It starts with a seed

It all starts with a seed.

by Georgia Harris

May 2021

“Though I do not believe that a plant will spring up where no seed has been, I have great faith in a seed. Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.”

Henry David Thoreau

Seeds are the start of all plant life. Over the years, I have observed and tried several different methods of seed planting with mixed results. When planting seeds, I expect many failures, so when seeds come sprouting out of the earth, it’s such a delightful surprise.

Self-sowing Plants

I find Joe-Pye weed, butterfly weed, milkweed, columbine, meadow rue, and goldenrod readily self sow all over my property. I do not clean my garden of seed stalks in the fall, giving nature a chance to figure out where to place the plants. This can mean letting go of your design ideas and letting a master designer Mother Nature take the helm. This loss of control can challenge the aesthetics of a formal garden. In the late fall early winter, I followed the Piet Oudolf style of garden. I take old seed stalks from Joe-Pye weed, butterfly weed, or other plants and move around the garden and scatter them into new areas. I do nothing more than just spread the seeds.

Columbine self-sowed into the patio years ago; I never had the heart to rip it out. It blooms every spring.

Joe-Pye Weed and Goldenrod made their home in this outdoor pot a few years ago. Now it's a dependable container planting that needs little maintenance

The milkweed in my garden likes to move around. In 2019, I scattered milkweed seeds from my back garden to my meadow-style front garden. They came up exactly where I planned. This year, the milkweed, which was left standing all winter, is coming up throughout the meadow, which is lovely even though it’s also growing in places that may not be appropriate for milkweed. I am choosing to let it be for this season. It will be interesting to discover if leaving this additional area of milkweed will attract more pollinators and monarchs. Even though it’s very close to an area where we sit, and it’s taller than is optimal for that area, I will let it grow. Milkweed is also sprouting in a new bed I started this season, which I have planted with native plant plugs, native partridge pea seeds, and other annual seeds to fill in the gaps while the perennials use this year to mature.

Milkweed self-sows in unexpected areas of the garden. I'll let it grow this year to see if having more milkweed throughout the garden brings more monarchs.

Milkweed sprouting in the new native perennial bed. I'll leave it in place, even though milkweed was not part of the plant palette for this particular bed

Joe-Pye weed (Eutrochium fistulosum) is another native garden favorite that has moved on its own accord throughout my garden. It started in the back garden quickly and worked its way up to a side bed then to the front meadow garden. I like its tall, striking presence in the mid-summer garden. If I need a shorter version, I cut back the plant by 25-50% in late May or early June. If I cut back only the front half of the plant and leave the back half tall, it makes a lovely longer display. Joe-Pye is a magnet for bees and swallowtail butterflies. Pruned plants produce even more flowers across a more extended season for the pollinators to enjoy.

Planting from Seed Packets

I have had varying degrees of success planting directly from seed packets. I am most successful when planting directly into the earth. This year I tried planting into seed trays, then was unable to water them for weeks at a time, and had a twenty percent success rate. I also experienced a rookie mistake: I labeled the seed types on painter’s tape with a sharpie marker. The marker faded with the weather outside. Now I have one variety that did very well, which has no label. I will have to let it get larger to be able to identify what species of plant. The possible plants are Sundial lupine (Lupinus perennis), Plantain leaved pussytoes(Antennaria plantaginifolia), Coneflowers — Black-eyed coneflower (Rudbeckia hirta v. pulcherrima), or Beardtongues — Foxglove beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis). I am betting on pussytoes.

The mystery native plant!

My experiment with red Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) is still a work in progress. Here are some photos from three different years of planting.

Notice some barely out of the ground seedlings and the distinctive columbine leaves of a plant further along. Seeds sowed one year ago.

One seedling that miraculously flowered the first season after being sowed.

Three year old columbine plants

Bebb's Oval Sedge (Carex bebbii) seeds sowed last fall. These I scattered and let Mother Nature do all the hard work.

Partridge Pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata) from our shared seeds planted directly into compost from Lexington DPW successfully sprouted.

Partridge Pea sprouting under my birdfeeder, where it has been challenging to grow anything.

I hope the turkey doesn't eat all the Partridge Pea seeds!

I hope these stories inspire you to try new ideas for planting and pushing the boundaries of garden design. It’s a more spontaneous style of gardening that takes an ascetic adjustment. Nature sometimes plans the most brilliant plant combinations, and we simply need to nurture them.