Sowing Native Plant Seeds

A photo of milkweed seeds

For many of us, there’s nothing like the joy of holding a packet of seeds in the winter. Seeds are little morsels of hope that have such potential, especially on cold, wintery days.

By Jennifer Schamber

[This article was first published in The Gateway Gardener Winter 2019 issue.]

For many of us, there’s nothing like the joy of holding a packet of seeds in the winter. Seeds are little morsels of hope that have such potential, especially on cold, wintery days. Think back to the first time you planted a seed in school, for many of us, it was a lima bean wrapped in a moist towel or in a clear bag with some water. In less than a week or so, the seed magically began to swell and then sprout, and at that point, in your mind you were a master at growing things. After another week or so, you planted it in a little paper cup, and confidently took it home without spilling it on the bus and placed it in the window. That little sprout seemed to grow an inch a day, until that one day when it started to look droopy. So, of course, the solution was to water it a little more, and then a little more, and we all know what happened after that.

a photo of Rudbeckia seed heads

Rudbeckia (black-eyed Susan) seed heads, photo courtesy Missouri Native Plant Society

Even though it may have died, somehow it still sparked a sense of desire to try again. Some say that you don’t truly know a plant until you’ve killed it twice. Maybe you don’t really know some plants until you’ve grown them from seed, and then those plants bear seed. It can be a very humbling experience to grow some seeds, especially when there’s the notion that “wildflowers are so easy”. This doesn’t always seem to be the case. But once we learn the different variables required for what we are trying to grow, our success rate increases tremendously.

What to Know about Native Plant Seeds Before Starting

Some important considerations when growing natives from seed include:

-Do we have a good understanding of the natural lifecycle of the plant and can it be mimicked?

-When is the best time of year to sow the species you want to grow? Many natives start out best by sowing in Fall.

-Does it require stratification (cold storage) or scarification (scarring)?

-Will the seeds require protection from seed-eating critters?

Patience May be Required

Some natives may need two years or more for seeds to germinate, while others may be considered easy since they tend to germinate without special treatment, like Rudbeckia, Agastache, Aster, Lobelia, Helianthus and Heliopsis. This is the main reason why cannisters of “wildflowers” frequently found at box stores, can lead to disappointing results sometimes. Not only are the seeds often not truly native, they may have different cycles so they don’t germinate with consistency. Oftentimes, annual flowers are mixed in to give a hint at success, only to follow with bare areas the following year.

Resources for Learning More about Native Seed Starting

a picture of thimbleweed seed head

Thimbleweed seed head. Photo courtesy Missouri Native Plant Society.

Failure teaches us to appreciate the dedicated process that professional growers undertake to provide us with such a wide array of native plant selections here in Missouri and our surrounding states. Grow Native! professionals such as Missouri Wildflowers Nursery, Pure Air Natives, Hamilton Native Outpost and Grace Native Seed, as well as Shaw Nature Reserve, have all developed strategies to be able to guide and provide for a range of native plant projects, from large-scale restoration plantings, to a home gardener just starting to convert a section of lawn into a naturalized space. Some of these professionals provide mixes designed to be successful based on an area’s conditions and the desired end result.

When it comes to sowing native seeds, sometimes we can chalk up success to pure luck, but a little bit of research can go a long way in increasing our odds.

Jennifer Schamber is the General Manager of Greenscape Gardens in St. Louis, Missouri, and plays leadership roles in the Western Nursery & Landscape Association, GrowNative!, and the Landscape & Nursery Association of Greater St. Louis. She has earned Green Profit Magazine’s Young Retailer Award, and Greenscape Gardens was named the National Winner of the 2015 “Revolutionary 100” Garden Centers by Today’s Garden Center Magazine.