Growing wild flowers is not difficult. And it is urgent.

Perennial species native to our prairies – milkweeds, asters, Joe Pye weed and others – will make one more offering in the fall, as if t...


Perennial species native to our prairies – milkweeds, asters, Joe Pye weed and others – will make one more offering in the fall, as if they haven’t already given enough. They will offer their seed.

Gardeners can feed the next generation by collecting some of it and propagating more of their favorite wildflowers. But there is a little wrinkle.

“Anything about planting native seeds is counterintuitive to what people have learned in horticulture,” said Heather McCargo, founder of the nonprofit. Wild seed project in Maine in 2014.

Sowing wildflower seeds requires a shift in mindset focused on the late winter to spring ritual of sowing vegetables and annuals, she said.

This is because wildflowers are sown at a different time: from late November to early January. They are sown outside, not inside under lights. And they’re not sown a single seed or two per cell in six-packets, like lettuce or kale. Instead, they are sown thick, in pots or open flats.

As Ms. McCargo said: “Native seeds are like teenagers. They like to be together.

She would love to see more of us learn the simple skills needed to propagate native plants – and use them to repopulate the landscape with natives across the country. This is the mission of the Wild Seed Project, a mission that the organization sees as increasingly urgent in the face of a rapidly changing climate, with so much diversity at risk.

“Sowing seeds is like becoming a plant midwife,” said McCargo, who has worked there for more than 35 years, as populations of native plants have declined alarmingly. Her practical experience includes five years as the chief propagator at Garden in the Woods, Mass., The headquarters of Native Plant Trust.

“Everyone just wants to throw seeds into the landscape, but the life of a wild seed is full of risk,” she said. “Most of the land is too wet or too dry, or where a bird or a mouse eats it. The majority of seeds dispersed in this way never grow into adult plants.

But if you collect seeds in a timely manner and sow them in a protected manner – using basic tactics like nursery rodent protection with mesh sheeting – “you can have a plant from every seed. She said. A small pinch of seeds can produce 50 or more plants for your garden or for a community planting in a school or park.

In its programs and publications and on its website, the Wild Seed Project encourages gardeners to propagate a diversity of native plants, from bloodroot in spring to oak. But perhaps the easiest to start with, Ms. McCargo said, are the grassland wildflowers from summer to fall, the seeds of which ripen in fall.

The most willing include Penstemon, Bee Balm (Monarda), Aster and Milkweed (Butterfly Grass, Asclepias tuberosa and Swamp Milkweed, A. incarnata). Blue flag iris (Iris versicolor), cardinal flower and blue lobelia (Lobelia cardinalis and L. siphilitica), blue verbena (Verbena hastata), goldenrod (Solidago), ironweed (Vernonia), Echinacea, Rudbeckia, Liatris and Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum) are also on her easy list.

First, however, a caveat regarding seed collection: It is unethical, and often illegal, to collect seeds on public land or in the wild – and often even from a place apparently. as harmless as the side of the road.

Collect seeds in your own garden if you have wild type plants or those who are close to the way nature made them, as hybrids and some cultivars created by selection may not produce consistent results. Some will be sterile, good neither for maintaining pollinators nor for multiplying. If a neighbor has a meadow, ask for permission to collect seeds. And wherever you harvest seeds, don’t harvest more than 5 percent of a plant’s population in a single season, Ms. McCargo said.

A shortcut for beginners: Wild Seed Project sells seeds suitable for fall sowing, from mid-September. Other ethically produced wild-type seed sources include Prairie Moon Nursery and Prairie Nursery.

The seed of various species ripens from September to November, and knowing when it is ready for harvest requires careful observation from the moment the flowers wither. Not all plants – or even all flowers of a given plant – will ripen at the same time.

But every species has a ‘say’ and first-hand experience will familiarize the novice seed collector with the intricacies.

If the plant has a pod, like milkweed, look for a change from green to beige and paper, Ms. McCargo said. If the pods did not separate on their own, squeeze one gently. If it splits, the seeds are ready.

Others, like Penstemon, have small pod-shaped seed capsules that turn brown and woody. To assess their maturity, Ms. McCargo looks to see if a small hole on the top of each capsule has opened up a bit, revealing tiny seeds inside.

Another visual clue is whether most of the seeds are no longer whitish or greenish, but brown, beige or black.

Often times, the sense of touch, rather than sight, is the collector’s most useful tool. Many prairie seeds have a fluffy appendage to carry ripe seeds in the wind, Ms. McCargo said, including aster, ironweed, Joe Pye grass and goldenrod. Usually, ripe seeds will come off if you run your hand over the fluffy seed head. If the plant does not release its seeds, allow them to mature a little longer.

But keep your hands away until you put a paper bag or envelope under the withered flower you are examining, to catch the loose seeds. (An envelope is best for small, almost dust-like seeds, like Monarda or Lobelia.) And be sure to label each collection immediately.

Before sowing the seeds, let them dry in their bags for a month or more, in a cool place. This post-ripening period is critical for the seed to finish ripening before it is sown between late November and early January. Wild Seed Project does its big annual seedling around New Years Day.

You won’t need a lot of materials to create a mini nursery in your backyard. Choose a suitable flat place to overwinter sown dishes or pots. Identify a shady spot, because when spring light and warmer temperatures roll in, the containers will dry out quickly if not – and the seeds that dry out will die.

The containers can simply be stored under a garden bench, but an unused cold frame with a glass or plexiglass cover that can be removed or left open would also work. Or you can build a simple wooden frame, like the one you would use for a raised garden bed.

Pots, whether or not grouped together within a frame, should be covered with half or quarter inch mesh hardware, weighted with bricks, to protect them from rodents.

Assemble your other supplies, including children’s rooms with drainage holes or plastic pots that are four to six inches in diameter and at least three inches deep. Avoid peat or fiber pots. Also required: plastic labels and a pencil.

For potting soil, a compost-based potting soil is recommended, along with a bag of clean, coarse all-purpose sand (available at hardware stores) to cover sown seeds. To provide gentle watering that does not wash away the seeds, use a watering can with a rain nozzle.

Lightly moisten the potting soil, then fill each container, tamping the mixture until the surface is flat and reaches about a half inch from the edge. Mark each tag with the species and date of sowing and insert it firmly inside the rim of the container before sowing.

Spread the seeds thickly but evenly over the surface of the soil, about an eighth to a quarter of an inch apart. Then cover them with a dusting of sand to a depth roughly equivalent to the thickness of the particular seed.

“A pea would be covered with about half an inch of sand,” Ms. McCargo said, “compared to a sesame seed which would only get an eighth of an inch.”

Water abundantly but gently and move the pots to their nursery area outside, covering them with wire mesh.

And they stay there, rain or snow, all winter, their protective teguments gradually worn away by freezes and thaws.

Inside, all this time, you practice patience and have faith.

“The seeds know what to do and when to do it,” Ms. McCargo said.

In the following spring, each will germinate in its time. Resist dividing them too soon, although a seedling pot can be moved as a clump into a larger pot if necessary. In September, divide and plant the individual seedlings in their permanent homes. (More details here.)

Until recently, Ms. McCargo ran the Wild Seed Project on a day-to-day basis, but now a staff of four, including a full-time director, allows her to focus on her main passion: expanding the seed nursery and inspiring. individuals and nurseries to sow natives – including oaks, maples and other native trees.

“No one should graduate from sixth grade without knowing how to germinate a tree seed,” she said. “Our native plants are losing their place in the world, and this is something we can each take.”


Margaret Roach is the creator of the website and podcast A way of gardening, and a book of the same name.

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