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The Maine Wild Seed Project

November 26, 2016

Maine wild seedEarlier in the fall, I had the opportunity to take a class at the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens with Heather McCargo of the Maine Wild Seed Project.

The goal of the Maine Wild Seed Project is to increase the use of Maine native plants in a variety of landscape settings, and to do it in a way that supports the biodiversity of these native plants. Typically, when people plant native plants in landscapes, they buy those plants from nurseries. And the plants available from nurseries are usually one of a few varieties that have been selected by the nursery trade for some characteristic deemed desirable and then cloned over and over again.  As a result, it becomes increasingly difficult to find the straight species and the genetic diversity of the species is reduced. In our class, Heather McCargo contrasted the uniformity of an azalea hedge planted with a single cultivar and the pleasing blend of colors in a similar hedge of native azalea planted from seed.

I have experienced the limited variety available through nurseries when adding native plants to my garden. Last year, when I was planting the first flower beds of my new front garden, I included nursery cultivars of both purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) and New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae). In the case of the purple coneflower, I would have preferred the straight species, but couldn’t find it for sale. In the case of the aster, I planted the cultivar ‘Alma Potschke’ because it is what everyone around here plants when they want a showy tall pink aster. When ‘Alma Potschke’ bloomed this year, however, I discovered that I like its color and form less than I like that of a wild aster growing by the side of the road in my neighborhood.

alma potschke opening new england aster macro

My one-day class with Heather McCargo on propagating Maine native plants from seed was divided into three parts. We began with a classroom presentation on the Maine Wild Seed Project and the arguments for growing native plants from seed. Then, Heather took us out into the botanical gardens to collect seedheads of native plants. We learned to look for species plants rather than hybrids and how to tell when the seedheads were ready to be gathered. There were about a dozen students in the class and each of us had an opportunity to collect some seeds, put them in a paper bag, and label the bag.  After a lunch break, we returned to the classroom for a lab session in planting wild seeds. Each of us was given one bag of seeds collected in the morning and a paper plate for separating out the seeds from the chaff. We were instructed to count out twenty seeds and put them in one part of the plate with a circle drawn around them. The reason for counting out twenty seeds was to see what that number looked like. The model the Wild Seed Project uses for sowing wild-collected seeds is to sow them thickly (20-30 seeds) in a small container (e.g., 4” square nursery pot). Sowing in good potting soil provides a higher germination rate than you get with scattering seeds on the ground. Since most of our native New England plants need a period of cold in order to germinate, the seeds can be sown in the fall and the pots left outdoors through the winter.

wild seed packetIn  the last hour of class, each student chose seeds from among those collected in the morning (and some others that Heather brought with her) and sowed them in 4” pots. I came home with pots of Aralia racemosa (American spikenard), Ceanothus americana (New Jersey Tea), and native bleeding hearts (Dicentra eximia). In addition, I purchased a packet of wild strawberry (Fragaria virginiana) seeds from the Wild Seed Project. In early November, I went out and collected some ripe seedheads from that beautiful New England aster growing at the side of the road.

Yesterday, I finally found time to sow seeds in pots. I tipped the aster seedheads out of their paper bag onto a paper plate and separated the seeds from the chaff. (Tweezers and a hand lens were useful accessories for this process.) I had so many seeds  from my small handful of seedheads that I sowed them in two 4” pots, plus a third pot for my purchased strawberry seeds.  It will be exciting to see what germinates in spring.

aster seed cleaning

I’m still soliciting responses for my survey of garden record-keeping. (At this point, I’m almost halfway to my goal of 100 responses.) If you keep garden records but have not yet completed the survey, I’d appreciate your help. The survey is very short and takes very little time to complete. Please also share this survey link with other gardeners you know: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/5792QH3

Thank you.

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16 Comments leave one →
  1. November 26, 2016 1:29 pm

    The wild asters in Maine are amazing. We had to clear an area to bury a septic tank in spring 2015. In spring 2016, at least 10 aster plants appeared in all different heights and shades of lavender-blue. I took photos with the idea of doing a blog post. In Pennsylvania, the area would have filled with invasive plants.

    • December 7, 2016 9:18 pm

      Carolyn, We are lucky to have such a wealth of beautiful asters. In addition to my several varieties of cultivated asters, I have at least four species of wild asters growing around the edges of my garden. When I took my class on invasive plants this fall with Ted Elliman of the New England Wildflower Society, he noted that when invasive plant specialists come to Maine, they are amazed at how relatively “clean” it is.

  2. November 26, 2016 8:29 pm

    Great post Jean! It’s interesting to learn that the native plants purchased through growers may be less vigorous than those grown from carefully selected seeds. Perhaps that accounts for some of the failures I’ve had with natives. I’ve tended to avoid seed grown plants due to frustrations with indoor germination and outdoor challenges (raccoons!) but, with a few successes under my belt, I’m slowly getting better at growing from seed.

    • December 7, 2016 9:20 pm

      Kris, Heather taught us to put screening over our pots of sown seeds to keep squirrels and related rodents out, but keeping raccoons out of seed pots would be a much greater challenge!

  3. November 27, 2016 5:04 am

    Hello Jean, the fashion seems to be to breed ever more gaudy, brighter, louder, larger flowering plants, stepping further and further away form the species, this sometimes comes at a cost of unstable hybrids, fussier conditions, lost scent or no pollen or nectar in the flowers. It’s not my taste and I prefer the simpler (and more sturdy) forms of perennials rather than their overbred counterparts. It’s like the difference between natural/organic vegetables and food and highly-processed food.

    • December 7, 2016 9:23 pm

      Sunil, I’m with you in preferring the simpler, closer-to-the-species flower forms to the highly bred cultivars. I’m so happy to have learned a relatively simple method for sowing them from seed.

  4. November 27, 2016 4:54 pm

    horticultural horrors
    or the excitement of what will this wild collected seed bring!

    Wiil your local pretty pink aster support some local wildlife in turn?

    I need to sort thru my pots of bulbs which were mostly grown from Kirstenbosch seed distribution.

    • December 7, 2016 9:24 pm

      Diana, It will be interesting to see how my native seed-sowing experiments work out. Once nice thing about growing native plants is that they support our native pollinators. Bees, in particular, love the asters.

  5. November 28, 2016 4:09 pm

    Sounds fascinating. Among the question I’m asked at my box store garden center has to do with native plants. I’ve mentioned this to vendors, but the response is always the same: “Corporate.” I think with a greater appreciation of the environment and the Internet, more and more people are educated gardeners eager for the next level of gardening. I hope retailers hear the requests.

    • December 7, 2016 9:29 pm

      Kevin, I do have access to some small local nurseries that actually grow plants from seeds, but that seems to be the exception in the nursery trade, which seems to depend primarily on tissue-culture cloning and wholesale nursery plugs.

  6. November 29, 2016 1:37 pm

    Jean, Thank you for another informative post. I am a native seed saver but always spread mine directly in the garden. I had no idea that putting seeds so tightly into a 4″ pot would produce a higher germination rate. I’m going to try that. K

    • December 7, 2016 9:31 pm

      Kathy, I think the idea behind sowing the seeds in pots is that you can have more control over soil conditions and over protecting the seeds (e.g., screening against rodents) than you have sowing directly in the garden. I’m eager to see how it works out. If you try it, let me know if you end up with better germination rates than you do in the garden.

  7. debsgarden permalink
    December 4, 2016 3:04 pm

    I always thought one needed a greenhouse for seed propagation, until I met a gardener who propagates many plants from seeds. I asked him about his greenhouse, and he said he only had a back yard. So I was put to shame! He said the wonder of seeds is the variety one gets, just as you also mentioned. Best wishes for your seedlings!

    • December 7, 2016 9:34 pm

      Deb, I have always been intimidated by what I understood to be the light and heat requirements for sowing seeds indoors, so I’m delighted to try this simpler, alternative method. I’m now eyeing some plants in my garden that will come true from seed and are no longer available from nurseries. I think I’ll try collecting and sowing the seeds of a lovely pale pink platycodon next year and see what happens.

  8. December 6, 2016 8:23 am

    I am planting less and less frequently with seeds, but I am fortunate to live near Nasami Farm which is the propagating branch of the New England Wildflower Society and they do sell fully native plants and I bought many this past year as we worked on our new garden.

    • December 7, 2016 9:35 pm

      Pat, It seems to me that, as we get older, the extra lead time of growing plants from seed is a disincentive — especially when you have a resource like Nasami Farm nearby!

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