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Seed Harvesting, Containers and Windmill Palms

Seed harvesting in general, and from Malabar spinach in particular; lining containers with poly; and caring for Windmill palms here on the West Coast.
by Art Drysdale
by Art Drysdale


Art Drysdale, a life-long resident of Toronto and a horticulturist well known all across Canada, is now a resident of Parksville, British Columbia on Vancouver Island, just north of Nanaimo. He has reno-vated an old home and has a new garden there. His radio gardening vignettes are heard in south-western Ontario over radio station Easy 101 FM out of Tillsonburg at 2 PM weekdays.

Art also has his own website at

November 5, 2006

The time that many homeowners mistakenly wrap evergreens for the winter is approaching Don’t you get trapped. Most evergreens, broadleaf included like the Korean box hedge above, do NOT need to be wrapped! Below, two totally unrelated photos, the first shows the cat who adopted us drinking from our bird bath in the seaside garden, and at the bottom a magnificent Cattleya skinneri exhibited at the Nanaimo orchid show earlier this year. Author photos.

The most recent question to roll in via e-mail is this from Ted Kelly, from somewhere within range of my weekly gardening segments on Shaw TV’s “The Daily Gardener” [about which see later in this column]: “I wish to save seeds of my Malabar spinach plants. What should I do? Last year I picked the seeds early and only one seed sprouted. The rest seemed to powder when I squeezed them. Did I pick them too soon? The seeds, from flower heads, are still on the plant at this time.”

First Ted, let me point out that the so-called Malabar spinach is not really a spinach at all! Malabar or Indian spinach (Basella rubra) is a perennial climbing vine with red stems and red veins in the green leaves. It loves heat--just the opposite of spinach which only grows well in cooler temperature gardens. The true spinach (Spinacia oleracea) is in the goosefoot family (Amaranthaceae) whereas Malabar is in the Basellaceae family.

I have never grown Malabar spinach and thus have no experience in harvesting the seed, but I see no reason that it should be different from any other plant. The rules to follow, in virtually all seed harvesting, is to let the seeds ripen on the plant until they are ready to fall to the ground; harvest and then keep it in a dry location. Many plants, particularly hardy shrubs and trees, require a period of stratification in order to soften them and allow germination. This is usually accomplished by mixing the seed with slightly damp sphagnum peat moss, placing them in a sealed poly bag, and placing in a refrigerator (not freezer) for about one month--but for some species, from three to four months. I doubt any of this is necessary for your Malabar spinach.

One last word, if you do remove the seed from the plant before it is ripe, it will almost surely not germinate. That is likely what happened last year.

An old friend, Doreen Stanton, wrote asking about containers: “I have a planter created from a bushel basket which I have had and preserved in the greenhouse over winter for five summers. The bushel basket is falling apart and I would like to put it in a new one which I have. The plants if it matters are a lantana, a grass with reddish leaves and flowers and a white flowered vine. Do I need to line the basket with anything and if so, what? There appears to be some sort of liner in the existing one although it has so far deteriorated that I cannot be sure what.”

All that should be needed Doreen, is a lining of some sort of quality plastic or polyethylene; if you cannot get one of about 20 mil, then use a double layer. Just remember, you will need to punch a number of holes in the liner to allow any excess water to drip out.

When a question comes in the answer for which is not immediately obvious, I usually turn to a few favourite Web-sites to see what is offered there. If I do not find anything, then I usually leave it in order to mull over for a while! That is what happened to Gail French, also within the range of my TV gardening vignettes. She wrote over two weeks ago with this question: “A local nursery planted a Windmill Palm in my back yard two years ago, but it looks quite yellow. I've seen some in the neighbourhood that are green, so I'm wondering what might be the problem with mine. I fertilized in the spring with Miracle Grow, the slow release granular type, and it got a top dressing of fish compost in the summer. Any input will be appreciated, thanks a lot.”

Almost as soon as I arrived on Vancouver Island I wanted to plant a palm or two. Overall the best and most common one is the Windmill palm (Trachycarpus fortunei). There are other species and sub-species, but of those sold in local garden centres, the Windmill is most common. In the three years our three palms (two that are well over a metre high and one just under) I’ve learned a little. For example, since we are right on the Strait of Georgia we of-ten get significant winds during the winter. I did not think that would bother the palms because there is quite a large one in Qualicum Beach as close or closer to the Strait than one of ours. However, the one that was closest to the water also turned out also to be in what I call a wind tunnel beside our house. We just moved her two weeks ago to a much ‘calmer’ area of the garden, out in the front garden near our large pond. The other two are likewise exposed to the sea in the side garden, but not nearly as affected by the wind tunnel effect, and they are doing much better.

It is known that Windmill palms prefer our cooler climates here rather than the desert-like conditions of southern California. They do like nutrition, and the generally recommended regimen is a 20-20-20 applied monthly, say from mid-March to mid-August. If you are in a sandy soil, as we are, the frequent fertilization is even more important. I would apply it with a hose-end sprayer. The BioTLC people have a special Liquid Growth All Purpose 10-10-10 in their line and that is likely what I shall be using at least monthly next year. Its availability on Vancouver Island currently is almost nil, but I shall advise in this column when that changes next year.

Just a final word for viewers of Shaw TV’s “The Daily Gardener” that ran at least weekly for the last two plus years pretty well covering most of Vancouver Island. Shaw TV has decided we should take a hiatus (you know the old hack “what do you do in gardening for the winter”--I’ve fought that for over 40 years!) until at least late January or early February. I really do not know, at this point, whether I will be back or not. If I am, it is my wish to expand the pieces so that a short topic differing from the main theme is included each week. I would also like to return to two pieces per week, each repeating on the weekend. We’ll see, and maybe you will too!

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