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The gardening spirit

A trayful of pots filled with seeds and soil mix, ready to go. I dig down into the snowbank and clear a flat space on the frozen ground. I line the pots up, each with its little white label that I’ve cut out of yoghurt containers, the names lettered in thick black marker. Then I shovel the snow back on and the pots disappear. Almost. There’s not as much snow as I would like. I have to go down a small incline to get more and the task is completed.

Under the snow, it will be cold enough for the seeds to get the message – it’s winter. These are the seeds of native perennials, shrubs, or trees. They are complex. They won’t break dormancy unless the conditions are right. And in this northern land, the first condition a seed must go through is winter - the process is known as stratification. Some species have specialized requirements. It appears that germination for Wild Sarsaparilla is significantly higher if the seeds are taken from Black Bear scat - a 62-93 per cent success rate compared to 27-28 per cent for uneaten seeds. I’m grateful that USDA biologists investigated the matter (it’s actually not a crazy idea as, in the wild, bears are an important disseminator of the seed) but, in the absence of a helpful bear, I shall have to settle for the lower germination rate.

The instructions that came with the Hobble Bush seed I purchased from Gardens North were to “wash the seed over a number of days (washing and drying repeatedly). Then sow and place outdoors in a protected spot. It may take 12-18 months for complete germination.” I’m not holding my breath. Here’s another I won’t try. Gardens North offers seed for Round-leaved Wintergreen, a groundcover in well-drained dry woodlands that I thought would be very useful, but warns: “There is no known method for germinating this species in an artificial setting. It is believe that a natural fungus found in its environment in the wild is required.”

Some native perennials are easy. In a while, I’ll be starting Brown-eyed Susan, Virginia Mountain Mint, Wild Lupin and several kinds of grasses that will germinate without cold treatment. These warm germinators are as eager to get going as annuals. Annuals (including many vegetables) germinate readily because they have only one year to complete the cycle of seed to plant-that's-gone-to-seed. They’re in a hurry. But a perennial may be growing in the spot where it germinates for a lifetime, decades perhaps. Many species have a series of triggers coded into their seeds so germination occurs where the plant will have the right amount of light, shade, moisture, nutrients and not too much competition from its siblings (that’s where the bear comes in, transporting the seed far afield).

By the time I’ve finished, I’ll have 40 or 50 pots. I'll bring some in to get off to an early start under lights. Some will germinate, others will take their time and surprise me with a potful of seedlings later in the spring or summer. Some species need two winters to germinate, so I don’t give up in the first year, I keep an empty pot watered over the summer and leave it out a second year. I hedge my bets by sowing some species in the ground in the fall, and others are getting their winter in a moist seeding mix in plastic bags in the fridge.

It takes patience and persistence to make some of these plants. Some will be ready for sale this year, but others take longer to grow to a desirable size. Which is why commercial nurseries prefer to focus on the more profitable species that propagate readily and mature quickly (although demand for natives is having its effect, and they can increasingly be obtained from the large operations). As for me, my success rate from seed is about 50 per cent – half of what I try produces no result. Am I overly ambitious in trying challenging plants, or is it that I’m just not very good at it? I don’t know - as a retiree/hobbyist, I can afford to potter - but towards the end of every season, when I look at the pots where absolutely nothing has happened, I wonder why, why do I do this? But every new year, optimism rebounds as I break open the packets of seed - some collected from my own property, some by friends from their own gardens, some from the North American Native Plant Society and some from commercial sources. I line up the empty pots, start filling them with the seeding mix and thrill to the thought of spring. It’s the gardening spirit.

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