try.  My new plant went into a large pot visible from the back door in a fairly shady spot.  In the spring, as the flowers died back, I noticed that a couple of them had made seed pods.  Being a plant person, I couldn’t just leave them.  This was an opportunity! So I did a bunch of research online on how to start them from seed.

How NOT to Do It

It’s very difficult, according to the internet, to grow a Cyclamen from seed.  You need cold, and darkness, and it takes a very long time.  I did my best to provide the prescribed conditions, and hoping that since Cyclamens come from a Mediterranean climate like my own, any mistakes would be mitigated.  I was delighted to get 5 sprouts!  I was so careful with them, but only one survived.  I thought perhaps the internet was right and this WAS hard.  It didn’t help that the clamshell plastic container that I used (because the internet said I needed a lid) was shallow and prone to drying out.


My one surviving plant from my first try. It’s grown a second leaf which makes me very happy.

The Epiphany

I consoled myself with the fact that I could buy more of these festive winter flowerers and the next winter bought myself a cheerful pink and white one.  Like the one before it (which is still going strong, unlike what the internet predicted), it did very well. Both plants had masses of flowers and ended up making heaps of seeds.  I collected them and decided to give it another try.  The seeds I collected were waiting inside for the weather to get cold.  After all, the internet says 104 degree days are not the time to grow a Cyclamen.  Around September, I was examining plant #2 for new leaves.  This summer’s heat hit it hard but it was coming back.  I noticed some small leaves that didn’t look like the big curled new growth on the plant I bought.  They looked like the sprouts I got last year!


Three of the 5 sprouts that grew themselves in the pot with their mother plant.

You’re kidding me.  All they need is the conditions around their mother plant.  I transplanted the sprouts to their own pot.  A windstorm killed one, but the rest are going strong.


My cyclamen collection… and a mass of oxallis in the big pot.


I grabbed a glazed pot, filled it with quality potting soil, and sprinkled on some seeds.  The established plants had a layer of leaf litter from the last year’s spent leaves that seemed to provide good protection from the sun and hold in moisture, so I covered the pot with some spent Cyclamen and Oxallis leaves because that’s what I had on hand.


Leaf litter covering freshly planted seeds.

It took several weeks but I started to see the seeds swell and form small bulbs.


There! Right in the middle of the photo! It’s a tiny cyclamen bulb.

I knew I had the formula right when I saw that I had a leaf climbing out from the leaf mulch.


Yes, that’s a leaf, although it kind of looks more like a mung bean sprout…

The key really seems to be keeping them moist.  I let my pots sit in a shallow pool of water so they can wick up what they need.


Sprouts in progress. In the square pots are attempt #1 and the volunteers. The larger yellow round pot has attempt #2. The small round pots have the last of the seeds planted today.

I’m crossing my fingers that they keep growing.  The second leaf appearing on my plant from attempt #1 is encouraging.  I’m really curious to find out what color flowers they have.  All their leaves are different from their parent plants, so I really can’t say what color flowers I’ll get, if they decide to flower at all.  I imagine I have at least another year, maybe two, to wait.

So the Internet is Wrong…

I guess you can’t trust all the garden know-how posted on the internet.  Here’s a recap of things I’ve learned:

  • Cyclamens aren’t hard to grow, but they do need the right conditions.  Direct summer sun will nuke their leaves, but they can recover. Bright shade seems to be best.
  • Don’t keep them indoors either.  They aren’t house plants.
  • They are not difficult to grow from seed, but again, you need the right conditions.
  • Temperature isn’t really an issue.
  • Moisture seems to be key.  Covering the seeds with leaf litter really helps with this and keeps the light off (if that even matters).
  • A deep, glazed or plastic pot will prevent the pot from drying out.
  • Keep some water in the saucer to provide constant moisture to the seedlings.
  • You don’t need to grow them in a dark cold closet.  It sounded insane when I read it but enough sites said it, so I thought it might be true.

Accidental Ferns

I have this moss terrarium that is not doing that well.  It’s never done well.  I guess moss doesn’t really want to live in a jar.  Probably more than a year ago, I dropped a maidenhair fern frond in there that was loaded with spores.  I thought it might sprout, but after the leaf decayed, nothing happened so I forgot about it… not that I really knew what fern sprouts looked like.  Months ago, I started seeing this strange structure growing out of my dying moss clumps.  It kind of looks like tiny kelp.  I thought maybe it was a liverwort or some moss structure that grows from moss in some last attempt to live.  My “moss kelp” eventually grew some branches, so I thought it was making spores.


From left to right: some scraggly moss, young maidenhair ferns, and the fern prothallia

Fast forward to today.  My maidenhair fern in my office (a division of the one mentioned earlier) is dropping spores all over the window sill, so I did some internet research on how to grow ferns from spores.  That’s when I discovered I’ve actually already done it.  The “moss kelp” is the prothallium or the gametophyte of the fern (the structure where fertilization happens).  From the prothallium, the fern that we recognize grows.  Now I wonder if I can do it again on purpose.

A note on the photograph: photographing prothallia is really difficult.  I was frustrated at the lack of good photos online, but now I understand, so please excuse my lack of detail in my photo.  I may try to get some better macro photos later.

Plant Eyeballs

plant_eyeballsPlants need eyes, right?  Maybe not.  But these floppy heaps of native grasses that my HOA planted in front of my house needed something, especially for Halloween.  Giving your plant eyes is easy.  These were made out of ping-pong balls (with circles drawn on with permanent marker) hot glued to wooden skewers.  You just stick the skewers in the ground and you’re good to go.  If you had a shrub, you could glue a loop of string instead of the skewer and hang them on a branch like Christmas ornaments.  I have been contemplating how to make teeth for my little grass buddies next, you know, just to make sure the neighbors really question my sanity.

Spiders Are Art

An orb weaver that lives in the patio light.

This post is probably not for the faint of heart.  This week, I’ve been noticing a lot of spiders in and around my house.  I don’t know if it is because there are actually more of them (in terms of numbers, not species) or for some reason I’m just noticing them more.  I do know I’ve seen more dangerous spiders in the last two weeks that I’ve seen in the last two years living in this house (3 black widows and 2 brown widows, plus one more black outside).  At any rate, we’ve got a lot of spiders both in terms of numbers of individuals and species diversity.  This afternoon, I got out my camera and tried to document some of them… and boy are they cool looking!

Carefully photographing these spiders, I quickly learned what works and what doesn’t to get a decent picture.  I used a Canon G9 in macro mode for these.  Here are some spider photography tips:

  1. Get close but use caution.  You’ll get much better detail if you can get your lens close.  If you’re paying attention to the posture of the spider, you can get an idea of how comfortable it is with you being near it.  And remember that your hands aren’t as close to the spider as the preview screen makes it seem.
  2. Don’t sacrifice your safety to get close – you can always crop later.
  3. Watch where you put your hands, feet, elbows (I often make use my whole body to stabilize a shot).  If you’re photographing in spider habitat, there are likely other spiders around you.
  4. Mostly the spiders are more scared of you than you are of them.  They don’t want to bite you; they’d much rather run.  Biting you does nothing for them – it’s just a waste of their resources for no food – so don’t give them a reason to do it.  Don’t corner them or squish them.
  5. Over expose the shot.  A brighter shot will expose the detailed markings on a dark spider.  The meter on the preview screen is going to tell you that your shot is overexposed.  Don’t believe it.  Let the background be completely washed out.
  6. Don’t disturb their webs.  Breaking the webs scares the spiders.  It can also make your lens sticky.
  7. Look high and low, not just at eye level, for potential subjects.  You’ll find different species this way.

Black widow in the crevice under a window.

A daddy long legs

The belly of a daddy long legs

This hairy guy lives in the rag laundry bin.

This one was very shy. It kept hiding before I could get the settings right.

Mystery spider living in a web tunnel.

Another shy one that kept running back into a crevice. It reminds me of a Buggalow from Futurama. I’m also pleased to see that it is eating a June bug.

Bugs are Art

Bugs are little pieces of modern art wandering around inside and out.  I think I already knew this, but I recently stopped to notice it.  This weekend as I was picking harlequin bugs off of my miraculously surviving brussels sprout plants.  The boyfriend found a cool-looking bug on the patio chairs, and I found a cluster of bug eggs.  We watched (and tried not to aggravate) a pair of yellow jacket wasps.  Eventually I was persuaded (I was on a mission to get those harlequin bugs!) to get out my camera and take some pictures.

A harlequin bug eating a brussles sprout plant is not only a pest, but actually quite pretty.

Harlequin bug eggs are striped white and black. They remind me of the decorative balls people put in bowls on coffee tables.

I’m not sure what this is, but he’s quite majestic. The whole time I was taking this picture I was really hoping it wasn’t the biting kind of bug.

Please Don’t Flower!

For many bulbs, spring is the time to come back to life and show off with big showy flowers.  For my amorphophallus bulbs, it’s also time to awake from their winter slumber, I just hope beyond hope that they don’t flower.  Why?  Because they’ll stink… like rotting meat.  I’ve never seen them do it, but it doesn’t sound pleasant.  These are a cousin of the huge rotting corpse flowers you hear about (UC Davis has one and so does the Huntington Library) and while these ones are much smaller, I think even having a small rotting hunk of meat in your yard would be unpleasant.  Now, they don’t flower every year, only when they store up enough energy.

The big one I’ve had for four years.  I received it from a student who brought free samples of the plant he was giving a presentation on.  The little one showed up last year, apparently spawned from the big one.  It was a nice surprise to get a new one and not have to go through the flowering process.  I’m wondering though, if the big one had enough energy to make a clone last year, is it going to flower this year?

This year I re-potted them in their own pots and started watering them again last week.  If they decide to flower, the flowers will come up first, then the leaf.  Yes,  they’ll only put up only one leaf.  It will be a pink-ish stalk with purple spots a little less than knee-high topped with an umbrella-like leaf.  When the leaf dies back in the fall, I’ll stop watering them and put the pots away where they’ll be safe.  Then when spring comes again, I’ll start watering them and hoping they don’t decide to flower.


Annoying the Garden Variety HOA

My garden plot.

Just because it's not pretty doesn't mean it's not working.

You might think a community garden is a free-for-all — a bunch of hippies growing what they want, however they want, encouraging innovation and creativity.  Oh, you’re so wrong.

I’ve been gardening in a 20 x 20 foot garden plot at in a community garden for the last 5 years.  It’s not an ideal space.  My plot’s got about 90% shade in the summer and a healthy population of furry beasts (ground squirrels, tree squirrels, and a gopher for the triple threat).  Gardening is not easy in this space, but I’m succeeding anyway.  The trouble is, it doesn’t look like I’m succeeding.  I’ve been threatened 3 times in the last 2 years that if I don’t make my garden look like a garden, it’s going to be taken away.  That’s sad because I think I’m getting more food from my mess of a plot than many of the ones that look nice.

Here are some of my gardening policies that lead to conflict with the community garden’s established rules and desired aesthetic:

  1. If a plant comes up in a spot, it’s a good spot.  Leave it.  Yes, it might be in the middle of what I thought was the path, but clearly, the plant likes it there or it wouldn’t have germinated.  Work around it.  It won’t be there forever.
  2. Cover, even if it’s grass or dead plants, is a good thing if you have squirrels.  Squirrels don’t eat grass, so if your food plants are hiding in the grass, they are more likely to be overlooked than if they’re out in the open.  Just pull the grass before it goes to seed.  Cover can also take the form of dead plants.  I leave my arugula stems in place once they’ve died.  It keeps the critters out.
  3. If one kind of plant gives you trouble, forget it.  Pumpkins and squash won’t grow in my plot.  I’ve tried time and time again.  After a few years of trying, it’s time to move on.
  4. Find the plants that do work and focus on those.  I’ve found that I am completely successful with mint, oregano, rosemary, arugula, broccoli raab, green onions, and artichokes in my plot.  And as long as the gopher is busy somewhere else, I can get big onions and garlic.  That’s not really that bad of a spread.  You can always trade for the things you want (like pumpkins).  One year I had so many artichokes, I had to give them away.  And that was from just two plants.  It’s not hard to find homes for artichokes though.
  5. If something works, save some seeds.  Yes, it looks ugly to have a bed of bolted leggy arugula for a few months, but these are the plants that did well, so why not re-plant them?
  6. Don’t rake and don’t till if you’ve got bad soil.  No amount of compost is going to fix the solid clay I’m working in.  Leave the organic matter on the top.  For example, leaves are excellent for soil improvement.  The trouble with mixing things in is that the good stuff gets diluted.  Start improving the top and eventually, you’ll get a thick layer of good soil.  I’m not there yet, but I’ve seen improvement already that’s pretty encouraging.
  7. Plant weeds.  You can eat all kinds of stuff that’s considered a weed — arugula, dandelions, and mustard are just a few of the foods considered a weed in my community garden.  Every time I get one of those emails telling me to clean up my plot, I remind the coordinator that I plant weedy-looking plants on purpose.

So if you happen to coordinate or oversee a community garden and you happen to have a misfit plot, perhaps talk to the owner of that plot and see why they do what they do.  Maybe what looks like a mess is actually a decent strategy for dealing with difficult conditions.  Maybe you can get some tips.

What kinds of unconventional methods have you tried in your garden?