Claire Lane - Urban Conservationist
After a long, cold winter the sunshine and warmer temps of spring usually inspire thoughts of flowers and new plantings and excitement over gardens and growth. But, did you know you don't have to wait till spring to get started? In fact, fall and winter can be the best time to start your native planting from seed. Fall and winter seeding, sometimes called frost seeding or dormant seeding, takes advantage of the cold, moist winter weather. These conditions help seeds break their dormancy and germinate successfully in the spring. This process is known as cold-moist stratification and many of our native species must go through this process before they are able to germinate.
A general rule of thumb in native plantings is that fall plantings favor germination of forbs while spring seeding favors native grasses. An additional plus for fall seeding is particularly relevant to wet areas or areas with heavier silt or clay soils like Hamilton County. It is typically easier to work and prep these soils in the dry fall as they tend to stay wet late into the spring. Difficulties working wet clay soil in the spring can make you miss optimal seeding windows as well as compact soils.
The key to establishing native seed in any season is good seed, soil contact. Your site prep should make soil contact possible and the freeze and thaw throughout the winter will work the seed into the ground to the appropriate depth. Site prep that leaves disturbed soil uncovered is not ideal for a fall/winter seeding, especially on erosion prone sites. Learn more about site prep options on the Site Prep page of our website.
Wait till daily temperatures are consistently under 70 degrees to avoid any fall germination. In central Indiana, November is a great time to get started. Most species need 30-90 days of cold-moist stratification so the earlier in the winter you get them broadcast, the better. A good option is to broadcast seed just before a forecasted snow. The snow acts as a temporary cover for the seed to avoid a bird smorgasbord of your seed. If you haven't prepped your site to allow for a winter seeding this year, it is possible to mimic the cold-wet stratification in your own fridge for a spring planting. Learn more here.
Hand broadcasting is typically the best frost seeding method for smaller areas but you'll want to follow best pracitces to make sure your seed is distributed evenly. Learn more about seeding methods from Prairie Moon Nursery- How to Grow a Prairie from Seed.
When spring arrives, keep an eye out for troublesome annual weeds. Hand pulling is your best bet for managing those early weeds in the first season. It can be difficult, especially for beginners to identify weed vs native plant seedlings but thankfully some resources are available. Check out the NRCS Prairie Seedling Guide or you can even create your own based on your seed mix. We have plenty of maintenance resources available on our Pollinator/Native Garden Info page.
*A note on sourcing seed
Sourcing your seed is very important as you can find yourself in a situation where your seed is loaded with fillers or even noxious weeds seed! You've done the work to prep and prepare, so extend that thoughtfulness to your species selection and your seed sourcing. We have a great list of native plant and seed sources available on the Where to Buy Native Plants page of our website. If you want to start small, we also have packets of seed available for free at our office. These packets are a simple mix of four species that will provide blooms for pollinators throughout the whole growing season. Learn more about the packets here. If you'd like to stop by to pick up some packets just give us a call to set up an appointment 317-773-2181.
Claire Lane, Urban Conservationist
While planning, consider things like utilities, HOA covenants, and overall neighborhood aesthetic sensibilities. Backyard native plantings are a great opportunity to educate friends and neighbors on the beauty and function of native plants. The SWCD has signage available and little actions like keeping tidy borders and using a bench or birdhouse to show care for the area can help people see that your natives aren't "weeds" resulting from lack of care but actually a beautiful, tended home for pollinators and a sustainable choice for your yard!
Remember, a prairie isn't just something 'out there in a park somewhere' but quite possibly, literally, in your own backyard.
How to create your own backyard meadow:
Whether you have 10 square feet or 10 acres, replacing turf grass with native plants is a great way to reduce maintenance on ecologically sterile areas of your property and replace them with vibrant, diverse native plants that support pollinators, wildlife, water quality, our ecological heritage, and our ecosystem.
Consider the existing vegetation on your property as well as underground and above ground utilities, easements, invasive species and potential weed pressure. Use local resources such as your SWCD, INPS chapter and members, Master Gardeners, and Grow Indiana Native resources to guide planning and source quality seed and/or plants.
Terminate existing turfgrass
Seed/Plant - Mid-September - late November is a great time to seed natives. Fall plantings favor flowers and don't require watering.
March - April seeding favors grasses.
May - June seeding allows for more soil preparation and spring weed control but may require supplemental watering.
Maintain - Weed control during the first years is critical. Mowing will be necessary ~1x month the first year to combat annual weeds. Target noxious weeds with hand pulling or herbicide. More info is available here.
Enjoy - Consider certifying your garden through the Grow Indiana Native Program. It's free!
Seeds should be planted no more than 1/4 inch deep.
Need more info and details? Checkout the resources, guides, and links at hamiltonswcd.org/seedpack & IndianaNativePlants.org