Winter-sowing of Native Plants

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By Deb Quantock McCarey

Contributing reporter/Nature blogger

Lately, I have been daydreaming about the arrival of Spring, have you? 

For me, it's too soon, I guess, as I am interested in winter-sowing some native seeds outside, and there is still time to do it.  

That was the take-away from the latest West Cook Wild Ones get-your-hands-dirty workshop where winter-sowing of native seeds was the topic that Linda Walker, an Illinois Certified Perennial Specialist, covered with a room full of native gardeners, some of whom raise butterflies in their backyards, too.

West Cook Wild Ones' Pam Todd told the group of 20 or so that Linda has extensive native gardens and they are often featured in yard tours.  She is also an Illinois Certified Perennial Specialist who now focuses on native plants, running a certified native plant nursery on her property, Linda's Loves, from which proceeds benefit non-profit work for youth social service projects in Myanmar. 

(Photo by Kevin McCarey)

Left to right: West Cook Wild Ones' Pam Todd and Stephanie Walquist update attendees on the status of the upcoming, online Native Plant Sale.  Pick up will be on May 17, 2015 at the group's at Dominican University in River Forest.  Living Landscapes: Native Plant Conference at Dominican University in River Forest.

Lucky for me, this monthly meeting was also a seed swap, fueled by local seed savers who harvested theirs last year, to share now -- all of them Illinois native wildflowers, offered up in glass jars, screw top containers and plastic bags.  And, to attract and feed monarchs, lots of folks took home milkweed seeds. 

(Photo by Kevin McCarey)

I discovered that there are certain native seeds that work better than others in this climate, such as "Linda's Terrific Twenty," some of which I took home in little brown envelopes, some of which I already have growing -- and going to seed -- in my native gardens:  Swamp Milkweed; White Turtlehead; Pale Coneflower; Cardinal Flower; Great Blue Lobelia; Yellow Coneflower; Wild Petunia; Royal Catchfly; Compass Plant; and Ironweed.

Generally speaking, winter-sowing is an easy, outdoor method of seed stratification/germination (invented by Trudi Davidoff)that only requires miniature greenhouses (either recycled/reused clear plastic salad containers, or recycled water and milk jugs).  They should hold at least two inches of well-draining organic potting soil, a few seeds, and with the addition of some H2O, plus the ebb and flow of nature.

To start, Linda advised us to label each container.  To promote drainage and aeration, she directed us to poke, or drill, holes in the top and bottom of each clear plastic produce "pot."  The clam shell kind are among the best to use, she suggested. 

The seeds are sown on top of, or into, a few inches of pre-moistened organic potting soil.  She does not use a seed starting medium, as it is "too light for out-of-doors use," she says.   

Afterwards, she positions her winter-sow containers in an area that is protected from winds, close to the house or garage, but not under an overhang, because "the seeds must be exposed to all weather conditions," the long-time DuPage County Wild Ones member told the group at this monthly meeting, adding that the beauty of this method is that you can "then bid all adieu, until you meet in the spring.  Mother nature takes over from there."

When warm temperatures return, the hope is that these native seeds will have undergone their stratification process, and begin to germinate into seedlings. When they do, open the lids on warm days. When seedling roots reach the bottom of the containers -- a bit beyond the formation of two true leaves -- transplant them, either directly into the ground, or into a larger garden pot, until the plants are hardier, more mature, she said. 

By the way, two of her favorite resources for doing this are the Native Gardener's Companion Catalog, which  is produced  byPrairie Moon Nursery  and a paperback book,  Dick Young's Kane County Wild Plants & Natural Areas.

So, gee, golly and gosh, gardeners, just do it, or wait a week or so for this group's second annual native plant sale forms to go online. 

Either way, in Oak Park and River Forest, and everywhere else, more gardeners filling their backyards, or parkways, with native plants is boffo for biodiversity, and can be pretty darn gorgeous.


(Photo by Kevin McCarey)

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