Got Seeds? Get Native Plants by Winter Sowing
Volume 27 Issue 1, Winter 2022
by BJ Lecrone, Office Management/Online Outreach
As a Virginia Master Naturalist and Audubon at Home Ambassador, my volunteering activities are centered around native plants since they are a crucial component to thriving ecosystems supporting wildlife and human well-being. I plant natives that I buy from my favorite local native plant nursery and from the spring native plant sale. But I am excited to winter-sow native plant seeds in recycled containers. It’s fun to create my own science experiment each year and then patiently wait through the winter and watch them magically pop out each spring. Not only am I helping the pollinators, but I like to share the joy of growing free native plants!
Fifty guests joined our first winter sowing events at the Morven Park Gate House Office in late 2019 and January 2020. We had a fabulous time sharing lessons learned, tools of the trade, and over 45 types of native seeds. In 2021, COVID changed our ability to directly interact, but we shared our knowledge and excitement via YouTube video and distributed seed packets to interested participants.
Those with experience in the winter sowing community happily give advice to encourage each other. The most basic fact is that when we mimic nature, we need to understand that each seed type has specific requirements to grow. Patience is another key factor. Not only do you have to wait for the freezing and thawing that seeds experience before germination, but some plants may not bloom the first year as they establish their root systems. Some of the first-year bloomers are Purple Coneflower (not specifically native here but a pollinator magnet that is easy to grow), Butterfly Weed, Hoary Skullcap, and Anise Hyssop.
I’d like to share some encouraging stories from first-time sowers. “I first learned of winter sowing through Loudoun Wildlife, when I went to a seed exchange they hosted in the fall of 2019,” Sally Sumser said. “My first attempt was in the winter of 2020. I did have success with things growing. However, the biggest lesson I learned had to do with my ‘labeling technique.’ I just used a regular Sharpie, and the writing faded so badly that I couldn’t identify any of the emerging seedlings. I tried again in the winter of 2021. This time I bought a Paint Pen to do the labeling of the containers. As a backup, I took a picture of my containers, then pulled it into Photoshop and labeled the containers in the picture. I’m happy to say the Paint Pen worked, but it was nice to have the backup.”
Amy Ulland first tried winter sowing in 2021. Amy felt the most intimidating part was just getting started and gathering up the containers. Videos on the Loudoun Wildlife YouTube channel were very easy to follow and made the process of preparing the containers easy. Having locally harvested and contributed seeds meant that even if it was a failure, she wouldn’t be investing much money in the endeavor. “Honestly, I didn’t really believe that it was going to work,” Amy said, “but decided to have faith, got the seeds all tucked in, closed up the containers, and set them all outside. It snowed and rained on them, and for a long time nothing happened.” Then one day, Amy peeped down inside the milk bottle opening and saw a few seedlings, like magic, and was so excited. It was such a gift! She got hooked just like me.
Nicola Jones said she didn’t plant her seeds until the end of January and just left them alone. She started watering them in March. One thing that was really noticeable to her as a first time native plant winter seed sower was how late some of them came up. She had almost given up hope of their germinating. Amy had success with nine containers and only one failure. I had the largest successes this year with Purple Coneflower, Elephant Foot, Liatris, and Green-headed Coneflower. Nicola had success with Liatris, Golden Alexander, Shrubby St. John’s Wort, False Sunflower, and Columbine. Sally was thrilled with Butterfly Weed that bloomed the first year.
As new plant parents, we are concerned about getting them out of the containers and acclimated at just the right time and location. After all that waiting and wondering, we don’t want to kill our new baby plants. Transplanting them is quite easy, but you do need to wait until after their second set of leaves are set and then water them just enough in their new conditions, as with any new plant. Some plants you should even sprinkle with deer and rabbit repellant pellets to give them a chance to establish without being eaten right away.
We will continue to winter sow this year and share seeds, but the bonus is that these perennial native plants should all re-emerge next year. That means a lot less work for us and a lot more food for our native pollinators!