Growing Wildflowers isn’t Difficult. And its Urgent!

In a shifting climate, with environmental diversity at risk, it’s never been more important to propagate native plants. Here’s how.

~ From the New York Times, Margaret Roach, September 8, 2021

The nonprofit Wild Seed Project wants to encourage people to learn the simple skills required to propagate native plants, and to use those skills to repopulate the landscape with homegrown natives like butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) and its cousin swamp milkweed (A. incarnata).Credit…Heather McCargo

The native perennial species of our meadows — milkweeds, asters, Joe Pye weed and others — will make one more offering in fall, as if they haven’t given enough already. They will offer up their seed.

Gardeners can nurture the next generation by collecting some of it, and propagating more of their favorite wildflowers. But there’s a little wrinkle.

“Everything about sowing native seeds is counterintuitive to what people have been taught in horticulture,” said Heather McCargo, who founded the nonprofit Wild Seed Project in Maine in 2014.

Sowing wildflower seeds requires a shift in the how-to mind-set centered around the late-winter-into-spring ritual of sowing vegetables and annual flowers, she said.

That’s because wildflowers are sown at a different time: from late November to early January. They’re sown outdoors, not inside under lights. And they’re not sown one lonely seed or two per cell in six-packs, like lettuce or kale. Instead, they are sown thickly, into pots or open flats.

As Ms. McCargo put it: “Native seeds are like teenagers. They love to be together.”

She would like to see more of us learn the simple skills required to propagate native plants — and use them to repopulate the landscape with homegrown natives. That is the mission of Wild Seed Project, one that the organization sees as increasingly urgent in the face of a fast-shifting climate, with so much diversity at risk.

Native Penstemon plants have small, pod-like seed capsules that get brown and woody as the seed matures. To gauge ripeness, look to see if a little hole on top of each one has opened a bit, revealing tiny seeds inside. Credit…Lisa Looke

“Sowing seeds is like becoming a plant midwife,” said Ms. McCargo, who has been at it for more than 35 years, as native plant populations have shrunk alarmingly. Her hands-on experience includes five years as the head propagator at Garden in the Woods, in Massachusetts, the headquarters of Native Plant Trust.

“Everybody wants to just toss seeds into the landscape, but the life of a wild seed is fraught with risk,” she said. “Most land where it’s too wet or dry, or where a bird or mouse eats it.” The majority of seeds dispersed that way never become full-grown plants.

But if you collect seeds in a timely manner and sow them in a protected way — using basic tactics like rodent-proofing the nursery bed with mesh sheeting — “you can have a plant from each seed,” she said. A small pinch of seed can yield 50 or more plants for your garden, or for a community planting at a school or park.

The remainder of the article and how to make a wildflower nursery can be found at this link. Take a few minutes and review the OSU catalog library on growing wildflowers here.

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