Tagged with "Seeds"
This is part of a series with Gardenista , which ran on November 16, 2023.
Photo: Westchester County Parks and Recreation curators and interns wild collect Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) seeds in a county park. This beautiful blue-green, fine-textured grass is a larval host for a mix of skipper butterflies and is attractive to birds.
“A seed contains the past and the future at the same time,” said the poet and writer Ross Gay, in a recent interview in The Nation. Hilltop Hanover Farm, a Perfect Earth Project partner in New York’s Westchester County, understands this firsthand. Through their native plant seed initiative, they are preserving the past by cultivating the plants that have been growing on this land for millennia, while sowing a resilient and biodiverse future.
Native plants have become a buzzy topic in recent years, and not just for their good looks. People are beginning to understand how vital they are to a healthy and robust environment. “Highly biodiverse ecosystems are more resilient and adaptable; they improve the soil, prevent erosion, protect against flooding, lower temperatures at the ground, and clean the air,” the farm writes on their website. “They are also beautiful.” But to provide the greatest benefit, restore depleted lands, and give insects, birds, and other animals the food and habitat they really need, we must look beyond the plants that are native simply to North America, and be sure to include species local to our specific regions. Hilltop Hanover is doing just that, led in their work by Adam Choper, the farm’s director, and Emily Rauch, the native plant programs manager. The farm is part of a newly formed group called Local 59 Plant Network, a seed collective formed to grow and collect valuable local natives of the Northeastern coastal zone (ecoregion 59) for conservation and restoration in Westchester County, NY, and Fairfield County, CT, and to preserve them for the future through the Northeast Native Seed Network. “We’re working together as a collective to figure out supply chain issues, find out where the gaps are, and find a way to get the seed out into the world,” says Choper.
The farm employs Lindsey Feinberg, a dedicated seed collector, to cull 18,000 acres in the county by hand. Feinberg follows the Seeds of Success Protocol set forth by the Bureau of Land Management, taking no more than 20 percent of a population so as not to deplete any one species. Ideally, she’s gathering from 250 different plants of the same species. “Instead of just harvesting once, our seed collector makes multiple passes on the same group of plants to capture early, mid, and late maturing seeds,” explains Choper. “And she’s not just collecting the most floriferous, or biggest, strongest plants, but also the less showy, smaller ones, as well as color variation within a plant. Genetic diversity is the key.” This focus on diversity is vital for handling weather extremes, disease, and other disasters, as well as planning for climate resilience. “It will ensure the future of a species,” he says. The more diversity, the more possibility a plant will survive.
In the fall, the team also harvests from their native seed production plots. “We lay out the seeds on tarps in our dairy barn for a couple months to dry,” explains Rauch. “After two or three months, we start hand rubbing them to remove the chaff and winnow out the seed.” The farm recently acquired a state-of-the-art seed-cleaning machine, which will make the whole process faster and more efficient. The seed is then stored carefully, to be planted next year or banked in a mid-term storage facility. The seeds we store should be viable for 2 to 10 years. “This way, we’re ready to go if something happens.”
Today, the farm has 30 native species in cultivation. “We don’t just focus on what I call ‘the romantic pollinator plants’, like milkweed, which everyone already knows and loves,” says Choper. “We also want to encourage people to grow the keystone species that might not be as showy, but are no less important, like the Purpletop grass (Tridens flavus), which is good for restoring wetlands and is also beautiful.” (See below for a selection of some of their favorites.)
Their seed mission comes full circle this winter when they will team up with their neighbor Muscoot Farm, another Westchester County Park and Perfect Earth partner, to plant out a new septic field with seeds grown and cultivated at Hilltop Hanover to create a thriving and beautiful ecotypic meadow—ensuring a vibrant future for generations to come.
[Photos courtesy of Hilltop Hanover Farm, unless noted]
Showy goldenrod (Solidago speciosa) is one of the keystone species Hilltop Hanover grows in production. This fall-blooming beauty can reach six-feet in height and is a favorite of birds, who love to eat their seeds.
“We’re trying to find sustainable ways to grow native plants without using plastic,” says Feinberg. The team has been trialing more sustainable methods, like cardboard and this OMRI-listed paper mulch, which will break down over time.
Hilltop Hanover Farm is “dedicated to the development and advancement of sustainable agriculture, environmental stewardship, community education, and accessible food systems for all.” They donate a minimum 10% of the produce grown on the farm to food pantries and soup kitchens in the area and also share native plants with other organizations in the region. “Here, cold frame boxes house germinating trays in summer and overwintering plants in the winter,” explains Feinberg.
The farm crew helps harvest seeds of Coastal Plain Joe-Pye Weed (Eutrochium dubium) by hand.
A volunteer cleans Clematis virginiana seeds. Learn more here about volunteering opportunities at Hilltop Hanover Farm.
Photo by J. Meder - The farm grows Indian Grass (Sorghastrum nutans), a deer-resistant, rhizomatous prairie grass with golden flowers, which hosts the pepper-and-salt skipper butterfly and provides nesting materials for native bees.
The farm sells their seed-grown native plants at their farmstand throughout the growing season. Fall is an excellent time to plant. They’re open Thursday through Sunday, 10-4.
Here’s a selection of favorite keystone species they are growing for seed production at the farm:
Photo by Prairie Moon Nursery - “An attractive, low growing, tufted grass with seeds that mature in the early summer, poverty-oat grass (Danthonia spicata) tolerates a wide range of habitats but prefers poor, dry soils in open woods,” notes Feinberg. This grass can serve as an alternative to turf grass on dry lawns with moderate foot traffic, where it can be interplanted with other groundcovers.
“Silverrod (Solidago bicolor) is the only white goldenrod in our area. It’s found in rocky, open oak woodlands. is a good pollinator plant that serves to increase species diversity on dry restoration sites,” says Feinberg. Here, it has gone to seed.
Photo by Prairie Moon Nursery - According to Feinberg, “Hop sedge (Carex lupulina), a keystone species of floodplains, marshes, and other open wetlands, has a number of ecological benefits, including shoreline stabilization, floodwater storage, and water filtration. It also provides food and cover for wildlife and insects.”
Photo by Dogtooth77 - “An attractive rush found in swamps, marshes, and floodplains, Canadian rush (Juncus canadensis) grows rapidly and handles substantial soil compaction,” notes Feinberg.
The unusual, large-flowered flat-topped white aster (Doellingeria umbellate) grows along swamp edges and moist thickets and is tolerant of flooding and stormwater inundation. “It blooms earlier than most asters, attracting a variety of bees and wasp species, including a number of specialist bees. It is also a host plant for the pearl crescent butterfly and the primary host plant of the Harris checkerspot butterfly,” says Feinberg.
“All gardens are a form of autobiography,” writes Robert Dash, the late creator of the magical Madoo, a garden in Sagaponack, NY, (Notes from Madoo, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2000). The painter and poet wove an intricate story of art, exploration, and a reverence for the natural world when he created the two-acre garden more than 50 years ago. It features paths designed for “loitering”; structures painted in a panoply of colors: a lavender gazebo, sunny yellow arch, and robin’s egg blue bench; and a plant palette that spans the globe, including many native varieties. “Whenever possible, suitable native plant material is used—,” writes Dash, “plants that are garden-worthy and have decent manners, that is.”
For the past 14 years, Madoo Conservancy director Alejandro Saralegui has been the garden’s passionate steward. Dash was explicit that he didn’t want to “fix this garden in amber,” as he put it. “It must remain relevant.” Saralegui has been honoring his wishes, keeping alive Dash’s spirit of artistry and experimentation. “The garden is heavily planted and that sometimes calls for change,” Saralegui says. “It’s a remarkable legacy; we want to preserve and enhance it.”
Yet, one thing remains constant at Madoo: A deep commitment to organic gardening. “Madoo uses no sprays,” Dash wrote decades ago. It still doesn’t. In addition to being chemical-free, Saralegui follows an organic approach to care. “We allow plants to grow naturally, aside from the topiary, rake leaves into garden beds where they’ll decompose over time, and embrace native plants,” he says. He especially loves the garden’s mature, native trees, such as the fruiting pawpaw, or as Saralegui jokingly calls it, “the new cool Brooklyn kid tree,” or the stately Franklinia (“my pride and joy”), a rare bloomer that’s extinct in the wild but still grows in cultivation thanks to William Bartram, who saved its seeds hundreds of years ago. There is also an array of native grasses, Joe-pye weed, goldenrod, and spring-blooming Camassia, to name just a few native stalwarts that flourish in the landscape. Saralegui makes sure to leave the seed heads through the winter for wildlife. He also re-uses as much material as possible. The garden recently saved the original brick, for example, when they redesigned the rill, using it to line both sides of the new water feature. “We hope people go home, look at their gardens, and be inspired by what they’ve seen at Madoo,” says Saralegui. “And then bring a little magic to their own gardens.”
“Organic formality” is how Saralegui describes the look at Madoo. “Strong bones keep the garden from looking like a hippy hangout,” he says. “The painted hardscape also brightens the all green landscape.” But as Robert Dash used to remind people, ‘green is a color, too.” Photos by Alejandro Saralegui.
Radicle Thinking by Edwina von Gal
This post is about roots. It also marks the start of the new name for my Perfect Earth monthly posts: Radicle Thinking. The radicle, a root, is the first thing that emerges from a germinating seed, and the future of a plant depends on the radicle’s success. Seeds, miraculous tiny germs of life, are held in suspension until the world around them says, Okay, GO! A radicle then sets out to explore and engage with what it finds. It heads down into the soil to anchor the new plant, and then starts sending up water and nutrients so the plumule (the embryo’s shoot) can grow up towards the sun and start the true leaf growing process.
The radicle and the lateral roots that follow it form a root system of insanely intricate and mutually beneficial relationships with the microorganisms in the soil. These root systems form part of a two-way delivery system: nutrients and water from the soil flow up into the leaves, while sugar made from sunshine (photosynthesis) is sent down from the leaves to the roots to energize a vast community of busy soil-based lives. Roots+soil+leaves+sun = the essential building blocks of plant life.
My interest in roots and radicles makes me think about the fact that few of our commercially available plants are grown from seed. Most are cloned, propagated asexually by cuttings or tissue culture—they have no radicle. Instead, these genetically identical plants are created to meet the needs of the horticulture industry: easy to grow (compact, fast growing, unappealing to insects), easy to ship (short and tight “muffin-tops”) and easy to sell (big, bright flowers). These cultivars are often given cutesy, easy to remember, wince-worthy names, like “Incrediball”, “Pinky Winky”, and “Miss Piggy”. Many are patented, with the “inventor” getting a royalty for every plant sold. Specialty plant propagation of this sort has become very big business, encouraging lots of people to shop and plant varieties that would seem to be great for greening up the world. But how is it working for those plants and our ecosystem? We aren’t yet sure. Ecologically sensitive gardeners, especially native plant enthusiasts, are carefully watching to see how these plant clones will behave in the landscape, serve beneficial bugs and birds, and react to threats from things like pests and disease. Time will tell.
And what about the impacts of starting life without a radicle? Vegetative (seed-free) propagation relies on adventitious roots, which originate from stem tissue (not the radicle). They are fibrous, tangled, and often found circling the bottom and sides of the container in which they were grown. Can they do the same job as root systems with a radicle, formed by the natural process of seed germination? We know that asexually propagated plants will sometimes "revert" to their original species form, or otherwise grow out of the commercially driven traits that made them desirable to begin with. This is often not a concern for the breeders since replacing failing plants is good business. But it isn’t great for creating sustainable gardens, and it’s especially not great for trees, which are all about being around for a long time. I’ve been noticing clonal nursery trees, which have nothing but adventitious roots, showing signs of suffering as they age. Their fibrous, adventitious root systems have a tendency to wrap around and choke the tree (called girdling roots), which causes trees to die back a little at a time and weaken or even snap at the base. (Learn more about it here.)
Take a look at the trees in your yard, neighborhood, and community. How many of them were grown from seed right where they were dropped by their mother tree, assisted by her mycorrhizal network? Sadly, there isn’t much opportunity for this to happen in our managed lands.
So, if you find an acorn sprouting, save it. Try to plant trees grown from seed, no matter how small. Yes, it is a slow process, but think of them as your family. Don’t we love the process of raising our families from birth? The natural process of putting down a root and letting it grow is one that has evolved naturally and successfully for every life form. It connects us to nature and makes us happy and whole.
Resource: The Native Plant Trust's Go Botany is easy enough to hook beginners and deep enough to engage geeks. Learn how to identify plants and delight in the plant of the day.
Book: Forest Forensics: A Field Guide to Reading the Forested Landscape , by Tom Wessels (W. W. Norton & Co, 2010)
Quote: "We are as gods and might as well get good at it. So far remotely done power and glory—as via government, big business, formal education, church—has succeeded to the point where gross defects obscure actual gains. In response to this dilemma and to these gains a realm of intimate, personal power is developing—power of the individual to conduct his own education, find his own inspiration, shape his own environment, and share his adventure with whoever is interested." Stewart Brand’s statement of purpose, Whole Earth Catalogue , 1968.
Photo: Thale Cress (Arabidopsis thaliana) about two days after germination from seeds by BlueRidgeKitties.
Surely you have heard about leaving the leaves by now. So, of course, we want to take you to the next level—leaving pretty much everything. Every seed head of every tree, shrub, grass and flowering plant is a potential food source or shelter for wildlife. Standing (and resting) vegetation protects the soil and all that lives on or in it. There is a lot of life going on that you can help to make it through the winter.
So please don’t mow that meadow, don’t chop plants down and remove them from the garden. Every cut is a wound, and a loss. Why not see it all differently—less work and, in your newly winter watchful eye, a place full of beauty, and life, and wonder.