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How to Germinate Native Seeds

The seeds of many native plants have built-in dormancy mechanisms that protect them from germinating before killing frosts or in times of drought.  In the wild, seeds will lie dormant until the proper conditions for growth occur.  But in cultivation, the successful gardener must become familiar with several simple pre-sowing seed treatment methods that will unlock the dormancy mechanism and stimulate quicker, more consistent germination.

We have developed the following seed germination codes to help you successfully grow the native seed sold in our catalog. These seed-treatment suggestions have been compiled from our own experience, available literature, and feedback from other growers and customers. These are only suggestions and not the definitive source of germination information. If your experience reveals successful methods other than these, please let us know.

Until you are ready to plant or apply pre-sowing treatment, seed should be stored in an open container in a cool, dry place, or in a sealed (airtight) container under refrigeration (33–40°F). Avoid rapid or frequent temperature changes and protect against rodents.

In a garden setting, sow seeds shallowly; no deeper than the width of the seed. Keep seedlings carefully weeded. Periodic watering is helpful to establish seedlings. If seed does not germinate the first year, don’t give up; germination may occur the second year or even later.


A: No pre-treatment is necessary:
Seed should germinate upon sowing in a warm location. Germination code A species can be found here.

B: Hot water treatment: This hot water treatment helps break open the hard seed coat. This may happen naturally with freeze/thaw cycles, but better germination can be expected if hot water treatment is done before fall planting outside, or artificial cold-moist stratification in a fridge (Germination Code C). Germination code B species can be found here.

1. Bring water to a boil, remove from heat, and pour over seeds.
2. Soak the seeds at room temperature for 24 hours.
3. Filter through a coffee filter and fine mesh strainer.
4-5. Proceed with germination code C instructions (below).

C (# of stratifying days): Cold, moist stratification needed: To naturally stratify seed, plant outdoors late fall on a weed-free site and allow seed to overwinter. To artificially stratify seed, place seed and medium in a labeled, sealed plastic bag and store in a refrigerator (33-40°F). Stratification medium could be a damp paper towel, coffee filter, sand, vermiculite, or other horticultural-use medium.

We recommend mixing equal parts sand and seed, or slightly more sand than seed. Whatever stratifying medium you choose, be sure to moisten the mixture slowly to a damp but not wet consistency. You should not be able to squeeze any excess water out of the medium.

Stratify for the number of days indicated in parentheses. If two months stratification is required, C(60), one month may work for many species if time is a constraint. Some seeds may sprout in the storage bag. If this occurs with more than a few seeds, plant immediately. Germination code C species can be found here.

1. Using our germination codes, calculate the date to start cold, moist stratification pre-treatment. Rinse or complete a short soak. Pour into a coffee filter, paper towel or fine screen to drain.
2. Arrange seed in a single layer and allow all excess water to drain off.
3. Fold seed loosely into the coffee filter or paper towel to allow for weekly spot checks. The seed and paper should be damp but not wet.
4. Add a dry paper towel to your labeled resealable bag to help to maintain even moisture while pulling excessive moisture away. Do not allow the stratification medium to completely dry out or stay soggy.
5. Place the sealed bag in your refrigerator (not freezer) and monitor weekly, or as needed, until it is time to remove for sowing. Replace coffee filter or paper towel often; repeat from step 1. Once seed has completed the recommended stratification period, or if excessive early sprouting occurs, plant immediately.
1. Place stratification sand into a bowl. We use a 1/3 cup fine stratification sand to 1/8 oz seed ratio (slightly more or less depending on seed size).
Add water. We used 1 to 2 teaspoons of water per 1/3 cup of sand.
2. Mix only enough water to allow medium to form into a ball.
3. Add your seed to the stratification sand and mix together. Our package label will indicate the suggested number of days for artificial stratification i.e. C (60) = 60 days of cold, moist conditions needed.
4. Refrigerate the seed mixture in a sealed plastic bag marked with start and finish dates. Check periodically so that the mixture does not dry out. If premature sprouting occurs, plant immediately.
5. Once cold, moist stratification is complete, sow the seed into rows when the threat of below-freezing temps has past. Keep rows well weeded and thinned.

D: Seeds are very small or need light to naturally break dormancy and germinate: Seed requiring this treatment should be surface-sown. No soil cover, or just a dusting of soil, should be applied. If grown in outdoor beds, sow stratified (if required) seed on a level surface. Cover with a single layer of burlap or cotton sheet to help retain moisture at the soil surface. Remove cover after germination. Do not let soil dry out until seedlings are established. Shading with a window screen set 12” above the soil during the first season will also help prevent drying. If sowing seeds in containers, water from the bottom as necessary. Germination code D species can be found here.

E: In order to germinate, seeds need a warm, moist period (summer) followed by a cold, moist period (winter):  Sow outdoors in spring and allow one full year for germination. To artificially start this stratification process, mix seeds with horticultural-use medium, place mixture in a labeled, sealed, plastic bag and store in a warm place (about 80°F) for 60–90 days. Then place in your refrigerator (33–40°F) for 60–90 days before sowing. Germination code E species can be found here.

F: Seeds need a cold, moist period (winter) followed by a warm, moist period (summer) followed by a 2nd cold, moist period: Sow outdoors and allow 2 years or longer to germinate. To artificially start this stratification process, follow the instructions for Germination Code C for 60-90 days, then store in a warm (about 80°F) place for 60-90 days, followed by a 2nd cold period in the refrigerator. Germination code F species can be found here.

G: Seeds germinate most successfully in cool soil: Sow seeds in late fall (after hard frost) or early spring. Germination code G species can be found here.

H: Seeds need scarification: These species require weakening of the seed coat in order to come out of dormancy. Scarify by rubbing seed between two sheets of medium-grit sandpaper. The goal is to abrade seed coats – stop if seeds are being crushed. Scarification should be done before stratification (Germination Code C) if needed. Fall or winter sown seed should not be scarified to prevent the chance of premature germination and winter kill. Germination code H species can be found here.

I: Legume (member of the pea family): Most legume species harbor beneficial bacteria called rhizobia on their roots. Genus-specific strains of this bacterium called inoculum can aid in the fixation of atmospheric nitrogen and improve long-term health of native plant communities. Inoculum is naturally occurring in most soils and additional amendments are not needed. However, inoculum can be purchased from us for most legume genera here.
Germination code I species can be found here.

J: We remove the hulls from these legume seeds: This gives more seeds per ounce and greatly improves germination. If you have dehulled seed from another source, treat as in Germination Code H. Germination code J species can be found here.

K: Hemiparasitic species which requires a host plant: Good hosts for many hemiparasitic species include low-growing grasses and sedges like Blue Grama, Pennsylvania Sedge, Little Bluestem, and June Grass. With a knife, make a 2” deep cut at the base of the host plant. Sow seed in the cut, making sure seed is not more than 1/8” deep. If host is transplanted at sowing time, the cut is not needed because damaged roots will be available for attachment by the hemiparasite. You may also try sowing hemiparasitic and host species seeds together at the same time. To add hemiparasitic species to existing sites, scatter seed on soil surface (rake in if seed is large) in late fall. Germination code K species can be found here.

L: Plant fresh seed or keep moist: Refrigerate until planting or starting other treatment. Germination code L species can be found here.

M: Best planted outdoors in the fall: Artificial stratification may not work well.
Germination code M species can be found here.

O: Impermeable seed coat: Nick seed coat with knife, and soak in water overnight before planting. Germination code O species can be found here.

?: Not sure: Your input would be of interest to us.

A Tribute to Dot and Doug Wade

Despite her legendary status among Upper Midwest prairie enthusiasts, the strongest impressions upon meeting Dot Wade in person were of humility, personal warmth, easy humor, a keen intellect and compassionate curiosity.

Even as Alzheimer’s disease gradually eclipsed her bright personality in her final years, Dot’s benign countenance and friendly presence were inspirations to those around her when she ventured to potlucks, social gatherings or prairie tours. She lived the last six years with her son, Prairie Moon Nursery co-founder Alan Wade, in the house that he built on Wiscoy Valley Land Co-operative in southeast Minnesota. She traveled with him annually to his winter home in the Philippines.

Global travel extended an itinerant theme that prevailed through Dot’s long life. The youngest of five siblings, she was born Dorothy H. Richman at home in Atlantic City, New Jersey, on September 13, 1914. She was raised in Sharptown, N.J., and migrated annually with her affluent family to their winter home in Florida.

Her passion for botany brought her to the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where her undergraduate research included root studies of several native plant species at the newly-opened university arboretum. She met and fell in love with Doug Wade, then a graduate student of famed ecologist Aldo Leopold.

In a 1995 interview with Morris Wiener, Dot recalled the heady intellectual climate in Madison when she first met Doug:

“I remember that I was taking landscape architecture courses in the horticulture building, and our professor said there was a new, exciting professor that the university had hired and that we should pay attention to him. That impressed me, and then when I met Doug and found that he was Leopold’s graduate student…wow! At that time, the university respected Leopold, but I don’t think that he was widely known. He had not done much writing previously, but at Madison he was writing lots and lots of journal articles. All of the chapters in A Sand County Almanac (1949) had been his journal articles, and it was published the year after his death.”

In the midst of their academic work, Doug and Dot eloped to the Wisconsin Dells, where they married and honeymooned in 1936. Their combined expertise and zeal for restoration made them a dynamic, activist couple. Their shared interests and his career eventually took them to Pennsylvania, Missouri, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Iowa, Saskatchewan and Illinois. They raised a son and daughter during those years.

Wherever they landed, the Wades had a positive impact, creating new programs and opportunities to share their love of the natural world. They were early advocates of protecting and preserving prairie remnants, including the Nachusa grasslands in Illinois. In 1964, after four years in Regina, directing education programs for the Saskatchewan Department of Natural Resources, Doug joined the faculty of Outdoor Teacher Education at the Lorado Taft Field Campus in Oregon, Illinois.

In 1965, Dot and Doug purchased five acres of land overlooking the Rock River north of Oregon. Their landscape, featuring native remnants in both hillside pasture land and woodland acres, was complemented by construction of their beautifully unique house, built with limestone rock. Doug described the house, designed by architect Verne Solberg, as extending “organic” concepts developed by Frank Lloyd Wright, whom Dot had met at a party.

Doug and Dot spent 13 years restoring and propagating native plant species on their land, increasing their numbers to well over 100 from the three dozen or so that they originally identified. In 1970 the Wades opened Windrift Prairie Nursery, one of the first of its kind, to offer native seeds and plants commercially.

In his writings about their nursery endeavors, Doug stressed the need for accurate record-keeping, integrity in genetic tracking and a strong code of ethics. Windrift Prairie Nursery provided inspiration and principles, as well plants and seeds, to the Wades’ son Alan when he opened Prairie Moon Nursery in 1982.

Many whose lives were touched by Dot and Doug Wade remember what a powerhouse couple they were, complementing each other’s talents and style. Dot reflected on this in her interview with Morris Wiener:

“I always felt lucky that we were interested in the same things. What he liked to do, I liked to do, and what I liked to do, he liked to do. He was a better birder, and I might have been a little better at plants. We could go anywhere outdoors, anytime, and have a marvelous adventure together because of our interests. We enjoyed meeting the same kinds of people. Wherever we went, we could always find a nature club or birding group. We liked mountain climbing, we liked canoeing, and wherever we were, our interests seemed to focus together on nature and the outdoors.

“I always enjoyed the classes he taught at Taft Campus, and going with the students on field trips. Doug felt that he needed me on the trail. I could always add a little more to the class with my botany and natural history background. Two people in the same field might have had an ego problem, but it didn’t bother me that he was more outgoing. We worked together, and I was happy to be at the end of the line and follow him around. I think that is why I married him. He promised to take me camping! I think that if I had my own professional career, then there might have been conflicts, but that wasn’t the case. Doug could always depend on me to help out with things that students wanted to know about plants.”

Doug died suddenly a few days after his 78th birthday in 1987. Dot continued living in their home until she moved to Minnesota in 2003. Throughout her long, productive life she made things better wherever she applied her energies and knowledge. Her restoration work lives on in natural settings and human hearts throughout the land.

Reference: Wiener, Morris, Pathways: The Ontario Journal of Outdoor Education, v7 n6 p 32-35, Oct-Nov 1995

Alan (son) and Dot at a Wiscoy Potluck in 2007
Dorothy Wade 1914-2010

A Deeper Shade of Green…

Keeping it Real

Understanding the difference between “wildflowers” and authentic native plants

Most people correctly understand “wildflowers” to be those that grow freely, without human intervention. However, the poor quality of the “wildflower” seed mixes now being offered in big-box stores and some garden catalogs prompts us to warn, don’t plant wildflowers!

Most of the “wildflower” mixes created to meet popular demand are, in fact, not good for wildlife or the environment.  Most contain Asian or European flowers which crowd out plants that are truly native to North America.  This degrades the environment and displaces the native sources of food and shelter upon which birds, butterflies and other wildlife depend.  Flowers to avoid include Oxeye Daisy, Dame’s Rocket, Bouncing Bet and Queen Ann’s Lace, to name a few.  Better choices are authentic native wildflowers, grasses and trees.

For more than 30 years, we have been selling exclusively North American native plants; native plants that are undeniably what our native butterflies, birds and all pollinators need to survive.  Reach out to us to learn more about the importance of true North American natives; we’re here to help!

Please, plant native wildflowers – As your native garden flourishes, providing much-needed food and habitat and beautiful blossoms, you can observe first-hand the critical link between native plants and native wildlife.

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