Direct Sowing Seeds in Zone 5

Michaela .:. thegarden@902 .:. (Zone 5b - Iowa)April 7, 2014

Hi there. Last fall I direct sowed, Verbena (perennial), coreopsis, purple coneflower, bee balm, and swamp milkweed directly into my new tilled 400 sq foot butterfly garden I am starting.

So far I am seeing A TON of swamp milkweed. Like... 100s. I probably over did it a little but I never expected that many to come up. So I'm probably going to have to pot quite a bit up and give away :D

Anyways, that's all I'm seeing so far. Or at least I think that's what it is since that's what I put down in the center of the garden. Any experience on how long it takes for some of these to come up? I'm super worried that I won't get anything else but milkweed. I was really trying to save some money on some perennials since they were supposed to be relatively easy to start from seeds.

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mary_littlerockar(8a-7b mid Arkansas)

If your garden plot was newly tilled, you 'might' be seeing some type of weed seed germinating, other than milkweed. I live in zone 8a-7b and I am just now seeing sprout tips of most of my native milkweed so I'm concerned that what you are seeing might not be milkweed seedlings. Then again, if you are only seeing your seedlings in the area where you sowed your swamp milkweed, I can see why you feel it might be your milkweed! :-) Keeping fingers crossed for you. The other seeds may require a different set of circumstances before they germinate so I wouldn't be too concerned this early in the season. Good luck with your new garden. Mary

    Bookmark   April 8, 2014 at 11:20AM
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Michaela .:. thegarden@902 .:. (Zone 5b - Iowa)

Hi Mary - thanks for the reply! It is definitely looking like milkweed! I planted it in one large section of the garden and it's all right there.Wow. Way too much of it though. I was not expecting this rate of germination. Probably should have started them in containers and not direct sowed them... Guess there are worse things though, right???

I have just about everything else growing now too it seems, milkweed was the first to come up though so I guess I just needed to be a bit more patient. I have a lot of thinning to do! Waiting for them to get a big bigger before I start thinning. Woof. it's going to be a busy summer. :D

    Bookmark   May 2, 2014 at 10:24PM
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myrmayde(5b Western Montana)

Hi, Your post almost brings tears to my eyes. I planted a million and a half seeds last year and almost nothing germinated, or else they germinated and died, probably through lack of consistent moisture, and too much shade from larger plants. I don't know what to do now. I planted about a quarter million around May, and then when nothing came up I planted a million and a quarter around December 1. I'm also trying to create a habitat for butterflies, and also moths, bees, other beneficial insects, songbirds, and hummingbirds. What I do have is massive numbers of beautiful lupines, which I sowed in 2012. I did a ton of research before I bought seeds, and the spring-sown ones were cold-stratified to the best of my knowledge after consulting four different online databases. I only wish my problem now was thinning out too many flowers! What exact time of the year did you sow your seeds? That's the only variable I can think of to change. I'm going to keep trying until I have this huge flower bed filled with native perennial wildflowers, along with the lupines and some trees and shrubs. Do you have an update on your progress or any advice for me? Thanks!

This post was edited by myrmayde on Mon, May 26, 14 at 0:43

    Bookmark   May 26, 2014 at 12:39AM
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bernergrrl(z5 IL)

Myrmayde, Sorry to hear about that. Are the Lupines, native ones, or the Russell hybirds? I ask because it might be one of those "wildflower"meadow mixes that come in a can. The Rusell lupines always do well, but the rest of the plants not so much.

If you haven't, try a native seed mix from a native plant supplier. You would want to find a mix that would match your sun, soil, and moisture conditions.

A seed mix that is local eco-type would probably be more fruitful. Local ecotype means that the seeds some from the area and so have adapted to those conditions.

Here are some places:

    Bookmark   May 26, 2014 at 8:57AM
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myrmayde(5b Western Montana)

Hi, bernergrrl,
Thanks for replying. I sowed 15 different kinds of lupinus polyphyllus Russell hybrids, L. polyphyllus 'Garden Gnome' and Woodfield, and also one kind each of L. argenteus, mutabilis, perennis, regalis, sericeus, succulentus, and texensis. They probably didn't all succeed, but you never know. The first year I saw only one silvery lupine, and two years later there are several.

I'm trying to keep eight colors separate along one huge border covering all three sides of the back yard. So mixes of different colors won't work if I try to keep to this design decision. I could find out what's in them and buy the seeds separately though.

Thanks for the supplier suggestions. Native Ideals is great, and they're nearby. I bought several packets of seeds from them last time, and I'd buy bigger quantities again. I just e-mailed them earlier today for advice on when to sow. I hadn't heard of Blake Nursery before, so I'll check them out.

Have you heard of They don't sell seeds, but they're near me. I took a look at some of their plants at another nursery today. They're single plants, tiny (1 to 2 inches tall), in 3.5-inch pots, for $5 or $7. They have larger sizes too.

My dilemmas now are:
1. What are the reasons that my seeds haven't germinated?
2. If trying seeds again, when to sow? (When for those that need cold stratifying, and for those that don't?)
3. Should I give up on seeds, mulch it over (except the medium to large lupines, of course), and plant starts?
4. If not seeding anymore, what to use for mulch? ("Soil Pep"? Compost?)

My preference is try seeds one more time, because for what I spent on seeds last year (a LOT), I could only get, say, 77 bags of "Soil Pep" for mulch and 170 tiny plants. But then, I spent all that money last year and got basically nothing but a lot of weeds. Maybe, since about half of the total soil (non-path) area (3,700 square feet) is so dense with lupines that you can't see the ground, I could put mulch, seeds, AND starts on only half of my total flower bed area.

This post was edited by myrmayde on Tue, May 27, 14 at 2:34

    Bookmark   May 27, 2014 at 2:20AM
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docmom_gw Zone 5 MI(5)

Try wintersowing. Go to the wintersowing forum here on Gardenweb and read the FAQ. You can get a bunch of seeds successfully germinated and then plant them into your garden in what ever design you like. My milkweeds all did very well this year.

Good luck.


    Bookmark   May 27, 2014 at 6:41AM
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molanic(Zone 5 IL)

I also highly recommend wintersowing. It works especially well for natives needing cold strat. You get the cost savings of using seed, but a much higher rate of germination than direct sowing. It also simplifies establishing good plants from weeds, and gives you more control over where things are planted. I only usually direct sow in the spring with seeds that are fast to germinate, I know what the seedlings look like, and I got a lot of that particular seed either cheap or free.

I know people with very large areas to cover like prairies do mostly direct sow. But it is more difficult to deal with weeds that way and you are somewhat at the mercy of mother nature. Direct sown seed is more easily washed or blown away, eaten by birds, etc. With wintersowing in containers you don't need as much seed to get the same number of plants because they are much more protected than direct sown seed.

    Bookmark   May 27, 2014 at 12:59PM
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myrmayde(5b Western Montana)

Thanks for the replies. The case for wintersowing is pretty convincing. I guess I owe it to myself to try it next year. How do you keep your wintersown containers from blowing around in the wind?

There are also certain things that might be worth growing under lights. It worked with tomatoes and cantaloupes this year. But last year I tried growing bleeding heart seeds in a big flat, and after five months nothing had germinated.

Molanic, I saw a comment of yours on another thread when I was searching on "direct sow," to the effect that large expanses of mulch will become weedy. The mulch in the photo looked like small brown bark, like what I have on my paths now. I can vouch for that. Lupines are coming up through that like crazy, to the point that I'm going to have to poison them and then add more bark. What would you recommend as a mulch in my beds if I decide to go that route? I tried pine compost, but it didn't keep down the weeds or grass. Is it essential to put newspaper or cardboard underneath any mulch for it to be effective?

This post was edited by myrmayde on Tue, May 27, 14 at 14:17

    Bookmark   May 27, 2014 at 1:35PM
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docmom_gw Zone 5 MI(5)

Re mulch. I moved into a new place a few years ago and we have tons of oak trees. We shredded the oak leaves and used them as mulch. We put down quite a thick layer, maybe 5 inches, and we're beginning the third summer without re mulching. I finally have a few weeds here and there, but they are still easy to pull. I think any mulch will work to keep weeds down, but it needs to be a thick layer. If I need to plant something, I pull back the mulch to find real soil and keep most of the mulch in a pile around the new plants until they grow. I find the piles keep me from stepping on tiny new seedlings, and I can push the mulch back around the plants little by little as they get bigger.


    Bookmark   May 27, 2014 at 9:02PM
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myrmayde(5b Western Montana)

Hi, Martha,
Thanks for replying. I love oak leaf mulch. I had that in California. We don't have enough trees to produce enough leaves, so I'll have to steal some in the fall. The funny thing is, when we go for walks around town, I'm always seeing piles of this and that: leaves, hay, grass, brush, soil, boards, logs, you name it. I often wonder what people intend to do with this stuff and if they'd mind me taking it off their hands. When it's in bags on garbage day I think it's up for grabs. Sometimes I feel like going to a park and raking up some leaves to take home.

I heard back from Native Ideals, and he said that I might have better luck with starts, because competition might be stopping germination. He said that some wildflower seeds can take two years to germinate, and even when they do, I might not see them under the weeds and lupines. He's right. I planted Melissa in a pot a year ago, because I read that they might be invasive. One seed sprouted last year and the top growth died back in the winter. (I left the pot outside all winter, but I didn't give up and tried not to let it dry out.) This year it's full of little seedlings!

So I think I should wait until November 2015 to cover the soil with anything that seeds can't sprout in. I've been weeding these beds for three years; I guess I can weed them for one and a half more.

What I'll do differently is start putting newspaper under the paths and around the trees, then add more wood chips to them. I'll start sprinkling a thin layer of compost on my beds. And I'll start my seeds in pots from now on, in three ways: uncovered outdoors in warm weather, wintersowing, and indoors under lights. I may even direct sow some seeds this summer that germinate easily and quickly. But I won't wait two years for them. Thanks again.

    Bookmark   May 28, 2014 at 1:30AM
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molanic(Zone 5 IL)

I'm putting a link below to the wintersowing forum faq page. It is a slow time of year there, but many of us still check in occasionally.

Regarding wind blown containers... normally it is not a problem for me even here by the windy city. If the containers are on the ground tightly arranged and have enough potting mix that is not dried out they won't blow over. There are tips on windy conditions if you search the wintersowing board.

Regarding the mulch. It does help greatly with the weeds and soil moisture. But, it also breaks down and gets other debris mixed in that turns it into a good medium for weed seeds to germinate in the mulch itself. The good thing though is that it keeps the ground moist, so pulling weeds is much easier. You will have less weeds with mulch than just bare ground, but it won't be weed free and no maintenance I guess it what I was saying. If you have tightly spaced healthy desirable plants they will mostly out compete and shade out the weeds whether you have a thick layer of mulch or not.

My ultimate goal is to not have to buy mulch. I am trying to leave as much plant debris in place as possible and just chop it up a bit. I rake leaves into the beds a few inches deep. If I could chop them up it would be better. I use grass clippings sometimes too.

It is not too late to sow annuals that don't need cold in containers or directly now. Due to bad weather I am running late this year. I am going to direct sow some zinnias, sunflowers, cosmos, dill, and a few others this week. I know what all these seedlings look like so I am able to easily weed out anything else that pops up there. That is one of the keys to direct sowing because anytime you disturb the soil and keep it moist for your seeds to germinate you are also creating the ideal condition for weed seeds as well.

Wet cardboard and newspaper does work pretty well for smothering existing growth too. Good luck and be sure to check out any newbie seed offers before you purchase more seed this winter. You'd be surprised what you can get. Having a "seeds wanted" list on your exchange page before joining any offers helps adopters/sponsors know what you are looking for too. I think there is an adopt a newbie thread on the seed exchange forum now.

Here is a link that might be useful:

    Bookmark   May 28, 2014 at 12:45PM
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myrmayde(5b Western Montana)

Thanks, molanic. I sowed 46,500 annual seeds today: red poppy, orange poppy, calendula, coreopsis, coneflower, gloriosa daisy, painted daisy, godetia, and love-in-a-mist. I sprinkled a little bit of compost over them. Hope that works!

    Bookmark   June 1, 2014 at 9:52PM
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