Getting my act together, part 2: stratifying and planting

Now that my seeds are organized, I know what I’ve got and what I need to do with them. It’s time to get to work.

Planting seeds indoors

Even though the ground is still frozen outside, I can plant seeds inside. The Pussy Willows in our backyard are also impatient waiting for warm spring weather (March 19, 2020).

I have a lot of seeds for annual flowers and vegetables. For the past couple of years, I’ve grown pollinator-friendly annuals for a school plant sale. However, since the school year is now on hold, I’m focusing on growing annuals for myself. The current shortage of toilet paper and flour has motivated me to grow more vegetables this year as well. (Perhaps I should be growing more plants to use as toilet paper too. See Forget Toilet Paper? Here are 5 Leaves You Can Use in a Pinch. I already have Large-leaved Asters and Thimbleberry. There are also a few volunteer Mulleins, descendants of plants I foolishly encouraged when I thought these prolific self-seeders were native.)

To reduce plastic, I made square ‘origami’ pots following instructions in a YouTube video, DIY: Newspaper Pots for Seed Starting/Cuttings by Crouton Crackerjacks. I used 1 full sheet of newspaper folded in half to start, instead of cutting the sheet in half as shown. The paper pots fit nicely into my seed-starting trays. Since they’re packed close together, I’m hoping they don’t dry out as quickly as the round newspaper pots I’ve made in the past.

Luckily, I recently bought several bags of potting soil, just in case non-essential stores were shuttered. Glad I did. I dumped a bag of soil into a large plastic bin, and filled the pots right inside the bin to contain the mess.

Filling pots right inside a plastic bin filled with potting soil.
A tray of completed pots ready to go.

I cut up large yogurt containers to make labels, and used a black China Marker (from Staples) to write on the tags.

Making pot labels out of a yogurt container.

Now that my seeds are planted in their pots, they’re are headed to the basement to sit under artificial lights. That is, until we put the greenhouse together — another one of my pandemic panic purchases.

Last chance

Unfortunately, while organizing I found native seeds that I should have planted in the fall, or that require 90 days of cold before they’ll germinate. I also have some that need alternating periods of cold and warm conditions, like winter-summer-winter. I’m leaving these seeds to deal with some other time.

Most of my native seeds require 60 days of cold, moist stratification. Since it is too late to plant them outside in pots to experience winter weather naturally — my preferred, lazy method — I’m going to give artificial cold treatment a try. In other words, I’m putting the seeds in the fridge.

I added the seeds to baggies, along with 2 tablespoons of moistened vermiculite. I then labeled each one with the seeds’ common name, and the date it should come out of the fridge.

Filling baggies with moistened vermiculite and seeds before I put them in the fridge.

I am not really sure how moist to make the vermiculite. I decided to drain any excess water from the baggies, just in case they were too wet.

You can shorten the cold stratification time using Wildflower Farms Speed-dial method (under Starting Flower Seeds), by moving seeds back and forth from the fridge to the freezer. I might try this method next year. I feel like I have enough to keep track of as it is.

Why am I putting seeds in the fridge?

You might be wondering why I’m putting native plant seeds in the fridge. After all, the annuals that we usually grow are just fine without cold treatment. Here’s a simple explanation:

“Seeds of many wild plants from temperate parts of the world want to know that winter has passed before they germinate. They don’t want to germinate on a warm afternoon in December. So, the seeds contain a chemical germination-inhibitor which breaks down slowly in cold temperatures, essentially -3C to 3C, over time. How much time depends on the species (and sometimes some other factors). Other plants have seeds with very hard coats and this coat must be broken or softened in some way before water can get in to start the germination process.”

Trish Murphy, Beaux Arbres Native Plants

Why not the freezer?

Our winters are way colder than the refrigerator. Why put the seeds in the fridge instead of the freezer? In a normal winter, seeds that drop to the ground in fall are covered with several feet of snow. This thick, snowy blanket insulates the ground from winter’s harsh temperatures.

Join me on a brief side-track. Beneath the snow, in this relatively warm, ground-level layer there is actually a hidden world known as the subnivean zone. The subnivean zone is a space that forms just above the ground and below the snow pack as the snow melts and re-freezes. It is a relatively cozy place for small mammals (like mice) because the temperature remains around 0°C, no matter how cold it gets above the snow. For more information and an illustration, see Beneath the Snows of Winter: the Subnivean Zone. Back to the seeds.

Record keeping

Last of all, I started a list to record which seeds I am planted and when. I have no clue what I planted outside in pots a few months ago and they’re still buried under snow. All I know is that I planted a lot of milkweed — enough to supply the whole neighbourhood, I think.

Now, I just have to wait for the seeds to germinate, just like I’m waiting for spring weather to arrive. I’ll try not to check them every few minutes because, as the saying goes “a watched pot never boils”.

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