As we live with, work with and observe plants, we come to recognize that these other beings have lives and plans of their own, often acting in ways far beyond what we expect or accept. Gardeners can act to restrict these non-human intentions. We weed, deadhead, divide, prune, shear, till, broadcast chemicals and break our bodies and spirits against the waves of life that yearn to fill the earth that we are surrounded by.
Still, despite our efforts, plants want to live. They’re smart, adaptable creatures. They’re survivors. And to more effectively partner with plants to build gardens, we need to understand their ways and mechanisms of living.
Seeds and the act of seeding are some of the most powerful tools that we can use in garden building. Think about the unexpected plant that pops up in your lawn, hell strip, sidewalk or perennial bed. Chances are it arrived as a seed. Was it a weed or a welcomed surprise? Can you imagine a garden full of welcomed surprises? By partnering with the process of seeding, we can influence our garden design and composition, while also allowing plants to determine where they want to live and grow.
Winter is a perfect time for adding many wildflower and grass species to our gardens through sowing. In the wild, seeds don’t sit patiently in small packets waiting to be sown or grown in a greenhouse — seeds remain in the environment, waiting for the right conditions to support their germination. This waiting period is referred to as dormancy, the time when a seed is not actively attempting to germinate, or is being restricted from germinating. For many species, especially those that evolved in cold, temperate environments, winter conditions help break the dormancy of seeds. Freezing, thawing and winter moisture can split open protective seed coats, break down germination inhibiting chemicals inside the seeds and draw seeds deeper into the soil, readying them for the moisture and warmth of spring.
To winter sow your garden, first buy seeds. Then prepare your winter bed by removing unwanted plants and debris, and give it a light raking. You want to ensure that the seeds contact and stick to the soil. However, if your bed is prepared, but there’s snow on the ground, feel free to sow directly on the snow or between snowfalls since the seeds will stick to the snow and be nestled onto the ground as the snow melts. In a bucket, mix the seeds with moist sand, sawdust, rice hulls, garden soil or some sort of organic filler to help with even distribution. Broadcast the mixture throughout the desired area and lightly rake the area again to settle the seed. And wait until spring.
Heavy seeding will create a seed bank in the soil rich with plants that are compatible with your garden vision. These intentionally-sown species will begin to compete with the undesirable species that might otherwise fill those spaces, allowing you to feel more joy at the surprises in your garden and more appreciation for the lives of the plants that surround you.
— Kevin Williams is a horticulturalist with the Denver Botanic Gardens
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