First of all, the why.
- If done right, growing native plants from seed is way cheaper than buying native plants from a nursery. A pack of seeds usually costs around $2.50 plus shipping. From that pack, I should get at least 5 plants and most likely more whereas one plant from a nursery will run at least $5.00. The price per seed will drop even more when purchased in bulk and sometimes, I’ll collect my own seeds for free.
- It’s less risky. Losing a $2.50 pack of seeds is a lot easier to bare than losing a $5.00 plant especially if it’s more than one.
- Gardening becomes more about management than maintenance. The popular gardening blog, Garden Rant recently had a post about the use of the term management as opposed to maintenance and why it’s the wave of the future in gardening. What it means is instead of the gardener trying to adhere to a garden design, the garden begins to design itself. It’s kind of hard to explain but growing native plants from seed forces me to acknowledge and allow what happens to happen. In this case, easier done than said.
- It’s a good way to experiment. I like to buy about 10 different types of seed packets at a time and see what works. If the plant turns out to be too tall or not exactly in the right place, I can usually move it. I don’t feel that sense of fear that I do with plants I’ve bought.
- It allows me to take notice of plants I didn’t plant. Because I’m constantly looking for the seedlings from the seeds I plant, I also notice the ones I didn’t. I identify them and many times decide I like them. The common violet is a good example. It works great as a ground cover as well a being ecologically functional.
Now, the how.
First, I figure out what seeds I can get that are native to my area. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has a good publication about this. I’ve become used to buying my seeds from Prairie Moon Nursery in Minnesota. With a plant finder section and maps showing the native range in the U.S. of each plant they sell, their website makes it ridiculously easy to order seeds of plants native to my area. In addition, they produce a gorgeous seed catalog featuring the most popular and easy to grow plants and helpful information for beginner growers. Of course because they are in Minnesota their seeds aren’t exactly pure natives to my area but I guess that’s the drawback. I’ve decided based on some research they are pure enough.
Just because I order from one place doesn’t mean there aren’t other equally excellent places to order seeds. Ernst Seeds in Pennsylvania, Prairie Nursery in Wisconsin and Roundstone Native Seed in Kentucky are a few.
In addition to figuring out what plants are native to my area, I will also need to match plants that will grow in the conditions of my garden. For the most part my garden has partial shade with a moist, clay loam soil. Some areas are sloped and drier while others in depressions are wetter. These kind of things and anything else that may be significant are important to take note of when selecting the right seeds to grow.
When I started my seed search, I realized seeds require varying conditions in order to germinate. Some will not germinate until their tough outer skin is worn down through the digestive system of a bird but this process can be replicated by rubbing the seeds with sandpaper. Other seeds are very tiny and need light to germinate.
Many kinds of native plant seeds need a period of stratification which means they need a certain period of time in cold ground before germinating. Prairie Moon Nursery has good information about the stratification times their seeds need as well as instructions for doing it. They often recommend sowing seed in fall so they can naturally stratify over winter. Seeds can also be stratified indoors by mixing them with damp sand and storing the mixture in a tightly sealed container in the fridge for the required time. Stratified seeds I’ve had luck with are: early sunflower, nodding onion, black eyed Susan and great blue lobelia.
Luckily, there are quite a few seeds that don’t need stratification. A list of those in my area can be found here. So far, I’ve had great luck with switchgrass, little bluestem, big bluestem, wild bergamot, mountain mint and sneezeweed.
Once plants reach a certain maturity there’s a good chance they’ll spread or bunch or branch out and begin to fill up space on their own. Some plants, such as common milkweed can be aggressive so it’s a good idea to be wary of that when ordering seeds. Usually nurseries will say something about that in the plant description part.
Everyone says it’s a good idea to start small and they’re so right. Believe me. I learned the hard way. Once upon a time, I had this vision of a beautiful wildflower garden in the spring. I just knew it was going to happen. One day in the fall, I walked around my garden sprinkling seeds everywhere. Well, I was sorely disappointed in the spring when there were no wildflowers because I didn’t properly prepare the site and start small enough to get a handle on what was even happening. A space roughly 3’ x 3’ is a good size to start with a seed packet and in my opinion the more seeds the better chance of success.
To plant seeds directly in the ground, the site needs to be fairly weed free. To prepare areas with grass, I cover the area with cardboard held down with a few rocks and then put some kind of mulch on top of it and leave it there for about 6 months. That kills most of the weeds too. When that’s done, I put the old cardboard in the compost (it’s a great brown source if you don’t have a lot of dead leaves). For most seeds*, I rough up just the top inch of earth with a garden rake or fork, sprinkle the seeds over the area and rake them in gently. I press down on the area with my hand or walk over it lightly. Then, I wait. Sometimes it will take a month to see anything and when I do it sometimes takes another month to be able to identify the seedlings as the ones I planted. Usually, I just look for anything that looks different from the ordinary weeds. Once I know the difference, I pull the weeds from time to time as well as keeping the area from drying out. It takes patience and sometimes I’ll wait almost a whole season (or what seems like eternity) to see the tiny seedlings. But then, there they are. One and then another. It’s hard to explain my rapture at the sight and after all that, you can be sure I’m going to take care of these babies. But usually I don’t have to. They tend to take care of themselves. So far, I’ve been successful except for the time when I planted into a layer of very dry compost. They need good contact with real soil.
If I plant seeds in the fall, I cover the area with some kind of light mulch such as leaves or straw just to keep the ground somewhat covered until spring when I rake the mulch from the area so the seeds can grow.
If you’re not in a rush, growing native plants from seed isn’t really as hard as it sounds. It just takes some research, preparation and patience. The rest is up to nature.
*Some seeds that require light to germinate should be covered with little or no soil.