Start two fabulous natives from seed

As the snow swirls outside, I hear you say, it’s way too early to think about seed. But consider this - there are treasures resting under the snow, awaiting the call of spring. To remind you of what lies ahead, this is a video from the Pollinator Garden at the Jonesville Allotments in Toronto, where I have a friend who labours with others in the front lines of nature recovery. Lovely photography matched with beautiful music.

You can get a head start in readying some of those treasures for spring a touch earlier in the season. There’s nothing more joy-inspiring than little green shoots pushing their way upwards while the snow is swirling outside! And it will become a relationship. Once the true leaves appear (not the first two, which look the same for most seeds) and you follow the seedling’s development close up, you remember. It’s a great way to learn plant identification.

The advantage of growing from seed is that you have access to the harder-to-find plants. The advantage of starting sooner is that you have more mature plants that will have a chance of flowering this year. A perennial isn’t in a hurry in the way an annual is. It has years to mature, flower and set seed. An annual has to get all that done in one season. So a perennial is slow to grow, and some are very slow indeed.

If you start now, there just isn’t enough light coming in through the average sized window and the day isn’t long enough to give your plant the energy it needs for proper growth.

That means you need grow lights and they aren’t cheap to buy. I use small ones because I don’t need a setup that will accommodate tall plants, and two will fit on my windowsills, each with space for a tray of 18 3 1/4 inch (8 cm) small square potspots.

I use the Jiffy 140298 Hydro Grow Light, available locally at under $70 although I see Amazon has it for considerably less. It’s two feet long, consisting of a bulb and stand. The price seems high for what it is, but it does last for years, probably because it’s only pressed into service for a few months in late winter and early spring.

To maximize use of the space you can sprinkle several seeds into the same pot and then separate them into their own pots when they are around 3 inches tall - at which time you may be be able to put them outside on good days where the temperatures are up to 10 C. You have to carefully acclimatize them to the outdoors by starting with just 1/2 hour a day and then building up. But bring them in if frost is predicted.

One other essential is a fan. Good air circulation will stop damping off, which is a fungal disease that attacks the seedling at the base of the stem. The seedlings will also be stronger if they are gently buffeted by a light indoor breeze. Be careful when acclimatizing outside, a spring breeze can be as tough as a frost on any plant that has led a sheltered life.

Ok, let’s get started! Here are a couple of fabulous plants:

-Purple-headed Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) is an easy germinator that brings colour and elegance to anywhere in the garden - sun or partial shade. I find Echinacea is as cooperative as a radish - introduce moisture and it will germinate within a few days at which point you move your pots into light, with a fan nearby. I’d advise starting in mid-February, dividing the seedlings into separate pots some time in April and you’ll have little plants ready to go into the ground by mid-May, and possibly flowering this year.

-Rattlesnake Master (Eryngium yuccifolium) is a little trickier. It looks like it belongs in a desert, but it is completely hardy here in southern Ontario. It needs to go through winter to break dormancy. You can offer the real conditions by potting the seed and putting it outside, right now, preferably into a snowbank, and awaiting results in the spring. Or you can simulate winter in your fridge. This is ‘stratification.’ Pop the seed into a baggie containing some kind of moisture-retaining medium - I use vermiculite. But anything will do, from a damp paper towel to sand to some sort of potting mix. You can use a pot instead of a baggie but it will take up more space in the fridge, especially if you are stratifying different species. Peat is often recommended for seed starting but I don’t use it, preferring it to remain in the bog. Check your baggies regularly to refresh moisture if needed. After germination, you may find the seedlings are a little hard to remove from a paper towel - just use water to spray them off. 

How long to stratify for? For the Eryngium, eight weeks will be sufficient and then you bring your baggie out into warmth and light (I just put it on my desk so I can keep an eye on it) and within a week or three you should get germination and in a coupleof weeks you are ready to pot. Which means that around now is a good time to start this plant. Note that for germination to occur, constant moisture is needed. But once the seedling is growing, let it dry out just at the surface every few days.

The first leaves to show are the cotyledons, which look nothing like the leaves that then develop and show the plant’s identity. It is so exciting when the true sword-like spike of the Eryngium makes its appearance. This is a slow grower though, patience is still needed. The seedlings are ready to pot separately in June, and plant out in by fall - but it won’t be until next year and beyond that you will have a plant worth bragging about. The Rattlesnake Master - so named because a concoction of its leaves was considered an antidote against a rattlesnake bite - certainly fits the bill, it has a wonderful architectural structure and the green flower globes are pollinator magnets.

Another special treatment is known as ‘scarification.’ This means a hole or weakness is created in a hard seed coat that might in nature require years to break dormancy. This can be achieved by rubbing the seed with sandpaper or, as I have done for lupins, by nicking it with a pair of nail clippers. I got great lupin germination, only to find later that it wasn’t Lupinus perennis, as stated on the seed packet, and therefore not native, and therefore not a suitable host plant for the butterflies I had hoped to assist.

Many perennials require different treatments - some for instance need a period of warmth before the cold. Others respond to boiling water being poured over the seed which is then left to soak for 24 hours. Fortunately there are helpful guides - the Ontario Rock Garden & Hardy Plant Society, Prairie Moon Nursery or the North American Native Plant Society. Often there are differing recommendations. To find out what works for you and the seed you have, keep records - so you can try another method another year if you didn't get good results.

When it comes to potting up a seedling that's going into its own separate pot before the final planting-out in the soil - what is the best medium to use? I mix up several bags of my own in the fall. My main ingredient is a commercial soil, with no additives, to which I add my own sieved compost and sieved leaf mould (leaves that I have saved in bins to decompose for 18 months or more), with vermiculite (or perlite) to aerate the mix. My proportions are roughly 1/2 soil, 1/4 each of compost and leaf mould, with vermiculite added until it looks right.

Or you can get a potting mix. Be aware that mixes that are heavy in peat are not a good long-term option for plants (other than bog plants). The peat is prone to drying out. Mix garden soil into any further potting up as the plant grows. There is considerable latitude as long as your mix can support the plant and retain moisture. I once had a load of “soil” delivered that turned out to be clay and I had no choice but to use it to pot a lot of tree seedlings I’d also had delivered. The little trees did fine. Nature is very forgiving if given natural options.
Nancy kristufek
- 13 January 2024 at 09:44pm

Happy New Year Kate. I have some woodland phlox seeds in my fridge now (from Prairie Moon). Interested to read about seedling requirements. I hadn't thought about air circulation. The soil with vermiculite and compost mixture for seedlings I took note of also. Thankyou!
Fingers Crossed.
Keep warm.
Bye for now,
Nancy K.
Kay Squires
- 26 January 2024 at 10:52am

Aw this brings back many memories of my Dad (Keith). He just loved putting out all these trays of seeds and excitedly looking to see what came through. We always had seed in our fridge experiencing their fake winter lol. Every winter I sat in the office daily with all sorts of tools, sifters and bowls and processed the hundreds of paper bags of seed we collected from our acres of perennials.
I would open each bag, pour it into the bowl and try to decide if this was the seed or mearly the container holding the seed. I had tools to crush, split open, sift etc. Then place the ready to go seed back in the paper bag and a check mark showing is was done the into the "done" box. We had thousands of varieties of perennials, as you know, in the fields of the Brampton location and collected seed all summer and fall,when they were ripe, to be processed every winter. Of course, that didn't stop him from ordering all those seeds from all his catalogues as well! Thanks for bringing back memories- I can smell the earth in the greenhouse now?
Hanny Panek
- 19 March 2024 at 05:27pm

I have plastic mushroom trays with holes poked for drainage on my window sill , growing strongly are rudbeckias, columbines, and nicotiana , in commercial organic seed mix, I turn regularly and water from underneath , such a great antidote to the blues. Recently returned to my village in Quebec, where I have grown flowers for our village parks for the last 24 years. Your books have been an inspiration! Thanks
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