Easy Native Perennials from Seed: January is the Time, Snow & All

No grow lights or special equipment needed!

tray of sown echinacea seeds and seed packet

This is about growing native plants easily and at little cost. Seeds! I know. It sounds complicated but, believe me, if I can do it, you can do it! I am a seed starting novice. I grew native perennials three times last year. I sowed seeds in January, April and June. The best results came from those sown in January. The seeds sown in April were fine too but the plants are still on the small side. The seeds sown in June were a complete flop. From my reading, it is most likely the germinating seeds dried out. That's why January is the perfect time. No watering is necessary - the seeds just germinate when Mother Nature tells them the conditions are right.


Perennial Seeds Requiring Cold Stratification

native plant grown from seed agastache
agastache in fall; grown from seed started outdoors last January

Some native perennials require "cold stratification," meaning to germinate, the seeds need to be exposed to cold temperatures for a specific period of time. An easy to grow perennial in this category is anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum). I grew this from seed last January and the seedlings were 5" tall by the first of July. They were small plants by the fall. I'm thinking this coming year, they will be much more vigorous.


This year, I am trying another native perennial that requires cold stratification - blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica). This is one of my favorite perennials. It thrives in our dappled shade. The wetter the soils, the better it seems to grow.

native plant blue lobelia seeds and packet

These seeds are tiny! When the seeds are dust like, experts recommend sowing the seeds on top of the soil mix and then dusting with a very thin layer of sand so water doesn't cause the seeds to splash out. I put some in and old plug tray and some in a single clay container.


Those in the single container will eventually have to be moved to individual containers as they grow. This adds another step (and potential for things to go awry). If you are trying this for the first time, I'd go with individual containers. You can purchase plastic plug trays on line but you may want to check with gardening friends first. You can also use yogurt containers or anything else you have. Just make sure to add drainage holes to anything plastic. There is a huge movement to reduce plastic waste in gardening and this is a good place to start.

Seeds that grow this way are classified as "Germination Code C." Here is an explanation of the codes. To me, C seems the easiest of those requiring special treatment.


Perennial Seeds That Do Not Require Cold Stratification

Other easier to grow perennials not requiring cold stratification are coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), spotted bee balm (Monarda punctata) and wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa). I tried these last year and all grew well. The coneflower was the most gratifying. While only half the seeds germinated, the plants were vigorous by fall and several sent up flower buds though they did not bloom in their first year. I guess the shorter days were not giving them enough light to bloom. Next year though, they will be ready!

native coneflower grown from seed
coneflower in fall; seed sown in January

So why plant seeds in January if these types don't require cold stratification. You don't have to. The advantage is when the weather and moisture conditions are right, the seeds will germinate in spring. This takes a lot of the work out of it -- figuring when the soil temperatures are warm enough to sow and getting the watering right. By doing it now, you are basically mimicking what nature does. By placing the seeds in containers in a light fluffy growing medium, you are giving them an easier start than if they were in the ground.


Just grab some potting medium, any old plastic pots you may still have and a packet of seeds and head to the kitchen counter or another warm place. Once you have sown the seeds, place them in a shady sheltered location (so that in spring if you have forgotten, they won't get quickly dried out by the sun) where they can still get rain and snow. Once the seeds germinate, you can check once a week or so to see if water is necessary and then once they really start growing, you can move them to larger pots or to a sheltered garden bed to get a bit larger before you plant them out in their permanent location.


Resources


Prairie Moon Nursery

Visit the Seed page for extra information and tips for seeds that may not be on your seed packet. At the bottom of each entry, they will often say this particular seed is difficult or easier to grow so you know what you are getting into. You can also search natives by region and State. You can also search seeds by Germination Code.


Joe Gardener

If you want to delve into more detail with actual experts, this one hour podcast from Joe Gardener about sowing native plant seeds covers it all!


The "methodology" I used (again ... just a beginner!):

1. Fill empty plug trays, clay containers, or plastic pots with seed starting mix. Last year I used an organic seed starting mix. This year I am using a commercially made compost from Veteran Compost because it does not contain peat. There is no need to moisten the mix. The outdoor weather will take care of that.


2. Sow the seeds. Typically, the planting depth is the width of the seed but check your seed packet for specific instructions. For tiny, dust like seeds, like the lobelia, place them on the soil surface and cover with a dusting of sand to keep them in place. I like to label the containers because though I think I will remember what I planted where, I often forget! I also learned last year that a Sharpie won't work. A pen sold as a "garden marker" will.

plug tray covered with hardware cloth

3. Place containers outside in a shaded area protected from wind but exposed to precipitation. Make sure not to place them near any drip lines from a roof or other structure. Because we have squirrels, chipmunks and others who poke around, I try to cover containers with a piece of hardware cloth to protect the seeds.


4. In March, begin a weekly check to see if there is germination. When you see germination, begin watering once a week.


5. If two seedlings are close together, remove the weaker one by cutting it off with scissors at the soil surface (so as not to damage the roots of the remaining seedling).


6. Once seedlings develop true leaves, you can water them with an organic liquid seaweed fertilizer once a week for a month. I did this last year but am not planning to do that this year as I am not sure it is necessary.

native seedlngs in tray

7. Once you are comfortable the plants are strong enough, you can move them to larger pots or to a sheltered garden bed or even to their permanent location. The trick is you want them to be in a location where you are going to see them regularly so you can make sure they don't dry out or get harmed in some other way.


8. You should have some new perennials!


If you have started native plant from seeds, please consider sharing your experience in the comments below. We will all benefit from it.


Happy sowing!







We want you to be as excited about planting Chesapeake natives as we are. “Plant This or That” gives you a native alternative to popular plants. Other posts highlight really fabulous fauna native to the Chesapeake.

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