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Starting Native Plants from Seed: 5 Tips

Budget friendly, Eco-friendly & Winter Gardening Fun

native plant seed packets

In the UK, where gardening is literally a national past time, gardeners are just as likely, if not more likely, to grow their own plants from seed rather than head to the nursery to buy a quart sized plant. Here, we tend to start with purchasing plants and that’s what I have done since my first days of gardening.


Starting native plants from seed sounded complicated. For some plants it is. Native wild ginger needs two seasons of cold stratification – the process where cold weather over time softens the seed case so a seedling can eventually germinate. There are some seeds though that are much easier and experts say even just plain easy!


There are no grow lights or indoor seed starting required which makes sense if you think about it. These plants have been perpetuating and growing in nature without any help from us for eons.


The seeds talked about here need one season of cold stratification (being outside in the cold) to germinate. You can plant seeds now and leave them outdoors in a shady spot where they will get water and snow. Make sure not to place your newly planted seeds under a gutter or other drip line; they need moisture but not pounding water. Most experts recommend covering the seeds with some sort of wire mesh or other barrier to keep squirrels and other critters out. In my urban garden, this seems a must.

I have had successes with coneflowers, blue hyssop and wild bergamot. Last spring's flat of blue lobelia resulted in one, yes just one, plant! This past year, three flats of coneflowers also flopped. They became too dry right at the critical time when seeds would have germinated. I also planted them in compost instead of a special seed starting mix - probably a mistake. My experience has been equal parts success; equal parts learning lessons!

So, when I listened to this Joe Gardener podcast, an interview of veteran seed starter, Heather McCargo, the executive director of the Wild Seed Project, I was hoping for some insights and there were many! For all the details from an expert, the 55 minute podcast is the best. I highly recommend it if you are going to give this a try for the first time. Here were my take aways.


Best Seeds to Start With

Start with the easier to grow seeds. In addition to coneflowers (Echinacea), anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) and wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), it sounds like asters (Symphiotrichum oblongifolium) and columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) can be added to the list.


To me, it makes sense that locally grown seeds would be best adapted for our area. The only native plant nursery I have noticed selling locally collected seeds is Watermark Nursery in Hamilton, Virginia and now closed for the winter. Given that, you could order seeds from Prairie Nursery in Wisconsin, not local, but they are committed to neonicotinoid free seeds, important if you are growing plants to support insect life. There may well be better sources of locally collected seeds on-line. If you know of any, please add to the comments below!

Best Containers for Seed Starting

Heather McCargo advises starting seeds in larger clay pots is best. The larger pots are less likely to dry out and the clay mimics natural conditions more than plastic does. This was a lightbulb moment for me as I have done most of my seed starting in plug trays and plastic pots which do indeed dry out quickly.


Most Critical Time

When the weather warms in spring, as we all know, containers dry out. This is the critical time. Ideally, we should be checking these seeds every day during spring. Heather advises placing the containers both in the shade and where we can easily check on them. The most important thing is that it is a place where you can check on them frequently for the first year to make sure they are not drying out.


Patience!

What, more patience required of gardeners? Yes, once again we learn this lesson. The seedlings that do make it will be small. As they grow, you can move them to larger containers or to a sheltered spot in the ground.

Spoiler alert (and reminder to myself): you will not have a quart sized perennial with perfect proportions in June. Or at least I haven’t come close to that! These wild bergamot started from seed in the winter of 2021, were planted in the ground this past fall in a protected spot and will just be mature enough to plant out in the garden this spring. I have noticed that as soon as you move young plants from container to ground, they seem to immediately put on substantial growth.


Just do it, as they say

One thing I've gathered from following British gardeners is they are always sowing seeds so each year there are plants maturing for the garden and you aren’t always just staring at the same flat of seeds wondering how much longer it will be. I guess it’s like succession planting in a vegetable garden. You just get in the habit so you always have plants coming along.


And that’s it. Just let them do their thing as nature would. The most critical thing is to make sure the seeds stay moist once the weather warms up.


This is definitely a very cost effective way to get more plants. I’ve also read many nursery grown plants result from propagation which means some genetic diversity is lost, an issue a bit beyond me but I take the experts word for it. This is the same reason, locally grown seeds (and plants) are the best to plant. All in all, worth a try!


Happy Seed Starting!


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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.

Nuts for Natives, avid gardener, Baltimore City admirer, Chesapeake Bay Watershed restoration enthusiast, and public service fan.

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