Native Gardening with Jimmy: Grow a thrifty native garden with winter sowing
By JIMMY ROGERS
For generations, gardening has been equated with thrift. What could be cheaper than growing your own tomatoes, with nothing more than seeds, soil and sweat? Of course, vegetable gardens and native plant landscapes alike can quickly run into unexpected costs that undermine the potential savings. Let’s discuss unique costs for native gardens and how to save through specific behaviors and techniques.
Most new native gardeners start small. Perhaps they receive a free plant somewhere and put it in an existing bed. Or maybe they buy a few plants at the garden center or native nursery in the spring during seasonal planting. This can continue for a while, but eventually inspiration strikes and a big patch of grass seems like the perfect place for an entirely new native bed.
When a garden project grows from a few square feet to 100 or more, costs can add up. Native gardeners tend to plant densely to keep down weeds and provide more habitat for wildlife. Properly covered ground requires an initial planting of one to one and a half plants per square foot. All of a sudden our 100-square-foot garden (only 10 feet long and wide) needs up to 150 plants. At $7 to $9 for plants in quart-sized containers, that starts to get into serious money.
A few design and acquisition practices can save money during a garden buildout process.
- Plan structural shrubs that will take up space, anchor your design, and provide food and cover for wildlife. While the young shrubs grow in, seed with annual filler plants like partridge pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata) and black eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) in sun, or for shade, Indian tobacco (Lobelia inflata) or yellow fumewort (Corydalis flavula).
- Take advantage of the free plants from your community. Each spring and fall, numerous native plant groups hold plant shares where folks are encouraged to take home a bundle of donations. Or ask a neighbor who grows natives if you can come by with a shovel to divide their mature plants.
- If you are going to spend on plants, invest in groundcovers first. Consider buying these in plug trays from consumer-facing websites like Izel Native Plants (izelplants.com). This can bring the cost down to as little as $2.50 per plant.
- Avoid buying cultivar native plants, as many of these are sterile clones that will not offer up free volunteers in your garden. Straight species plants are more likely to spread year after year.
Among money-saving techniques, there is one that stands out above all the rest: winter sowing.
Winter sowing means more than sowing seeds in the winter. Scattering or planting seeds on the ground in any season is called direct sowing. In contrast, winter sowing is the practice of creating a miniature greenhouse within a translucent container (milk jugs work well), adding potting mix and seeds, and leaving everything outside all winter. In the spring, the seeds germinate and are soon ready for planting in the ground. While many types of plants can be winter sown, it works particularly well for our native plants, especially those that wait to sprout until they’ve been through a cold winter.
As soon as you decide to start a winter sowing project, start collecting the number of containers you will need, one per species. Ask neighbors to save translucent milk jugs and juice containers. Reach out to a local coffee shop to ask for their used jugs at the end of the day.
To prepare the container, wash it well and discard the cap. Make five or six half-inch holes in the bottom for drainage. Then, slice the jug in half, leaving the handle side intact, so it can open and close on a hinge.
You can first sow seeds on the winter solstice (Dec. 21). This is the best starting time for native plants requiring cold stratification. That said, you can start any time until February and expect results.
Pack the bottom of the container with three to four inches of wet potting mix (not soil) and then seeds across the top of the mix, ensuring they make good contact with the soil. It’s a good idea to put a popsicle stick in the mix with the name of the plant and also label the outside with a sharpie. Tape it all back together with duct tape around the middle and set it in a sunny spot where the rain and snow can come down on the container.
Cracking In the spring, when you see about an inch of growth, you can crack your containers in order to get a better view of them. When you’re ready, you can either carefully separate the seedlings into more space to grow them up further before planting or cut a hunk of the dense seedlings out and plant them directly in the ground. In the latter approach, the seedlings will battle it out, with the strongest surviving.
This technique has been widely used by all kinds of gardeners and has a high success rate for beginners. Plus, it’s a great family activity that teaches everyone about how to grow plants. There are many great websites and Facebook groups out there for winter sowing, so do look around for answers when you run into any issues.
We can grow more native plants in residential spaces, and thus grow more habitat, if we dismantle the barriers to participation that people face. Cost often poses a huge barrier to first-time gardeners. Even if you are personally comfortable spending a few hundred dollars each season on nursery plants, learning thrifty habits may not only help ease your own budget, but you can also present an achievable strategy to your friends and neighbors when you inevitably become the resident native gardener on your block.
Watch “All the Dirt on Winter Sowing Native Plants” right here. Master Gardeners Molly Moore and Marlene Smith from the University of Maryland Extension Service have recorded an excellent class that will tell you anything and everything you might want to know about winter sowing before you start.