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How to Grow Primrose from Seed

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PHOTO: MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
By the first of August the baby primroses had formed tiny rosettes of leaves and seemed ready for transplanting.

You may have heard that these little beauties can’t be
started from seed. Don’t believe a word of it!

For many years, my neighbor kept a three-foot row of
primroses growing at the end of her sun porch. Each spring,
with all the certainty of the changing seasons themselves,
those three rows would explode into a single mass of
sunshine yellow blossoms with buttery orange eyes. And,
each spring, I coveted.

I thought about attempting to grow my own primroses from
scratch — until I did some research on how to grow primrose and was advised,
over and over again, that the flowers are considered
very difficult to start from seed. For one thing,
many varieties require a period of postplanting freezing to
break dormancy. What’s more, I learned that primroses are
slow and erratic germinators. In general, starting
primroses from seed is not a project generally recommended
for the novice flower gardener — which, at that time,
I most certainly was.

Then one winter’s day, while studying the seed catalogs in
anticipation of spring planting, I spotted a listing for
something called Pacific Giant primrose, which flowered in
shades running from crisp white and creamy yellow through
varying hues of blue to satiny pinks and reds. And this
variety of primrose, the catalog claimed, was somewhat
easier to start from seed than most. I ordered a packet.

When the mail carrier delivered my primrose seeds, I put
them aside for the moment and turned my attention to
planting my vegetable garden and trimming it with a border
of the annuals I had found so reliable and easy to start in
years past. But the day finally came when the “sure and
easy” planting was done, and I had to face up to the task
I’d set for myself.

How to Grow Primrose from Seed: The Great Primrose Challenge

Having experienced, in previous years, the devastating
seedling losses that various fungal diseases can cause, I
began my planting preparations by carefully washing the
tray I planned to use for sprouting the primroses; then I
rinsed it with a mild chlorine solution.

The next step was to fill the tray with a 50/50 mix of
sphagnum moss and vermiculite and then to place it in an
inch of water in the kitchen sink. After a couple of hours,
when the planting mix had absorbed most of the water, I
removed it from the sink to drain while I prepared lunch.

After lunch, I retrieved my precious packet of potential
primroses and carefully sprinkled the seed, in rows, in the
tray of prepared soil. Since the seeds were tiny, I dusted
them with a light covering of vermiculite . . . just enough
to hide the seed from sight. Then I slipped the tray into a
plastic bag, closed the end, and placed it in the freezer.

After two weeks, I removed the planting tray from the
freezer, punched a few holes in the plastic bag for
ventilation, and placed it in a north-facing window, where
it would receive indirect light — but no direct, hot
sunshine — and where I could conveniently watch for
seedlings to appear.

At long last — nearly two weeks after I’d removed the
container from the freezer — I saw the first fat little
seedling leaves pushing up through the vermiculite. Excited
at this longawaited development, I removed the plastic
cover and moved the tray to a south-facing kitchen window,
where there was plenty of sunlight. By the end of the week
I was rewarded with a healthy stand of sprouts.

After a few more days I decided that the young plants
needed more sunlight and fresh air than they were receiving
in my kitchen window, so I moved them to the corner of an
empty cold frame and rigged a piece of wire screen over the
top to conserve moisture and shade the plants from the
intense summer sun. As further proof against damage from
Old Sol, I prepared a solution of water containing a trace
of nonburning fertilizer and used this to keep the soil in
the plants’ tray damp at all times (but never soggy).

By the first of August the baby primroses had formed tiny
rosettes of leaves and seemed ready for
transplanting — so I moved them to a nursery bed at the
edge of the garden and rigged a cheesecloth tent to shade
them until they became accustomed to their new home.

As soon as the little primroses had taken hold (with new
growth as evidence), I removed the cheesecloth. I continued
to water the plants during dry spells and watched as new
leaves pushed up from the centers and flattened out to form
dainty little whorls.

Toward the end of September I decided to prepare permanent
homes for my primroses. Having read that these delicate
flowers prefer shade and moisture, I chose spots that I
knew would be partially shaded during summer, then turned
lots of compost and peat moss into the soil. With the beds
ready, I did the final transplanting . . . and watched the
plants flourish in their new homes.

Even when the fall rains came, my primroses kept growing,
some forming flat-topped plants four inches across before
freezing weather arrived. When the soil was finally frozen,
I covered the plants with a few inches of straw held in
place with a layer of evergreen boughs, and wished my
primmies a cozy winter’s sleep.

Early the following March, when the snow had melted and
daytime temperatures began to rise above freezing, I
removed the straw — a little at a time, and only on
cloudy days — to gradually introduce the fresh, green,
crinkly leaves to the sun.

Near the end of March the first bud opened to cast a lovely
yellow — and from then through May the little spots of
rose, gold, lilac, and red kept me entranced. In fact, the
thrill of vibrant color so surpassed anything I had
expected when I made out that order for primrose seed the
year before that I vowed never again to be without my
lovely harbingers of spring.

I want to encourage any fellow primrose fanciers out there
to go ahead: Ignore those who say it can’t be done, and
make the small investment in money, time, and effort
required to try growing primrose from seed.

There’s very little to lose, and a great deal to
gain — not the least of which is the satisfaction of
proving those naysaying “experts” wrong!

EDITOR’S NOTE: Although there are many varieties of
primroses, Pacific Giant appears to be the best bet for
novice growers; it is both hardy and relatively easy to
start from seed. Two sources for the seed are the Geo. W.
Park Seed Company (Greenwood, SC) and
Burpee Seed Company (Warminster, PA).
Both offer free catalogs.

Published on Mar 1, 1986