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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The Landscaping Ideas of Jays – Book Review

Meet Mother Nature’s gardening experts.

If you do not usually seek gardening advice from the native flora and fauna in your community, you will after reading The Landscaping Ideas of Jays.

Yes, you read that correctly. I do mean the plants, insects, trees, birds, bees, animals, and grasses that are native to where you live. “How so?” you ask.  Read the book and you will understand.

There were two reasons that I felt certain I would enjoy reading Judith Larner Lowry’s book The Landscaping Ideas of Jays: a Natural History of the Backyard Restoration Garden.

The first is that I too am a backyard restorationist, although unlike Lowry, I am an amateur.

The second reason is that I had previously read and loved her book Gardening with a Wild Heart. As she waxed poetic about coyote bush (the first native plant I learned to identify) and talked about coveting her neighbor’s wood chip pile, I felt we were kindred spirits.

The copy of The Landscaping Ideas of Jays I just read was loaned to me by a native plant enthusiast named Linda whom I met through the San Luis Obispo chapter of the California Native Plant Society.

I must have mentioned to Linda that Gardening with a Wild Heart is one of my favorite books during a stint working with her behind the book table at a chapter meeting because she told me she owned another book by Judith Larner Lowry and offered to loan it to me.

I accepted and she brought the book to the next meeting.

Book Review

Before you begin reading The Landscaping Ideas of Jays, I suggest that you lather on the sunscreen, fill up your reusable water bottle, and grab some seed collecting envelopes because you will be wandering about with Judith Larner Lowry in her garden and the wild. You might want to bring along some snacks, too, as there will be many side trips and times to dawdle and reflect.

The chapters in the book are loosely grouped into seasons beginning with fall and ending with what Lowry calls the fifth season.

The Landscaping Ideas of Jays Book Cover

The setting for the book is California and the characters are mostly native California plants and animals with cameo appearances by California indigenous people both past and present. However, the book’s ideas and messages are universal.

Fall

Perhaps you are familiar with the term keynote speaker, meaning the speaker who sets the tone or theme for an event. In this part of the book, you will learn about designing a garden around keynote birds and plants and how California quail and coyote bush fill the keynote roles in Lowry’s restoration garden. The following excerpt is about quail.

“In exchange for room in our gardens, they give the graceful gift of thriving among us. As they skim fences, ignoring property rights and heading for what they need regardless of who owns it, they stitch neighborhoods together, providing a local totem and a topic of much conversation.”

Wherever you live, there is sure to be a keynote bird and/or plant that would love to visit or find a home in your yard or garden.

Winter

This segment begins with a chapter intriguingly called “Eating the Rain” and quickly moves to wintertime storytelling as Lowery acquaints you with the histories of three botanical women and their contributions to California native plant knowledge.

“In the winter I read long hours, dipping into the California native plant literary canon. It seems that the three women whose lives and contributions I describe in this part, Lester Rowntree, Edith Van Allen Murphey, and Gerda Isenberg, have been with me for a long time, inspiring and supporting my endeavors, and those of many of my fellow native plant lovers, though of the three I knew only Gerda.”

Reading the winter section you will also receive lessons from the forest and learn how salmon nourish the woods.

Spring

You will be introduced to spring through flowers and the expansive fields of California wildflowers that draw people from all over the world, most holding a camera or smartphone.

“Visitors from other galaxies might understandably conclude that placing small rectangular objects between our eyes and the world is the way we humans worship natural phenomenon.”

Other tales include the “you’ll be sorry” plant, weed-free neighbor zones, and what a rock knows.

Summer and the Fifth Season

The summer and fifth season sections contain advice about designing and caring for restoration gardens. This includes discourse about plants, trees, ponds, pollinators, paths, animals, and praise for bare dirt (in moderation).

The fifth season will remain a mystery until you read the book however; many Californians may be able to guess what it is.

Near the end of the book, Lowry will caution you about embarking on gardening endeavors that exceed your financial, physical, or time-related limitations and suggests taking on significantly less than you think you can handle.

The above advice is followed by Lowry’s First Law of Gardening.

“The law is this: The land requires our attention. Either you pay attention, or you hire somebody to pay attention, but attention, one way or another, must be paid.”

The Bottom Line

Judith Larner Lowry is the longtime owner of Larner Seeds in Bolinas, CA, which carries over 200 species of California native wildflowers, grasses, shrubs, and trees. In addition to caring for her own garden, she designs gardens using California native plants, conducts workshops, gives talks, writes articles, and is the author of several books.

Often when I am reading a book, I think how interesting it would be to meet and talk with its author. Lowry strikes me as not only a person I would enjoy meeting and discussing native plants with but also someone who would be a wonderful neighbor.

Although not a step-by-step guide for designing a restoration garden or growing native plants, The Landscaping Ideas of Jays contains a lot of useful information and practical advice. It is a beautifully written book filled with inspiration, stories, humor, ideas, and Lowry’s musings about how our yards or gardens can connect us to the places where we live.

I recommend The Landscaping Ideas of Jays to anyone who wants to pay attention to their yard or garden and to make it place where native plants, flowers, trees, grasses, bees, birds, and animals can thrive.

Featured Image at Top: This is a California scrub-jay (Aphelocoma californica) grasping an acorn in its beak – photo credit iStock/pchoui.

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