Starting Native Seeds Outdoors in Lettuce Boxes
WOK member Jill Fisher has successfully raised many native seedlings using this method. However, she cautions that this is a guide only: “Much is trial and error—be sure and take notes!”
- Find germination information for the seeds you want to start. Prairie Nursery and Prairie Moon Nursery are good sources, as is the Ecolandscaping Alliance. Prairie Nursery has a handy Seed Propagation Information handout. Do this before collecting seed, since some types of seeds need to be kept moist. If you are starting your seed in the spring, it will probably have to go through stratification, a period of cold dormancy, before it will sprout. Be sure to follow the germination directions for your species.
However, if you are starting seeds outside in the fall, they will naturally go through stratification as they sit outside all winter. In this case, you don’t have to stratify them artificially in your refrigerator.
- Gather your seeds from generally brown and/or dry seed heads, fruits, or pods. Not all seeds on a flower head will likely be ready at the same time. Most seeds should be kept dry until planting, but a few species need to stay moist. (This is why you need to do your homework in advance.)
- To start seed in lettuce boxes, first cut at least two holes in the bottom of box for drainage.
- Fill the box 3/4 full with potting soil.
- Sprinkle seeds on top. Most (but not all) native seeds germinate better if they are not buried in soil.
- Water and put outside in a protected spot like under a deck or a covered porch, where you can see them and sunlight can get to them.
If planting in the spring, put on the lid.
If planting in the fall, leave the lid off unless your box has plenty of ventilation holes to keep it from overheating. Instead, cover with a screen or hardware cloth to protect against foraging critters. Leave your box outside all winter, until the weather warms in the spring.
- As the weather warms, remember to keep your soil moist. If you put your seeds out in the fall, you can put the lid on at this point. But in any case, if the weather gets sunny and warm, you may need to lift the lettuce box lid to keep the soil from overheating.
- Watch for germination! Pot your seedlings as they become large enough to handle. And be patient; let the rest of seeds keep trying to germinate. Native plants are very individualistic.