Growing Your Own Prairie Wildflowers
By Johnny Caryopsis
(Click links to see images.)
In recent years there has been a growing interest in the use of native prairie plants in landscaping, both at the commercial and home levels. People interested in alternatives to traditional horticulture, those interested in providing better wildlife habitat and those who seek a closer connection with the land the way it once was, are turning to native prairie grasses and wildflowers. Gardening with our own Manitoba prairie plants is a practical option because there are now several commercial sources of plants and seeds, and a growing body of information on how to "do-it-yourself" with native plants.
use of wildflowers
(At the Forks in Winnipeg)
One of the best sources of information on growing native prairie plants is a "home grown" publication: Restoring Canada's Native Prairies: A Practical Manual by John P. Morgan (Prairie Habitats), Douglas R. Collicutt (NatureNorth.com) and Jaqueline D. Thompson. Published by Prairie Habitats Inc. in 1995, after an extensive (4 year) prairie restoration project, this book represents a bench mark in getting information on growing prairie plants into the hands of people who can use it. The authors agreed to let NatureNorth publish this excerpt from the manual.
To me, there is no greater thrill and pleasure than growing my own plants from seed. To nurture a new, unique life into the world provides me with a real sense of connection with the planet. And to know that the plants I grow are descended from endless generations that have prospered right here on the prairies of Manitoba, always provides me with a feeling of great respect for the natural heritage we all share.
So, appropriately, I chose the chapter on native plant propagation to republish here. At the end of this article is a list of where you can get seeds and plants to grow for yourself. Do try it. Growing prairie plants from seed is a little more difficult than buying flats of petunias and sticking them in the ground, but if you're reading this article, then I suspect you may be interested in a challenge. So, I dare you! Try growing our provincial emblem, the prairie crocus, or a bright prairie lily, or a dazzling meadow blazingstar.
can grow prairie lilies from seed!
(It just takes a while.)
And, remember, there is no greater gift that we can give to the future than to ensure our links with the past. Our natural prairies, that have survived for thousands of years, are threatened and continue to shrink. By growing our native plants you can help to keep the chain of life unbroken.
An excerpt from: Restoring Canada's Native Prairies: A Practical Manual
Growing perennial native plants from seed can be challenging. Most species exhibit some degree of seed dormancy, an innate mechanism that prevent seeds germinating too quickly, or all at once. Seed dormancy has evolved to promote germination at the optimum time, usually in spring when soil moisture levels are high. A few simple techniques can be applied to overcome seed dormancy and ensure reasonable levels of germination. Knowing which technique to apply to each species requires some research or experience.
Stratification involves exposing seeds to a cold and damp period prior to planting. Most native plants do this naturally by seeding out in late summer or fall. Their seeds lie cold and damp on the soil surface for at least one winter before germinating. Stratification mimics this process. Natural inhibitors are leached out of the seeds or broken down during stratification. Place seeds in a clean bag or container with a little moisture, enough to make them damp, but not soggy. Place them in the fridge for one to three weeks, then plant immediately. Stratification dramatically improves germination in most native grasses and wildflowers. Many native shrubs and some trees need longer periods of stratification, up to two years.
Scarification is the intentional damaging or removal of the seed coat. Seeds of legumes and some other plants have tough, impervious (to water) seed coats that keep the seed dormant until at least a part of the coat has been removed. In nature this often was accomplished by the seeds passing through the digestive system of an animal. Seeds can be scarified by rubbing them between two layers of sandpaper. Or they can be immersed in sulphuric acid for a few minutes. Large seeds such as Indian breadroot can be nicked with a file. Legumes respond extremely well to scarification, and will germinate readily when planted immediately afterwards. Scarification should not be applied until the seeds are about to be sown.
Nursery propagation of native plants in field plots allows more careful control of their early growth stages, facilitates learning about each species' form, shape and colour, and provides a proven way of increasing seed production for a prairie restoration. An ideal nursery should be in sandy, perennial-weed-free soil, be slightly elevated to prevent flooding in wet spells, sheltered from the prevailing winds and have ready access to abundant water supplies. Keep plots no more than 1.2 m (4 ft) wide. This allows a person to reach easily into the centre of the plot for weeding or transplanting without trampling plants. Ensure enough space is left around each species' plot to rototill for weed control.
Even small nursery plots can produce significant quantities of native seed. Well tended, hand weeded nursery plots usually produce larger plants with more seed than the same species in the wild. For example, at Prairie Habitats nurseries a 1.2 by 12 m (4 by 40 ft) nursery plot produces about 1.8 kg (4 Ib) of clean black-eyed susan seed per year. A similar sized plot of Canada wild rye produces about 3 kg (7 Ib) annually. Nursery seed production depends upon soil type, climate, moisture and weed control. As in wild seed harvesting, it can vary considerably from year to year.
Larger scale seed production plots covering several hectares can produce large volumes of seed. They require highly skilled personnel, specialized equipment and intensive management. They are outside the capability of most restorationists and are best left to professional seed growers.
Growing native plants in a greenhouse or under lights is another way to get more seedlings for a restoration or nursery. Many plants can be grown in a small area for later transplanting out.
For your valuable native seed, do not use garden or potting soil. Use a sterile seed-starter mix of peat moss, perlite, and vermiculite, available from garden centres. They are weed and disease free, and do not become hard packed after several waterings as many garden soils do. Choose a container at least 10 cm (4 in) deep, and fill with starter mix. Tamp lightly to remove air pockets. Water thoroughly before you seed. Heavy watering afterwards may wash smaller seed too deep for germination or proper growth. Press the seeds firmly into the surface of the mix. Do not cover with more mix as most prairie species germinate better in the light. Instead, cover with plastic to retain moisture. Place the containers somewhere warm and bright. If the surface begins to dry, mist with an atomizer or sprayer, but do not water heavily. Keep covered until the seeds germinate and form their first set of leaves. Uncover and water normally until ready to transplant.
If fungi appear on the surface of the mix, treat with a horticultural fungicide such as benylate. If the seedlings start to wither and die, they are damping off, the result of infection by an airborne fungus. Treat with No-Damp fungicide.
(At Prairie Habitats Inc.)
Growth under natural sunlight is best for prairie seedlings. They can
be started as early as late February for June transplant. Starting plants
under lights is possible, but they must be very bright, full spectrum
grow or halide lights or growth will be spindly. Move the plants into
sunlight as soon as possible, but remember to "harden them off" gradually,
putting them into the sun for increasingly long periods over the course
of a week.
Thanks for learning about growing prairie plants! Bye for now!
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