Native Plant seed propagation

When the temperatures start to drop in late fall, early winter some native plant geeks tend to get extra excited….because it’s time to start seeds for next spring. While we are fully aware that it often takes 2 years to get flowers from locally started seeds, it doesn’t matter. Each year we eagerly sow a new crop of “babies” to tend and nurture. The NC Native Plant Society-Southern Piedmont Chapter holds an annual seed exchange at the December meeting. Members are encouraged to bring cleaned, identified and native to the Southeast or US seeds (North Carolina preferred). This is a wonderful opportunity to try new species and share our favorites with fellow “native plant geeks” (NPGs).

Starting native plants from seed can be a little tricky, and it’s true there is no simple one step to success. In fact, fellow NPGs can spend many hours at native plant gatherings discussing the best ways to find success with specific seeds. The NCNPS site, ncwildflower.org lists two of our favorite texts for seed starting advice. Many members also refer to William Cullina’s Wildflowers book for propagation directions.

However, here are some general steps to native plant seed starting success:

  1. Determine if the seeds need cold stratification (a cold moist period of under 40 degrees, typically 1-2 months)
  2. If cold stratification is necessary plan to spread in the seeds on pre-moistened seed starting soil mix. Lynda Waldrep, Triad NCNPS member has perfected a method of starting seeds in milk jug “mini-greenhouses” as shown in the photo below. This allows a moist environment and reduces the need to constantly water your seed tray all winter.

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    Milk jugs and salad containers used to start native plant seeds.
  3. Lightly cover the seeds with soil or light sprinkling of sand or grit to keep them in contact with the moist soil mix.
  4. LABEL your seed tray immediately. Seeds all start to look alike after a while!
  5. Set the seed tray outside if possible, protected in some way from squirrels who love love love to dig in fresh potting soil. Wire mesh, another seed tray, or a plastic tent-like cold frame will allow the seeds to sprout as the weather warms.
  6. Check frequently to be sure the soil is evenly moist, not soggy, and not too dry.
  7. Once the seedlings have 2 true leaves, the seedlings can be transplanted to small pots (1″ or so) to begin the “potting-up” process.

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    Various recycled plastic containers for seed, and potted up seedlings on bottom shelf.
  8. If your seeds prefer to wait until warm weather, 70 degree days-May or June time frame, follow the steps above, and you will typically have seeds sprouting within 1-2 weeks.

Notes:  Yes, you can sprinkle native plant seeds on the ground and hope they come up in the spring. However, many of us have had disappointing results with this method. Critters tend to eat or scatter or bury them. Leaves often cover them, keeping out sunshine and trapping too much moisture. It does work, but NPGs tend to prefer the seed tray method for higher success rates.

The above list is just the tip of the iceberg in native plant seed success. But all it takes is one tray of successful “babies” to make it to blooming wildflowers and you will be hooked. Either proudly showing off your results in your own garden, or you will soon become one of the contributors of native plants at the annual Plant Sale at the Summer picnic next year!! Good luck!