Make Your Own Wildflower Nursery

My backyard just turned 6 years of age. For years, I kept buying new crops to fill in the gaps — even after I’d no openings left. It got to the point where if I had been near a nursery when running errands, I would poke my head and nab a few things — especially during late summer and throughout the fall sale season. When I got home, I would slip my purchases into the backyard, nestle them among adult plants and hope that my wife never noticed. In fact, I knew she would not care, but maybe deep down I cared. My addiction was costing me money, but it did not have to.

Benjamin Vogt / Monarch Gardens

Fall is my favourite season — crisp mornings and evenings, hot afternoons, bright blue skies, stunning sunsets and a backyard with a rainbow of fall blooms and foliage colors. When the leaves begin to drop, it is a lot easier to tell where any plant openings are and to plan what could yet proceed in.

Fall is perhaps the best time for gardening — the cooler temps make things easier on you and the plants, and the warm soil enables roots to get established and plan to remove even sooner next spring. But why buy plants when you can easily harvest and cultivate your own?

Benjamin Vogt / Monarch Gardens

Just look at this bounty. Fall not only shows the structural bones of your backyard, but seed heads add another level of attention. These seed heads mean hundreds of free crops for you, aside from the fact that they are feeding birds and other creatures. But when can you gather the seeds?

Benjamin Vogt / Monarch Gardens

Gather Seeds When They Are Ready

My guideline for seed collecting over the course of late summer into fall is rather laissez-faire: When the seeds begin falling off or blowing away, they are prepared. (Then you really have to be on the ball, especially if it gets windy.) Here, old Liatris blooms are all puffed up, prepared for the seeds to be collected.

I walk around the backyard a few times every week using any temporary container that I will find, from glass to plastic to paper bags. The wider the container mouth, the greater for seeds which take easily to the wind — you want to grab as many as you can once you start choosing.

Benjamin Vogt / Monarch Gardens

Sometimes it’s a lot easier to cut off the tops of crops, like this ironweed, and drop the entire mess into a bag. The seed heads are so small, you’d be out there indefinitely otherwise. Why not save picking the seeds out for a chilly winter day in front of a fireplace? You can even turn it into a date with your spouse or some kind of amorous game. Hey, you have to spice up seed pruning.

Benjamin Vogt / Monarch Gardens

Grass seeds are frequently very easy to collect. Just run your hand up the stem, from bottom to top, cupping and collecting seeds as you go.

One major benefit of collecting wildflower seeds grown in your backyard is that you may trust them — if you do not use pesticides or chemicals, you know the seeds are organic.

In addition you know the mother plant — where it grew, what it enjoys, the very fact it thrives in your soil. Using locally sourced seeds is all roughly as ecologically friendly as any act you can perform in the backyard, and you can’t get more locally sourced than outside the back door.

Benjamin Vogt / Monarch Gardens

Coneflower seeds are not these spiky pointy things. Rather, the seed is deep down in there, little rectangular tan bits half the size (or less) of your pinky’s fingernail. To get at them, I have discovered that sacrificing my thumb is greatest — I push it across the flower head, getting poked and jabbed, causing the spikes to pop off and allowing the seeds slip out.

Benjamin Vogt / Monarch Gardens

Mountain mint and monarda seed heads make your hands smell great, but the seeds are very small and loose within the faded tubular blooms. I snip off entire clumps of seed heads and, while holding them within a container, crush them with my fingers or hands. This easily releases the very small seeds.

Benjamin Vogt / Monarch Gardens

Plant Before Winter

OK, so now you’ve got these seeds. Some have fallen onto the backyard bed and will resow, and you’ll be able to move them in spring or let them have free will and choose their own places.

Or you can winter sow. Many seeds need chilly or wet stratification — which can be a period of several weeks or months of freezing, moist conditions. Here from the U.S. Central Plains we call this period winter.

I hope you kept your old nursery pots or got some from a neighbor who had been throwing them away. Fill them around halfway with potting soil or perhaps just your normal garden soil (clay, sand, whatever), and broadcast the seeds evenly across the surface. Let winter snow bury the seeds to you.

Come spring you’ll have dozens of seedlings in each container, ready to pot up or put in the backyard once they have rooted better within a couple weeks. Congratulations! You’ve become your own wildflower nursery.

Benjamin Vogt / Monarch Gardens

Or Shop Seeds for Later

If you don’t use all your seeds, you can certainly save them. Some may not be viable next year, but many will — if you store them properly. Here’s the way:
Strip each seed from the chaff, which is frequently the feathery or crunchy piece connected to the seed. Let the seeds dry out, in the few days to a week. If you select seeds when they’re falling off the plant, then they ought to be pretty dry. But if you pick them following rain or other wet weather, they will need several weeks or days to wash out inside — dispersing them on a table or pan helps accelerate the drying. Shop in a paper bag, which provides good air flow (glass and plastic will encourage mould growth). I have discovered that college lunch totes, folded over two and stapled, function good. I label them with all the plant and year accumulated. Store the bags in a cool, dark, dry place. That may be in a dry garage, an outbuilding, a storage seat out or in a cellar. The benefit of storing them out is that you’ll be cold-stratifying the seeds — some may also require moisture, but people that just need it chilly will be prepared to sow again come spring or summer.

Benjamin Vogt / Monarch Gardens

The first year I winter-sowed seeds in 24 containers. Let me tell you I was as giddy as a kid in a candy store the subsequent spring. I had sufficient plants to strike some problem areas in my beds, with plenty left over to gift or even sell.

Now I have discovered I have a new addiction — amassing plastic pots and cluttering up my backyard every October and November. However, no need to hide this addiction, since the crops are liberated, and that I know for certain they will thrive in my backyard.

More: 3 Ways Native Plants Make Gardening So Much Better

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