Wild Ones: Free Seeds to Start your Native Wildflower Garden

When my mother used to comment that so-and-so neighbor had really let her garden “go to seed,” she was not being charitable. How our understanding has changed!

When flowers go to seed, nature is working. It means that plants have bloomed. Pollinators have visited them. Seeds have formed. And those seeds will nourish winter birds or fall to the ground to become the flowering plants of the future. 

More and more people in Door County have begun introducing this natural process into their yards, gardens and properties. Although large-scale planting projects are labor intensive and, often, expensive undertakings, anyone with a bit of land and a great deal of patience can create a native wildflower garden, hedge or border. Not only do these native plantings attract and support birds and butterflies, but they also provide natural pest control by sustaining the species that prey on insect pests, help filter stormwater and prevent erosion. And they’re beautiful.

The Door County Seed Library, Wild Ones of the Door Peninsula and Crossroads at Big Creek are collaborating to present a wildflower seed-collection workshop Nov. 6, 11 am, at Crossroads at Big Creek, 2041 Michigan St. in Sturgeon Bay, to help people get started in a rewarding hobby.

In 2006, Wild Ones of the Door Peninsula approached Crossroads at Big Creek to establish a wildflower planting in an abandoned orchard that had been overrun by weeds and shrubs. Submitted.

After a short discussion of seed-collecting techniques, Don Gustafson – a member of both Wild Ones and the Seed Library, and an experienced native-plant enthusiast – will take participants into the meadow at Crossroads, which truly was grown from hand-harvested seeds. He will guide beginners by recommending plants that are appropriate for various sites and will probably suggest that beginners collect perennials – preferably a selection that will bloom throughout the growing season.

Gustafson will also explain how to recognize and hand-harvest ripe seeds from a variety of plants and demonstrate the most efficient way to extract mature seeds from pods and seed heads. He will also keep an eye on participants to ensure that only a small portion of the seeds are harvested because ethical seed harvesters always leave most plants untouched. That way, they will reseed in the meadow.

Maybe the most important instructions will be how to process the seeds after they’re collected. Although some people just toss seeds onto the soil’s surface in the fall – which is essentially what nature does – most seed collectors have better luck if they dry the seeds before storage because mold can form on seeds that are not fully dry. And critters can get into seeds that are not fully protected. Germination rates also tend to be better when the cleaned seeds are separated from the chaff. Finally – although this can vary for different species – most seeds must be kept cold for a significant time, or they will not germinate in the spring.

The internet is full of advice about collecting and planting native wildflower seeds, but the best way to learn is by doing. Friends of the Seed Library will also have a table on the Collins Learning Center’s porch, where they will distribute free packets containing a variety of seeds, plus handouts explaining winter sowing.

Collecting and sowing wildflower seeds does not lead to instant gratification, but it does bring pleasure. As Wild Ones members say, planting natives “helps heal the Earth one yard at a time.”

Coggin Heeringa is the program director and naturalist at Crossroads at Big Creek in Sturgeon Bay and president of the Wild Ones of the Door Peninsula.