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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Go to a Native Plant Society Plant Sale

You will be glad you did.

If you live in a temperate climate, a fall native plant society sales event is an ideal place to shop for native plants and obtain free expert advice. For readers living in other climates, there is sure to be an event for you sometime during the year.

On the California Central Coast, where I reside, a good time to plant native plants is in November before the rainy season begins. This gives the plants a chance to become established in their new homes well ahead of dry summertime conditions.

Why should you plant native plants in your yard or garden? The short answer is because they are beautiful, good for the environment, and connect you to the place where you live.

A few additional reasons for growing native plants are because it is fun, rewarding, and good for your wellbeing.

This post contains three examples that illustrate the wonderfulness of native plants.

A Tale of Three California Native Plants

The first of the three California native plants described below is one that I grew from a seed I obtained at a California Native Plant Society San Luis Obispo (CNPS-SLO) chapter seed exchange. The second I grew from a tiny seedling I bought at last year’s CNPS-SLO native plant sale (this year’s sale is coming up on Saturday, November 2). The third volunteered to grow in our yard, meaning we did not purposefully plant it.

California Buckwheat

Regular readers will recognize Becky the California buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum) in the top photo above as this individual plant has been featured in other stories I have written about native plants. For new readers here is a brief recap.

As an amateur native plant enthusiast wanting to learn about native plants, I joined CNPS-SLO in October 2017. The first meeting I ever attended coincided with the chapter’s annual seed exchange where I selected seeds for five California native plants I wanted to try growing, including California buckwheat.

Of the California buckwheat seeds I planted, only one germinated and grew into a plant. Once it seemed big enough to try to make of go of it in our mostly wild yard, I named the plant Becky and transplanted it into a carefully selected spot where I hoped it would receive enough sun and would have adequate room to grow.

I decided to provide supplemental water during Becky’s first year living in the yard. It was thrilling to watch the plant double in size. I was astonished when Becky had spread out to cover a space with about a five-foot radius. The plant looked happy but I wondered if it would ever bloom and attract bees.

In early July, I spotted the first buds forming and waited in anticipation for flowers to appear. At first, there were just a few flower clusters and then more and then many more.

Recently, when I was taking photos of Becky, I just stood there for a minute admiring this magnificent plant that I had grown from a tiny seed.

California Fuchsia

Before last year’s CNPS-SLO native plant sale in November, I had made a list of plants I wanted to try growing in our yard. California fuchsia (Epilobium canum) was one of the plants on my list that I was able to buy at the event. I bought six of the small seedlings (about 2-3” tall) to try in various places in our yard.

When we got home, I planted the seedlings in 1-gallon pots and placed them on a landing for the stairs that lead up to our front door. Apparently, raccoons (or someone else) discovered the pots and decided to dig for bugs leaving the seedlings overturned.

Fortunately, I noticed the mishap the following morning. After repotting the seedlings, I moved them to a safer area on the deck outside of our dining room.

With regular watering, the seedlings soon grew taller and continued to grow and fill out the pots.

In February of this year, I deemed the plants were ready to try living in the yard so I transplanted one to see if the deer would eat it or not. They did not so in March I planted the remaining five plants. For insurance, I planted one California fuchsia within the small fenced-in area of our yard near Becky.

All the plants seemed like they were doing okay at first, but after a few months, I noticed that there was a large variance in growth. I have been giving them supplemental watering and as far as I can tell the plants are not being eaten by the deer. Perhaps the variation is due to the amount of sun they receive, the soil conditions, or something I have yet to discover.

California Fuchsia Blooming - October 2019
I did not expect the plants to bloom during the first year, but this California fuchsia that lives in the fenced-in area of our yard gave me a lovely surprise – October 2019.
Coast Live Oak

Our home is on a tiny piece of land in the midst of a native stand of Monterey pine (Pinus radiata) forest where Monterey pines and coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia) trees live together. The oaks in our yard volunteered to grow in various locations from acorns dropped by neighborhood oak trees or by the squirrels and birds that collect and store them.

During the first several years that we lived here, I observed the various trees, plants, and wildlife sharing our yard with us. I knew that oaks are generally slow-growing and long-lived trees but our oak trees seemed exceptionally slow growing.

On a spring day in 2013, I found out why. I had gotten up from my desk to stretch and walked over to look out one of our home office windows. You cannot imagine my amazement to see a mule deer buck munching on the leaves of one of the tiny oak trees.

I was used to seeing deer cruise through our yard eating various things but I had never seen a deer eat anything on an oak tree. I had just assumed that they did not like to eat the spiky edged leaves. That day I learned that deer do eat oak leaves and that they had been doing it for years when we were not looking. Who knew deer were so sneaky.

The oak trees living in our yard were not exceedingly slow-growing. They were stunted from years of deer grazing.

Of course, getting rid of the deer was not an option nor would my spouse and I want it to be. Our neighbor’s fenced-in yard has several mature oak trees (which I have now witnessed being pruned by deer) so we deduced that maybe if the oak trees in our yard could be protected until some of the branches grew taller than the deer can reach then maybe they could coexist with the deer.

We decided to try providing a few oak trees with protective fencing and see what happened. After a few years, all the protected trees had at least doubled in height so we surveyed our yard and then enclosed more trees.

We now have seventeen oak trees of various heights living in wire enclosures. The first tree we enclosed in 2013 is about eight feet tall so in a year or so we will remove the fencing and let it spread out however it wishes. As the other trees grow beyond deer height they will have a chance to live un-fenced, too.

Coast live oak trees are an important part of the history, beauty, and biodiversity of this area so it gladdens our hearts that we can help the trees and the deer occupy the land together.

Shopping for Native Plants

Native plants are sometimes available at nurseries and big box store garden centers. However, I prefer buying native plants at a botanical garden or native plant society plant sale because you can find plants suitable for where you live and obtain free expert advice on how to care for them.

The California fuchsia described above is just one of the native plants and trees I have purchased at botanical garden and native plant society plant sales over the past several years.

Hiking around our hilly yard to observe and tend our native plants is good exercise and a continuous learning experience that brings joy into my life.

Add beauty to your own yard or garden and contribute to your wellbeing by planting native plants, grasses, and trees. Search the web for a native plant society plant sale where you live and then go to it.

Next year, you will be admiring the native plants that you bought this year that have now settled into their locations in your yard or garden.

Featured Image at Top: This is Becky the California buckwheat who has been blooming in our yard and attracting bees for that past four months – October 2019.

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