July 15, 2021
Submitted by the Wallkill Valley Pollinator Pathway sub-committee chair Angela Sisson
If you’re planting a pollinator garden, you already know that buying container plants can get expensive. A good way to acquire a large number of native wildflowers at a reasonable cost is to start them from seed. Also consider that many of the native plant species you may want to include in a garden aren’t available from local or online nurseries—but native seeds are practically always available right outside!
Native plants are often seen as difficult to grow from seed because most of the species have different ways of breaking dormancy in order to germinate. For example, many native plant seeds need to go through a cold period to break dormancy. [In plant physiology, dormancy is a period of arrested plant growth. It is a survival strategy exhibited by many plant species, which enables them to survive in climates where part of the year is unsuitable for growth, such as winter or dry seasons.*]
Don’t let that put you off because an easy way to accomplish this is to plant them in winter. This process, often referred to as Winter Sowing, provides that cold period while preventing the seeds from germinating too soon—as might happen with a fall planting. (Seedlings which germinate right before winter are vulnerable and may not survive the cold.)
Many other native plant seeds are more like the familiar commercial and vegetable seeds and don’t require a cold period at all. These seeds won’t germinate until the weather becomes warm enough which means they can safely be sown in winter along with the other seeds. Some seeds require two or more cold periods to break dormancy—this type can also be sown in winter and will germinate when they’re ready. The majority of seeds fall in these categories but be sure to check the germination code provided by the seed source just in case the species has other requirements.
This past winter I sowed seeds of several different native plant species—some were old favorites and some were new to me. At $2 to $3 a pack, the seed cost was very little. Additional costs included 1/2 gallon pots and the potting soil to fill them. (Later, when the seedlings were divided, more pots and potting soil was needed.)
I followed the winter sowing instructions found in the Wild Seed Project guidelines. (wildseedproject.net/how-to-grow-natives-from-seed/.) Heather McCargo, founder of the Wild Seed Project, developed the process described for winter sowing in pots. She recommends planting the seeds in pots outdoors from December to early February. Any later than that and some of them may not receive enough days with below freezing temps to break dormancy.
On February 1st of this year, I planted my seeds. Each pot received one packet of seeds and, yes, the seeds were planted very densely. Once planted, the pots were placed outdoors—just in time for a snowstorm. (Snow makes a great winter mulch for seed beds.) By April 30th some of the seeds had started to germinate. By late-May some of the pots were getting overcrowded with seedlings.
In June I divided the masses of seedlings into clumps—averaging about 3 to 6 clumps from each pot. These clumps were transplanted into more pots. Note that seedlings are not separated individually but kept in clumps. When the seedlings are ready for planting in the ground, they will be planted as clumps of seedlings, not as individual seedlings. After transplanting the clumps, 18 pots of seedlings became 60 pots.
For about $40 worth of seeds (along with the cost of pots and potting soil) I was able to start a mini nursery and expand my pollinator gardens—with lots of plants to spare, and share!
Now is a good time to start thinking about plants you can grow from seeds for next year’s garden. One of the best and oldest seed sources for native plant seeds is Prairie Moon Nursery (https://www.prairiemoon.com/seeds/). Many others are available online as well.
It is also a good time to link up with the other backyard pollinator gardens in your neighborhood by joining the Wallkill Valley Pollinator Pathway:
Definitions and Reference Links:
*Plant Dormancy: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dormancy
Wild Seed Project guidelines: wildseedproject.net/how-to-grow-natives-from-seed/
Prairie Moon Nursery for seeds: https://www.prairiemoon.com/seeds/