Nature lovers who garden are almost as numerous as gardeners who love nature, and they are teaming up for a great cause in our Native Plant Propagation Lab at PRLC’s Armstrong Preserve and Education Center. With all the buzz about declines in wildflowers and their insect pollinators, now is the perfect time to share what we have learned over the last three growing seasons. Join me for a tour of the Prop Lab and Armstrong’s native plant restoration areas and outdoor classrooms this Saturday, June 25, and read on for details on how to volunteer to raise plants for our other nature preserves as well as your home.
This year, our volunteer team of land stewards, master gardeners, and students raised more than 500 plants from seed and another 20 from cuttings. We start by collecting seed from plants of known local origin in the summer and fall. If we can avoid cultivars and garden escapes, we are more assured of the hardiness and overall suitability of the plant for restoration areas, which are tended and watered far less often than a typical garden. We also know that local insects and birds will have evolved in concert with these plants and are best adapted to make use of them. The seed collector may have to find and mark the location of a desired plant during its flowering time, and return later when the seeds have matured. He or she carries a stash of paper bags and a marker to label each with the species name, location, and date. Seeds are shaken into the bag, or entire flower heads thrown in and dealt with later. Ethics dictate that only 5-10% of seed be collected from any one plant, and that harvesting be dispersed over a large and healthy population.
At home, the chaff is separated from the seeds to prevent molding. All material excepting the seed should be removed. I use a paper plate for this task, brushing and blowing the chaff to one side. Store the cleaned seeds in their paper bag until late fall, when we will attempt to mimic the conditions of nature by putting them into cold storage. Consider the life cycle of the seed: it will likely drop from the plant to the ground during fall rains, or pass through the intestinal tract of an animal, and then to the ground. If it is lucky, it will land in soil and be covered by organic debris over the winter. We bank the seed over winter in shallow trays of soil that are covered to protect from animals and stored outside. Plastic take-out containers work well for this as they are sturdy and stackable; just be sure to poke holes in the bottom for drainage.
In mid-February, we bring the seed trays in to a heated space and watch for germination. At this point, we are artificially hastening their development so that theplants can grow large enough to be transplanted into the great outdoors in May, before hot weather sets in. When the tiny seedlings break through the surface, they must be moved into the light. I keep florescent grow lights on them for 16 hours per day and water them gently, every day. Young seedlings thrive on consistent heat, light, and moisture.
Our first major task is to transplant each individual seedlings into its own pot. This is delicate work, best done with latex gloves or none at all. A chopstick or knitting needle makes a useful tool for easing each tender stalk out of the cluster of young seedlings. Use recycled plastic containers of any kind for pots (remember the drainage holes). Fill them to the top with a light mixture of mainly leaf litter, with some compost and sand. Carefully label at least one of the batch for reference (and old window blinds make great labels). Water well, and keep the transplants under light and warm conditions for a minimum of two days.
I do not have much heated space and so move the plants out early into makeshift green houses, where they at least have abundant sun and protection from wind and rain. Conditions can be harsh however, ranging from freezing to 90 degrees on some days. Daily watering is essential. Growers with heated greenhouse space will grow plants at more than twice the rate that I can, or more, but a simple plastic covering is enough to keep them alive. By last frost date, all plants can be moved outside of covered areas, although they will need to be dampened off (transitioned slowly) to full sun, wind, and rain.
By June 1, our plants were ready to be moved out to fenced restoration areas in PRLC’s nature preserves. One of our local partners, the Rusticus Garden Club, generously sponsored the hiring of a local college student intern to aid us in getting all 500+ wildflowers into the ground this month, and he will continue to water and weed planting areas through the summer. Volunteers are needed at a number of our preserves to provide supplemental water and to assist with weeding until these plants become established. We also welcome the donation of native plants, either from nurseries or areas that are slated for disturbance. Please contact me at 914-205-3533 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org for details on how you can help out at your favorite preserve.
Endnote: Our efforts to restore native trees, shrubs, and pollinator plants to our nature preserves is a direct response to the incursion of overabundant deer and alien invasive plant species in Pound Ridge. It is our hope that by creating reservoirs of protected plants, we can preserve current levels of biodiversity and provide continued seed stock for colonization of unprotected areas. Deer management is therefore an integral aspect to our program.
Restoration area at Armstrong Preserve, before and after:
|PRLC Native Plant Propagation Lab 2016|
|Total Count and Distribution|
|Aster, heart leaved||20||4||8||3||5|
|Canada goldenrod ?||28||3||12||3||10|
|Meadow goldenrod ?||30||6||12||12|
|Goldenrod Bridge St||10||3||4||3|
|Joe Pye weed||8||8|
|Great blue lobelia||30||7||8||2||3||10|
|New York Ironweed||18||8||10|
|Baptisia||3 held over|
|Buttonbush||19 held over|
|Swamp rose||11 held over|