Other than the meadow we started last spring, I’ve never really grown plants directly from seed. It always seemed like such a hassle with the plants taking up space in front of your windows (or in your fancy-pants greenhouse), the hardening off, the warming pads, not to mention the (in my case extreme) likelihood of forgetting to water the plants for days on end.
But while it’s easy to get overwhelmed with gardening projects, the great thing about using natives is that there’s usually an easier way. They don’t need to be babied like many exotics or vegetables. Most evolved processes for their seeds to stay dormant over the winter, then germinate at just the right time in the spring. All you need is some dirt and some old plastic take-out containers, and you can take advantage of those process through winter-sowing.
There are lots of good step-by-step guides on the internet (start here), but the gist is that since most native seeds need a period of cold stratification to germinate, sowing them outdoors (in their natural conditions) over the winter is your best bet. You can always direct-sow, but if you’re not sure where you want your plants to go yet, and you don’t want birds and squirrels to eat your seeds, you can use covered containers. And you don’t have to buy anything—you can use old milk cartons and clear take-out containers to essentially create mini-greenhouses to protect your seeds from critters and get them to germinate a bit early and in higher numbers. Of course, if you had a cold frame or similar structure, that would work just as well, but this is a super-easy alternative that only costs as much as a bag of organic potting soil.
We were lucky to have collected a fair amount of seeds last summer and fall. Some were from our own garden, some were even from the garden at my office in Center City. But most of them came from the seed exchange that took place at the Native Plant Society of New Jersey‘s conference in the fall.
We had about a dozen packets of different species, all natives. Most were herbaceous, but we had a few different shrub species as well.
A few we did broadcast directly onto our meadow. But most we sowed in containers we’ll store outside for the rest of the winter.
All you need to do is add some drainage holes to your containers, fill them with soil, sow the seeds, and water. And make sure there are holes punched in solid tops, or in the case of milk containers, the lid is kept off to allow air to circulate a bit and rain to keep the soil moist. Be sure to label the bottom of the containers to avoid fading caused by the weather.
Once you get your seedlings in the spring, you can either plant them directly into the ground or move them into regular containers to mature further. And they don’t need the full hardening off that they would if you’d grown them indoors or in a traditional greenhouse.
I’ll write an update in the spring with my results, but I’m excited for all the new plants.
Here are some of the species we’re attempting to grow:
New England Aster
White Wood Aster
New York Ironweed
Carolina Bush Pea (a native of the SE, but still a good Jersey plant)