Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Don't Plant Seeds

These are not seeds.  Plant these.
Seeds suck.  More on this in a moment- here is some context...

With a few sunny days in Missoula, it seems that everyone's thoughts have turned from ice fishing to the garden (well maybe that is just me).  Anyway, the point is that people are eager to get out in the garden, and early March warm days often fool us into thinking spring is here.  Indeed signs of spring abound.  The first sagebrush buttercups began flowering in our front yard prairie yesterday.  You know what I say about sagebrush buttercups, "someone's got to be first".

Now is a great time to finalize your plans for the garden (and soon, I'll post my list of garden projects, as I do each year at some point).

So, back to the title, some advice for your native plant gardeners out there-  don’t plant seeds, they suck. This is the second in my “things that suck” series.  I am still getting hate mail from my first article in the things that suck series- "Honeybees suck".  However, it seems like people have now embraced the idea that native pollinators can do things that honeybees can't. But I digress.

And I am clearly exaggerating.  Seeds don't suck.  Obviously, seeds have their place and for most plants that is where it all begins. However, when embarking on a new native plant garden don’t plant seeds, at least not in the ground (read on).

My wife and I are garden coaches- we help people garden and in most cases, people come to us because of what they have tried, and failed, and in many of these instances they are disillusioned by the promise of native plants. Like any sort of landscaping site preparation is critical. Unfortunately this not the fun part that everyone looks forward to, but it is definitely the most important part. More than anything else, site preparation at the beginning of your garden will dictate success or guarantee failure.

We always recommend diligent site prep (that people inevitably want to cut corners on), planting container stock, and mulching heavily to retain moisture and keep weeds at bay. We usually recommend some combination of a ground cover (like newspaper or cardboard, and shredded bark mulch or composted mulch (aka "soil pep"). All these things will eventually break down over time but they allow plants to get established and keep weeds down.

The Lure: Seeds are cheap and seem like and easy way to go.
I've fallen victim to this too. Promise and hope of seeds springs eternal. We have some raised planting beds in our alley that we have periodically used for different things. Overtime, I have let them go (out of site, out of mind. Last year I figured I’d stop ignoring them and replant them with a variety of tough (read: able to withstand the neglect I would inevitably inflict on them) native plants. I dug out all the weeds, turned the soil over, and let whatever was there germinate. Then, I repeated the process, and the bed was ready to plant.

That is when I came across a packet of a “native” wildflower seed mix a local native plant nursery gave me (about 10 species, one of which isn’t even native to Montana- see below). When I got them, I had no intention of planting them, and just filed them away, but here they were again. So now, looking for something to plant, I figured "what the heck" I’ll try these (ignoring everything I tell people). So I sowed the seeds, watered them and a few days later came out to investigate- sure enough, lots of germinants- everywhere. Success?
Who knows?
I had no idea what was coming up. I gave it some more water, and watched some things grow. But what were they? Was I nurturing alley weeds? At that point I figured I’d learned my lesson, and dug it all up and planted some plants I transplanted from other areas of my garden (see photo at the beginning of the post).

They are doing great now by the way.

If I had a nickel for everyone that said that they threw some seeds down (usually lawn or weedy place), and nothing came up- the seeds didn’t work, I’d have more money to buy a lot of seeds that I’d plant. IN POTS.  I would plant those seeds in pots where I could nurture and monitor them.

Here is another warning: never buy "wildflower" mixes, even if they are labeled "native."
  • They probably contain plants that are not native to your area (or country)
  • The seeds have vastly different germination requirements
  • They probably have a lot of filler- that is abundant seeds that have a super low germination rate 
  • They might even contain plants that don’t have the same water requirements.
Identify what species you want, learn their habits (how big they get, if they are palatable to deer, sun, shade and water use, soil preferences, germination success rates, etc…) and buys seeds of species you have selected.

Think about these issues before planting seeds directly into the garden:
  • It is difficult to identify cotyledons (the seed leaves) or the seedlings. Many look identical.
  • Because they are seeds, you can’t mulch them- this would inhibit their growth (which is what mulch is designed to do). As result, a lot of other things will germinate, and unless you live near a beautiful native plant paradise, the source for the seeds will likely be things that you don’t want or may inevitably undermine your garden 
  • Germination rates vary widely among species.
  • Some plants have a 1% germination rate, and some have nearly 100% (but you might not what this ratio of plants- for examples, see my many posts about bluebunch wheatgrass in out front yard!)
  • Methods for germination vary by species and can be very complex. For example some plants require a 3 moth cold period, some require scarification (physically damaging the seed husk), some need to be buried, etc…). Although this might seem overwhelming and confusing, this is really cool and you can begin to learn about all the adaptations plants have to different habitats and co evolution with herbivores, local climates, available precipitation, natural disturbance events etc…

When should you directly seed?
  • When you have the ability to control weed seeds
    • For example, if you are sowing grasses,  you can use a broad leaf herbicide if your likely weeds are going be broad leaf plants. 
    • But if the expected weed is another grass (cheat grass, quackgrass, Kentucky bluegrass), you should rethink!
    • If you are covering a vast area- like acres.
  • If you are surrounded by similar native plants 
    • Like in a restoration project with adjacent intact communities. 
  • If you are planting a specific species that can only be grown in place via seeds
    • That is, a species that doesn’t transplant well (like arrow leaf balsamroot), 
    • or the soil conditions preclude transplanting (like VERY rocky soil- as in bedrock).
So what about seeds?
Buy them, learn how to germinate them, and plant them in pots or flats that are well labeled. Take pictures of the germinants so you can identify them in the future. Take notes on what works and what doesn’t. Invest in a seeding heat mat, and self-watering seedling trays. Learn about rooting medium.

This is a really fun and rewarding part of gardening and you will learn a lot. Consider how when and why plants have adapted to germinating the way they do. Consider how they are dispersed, eaten, etc… and you will learn a lot more about the natural work and the ecosystems they live- and the other animals that depend on them. But whatever you do, don’t throw seeds on the ground and expect anything else but throwing your money away.

The best resource for learning how to grow Montana native plants (many of which are also native across a wide portion of the intermountain west) is by getting a copy off Sheila Morrison’s book "The Magic of Montana Native Plants". And the best place to get native wildflower seeds from knowledgeable people is Native Ideals Seed Company in Arlee.  You can find Bryce and Rebecca at local markets and fairs, or online.

But once you buy those seeds, plant them in pots!