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.
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.
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).
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).
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.
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.
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- Weed Whacking – Do It Yourself
- Wood Chip Mulch Mountain
- Audubon Native Plants Database
- California Invasive Plant Council
- California Native Grasslands Association
- California Native Plant Society
- California Native Plant Society San Luis Obispo Chapter
- California Oaks Foundation
- California Society for Ecological Restoration
- Calscape (this website can help you find native plants for your area)
- San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden
- Theodore Payne Foundation
- 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)