Written by Steve Harvey
Have you ever had you breath taken away by the sight of a summer meadow in bloom? The lush and richly varied colors of a meadow filled with summer’s wildflowers or a carpet of flowers in a shaded forest glen are sights that most of us truly enjoy. For many of us these natural landscapes can only be viewed when we leave our homes to hike and play in the great outdoors. This however does not need to be the case. More and more gardeners are turning to natural landscapes using native plants to bring the beauty and diversity of the environments around us to our own yards.
You too can be a part of this growing trend. As the days of summer begin to cool off and the season prepares to shift to fall you can begin planning and working on improvements that will not only beautify your yard but will also help make it a nice habitat for your wild neighbors.
Using native plants and trees to enhance our landscapes and thus improve the habitat for local wildlife is easy and a wonderful way to teach youngsters the value being good stewards of the land. It can also be fun and rewarding, and does not have to be expensive. Collecting seed from your favorite patch of wildflowers is a good way to get started. You can also collect fruit and or seed from many species of native shrubs and trees. If you take a look around as you hike and travel in the late summer and early fall you may find the fruits and seed heads of those plants and wildflowers that have dazzled you earlier in the season. Collecting, storing, and propagating the seed from these plants can get you on your way to having a natural landscape filled with natives.
Whether you just want to use local wildflowers as a border in your yard or you want to recreate your favorite forest setting collecting seed from the plants you want to use is one of the most cost effective ways to get started.
Seed collection is fairly simple and starts after the plant has bloomed and the seed has matured. This can be any time from the later part of spring though the fall depending on the plant. Some seeds need to be stored for a period of time in either cold or heat to allow for germination. This process is called stratification. It is possible to simply put a bag of seeds in you refrigerator or freezer for a period of weeks or months to stratify them. This reproduces the environment that the seeds would go through during winter. Other seed needs to go through a process called scarification in which the seed’s coat is nicked or damaged to allow the seedling to emerge. This is often accomplished by scaring the seeds coat with a file or something similar. A hand lens is a helpful tool to have when performing this task and a neat thing to have around when collecting seed of any sort as the shape and form of seeds can be incredibly varied and beautiful.
Several other items that are also helpful to the gardener who is a interested in using natives in their landscape including:
* Books on plant and flower identification
* A plant press to preserve flowers and specimens for future identification
* Books on using native plants for landscaping
When going on a hike it is helpful to carry some kind of container (such as a paper bag zip lock bag or jar), paper and a pen for notes (to record what kind of seed has been collected and from where), a spare sheet of paper or paper plate to use as a funnel, and small scissors or clippers to cut stems or twigs. Some seed you collect may be dry, other times the seed will be collected as fruit and either dried or frozen for storage. Many of the books on using native plants in the landscape can help you determine when to collect seed, the need to stratify or scarify seed, and where to use the plants in your garden.
Cuttings are another easy method of propagating plants. Cuttings are generally made during the dormant season when sticks or twigs 1/8th to ½ inch in diameter and from 18 to 32 inches long are collected. To identify which end of the twig is going to support leaves and which is supposed to support roots it is helpful to cut the top end of the cutting flat and the bottom end (to be rooted) at an angle. Keep the twigs or stems moist and out of extremes of heat and cold until they can be set up for rooting. The object here is to get the stems to send out roots to support the emergent leaves and vegetation. Many plants root very easily when the cutting is pushed into the ground with about 3 to 5 inches to the top sticking out of the ground. Others root better in a medium of potting soil and vermiculite that is kept moist but not saturated. Cuttings for some plants root better during the growing season. In this case the leaves are usually left on the last 2 or 3 inches of the cuttings and they are misted regularly.
Riparian plants such as willows and red osier dogwood are generally the easiest to regenerate from cuttings but this technique has been used for centuries and can be used successful on a wide variety of shrubs and trees. Once again many of the books on landscaping with native plants can be helpful in identifying which plants are easy to regenerate and which ones may have special requirements.
Some plants propagate better if the cuttings are taken from the roots rather than from the stems. Bracken fern, Quaking Aspen, and Oregon Grape all regenerate from spreading roots and can be started using root cuttings. Dig around in the soil to expose the roots of the plant being careful not to damage them and then cut a section of root 6 to 12 inches long. These sections can be transplanted into containers with a proper soil medium such as potting soil or a mixture of vermiculite and sand. Set the containers aside till the roots develop and new shoots emerge from the soil. When the plants have developed a good root system and begun to grow they can be transplanted into the garden or landscape.
Transplanting native plants directly into your landscape is another method getting them into the garden, however there are several important things to remember. The best time of year to transplant plants is going to be when they are dormant. Moving a plant when it
is trying to put on new growth is not a recipe for success. It is better to wait till the late fall or winter when the plant has dropped it’s leaves or is in a dormant state. This will give the roots a better chance to develop and create less stress for the plant.
There are some other very important factors to when thinking about transplanting plants directly from the “wild”. Firstly it is important to get the permission of the landowner before collecting anything. Someone is bound to own the property that you might want to collect plants from and whether it is an individual, institution, or government they have the right to decline permission. You wouldn’t like it if someone came and dug up your property would you? Additionally, it is wise to use caution when moving and transplanting. Plant pests, pathogens, and invasive weeds have all been known to hitch a ride on transported plants. They can do extensive and often irreversible damage and create a nightmare for generations to come. On the other hand if you own the property you want to collect from or if that property is going to be developed and the native vegetation is to be removed then salvaging the plants and moving them to a suitable landscape may be appropriate.
I would like to note that care must be used when collecting native plant material. Transplanting plants from another location may not only a questionable practice in some cases, but depending on where you are it may be illegal. Some species of plants have either become extinct or have been reduced to an endangered status in their own habitats by plant collecting. It is advisable to check with a Native Plant Society, agricultural Extension Service, State Department of Resources, or other appropriate agencies in your area to be sure that any seeds, cuttings or plants you want to collect are not from a species listed for protection.