Variation Is The Spice Of Life


IMG_2503 An unusual foxglove in Mary Barnes' garden.  Digitalis lanata?

Mary Barnes of Slate Hill Farm Daylilies is my kind of gardener: a mad scientist.  I love her for allowing my kids to be mad scientists, too.  She lets them hybridize daylilies and then gives us the seedlings to grow out, so they can see the fruits of their fun.

When we arrived there last Saturday, she had a milk crate full of seedlings for us, all labeled with a number indicating the cross and the name of the kid who decided that a plant called something like 'Screaming Meemie' desperately needed to exchange genes with another plant called something like 'Pants On Fire.'  Subtle their crosses are not.  They usually result in flowers so big the plant can hardly hold up its head and colors from a Velvet Elvis painting.  I'm going to give these monster hemerocallis their own bed in the country.

Mary's own experimentation takes not just the form of professional daylily breeding, but also non-professional fooling around with seeds of all kinds.  She saves her vegetable seed.  She's growing quinoa and flax seed for her cereal.  She's able to plant really unusual flowers, including a very tall and thin white and brown foxglove, because she raises them from seed.

On Saturday, she showed me precisely the thing that makes seed saving so fun.

Behold a poppy produced by saved seed:


Here is the poppy's much better-looking brother:


And here are lettuces from seed she saved:

IMG_2502 The ones on the right are all from the same variety of lettuce. They all have the same trout-patterned leaves. But some of them are red-spotted chartreuse.  And some of them are an even mix of red and green.

I love the idea of selecting my own flowers and vegetables, too, and breeding the better-looking lettuce.  I've got an enormous parsnip sending out flowers while we speak in my vegetable garden, just because I want to observe the natural behavior of this biennial.  But I frequently intend to save seed and then never get around to collecting it. 

Too busy raising the results of previous experiments involving my husband, I suppose.


  1. I don’t save seeds, but have some great things that self-seed: red and breadseed poppies, nigella, bachelor’s buttons, simple daisies.

    Sometimes the color combos even work: I have artemesia ‘Valerie Finnis’, delphiniums and bachelor’s buttons together.

    I also have red poppies, plummy breadseed poppies, and an orange-red asiatic lily all in close proximity. There needs to be a pic of this corner of my garden with “Color wheel: fail” printed over the top!

  2. I did have the presence of mind to collect seeds from my shooting stars the other day. Now I need to cold stratify them for 3 weeks before planting them. I love these, they look like tiny cyclamen flowers.

  3. Just finished harvesting my broccoli seed yesterday. Also have snow pea seeds ready for the fall. My entire bean crop right now is from saved seeds. And am letting a few of the lettuce plants and radishes go wild. Other strange things come up in my yard all the time. I saw a cute rock the other day with “I don’t remember planting this” on it and almost bought it, though I hate garden fru fru…

  4. We have dahlias that cross polinate and self seed …You never know what colours aand variations you will get from one year to the next … Makes for an interesting garden :O)


  5. I actually have a velvet Elvis painting (it’s a long story), so I’d love to see images so I can compare. That does look like D. lantana, though I’ve never grown it. If you like that, you’ll like D. ferruginea even more.

  6. Craig, how did you know that I’ve been searching for digitalis ferruginea for years? Penelope Hobhouse is to blame.

  7. I think the actual species name for the Digitalis is “lanata” – it isn’t commonly seen, but adds a really interesting textural element. “Mad Scientist” gardening is a great description for what I enjoy, as well. I don’t mind waiting a year or two for germination, and I have bletilla orchid and sarracenia seedlings I’ve been nursing along for five years, plus. It’s the process of gardening that fascinates me, even more than the actual aesthetic result (at least that’s my excuse for having a messy, wild garden, and I’m sticking to it!)

  8. Michele, digitalis farruginea seeds can be found online at Diane’s Seeds – along with many other digitalis. I have purchased seeds from this site for a few years now, and the service is great. She always throws in a packet of free seeds. I purchased d. ferruginea (and many others) from her site this year after seeing a stand of them on a garden tour last summer. BTW the germination was great.

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