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Insight to Starting Pollinator Seeds

Last year, I wrote and was awarded some funding through Bayer’s Feed A Bee program. The program is meant to create pollinator habitat and to educate the public on the importance of habitat for bees and butterflies. In order to extend our grant dollars way further and to get my hands a little dirtier, I proposed in the grant that we would propagate our own seedlings and starts. At that time, I was blissfully unaware of what that actually meant.

Well, it turns out that starting native pollinator plants is quite unlike starting agricultural plants that have been artificially selected for thousands of years. And so, the learning curve begins. In this blog, I will share what I’ve learned so far about starting pollinator plants.

In general, pollinator plants take more time to plan for than agricultural plants. This is due to a process called stratification that has been bred out of agricultural crops. Stratification means to subject a seed to a period of moist coldness, which mimics overwintering in the soil. A period of moist coldness ranges in duration from 10 to 100 days. From my limited explorations of pollinator seeds, most of them need stratified. So if you’re used to hankering down with seed catalogs in the deepest depths of winter to place an order at the end of February in order to get started in mid-March; well, you’re probably too late to start pollinator plants that year. Rather, mid-December would be a great time to order pollinator seeds. That being said, purple coneflower and bee balm are two exceptions to this pollinator stratification tendency and do not require any stratification.

Additionally, there is a dearth of information on the web or seemingly anywhere, regarding pollinator seed starting. This is in direct contrast to agricultural crops, which have had every detail of their seed beginnings researched and conveyed. These details can often be found on the seed packets themselves or on the websites of purveyors. Johnny’s Seeds has always been my go-to for detailed information on starting agricultural crops.

We bought our pollinator seeds from Prairie Moon Nursery. Whereas Prairie Moon does a great job of providing stratification, scarification, and inoculation information (more on those last two in a moment), it does not provide any information on nuts and bolts seed starting stuff. Nuts and bolts in this case means temperature, planting depth, germination timeframes, and germination percentages. Quite frankly, these are the details that are difficult to find on the internet. If someone has a go-to site or even an old-fashioned book with this information, please contact me.

As for scarification and inoculation, these are additional occasional necessary steps for pollinator seeds. Scarification is a process where the grower mimics the process of going through an animal’s digestive tract, or the heaving and hoeing of soil freezing and thawing. To artificially scarify seeds, the seeds are placed between two layers of sandpaper and are gently sanded a little bit to remove some of the seed coat. This makes it easier for the sprout to literally bust through the seed coat.

Inoculation is not 100% necessary, but is 100% preferred. Inoculation applies to the Legume plant family specifically. This is the plant family that includes all beans, including peanuts, soy, and peas, and also cover crops like clover and alfalfa. Legumes’ roots have the uncanny ability to form a symbiotic relationship with Rhizobium bacteria. Ultimately, Rhizobium pull nitrogen out of the air and turn it into plant available nitrogen for the host legume and nearby plants. This is called nitrogen fixing. Rhizobium are often found naturally occurring in soils. However, if you want to maximize your nitrogen fixing, then you want to be sure to add Rhizobium to your seeds. This is called inoculation. Basically, it’s as simple as sprinkling purple Rhizobium dust (supplied with purchase from Prairie Moon) on moistened seeds. It’s not difficult. It’s just another step.

Since starting this blog a week ago, many of my fears have been allayed. This is to say, many of my pollinator seeds have sprouted. The sprouts include black-eyed Susans, purple prairie clovers, bee balms, lead plants, and ground plums with more sure to come (I hope). Next round of seeding starts this week. I've gotten over my first steps. I'm ready to go.

Blog Author: Justin Husher, Natural Resources Conservationist

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