On a long winter’s night, the vivid scents, sounds, and colors of a native plant garden in bloom can feel like a half-remembered dream. But if you think you have to wait for the ground to thaw before you can grow beautiful and beneficial species, think again—winter is the perfect time to get started.
For many gardeners, raising native plants means swinging by a local nursery come spring. Planting these species is one of the best ways to help birds around your home or community. They provide a buffet of seeds, fruit, and nectar while also supporting insects that birds need. The cherry on top: Plants adapted to your local environment also tend to require less upkeep than non-native species.
But if you’re itching to start preparing for the warmer months, consider growing native plants from seed this winter. Doing so is simple and affordable and comes with other benefits, says Emily Baisden, seed program manager for the Wild Seed Project, a Maine nonprofit that advocates for native gardens. Plants grown from seed, rather than through cloning, help to promote genetic diversity. And nurturing them can help build a sense of hope and connection to one’s local environment. “A lot of people think of winter as being a time of death, and it’s not—all of these plants are very much alive,” she says. “It’s a good way to remind people to think about all this life that is actually going on around us, and that we can help to promote in our own way.”
Audubon spoke with Baisden to walk through the basics of growing native plants from seed. Here’s what you need to know.
Make a Plan
First, assess the site where you intend to plant. Is it wet or dry? Sunny or shaded? Sandy or loamy? Then, use Audubon’s native plants database to find species suited to your region that will do well in that spot. “There’s a beautiful plant for all locations,” Baisden says.
Now that you’ve chosen some species to grow, where can you get them? Audubon’s database can point you toward seed sources, and the Wild Seed Project has a list of vendors and its own seed store. Baisden also recommends checking out the directory of seed sellers and other native plant providers offered by Homegrown National Park, a native plants campaign led by the entomologist and author Doug Tallamy. The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation also provides a native plant, seed, and services directory.
Before purchasing seeds, confirm that they were produced without pesticides. Baisden says it’s especially important to avoid anything grown with systemic chemicals such as neonicotinoids, which can linger throughout a plant’s tissues and harm the insects birds rely on for food.
Sow Your Seeds
Once your seeds arrive, it’s time to pot them. Baisden recommends using containers between four and eight inches wide, and they don’t need to be fancy—inexpensive plastic pots work fine. Pack each one with organic potting soil, leaving about half an inch at the top, and use labels to remember which species each contains.
Now, sprinkle the seeds on top of the soil. Arrange them quite densely: Unlike with some vegetables or other plants, there’s no need to give each seed space. In fact, Baisden finds that many native species are more likely to germinate if they’re packed in close to or even touching one another.
Next, you’ll need some coarse, all-purpose sand. Add a thin layer of sand on top of the seeds to help keep them from splashing out of the pot if it rains. Baisden recommends a sand layer that’s the same thickness as the seeds you’re covering.
Take a Break
With that, it’s time to take the seeds outside—yes, outside. Don’t worry about the cold or snow: Many native plants go to seed in the fall, so those seeds are built to spend the winter in the elements, biding their time.
Haul your seed-filled pots outdoors and place them in a flat, somewhat shady spot. Baisden recommends putting them under a deciduous tree so the seeds will soak up some sun in the winter but the sensitive seedlings will receive protective shade when the tree leafs out in spring.
Here’s an important bit: Cover all of the pots with rodent-proof wire mesh, such as hardware cloth.
Now, be patient! The plants will emerge when they’re ready. Some will send up seedlings as soon as the weather begins to warm up, while others may take weeks or months longer. And some species need to lie dormant for multiple winters before they germinate, so read up on the plants you choose and know what to expect.
Get to Planting
As spring arrives, keep your seeds or seedlings watered. If you’ve planted a species that requires more sun, move those pots to a sunnier spot. You can leave the plants potted throughout the summer, though you may need to move some large species to bigger pots. In that event, there’s no need to tease apart each plant—just gently remove the whole mass from the smaller pot and plop it into the bigger one. Oh, and be sure to remove the rodent-proof mesh before the seedlings grow too big.
As summer turns to fall, prepare your planting site by removing grass or weeds that would compete with your young native plants. Then, it’s time to plant: Dig a hole just wider than the plant’s roots and deep enough so that the soil level from the pot will match that of the planting site. Carefully remove the plant from its pot, place it in the hole, fill the hole with soil, and give the plant a drink. No need to be finicky, Baisden says: “You can use a little bit of leaf mulch if you’re worried about it, but I find the great thing about native plants is that you can just kind of put them in the ground, and they’re happy as can be.”
And that’s it! If you’re looking for more on these steps or other details about growing from seed, the Wild Seed Project offers helpful tutorials on its website. And if you’re new to growing native plants, don’t get down on yourself when things don’t go perfectly. “Everybody who’s in the plant world has killed a lot of plants,” Baisden says. “It’s part of learning.” The key is to have some fun, see what works, learn from what doesn’t, and know that your work is paying off by supporting birds and biodiversity.
As you learn and grow more plants, consider giving some away to friends and neighbors to establish a community of native-plant gardeners. Baisden says her corner of Maine is fortunate to have a strong network of local growers who exchange plants and give them as gifts.
Just a few native plants can make a noticeable difference in the number and variety of pollinators and birds that visit a space, Baisden says. The more people see that change in their neighborhoods, the more momentum there will be for growing species that boost biodiversity. “It’s something that the individual can actually do,” she says. “A lot of times we feel helpless to deal with some of the things going on in the world. This is something that we can see in our lifetime as a change that we did.”
This story originally ran in the Winter 2022 issue as “Sow Good.” To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.