Start the New Year Off with Native Plant Seeds

Joy in a tiny package.

An easy tranquil way to start off the New Year is to sow some native plant seeds in pots on your patio or out in your yard.

Readers who live in places with snow on the ground right now probably scoffed at the title of this post and clicked the back button. I understand. However, I live on the California Central Coast where late fall and early winter are appropriate times for planting native plant seeds.

Giving native plants a place in your yard or garden adds to the beauty and biodiversity of your neighborhood and connects you to where you live. Once you try growing native plants from seed, you will discover that it is a fun and rewarding experience.

I am a native plant enthusiast and novice (amateur). This is my third year growing native plants from seed.

Becky the California Buckwheat in Full Bloom - October 2019
This California buckwheat that I named Becky is the first native plant that I ever grew from seed.

Our home sits on a small mostly wild patch of land in a Monterey pine forest. Each year, as soon as we receive even a minuscule amount of rain, thousands of itty bitty grass and plant seedlings immediately sprout covering our yard in vibrant green fuzz.

Imagine trying to identify native wildflower and plant seedlings in that crowd.

That is why I use pots for germinating seeds and growing plants until they seem ready to graduate to the yard. This method is helping me learn to identify the plants at various stages of their lives from the time they push their tiny heads through the soil to when they are mature and ready to bloom for the first time.

After reading this post about growing native plants from seed, I hope you will want to do it yourself.

Growing Native Plants in Pots

From the beginning, I knew I wanted to encourage other native plant novices to try growing plants from seed so I made a point of keeping things simple.

The stuff you need to begin growing native plants is minimal and you may already have most of it on hand like containers, potting soil, and materials to make plant markers. You will also need seeds, water, and a place for your pots to reside outdoors. Mother Nature will provide sunlight and hopefully rain.

Let’s talk about seeds first.

Seeds

If you read my October post entitled Go to a Native Plant Society Plant Sale and then actually went to one, you may already have the native plant seeds you need to get started. If not, you can buy native plant seeds at some nurseries, during public days at wholesale native plant nurseries, and online.

Native plant societies, botanical gardens, and master gardener programs usually have members who are experts and are happy to provide advice on what to plant where you live. Or just pick seeds that appeal to you and try them.

My native plant journey began three years ago at a seed exchange hosted by the California Native Plant Society chapter in San Luis Obispo (CNPS-SLO). I recounted my experience as a rank amateur at a seed exchange in the post Growing Native Plants from Seeds is Fun.

This year our native plant seed collection consisted of seeds we obtained at the fall CNPS-SLO seed exchange and several packets my spouse bought at the December chapter meeting. We also had an opportunity to collect native plant seeds during a volunteer day at the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve near our home. That day one of the perks for gathering seeds for the Ranch was that we were allowed to collect some for ourselves, too (you always need permission to collect seeds on someone else’s land).

Containers

Look around your home and garage for any kind of containers that will not disintegrate when they are wet and that you can poke holes in the bottom of if they do not already have holes.

3 Arroyo Lupine, 1 Tidy Tips, 1 Purple Needle Grass Plants Grown from Seeds
These are a few of the California native plants that I grew from seed the first year (left to right) arroyo lupine, tidy tips, and purple needlegrass.

The first year I scavenged around our garage and came up with some dusty 1-gallon plastic pots that had previously held plants from the nursery. They already had holes in the bottom.

This year I decided to buy some small reusable galvanized steel pots (top photo) that I hope will make it easier to separate the seedlings once they are ready to move to larger 1-gallon pots to grow and mature. The pots have open bottoms but the trays are sealed so I asked my spouse to drill a hole in each one to allow excess water to drain out.

Soil

Chances are you will have a bag of potting soil tucked into the corner of your garage or sitting on your patio so use it. An advantage of using potting soil is that it will be free of seeds unlike soil you might dig out of your yard.

Not long ago, I read that adding perlite to potting soil can help aerate it which might benefit the seeds so I decided to try it this year. We had some leftover perlite from soaking up water from a leak so we mixed it with potting soil to create a 50/50 mix.

Plant Markers

Any material that you can write on and stick in a pot will probably work for a plant marker. This is so you will know what is planted in which pot.

Another material I found in our garage the first year was corrugated plastic scraps from a previous project of some sort. I trimmed the pieces and wrote the plant names on them with a permanent marker (some of the names faded or washed off after several months).

Each year I wipe the markers off, write new names on them, and stick them in the pots. As insurance, I also make a list (left to right) of what pot holds which seeds.

Location

Select a location on your patio, deck, stair landing, balcony, or some other place outdoors where your pots (and later seedlings) will receive sun and hopefully rain. Picking a place that you see often as you go about your daily life may help you remember to check your pots to see if any seedlings have sprouted, supplemental water is needed, or they are ready to be transplanted.

Pots Planted with Native Plant Seeds on Wood Deck
We have a lot of critters roaming about our yard so we put our pots at the end of the deck outside of our dining room.

For extra protection, my spouse made metal mesh covers to deter raccoons, turkeys, squirrels, birds, and other wild neighbors from digging in the pots looking for seeds to eat. (We did not have covers the first two years so perhaps this extra measure is unnecessary.)

Water

Native plants are considered native to where they live because, over time, they have adapted to the climate, terrain, soil, rainfall, and wildlife of a specific area or region.

Generally, I try to allow rain to water my seed pots and seedlings. However, a pot is not a natural habitat for a plant so in our drought-prone area I keep an eye on soil moisture and add water if needed.

Journal (Optional)

Last year I started a native plant journal. The idea is to keep track of which seeds germinate and grow best so I can repeat what works and change what does not.

The first entry for this year’s batch of seeds is a list of the seeds we planted and a U-shaped diagram of what seed is in which pot.

Planting and Growing Seeds

If this is your first year trying to grow native plants from seed, start small with just a few types (species).

Make sure you have everything you will need before you get started and do your planting on a day when you do not feel rushed.

This year, we planted our pots over the course of several hours on a day near the end of December.

Native Plant Seed Planting Materials on Wood Table
Our seed planting materials included seed packets, containers, potting soil, perlite, plant markers, a permanent marker, buckets, garden trowels, and a watering can.

After my spouse mixed the potting soil and the perlite together in a bucket, I spooned it into the pots, moistened the soil, placed a few seeds on top, covered the seeds with soil (about ¼”), sprinkled the pot with water, and wrote the plant name on a marker that I stuck in the tray.

We planted several pots of each type of seed. Once a tray or larger pot was finished, I placed it in its new home on the deck. Once all of the pots were filled, we spread the remaining seeds in our yard outside of our home office window.

It began to gently rain about ten minutes after we finished our planting. That seemed like an auspicious sign to me.

Arroyo Lupine, Tidy Tips, Elegant Clarkia Sprouts in Ceramic Pot
The arroyo lupine, tidy tips and elegant clarkia wildflower seeds I sprinkled in this ceramic pot are beginning to sprout.

Three years ago, when I saw the first tiny native plant seedling poke its head above the soil, I felt giddy and joyous. There is something magical about growing a plant from a tiny seed with your own two hands. I felt connected to the rest of nature and it reminded me that I am part of nature.

See, it is simple to grow native plants from seed. Now it is your turn to give it a whirl.

Featured Image at Top

These tiny arroyo lupine seedlings sprouted a few days ago in the galvanized steel pots on the deck outside of our dining room.

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Why You Should Volunteer to Collect Native Plant Seeds

Have fun and lend a hand to Mother Nature.

Volunteering to help collect native wildflower and native plant seeds is an easy, enjoyable, and important activity that is good for people and the environment.

One of the things I love about native plants is that they give you a sense of place connecting you to where you live, work, and visit.

Native plants are trees, wildflowers, bushes, grasses, and other plants that are adapted to live in a particular location (small or large) under a certain range of climatic conditions. They live off the land and survive on the rainfall available where they live. Native plants provide habitat, food, and beauty for people and other denizens of nature. Healthy ecosystems with thriving biodiversity need native plants.

Nowadays, there are many threats to native plants everywhere perhaps even in your own community or a place you enjoy visiting like a state or national park. These threats include land encroachment, air and water pollution, erosion, watershed degradation, and the spread of invasive plants (often an unintended consequence).

This is where you and I come in.

We can give Mother Nature a hand by volunteering to collect seeds that will then be used to preserve existing native plant communities, restore damaged native plant ecosystems, and to create new spaces for native plants to grow in public areas and our own yards.

Keep in mind that unless you are collecting seeds in your own yard or garden you need to obtain permission from the landowner which may be an individual, an organization, or a government agency.

My first volunteer seed collecting outing occurred on a recent Saturday morning at the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve in Cambria, CA.

Fiscalini Ranch Preserve

My spouse and I often walk on the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve enjoying the views of the ever-changing Pacific Ocean and trying to name the native plants we see near the trails.

Over the past year or so, we have participated in several volunteer shifts involving the removal of ice plant from the bluffs to make way for native plants to return. Ice plant may be beautiful along its native coast of South Africa, but here it is very invasive.

Buff Trail at Fiscalini Ranch Preserve in Cambria, CA on August 23, 2019
This is the bluff at the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve in Cambria, CA on August 24, 2019. The area on the left has been cleared of ice plant and you can see that some native plants are taking hold in the middle. Photo credit Tori Poppenheimer.

A couple of weeks ago, a volunteer seed collecting activity notice from the Friends of the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve landed in my email inbox. It seemed like an ideal opportunity to collect seeds for the space we had helped clear and to learn about collecting seeds. I immediately recruited my spouse and put the date on my calendar.

Collecting Seeds

Thankfully, the Friends of the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve usually ask us to arrive at 9:00 a.m. for Saturday volunteer activities. This is much appreciated by me as I am not a morning person and unlikely to become one.

It was one of those gray and misty mornings damp but not dripping.

Holly Sletteland Seed Collecting at Fiscalini Ranch Preserve, CA on August 17, 2019

When my spouse and I arrived at the Ranch, our leader for the day, Holly Sletteland and a dozen or so volunteers were already gathered at the entrance so we all headed down the trail to the location where we would begin our seed collecting forays.

Holly is always well prepared with tools, snacks, and information. This day was no different. She showed us photos of the plants we would be collecting seeds from and then had us walk over to some of the plants so we could see what the flowers and seeds looked like dried and brown.

There was a stack of paper lunch bags and a cup filled with black Sharpie markers on a portable table. Holly instructed us to write down the name of the plant, location (meaning the Ranch), and the date on the bags we were going to use for collecting seeds and to only put one type of seed in each bag.

Left to right above: Duffy Burns and his granddaughter and Maria Susperreguy collecting seeds at the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve in Cambria, CA on August 17, 2019 – photo credit Walt Andrus.

To ensure there are enough seeds for the Ranch wildlife to eat and for Mother Nature to replant, Holly asked us to take no more than 10% of the seeds from each plant.

We learned that one of the perks for volunteering that day was that if we wanted to we could collect some seeds for our own yards or gardens. Actually, I had asked Holly about that ahead of time because I am eager to try growing native plants from seeds that come from an area near my home. My spouse had thoughtfully brought along bags for us to collect our seeds in.

As the group dispersed to collect seeds my spouse and I headed back down the trail where we had seen some coast buckwheat bushes growing. This was one of my target species and luckily one of the species Holly had asked the volunteers to collect. We carefully selected some brown flowers and snipped them off the plant. I thanked the plant and we moved on to the next one.

Coast Buckwheat Seeds and Chaff in a Bowl

This photo shows a bowl containing the coast buckwheat seeds we collected for our yard. You can see there is still a lot of chaff mixed in with the seeds even after we carefully cleaned them.

Moving from plant to plant we slowly filled up our five collecting bags with seaside golden yarrow, thrift sea pink, bush lupine, seaside daisy, and coast buckwheat seeds. We even found a few gum plants with seeds that were ready to collect (most of them were still blooming).

We made our way back and added our bags to the table that was now crowded with bulging bags filled with seeds.

Using a wooden box with a fine mesh screen, Holly demonstrated how to separate seeds from the dried flower heads. The seeds fall through the holes and much of the chaff remains on the screen. The stems and the other bits left over are returned to the land.

After thanking Holly for a fun and informative outing, we headed home to clean and store our own seed stash.

Hopefully, there will be a volunteer day in the future when we can go back and sow the seeds we collected.

Cleaning and Storing Seeds
Native Plant Seed Cleaning Equipment
I do not have a seed sorting box at home so I used a mesh colander, a bowl, and a small tray.

The seeds from most of the plants were itty bitty and difficult to completely separate from the chaff. Perhaps we could have done it using a magnifying glass and tweezers but we decided to be satisfied with our seeds having some chaff mixed in. Hopefully, this won’t be detrimental to the seeds germinating when we plant them in November before the rainy season.

When you are collecting and cleaning seeds, you should expect a few bugs. Birds and squirrels are not the only wildlife that eats seeds. I do not like creepy crawly things, which is why I always wear gloves to do gardening. I realize that this is not a useful characteristic for a native plant enthusiast, but I have yet to morph into a bug-loving person.

A few bugs had come home in our seed bags but not many. However, there were a fair number of creatures looking like itsy bitsy spiders living inside some of the lupine seed pods. The hard-shelled seeds seemed undamaged. I picked the seeds out of my sorting tray and periodically dumped the spiders into the yard.

Bush Lupine Seed Pod and Seeds

Compared to most of the seeds the bush lupine seeds were easy to clean. The seeds grow in pods (like peas) and are easily discerned. As the seeds ripen the pods turn brown and then twist open flinging the seeds away from the plant. The trick is to collect the pods before they burst.

We repurposed several paper envelopes from the last two California Native Plant Society San Luis Obispo chapter seed exchanges to store our seeds. I left the tops open so any remaining bugs can leave at their leisure.

Native Plant Seeds in Envelopes and Stored in a Cardboard Box

After placing the seed envelopes in an open cardboard box, I set it on a shelf inside a cupboard in the garage so the seeds will have a safe and cool place to rest until we plant them in November.

This volunteer seed activity made me feel extra happy. We contributed to helping the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve continue to be the awesome and beautiful place that it is. And we are giving native plants a place in our yard with hopes that they will grow and thrive and set a good example for the neighborhood.

Volunteer to Collect Native Plant Seeds Yourself

If you are looking for a way to give back to your community and to help make Earth a better place, volunteering to collect native plant seeds might be just the activity for you. It is easy, fun, and rewarding.

Depending on where you live, there may still be opportunities to volunteer to collect native plant seeds at an open space in your own community. Use your Internet search window to look for events. If it is past collecting time, there are still things you can do.

  • Attend a local seed exchange (you don’t always have to have seeds to share).
  • Join a native plant society, botanical garden association, or seed saving group in your area so you are prepared for next year.
  • Visit your local library. Some library systems like the ones in San Luis Obispo, CA and Rochester, MN offer seeds packets for library cardholders.

“Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.”

Lao Tzu

Featured Image at Top: If you look closely you can see a western fence lizard sitting atop this coast buckwheat plant sunning itself and enjoying the view of the Pacific Ocean from the bluff at the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve in Cambria, CA on August 24, 2019 – photo credit Tori Poppenheimer.

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