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Sunday, March 5, 2017

Sowing diversity

It’s seed-starting season, and I’m about to start my second round of annual and vegetable seeds. 

Time to plant some more seeds

With this in mind, I was eager to hear a talk this week by Randi V.W. Eckel, an entomologist and founder of Toadshade Wildflower Farm in New Jersey. She made the case for starting native perennials from seed and then offered some pointers on how to do it.

    Entomologists advocate growing native plants in our backyards, because native insects are adapted to live off them. 

Native plants feed native insects

Randi also pointed out that seed-grown plants are genetically diverse, whereas perennial plants that are multiplied by division, cuttings, or tissue culture are clones—genetically identical copies of the parent plant. In diversity, there is strength.

    My experience with seeds comes from common vegetables and flowers bought from large mail order seed houses. I was surprised to learn how different it could be to work with seeds of native perennials. Think they’ll all sprout around the same time? Think again—it’s adaptive for them to spread out their germination times so that one disaster won’t wipe them all out. It turns out that predictably timed germination is one of the characteristics our tame seeds have been bred for.

    Randi listed at least nine special requirements that seeds may have for germination, all adaptations that improve their chance of growing into successful populations in the wild. Some require periods of moist cold conditions, some dry cold, some alternating periods of warmth and cold. Some need their seed coat “scarified,” which can be done by scratching the seeds with sand paper (I wholeheartedly agree with Randi’s point that oft-repeated advice to do this with a razor blade is a recipe for losing a finger).

Seeds of blue false indigo (Baptisia australis) need scarification to germinate

     I think I know now why I’ve never been able to grow common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), although I’ve brought home seeds with their silky parachutes several times when the pods opened in fall.  

Seeds of common milkweed are equipped to travel

Although this plant is usually regarded as a weed, I like the idea of its attracting migrating monarch butterflies. Monarchs lay their eggs on milkweed because it’s what their larvae need to eat. I pictured a gleaming orange and black monarch emerging from its chrysalis in my yard. Wouldn’t that be cool!

Monarchs are milkweed specialists

      Right now I’ve got a flat of unfortunate milkweed seeds mostly failing to sprout under lights in my kitchen, this time from a packet I was given by a friendly seed collector last spring. Randi pointed out that milkweed seeds need light to germinate. I shouldn’t have been covering them with soil outdoors or growing medium indoors. 

Luckily these milkweed seeds got enough light to sprout. I planted the rest too deep.

    So when I start this week’s seeds, I’ll try sowing milkweed seeds on top of the growing medium. But Randi’s talk convinced me to keep buying most of my native perennials from nurseries like hers. Let the experts provide the care the seeds and young plants need. If my native perennials succeed in multiplying in the garden, so much the better.

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