A Milder March?

I'm hoping that March will be milder than the past month. The snow is still piled higher than I've ever seen here. The cold temps are not allowing for much melting of snow. Pruning the fruit trees will be a challenge - I'll definitely need to do it on snowshoes, but the bonus is I may not even need a ladder. My small plum tree has snow up to its lower branches - that's about 4+ feet. No melting is probably a good thing - otherwise we could be flooded!

I've been working steadily in the greenhouses - starting seeds, potting up seedlings, and looking forward to when I can see green earth again. It's relatively warm inside, at least when the sun is out. Plants that need stratification were started very early, as we need to mimic the conditions that they would need for germination. Many native perennials need this sort of treatment, a period of cool or cold, moist temps, and then a warm period. Just as plants in their natural state would get - dropping their seeds in the fall, being buried by snow, then emerging as the days and earth warm up. It's truly amazing what some seeds need to break their hard coating. Some need to be nicked, to remove a portion of the outer hull; some need to be soaked overnight; others even need a fire treatment to activate the germination process. Mother Nature does a much better job than I do, but I keep trying!

Starting natives can be a little daunting, but if you start at the right time, you can achieve a measure of success. A packet of seeds, even at the highest prices, is still much less expensive than buying a plant. Last year, for example, I wanted to have an osage orange - a plant that is commonly found in the midwest but generally not around here. So I started them from seed, and I ended up with six decent plants. They are still in pots, in the unheated greenhouse, as I wanted them to have a year or two to grow before setting them out in the garden. If I could even find this tree at a nursery, I would expect to pay $15. or more for one. For about $3.50 for seeds, I got a bargain.

It's simple to start seeds - just make sure you have a few necessary components. You will need a plastic flat (no holes in the bottom), a humidity cover, some type of pots, seed starting mix, and the seeds. Additionally, many seeds need bottom heat to germinate. Those seeds requiring stratification need that period of cold, but then they will respond to warmer temps. So a heating mat is ideal, but you can get away with another source of heat (heating pad, top of a radiator, etc).

Take a tub or bucket and place into it a few scoops of seed starting mix. This needs to be a sterile mix, so don't use garden soil or old soil you have laying around. Though seeds start well enough in their own environment (which is anything but sterile), you need to have clean soil and pots to ensure success. Then take tepid water and add enough to make the mixture damp. You don't want it to be really wet, but it should form a firm clump if you squeeze a handful.

Place enough soil into your pot (I use 4 x 6 inserts - finding they work best for my needs) to within 1/2" of the top. press it down but don't pack it hard. Make an indentation in the soil - I often make two or three lines in each pot. Scatter your seed along the indentation. Follow the directions on the seed packet - some seeds need to be laid on top of the soil, others require being covered to a specific depth. Remember to mark your rows - otherwise you will be trying to figure out what plant is where.  Cover your filled flat with the humidity dome, and set in a warm place. Good light is essential - shop lights with one warm and one cool bulb set just above the flats work well and are the least expensive option.

The flats need to be checked daily - more often if the place you keep them is very warm. It's extremely important to keep the pots moist.etting the flat dry out is the surest way to kill the seeds. But too wet is just as bad - if you see mold forming, take that lid off right away and pray for the best! After the seedlings emerge, you should give them a light application of fertilizer. I use fish fertilizer, since it can be easily diluted.

If the seeds need a period of cool or cold temps, you can put them outside, in an unheated garage or outbuilding, or anywhere they can get temps of 30 or below. Many growers start the seeds in the fall, and let the snow fall on the flats (no cover required). Snow will insulate the seeds, and they will respond to the increasing warmth as the daylight and temperatures increase. Keep the seeds cold for the period of time specified, and then bring them into warmth to show them it must be spring and time for them to grow.

It is definitely a challenge, but it doesn't cost that much and you will have varieties and plants that no one else has. Growing natives, especially, is rewarding, and you are increasing diversity in your yard and providing food and shelter for many pollinators. Get out there and get growing!

Karen