When to sow wildflower seeds in a wild setting?

awed(6)November 18, 2013


The past couple of years I have turned my city street median into a wildflower garden. I'm in zone 6, in upstate NY. I've ordered seeds from various places and sown them by scattering. I've gotten some interesting results. The reason for planting these (apart from them being pretty and living things) is to help declining bee populations. Also I thought it would be nice to attract butterflies. And now I'm thinking it's a great source of natural food for birds.

I'm wondering what the best method is for gathering the seeds (for example the brown-eyed Susan seed bundles) and scattering them. I would assume the best way to assure good planting is to harvest the bundles, keep them inside, then cut down the stalks and use for mulch. Then, next Spring, rake away leaves and then re-scatter the area with the seeds.

Is this true?

The only problem with this is that, if the birds do eat the seeds now, that would be taking away a food source for them. Is it possible to:

1. Cut down all the plants and leave them there? Maybe I can harvest them later?

2. Leave them standing through the Winter and gather them in the Spring? The problem with this is the standing weeds are not amazingly attractive.

Long one, but I think a pretty basic question. If it's involved feel free to ask me to search more about it.


This post was edited by awed on Mon, Nov 18, 13 at 15:34

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Awed, if you are in a sufficiently cold zone, the overall best method is dormant seeding. In this method, you would wait until it's late enough in the year that any seed sown will pretty much not have the opportunity to start to germinate anymore, before winter sets in. This seed is then perfectly stratified by the ensuing cold months such that come spring, it is in the best possible condition for germination.

One caveat-this is primarily done in a setting where all existing vegetation has been killed off beforehand. I'm not sure that's your case. But regardless, some variant of this is what I'd try to do.


    Bookmark   November 18, 2013 at 3:02PM
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Hi wisconsitom, that sounds like an interesting idea. You think this works better than scattering in the Spring? My zone is 6 (the edit feature didn't keep my edits), in Northeast USA.

I am interested still, in how to preserve any seed-food for birds. Although, I have to say, in the heavy snows, all wildplants are covered in my lawn.

    Bookmark   November 18, 2013 at 3:33PM
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kchd(7b/8a MS)

I agree with +om. You should take advantage of the cold stratification that mother nature will provide for your seeds by sowing in fall/winter. Many of our natives need cold, moist stratification to break seed dormancy and germinate.

Here is a link that might be useful: Native seed germination

    Bookmark   November 18, 2013 at 9:31PM
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Most natives won't germinate w/o a cold period (as others are trying to tell you)..so yes, spring sowing is a bad idea.

    Bookmark   November 19, 2013 at 7:25PM
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Thanks. So is there any idea as to how to keep the seeds as food for a while longer? I suppose what we are saying (or what is being said) is that I should strip the seed pods, cut down the flower stems, rake the area, then scatter the seeds. That means that the plants won't be good as food. Maybe I can leave some plants there to feed any animals.

    Bookmark   November 19, 2013 at 7:54PM
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I suspect other natural food and bird feeders are at least as important to the birds. However, nature never harvests...so do as you like.

    Bookmark   November 20, 2013 at 3:53AM
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I thought I'd let you know the option I took. I harvested all the seed packets (some I kept on foot-long stems). I cut down all the plants. Then I mowed the area. Then I shook half of the flower seeds (the ones on stems) around the area and dropped the seed pods. I also put the non-flower seeds aside for animals (I kept them on the stalks).

Then the plan is to take the remaining seed packets and put them directly in a birdfeeder. If no animals eat them then I can simply seed the area with those.

We will see how it turns out. Thanks for the thoughts.

    Bookmark   November 21, 2013 at 10:28PM
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molanic(Zone 5 IL)

For future years you might want to try just collecting a little seed for propagating and leaving the rest standing for the birds and insects. It not only provides food and shelter for wildlife but the dried plant material helps protect the crown of the plant and the soil. I always think the sturdier stems like echinacea are quite pretty with little snow caps on them during the winter.

While eating the birds will drop some seed that will germinate too. In the spring you can cut back or pull away the plant debris and chop up some to use as mulch. Too much mulch though and the fallen seeds won't germinate and grow.

In the winter use the seed you collected or bought and wintersow them in a weed free potting mix in the proper containers (see the wintersowing forum faq or wintersown.org if unfamiliar with method). They will have much higher germination rates than scattered seed and you can protect them until they are a little bigger and sturdier. Then you can use these seedlings as a guide to help you see what in your wildflower bed is desirable and what is a weed if you aren't familiar with the seedlings. You can use them to plug any holes in the bed or plant them elsewhere if the bed is filling in nicely on its own.

This method has worked pretty well for me so far.

    Bookmark   December 1, 2013 at 4:33PM
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Ah, thanks for the reply, molanic! Good ideas. I will consider that for next year.

I actually kept another area "planted," but on the first snowfall, all the plants were covered. Actually, the echinacea is the only one that was hardy enough to poke through the snow. And that one actually has attracted some birds this Fall: Goldfinches. The goldenrod got pretty quickly bowed over (when I cleared the snow off, they stood more straight up). My neighbors are looking a little askance at it, but I think it's not too disturbing.

The seed packets (mostly black eyed Susans) aren't very interesting to the animals yet. And the non-flower seeds (I don't know the names of the plants: A green-leafed one that is prolific grower; one that looks like goldenrod but has small white flowers and dandelion-like seeds) don't seem to be being eaten. Maybe those are only appealing when there is no other food and they are poking out of the snow.

Thanks again for you post; I'm bookmarking it.

    Bookmark   December 1, 2013 at 9:48PM
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He had an excellent suggestion per gardening!
I found that in my garden, Echinacea seeds don't even get mature before the goldfinches eat them...let alone leave for winter :)

    Bookmark   December 3, 2013 at 9:20AM
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I agree with molanic.

Seed pods and such can provide winter interest/beauty for us in addition to providing food for wildlife. If you are concerned by what the neighbors may think, you could try (in the future since the ground is frozen now) cutting the taller stalks in half and sticking them a few inches into the ground, thus making the area less unkempt looking (some peoples's view) while still providing seed, perches, and winter interest. Just a thought.

    Bookmark   January 5, 2014 at 10:25PM
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docmom_gw Zone 5 MI(5)

Another option that I've heard about, but not tried, is to cut the stalks down in later fall and bind them together. Then you could tie that sheaf to a fence post or street light so it remains available to the birds, at least partially, but doesn't create the same "eyesore" for the neighbors. I struggle with the frustrating issue of keeping narrow-minded neighbors happy. I really don't care one hoot what they think, but I would like to try to encourage them to imitate me. But that won't happen if I try to drag them too far out of their comfort zone. I just try to tread lightly.


    Bookmark   January 15, 2014 at 7:50AM
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Excellent suggestion Martha!

    Bookmark   January 15, 2014 at 10:15AM
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Great idea, Docmom! I did it with some plants that were unruly in another part of the yard.

    Bookmark   January 26, 2014 at 12:54PM
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