Seeds — An Investment In The Future

By Cindy Gilberg

Contemplating this year’s landscape projects prompts questions of budget versus the wish list—how to afford all the new plants that you want to add? There are many ways to obtain new plants and the easiest is to buy plants already grown by a local nursery, prime for planting. Many gardeners choose to propagate and grow their own plants to cut costs. This can be a rewarding experience that is easier on the budget. Two easy methods of propagating plants are growing them from seed and dividing existing plants from your garden.

Seeds, those little parcels with so much promise for the future, whether purchased or collected, should be fresh (from the current year) for best results. Plants grown from seed maintain the genetic diversity of that species whereas plants grown from division are genetic clones of the parent (and thus have less genetic diversity).

While it is less expensive to grow plants from seed, patience is a virtue as it may take many plants two to three years to mature to blooming size. At this time of year, your best bet is to purchase seed (see the Resource Guide at www.grownative.org for seed sources). Plan ahead to collect some seed this coming year. Get to know plants’ bloom time to get an indication of when to begin collecting seeds. Seed collecting begins in late spring and continues through late fall, lagging about six weeks or so after the blooms fade. Be patient and allow the seeds time to ripen on the plant—the color of the seed typically becomes brownish in color. Seeds collected too soon do not continue to ripen and therefore will not germinate. Be sure to collect seed when the weather is dry and store the seed in a dry place to avoid spoilage due to mold. Don’t be greedy when collecting seed—take only what you need—local wildlife depends on these seeds for their survival.

Once dry, seed can be separated from chaff (plant parts that are not part of the seed), put in a ziplock, labeled with the date and plant name and kept in a cool, dark, dry place. Large areas of a landscape are less expensive to plant with seed rather than plants, though some people will use some containerized plants and then seed the rest of the area. Seed sown directly outside in late November-December does not need to be stored or given a cold treatment. If you plan to store the seed for spring sowing, mimic winter by adding moist, not wet, media (50% sand/50% potting soil) to the seed in its ziplock bag and refrigerate for a minimum of eight weeks. This required cold treatment (referred to as stratification) enhances germination for most species. These pre-treated seeds may be sown outside in the garden at the end of March, directly into the garden, or into pots. To speed up growth, sow seed inside in February-March using full-spectrum lighting and heating pads (attain a soil temperature of 65-70 degrees F.). Whatever method you use, record in a journal what, where and when seeds are collected as well as labeling and photographing both parent plants and seedlings for future reference.

While buying finished plants is easier, the gratification and joy of growing your own teaches the full circle way of the plant world, from seed production to seed collection to a whole new generation of plants the next year from which to collect a new crop of seeds. Teach your children and grandchildren how to collect seed and grow plants. Using Missouri native plants will acquaint you with the intimate interactions of pollinators (mostly insects) and the plants they visit, providing that valuable service, pollination, so that plants can produce yet another crop of seed for that year.

For more in-depth and hands-on information, attend the Native Plant School (at Shaw Nature Reserve) class, “Greenhouse Propagation” on Thursday, March 13 from 1-4 pm.

Cindy Gilberg is a Missouri native and horticulturist whose work includes design and consulting, teaching and writing. Much of her work focuses on native plants, habitat gardens and rain gardens. Cindy’s projects include work at Shaw Nature Reserve and its Native Plant School, the Shaw Professional Landscape Series and the Deer Creek Watershed Alliance. You can ontact Cindy at 314-630-1004 or cindy.gilberg@gmail.com.