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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
- Go to a Native Plant Society Plant Sale
- Growing Native Plants from Seeds is Fun (resources and book list)
- Imagine if Everyone Planted One Tree
- Life after Cancer – Gardening
- Mother Nature Needs Our Help – Let’s Plant Trees
- Native Plants Add Beauty and Habitat to Your Yard
- Native Plants are Good for the Environment
- The American Lawn – Our Obsession with Turf Grass
- The Landscaping Ideas of Jays – Book Review
- Why You Should Volunteer to Collect Native Plant Seeds