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Growing Native Plants from Seeds is Fun

Wow, I can grow native plants and you can, too.

Growing your own native plants from seeds is rewarding and fun. Try it yourself and you will see what I mean.

My spouse and I have been living on the California Central Coast in the midst of a native Monterey pine forest for just over a decade. When we arrived here during a hot dry summer, the soil was parched and invasive plants were encroaching on all sides.

For years, our focus was mostly on performing remedial tasks like spreading tons of wood chips to rejuvenate the soil and filling up our green waste container umpteen times with invasive plants like Italian thistle, Ice plant, and French broom.

During that time, we bought a few native plants to try in our yard but I did not know much about them. Trying to grow my own plants from seeds did not even occur to me.

About a year ago, I realized that I was at the point where I wanted and needed to learn more about the plants, trees, and grasses that are native to where I live.

3 Arroyo Lupine, 1 Tidy Tips, 1 Purple Needlegrass Plants Grown from Seeds
Arroyo Lupine, Tidy Tips, and Purple Needlegrass that I grew with seeds from the California Native Plant Society San Luis Obispo chapter seed exchange in 2017.

The San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden seemed like a good place to learn about native plants so my spouse and I visited the Garden. At the Chumash Kitchen events that we attended, I was delighted to have an opportunity to learn about native plants from Chumash people whose ancestors have been living here for thousands of years.

For a native plant novice like me, joining the California Native Plant Society seemed like a good idea so I became a member of the San Luis Obispo chapter. My spouse and I attended our first meeting a year ago last October. That is where I met Marti and the real fun began.

Native Plant Seed Exchange

When we arrived at the San Luis Obispo Veterans Hall for the meeting, there were several folding tables set up containing bowls, cups, and bags filled with native plant seeds. I spotted a box with little brown envelopes and another with tiny pencils. Some people were pouring small amounts of seeds into envelopes and writing on them.

We did not have any seeds to share so we were standing there not sure what to do when Marti approached me. Marti, the seed exchange organizer, assured me that it was not necessary to bring seeds to participate and she encouraged us to select some seeds to try growing for our yard.

Approaching one of the tables, I realized that we might have some difficulty identifying the seeds because the containers were labeled with botanical names. Sigh.

Arroyo Lupine (Lupinus succulentus)Scanning the table, my spouse noticed one that said Lupinus succulentus. Aha, surely that must be a lupine. Every year, I admire the small bluish-purple flowered lupines that grow on the surrounding hillsides and I was excited by the prospect of growing some myself.

We asked someone and learned that yes, the seeds were Arroyo lupine. We carefully put some seeds in an envelope and labeled it.

Moving on, I found Marti’s seed stash. I was pleased to see that she had attached pictures to her seed packets and included their common names. I recognized the photo of the tidy tips (Layia platyglossa) a lovely white-rimmed yellow wildflower that grows by the thousands on the Carrizo Plain during the spring. We carefully poured some itty-bitty seeds into another envelope.

With help, we identified three more species of seeds to try including California buckwheat, coffeeberry, and purple needlegrass.

Growing Native Plants from Seeds

You can sow native plants seeds directly in the soil. However, I could not imagine how I would ever identify seedlings from the seeds I got at the seed exchange among the thousands of other seedlings that appear in our yard each spring. I decided to use pots that I had saved from previous native plant purchases. My spouse made plant markers for me using materials left over from another project.

Why I waited until January to sow the seeds remains a mystery. I placed the pots on the deck outside of our dining room so I would remember to water them periodically.

After weeks and weeks of checking the pots every few days and watering them when they seemed dry, nothing was going on (at least that I could see).

2 Arroyo Lupine, 1 California Buckwheat, 0 Coffeeberry Seedlings Grown from Seeds
Arroyo Lupine and California Buckwheat seedlings that I grew with seeds from the California Native Plant Society San Luis Obispo chapter seed exchange in 2017. The Coffeeberry did not germinate.

The day I spotted the first tiny lupine seedling poking its head through the soil, I was almost giddy with excitement. Other seedlings soon joined it. Watching the plants grow, develop buds, and then unfurl their flowers was fascinating.

There is something magical about growing a native plant with your own two hands. Perhaps it is because it connects us to a time when people lived in harmony with the rest of nature.

Collecting the seeds proved to be more challenging than I had anticipated.

Lupine seeds grow in pods that turn from green to brown as they ripen and then the pods burst open flinging their seeds away from the plant. The trick was to harvest the pods before that happened (I was mostly successful). The tiny tidy tips seeds were hard to discern from dead flower bits.

Only one of the California buckwheat seeds germinated. It grew into a small plant that seemed ready to graduate to the yard this fall. I am not sure how deer feel about eating buckwheat so I was nervous about planting it in the yard. In the end, I planted the buckwheat in a small fenced-in section of our yard (a former owner had a dog).

California Buckwheat Plant I Grew from a Seed Planted in the Yard
This small California Buckwheat is the first native plant that I grew from a seed and then planted in my yard.

Expanding My Native Plant Horizons

Last summer, I did some research and made a list of native plants that might like our yard meaning they are drought and deer resistant.

When the California Native Plant Society San Luis Obispo chapter newsletter arrived in my email inbox in September, I was pleased to see that Marti was again orchestrating a seed exchange for the October meeting.

That night when I saw Marti, I thanked her for organizing the seed exchanges and told her how much fun I had growing native plants from seeds. Maybe someday I will have some seeds of my own to share.

This time I knew what to do. I have learned a few botanical names but I am still baffled by most of them. Fortunately, Marti had included photos with her seed packets again and several people were helpful in deciphering labels. I selected seeds for several of the species on my list.

Native Plant Seed Packets, Plant Markers, and Seed Propagation Book
Getting ready to plant my first five pots with native plant seeds from the 2018 California Native Plant Society San Luis Obispo chapter seed exchange.

I am committed to getting my seeds planted before the rainy season (I hope we have one). So far, I have planted the first five pots and labeled them by washing off the markers from last year and writing new names on them. This year I am planting some seeds in my yard and marking their locations. I want to find out if I can recognize the seedlings and to observe how they fare in the wild.

Growing your own native plants from seeds is fun and rewarding but it does take time and attention. If you do not want to wait for seeds to grow, then purchase established plants. You can still have fun watching them grow and enjoy observing the bees, butterflies, birds and other critters they will attract to your yard.

Do not assume that plants on display in the front of your local nursery or home improvement store garden section are native to your area. In my experience, the native plants are usually stuck in the back somewhere so ask for them. Search on the Internet for native plant nurseries that sell to the public or have certain days when they are open to the public. Keep an eye out for notices about native plant society and botanical garden plant sales.

Good luck with your native plants. I can hear Earth smiling.

Reader Note: Most of the resource links and books below relate to California native plants. To find resources for other states type “native plants and your state” in your Internet search window.

Featured Image at Top: 8-Month Old California Buckwheat that I Grew from a Seed.

Related Posts

Resources

Books

  • Chumash Ethnobotany: Plant Knowledge Among the Chumash People of Southern California – by Jan Timbrook, Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, 2007
  • Gardening with a Wild Heart: Restoring California’s Native Landscapes at Home – by Judith Larner Lowry, University of California Press, 1999 (read my Goodreads book review)
  • Growing California Native Plants: Second Edition – by Marjorie G. Schmidt and Katherine L. Greenberg, University of California Press, 2012
  • Native Treasures: Gardening with the Plants of California – by M. Nevin Smith, University of California Press, 2006
  • Reimagining the California Lawn – by Carol Bornstein, David Fross, and Bart O’Brien, Cachuma Press, 2011
  • Seed Propagation of Native California Plants – by Dara E. Emery, Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, 1988
  • Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources – by M. Kat Anderson, University of California Press, 2005 (read my Goodreads book review)

Native Plants are Good for the Environment

Offer native plants a place in your yard.

Native plants give you beauty, a sense of place, and an environmentally friendly yard that does not need fertilizers, pesticides, or intensive watering.

Unfortunately, it took me many years to gain an appreciation for native plants (which includes trees and grasses). Now, it just makes sense to me that native plants should be our go-to plants, not the thirsty turfgrass lawns brought to the United States by wealthy European landowners or the exotic plants that colonists and immigrants brought with them from their far-flung homelands.

Trying to force plants to live in areas that they are unsuited for is not good for the plants or the environment. Why not reimagine your yard and try native plants? If you give them a chance, native plants will find their way into your heart.

Reimagine Your Yard

When I was a kid growing up in Southern California, my family and I lived in a new subdivision of ranch-style homes near the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains. Landscaping varied from house to house but every front yard and most backyards had a swath of lawn, a few trees, and whatever ornamental plants the homeowners fancied (which might have included native plants).

A few streets away, rebels must have been living in the white house with black trim because their yard did not comply with the neighborhood norms. It looked weird, out of place. Small speckled rocks covered the front yard interspersed with groupings of hardy-looking yet attractive plants. Years later, I realized that these rebels had chosen an easy-care drought-resistant yard well suited for the low rainfall and warm climate of Southern California.

Later as an adult still living in Southern California, my spouse and I maintained landscaping that fit in with our neighborhood including two turfgrass lawns, two dozen rosebushes, several hydrangeas, a handful of azaleas, and an array of pots that we rotated with seasonal flowers. Possibly the only native plant on the property was a lovely old oak tree that had taken up residence in a corner of the backyard long before we arrived.

Sprinklers Water Turfgrass Lawn and Sidewalk
Sprinklers Watering a Turfgrass Lawn and the Sidewalk – Photo Credit iStock/marcutti

Moving to the Central California Coast, eleven years ago, during a drought, caused me to reimagine what makes a yard beautiful and stirred my interest in learning about native plants. Instead of green lawns and flowering ornamental shrubs, our yard here is mostly wild and is frequented by mule deer, wild turkeys, and a variety of birds searching for water, food (plants and bugs) and a place to hang out.

I began observing the plants and trees noticing that some seemed to do well even during our dry summers and others died without irrigation. Some plants coexisted with a variety of different plants and some like ice plant and Italian thistle seemed intent on taking over the yard meaning they are invasive. I got an idea into my head that we could restore our land to a happier and more environmentally sound state appropriate for our location.

Mule Deer Bucks Napping in Our Yard
Three Mule Deer Bucks Napping in Our Yard among Native Monterey Pine Trees in June 2013 (see the patch of invasive ice plant in the background).

Armed with a pair of clippers and a shovel, beginning with ice plant and thistle removal, I embarked on an amateur yard restoration project that is still in progress. I knew that to be a good steward of our yard I would need to learn about both native and invasive plants. If you want to, you can read about some of my experiences as a native plant novice in various posts including Wood Chip Mulch Mountain, Weed Whacking – Do it Yourself, Adopt a Native Plant, Arbor Day 2018 – Join Millions of Tree Enthusiasts, and Making Water Conservation a Way of Life – Outdoors.

Pause and take a moment to reimagine your own yard as a place where native plants, bees, butterflies, birds, and other wildlife can thrive and so can you.  If your yard is already full of flourishing native plants, please share your story.

What is a Native Plant?

While I was working on this post, I found myself returning to a question I have often pondered, “What constitutes a native plant?” I wanted to find out and I thought you might want to know, too.

The answers I found on the Internet varied quite a bit and left me wondering, “How am I supposed to plant native plants if no one seems to know what defines a native plant?” I discussed it with my family over dinner. They did not seem to understand why I was having a dilemma or why I felt the need to ask the question. Undaunted, I plucked up my courage and posted my question on the Facebook group page for the California Native Plant Society.

California Native Plant Garden with Bench
California Native Plant Garden with a Bench – Photo Credit Jeff Silva (click the photo to open it on Flickr).

Apparently, I was not the first person to have asked for a native plant definition and it created a small flurry of responses including “Not this again!” and “We are sworn to not be crabby towards newbies, remember?”

I did receive some useful responses but not a definitive answer. Some people suggested that a native plant (at least in the U.S.) is one that was growing here before European colonists brought plants from home and other distant lands. Others said that a native plant is a plant that evolved in a particular area or region over thousands of years. Several people said that a native plant is able to survive on its own without human intervention.

Okay, I accept that science is not black and white. I came away with the general understanding that a native plant is one that has evolved over a long, but indeterminate amount of time, adapting to the climate, terrain, soil, wildlife, and other plants in a particular place and requires little or no care from humans.

Botanists and other plant scientists use historical records, field observations, and scientific testing to determine whether a plant is native to a certain location.

The next section will cover why native plants are good for the environment.

Native Plants and the Environment

Native plants are good at their jobs. With no need for micro-managing bosses, native plants routinely perform their job responsibilities including using water wisely, running on renewable energy, recycling materials, storing carbon, providing food and habitat for others, keeping toxins and diseases out of their workplaces, and reproducing new generations. Each year, they take a vacation, well, actually a staycation going dormant in preparation for the next growing season.

California Yard with Native Plants and Palo Verde Tree
California Yard with Native Plants and Palo Verde Trees – Photo Credit Steve Hartman (click the photo to read the California Native Plant Society blog post).

Moving away during environmental downturns is not an option for native plants. It is in their best interest to adapt to the conditions where they find themselves not relying on humans to apply fertilizers, pesticides, or extra water. This also makes native plants good for the environment.

Synthetic fertilizers are made from fossil fuels that are dangerous to extract, disastrous when spilled or leaked, and emit greenhouse gases when burned. Fertilizers running off from yards and agricultural fields cause dead zones in water bodies where nothing can live so not using them in your own yard reduces this problem.

Pesticides are poisons created from fossil fuels to kill specific living things that humans consider pests, but their use results in collateral damage to humans and nonhumans. By not using pesticides in your yard, you are eliminating a hazard to bees, butterflies, birds, pets, and you and your family.

Using water sparingly protects groundwater basins that provide drinking water for tens of millions of people and irrigation water for hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland. Overdrawing your account at the bank is not a good idea and neither is overdrawing a groundwater basin. A groundwater basin is overdrawn when it cannot be refilled on an annual basis by rainfall, snowmelt, or a combination of both.

California Yard with Native Plant Landscaping
California Yard with Native Plant Landscaping in Bloom – Photo Credit Pete Veilleux (click the photo to read the California Native Plant Society blog post).

Maintaining biodiversity is another beneficial trait of native plants. In the wild, nature encourages a wide variety of plants and animals to live together keeping the overall ecosystem in balance. Of course, sometimes things get out of balance but native plants are better equipped to handle it than non-native plants. Evolving over a long time, native plants have experienced adversity many times and adapted to it so they have a long history of making comebacks, sort of a plant version of “Been there, done that.”

The environmental benefits of native plants motivate me to grow them in my yard. Having fun is why I grow some of my native plants from seeds. We will continue this conversation in the next post.

Featured Image at Top: California State Flower California Poppy– Citation Smith, C. 2010. Plant guide for California poppy (Eschscholzia californica). USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service, Plant Materials Center. Lockeford, CA 95237. I found this photo on the California Native Grasslands Association website.

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