“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. –Albert Einstein)
Native plants are sometimes a mystery to me because they behave in ways I don’t always understand. I’ve asked friends who have done restoration work or other native plant garden experts, and they’ve explained there is still a lot we don’t know or are still learning about. I think part of the reason for their mystery is we never fully studied our original prairie, savannas and other natural areas before their removal. Also, I think we still don’t understand or will ever be able to explain all of nature’s genius. In this article I present some clues and some mysteries of starting a garden from seed which I have experienced, in the western suburbs of north-eastern Illinois.
Here is a question I have heard a few times from those starting a native garden from seed: I started my native garden from seed. Why are only the Black Eyed Susans blooming?
It will be almost 4 years since I first started my front pathway garden from seed during the fall of 2008. During the first year a few Zizea aptera (Heart-leaf Parsnip), Penstemon digitalis (Foxglove Beard Tongue) , and Rubeckia hirta (Black Eyed Susan) bloomed, but the garden was mostly new foliage and weeds. I weeded but did not water my garden. During the second year, the Rudbeckia hirta exploded. In 2011, many other plants bloomed, and I have a lot less Rudbeckia hirta . Rudbeckia hirta is an example of a Pioneer Species. Monarda fistulosa (Bee Balm) and Ratibida pinnata (Yellow Coneflower) are other examples. I did not plant the latter two in my front walkway garden since I wanted shorter native species in this particular garden. Pioneer species bloom early on and grow readily so they are commonly found in our natural areas. After several years these pioneer species may taper off or even disappear with time as other later blooming species begin to shine. These later blooming species are sometimes not as common in our natural areas as the Pioneer species, and are instead called Conservative Species. Some conservative species take several years before they will bloom.
Although starting from seed is a good alternative for the budget conscious and is fun for those of us wishing to learn more about native plants, it requires extra bed preparation and weed maintenance during the first several years. Also, gardens started from seed are more natured-inspired in style. Someone once suggested it is possible to plant zones of native seeds using a shorter plant seed mix in the front and a taller seed back in the back . My opinion is this will be hard to maintain over the long run since plants move around . Eventually the taller seed will move toward the front and vice versa. Prairie Nursery and Prairie Moon Nursery’s websites both have very helpful how-to seeding guides on their website. There are also great websites and books which identify native plant prairie seedlings. Please see Good-Natured Landscapes Sharing Page for links to the seedling I.D. websites. The Wild Ones Greater DuPage and Kane County chapters have yearly seed exchanges in which you can get native plant seeds for a nominal fee or for free if you bring in native plant seeds to swap. As with most new learning experiences or ideas, if you are starting a garden from seed, start small then go from there. I hope to learn more and discover new mysteries as this garden progresses.