Native Seedlings of November
November 12, 2022
Overhead, a sheet of dim white, and ragged complexity of dark and light lace, moving, shifting with the wind. The clouds, a landscape mirrored in the small scene of remay-covered trays in my nursery, porous cloth peaked where plant tags stand and valleyed with collections of withered buddleia leaves and blown, black soil. I bend and grasp a river rock, cold and heavy in two hands, and move it from a dirtied corner of the protective cloth, and an old chunk of concrete block from another corner. Carefully lifting the remay, my intent to shake the debris away, to allow the light to shine through on newly sewn seeds, not expecting to see anything but dark potting soil and white specks of perlite. Lifted like a wave, moist spray and scatter of leaves, and look: tiny green! Folding my body closer, knee to ground, close enough to smell the muted aroma of peat, and there: unfurling corkscrews of white from surface-sewn pinpricks of seeds.
Just yesterday a cold slush, not fully snow, but brisk with the smell of it, fell through the air to splat and soak and chill the earth, putting me in a mood to scrub bathroom tile, bathe, and read, and do no gardening. And today, with the storm passed, I ventured outside to wonder at the potential of a seed, the emergence of life under a cold sky. Did the remay cloth speed along your sprouting?
Through the slats of the deck rail I see movement. Wind? Leaves? No, of course: squirrel! Busy, busy burrowing, hazel-gathering nutkins, pawing disturbance. That’s why the remay. Not for warmth from the oddly cold November, no, these seeds are happy for the wet of it.
Checking my writing on the reused plastic tag, sharpie pen marks persisting just long enough to teach me what each seed looks like upon germination, I see Clarkia amoena is the most eager to grow. So many green cotyledons like miniature butterfly wings. Also known as “farewell-to-spring”, this pink-flowered, bee-magnet blooms from late spring through summer. Admiring the freshness of its sprouting, I want to call it “greetings-to-fall”.
Madia elegans, (aka showy tarweed) my dear friend from walks on Skinner’s Butte, is also making a show. Its seed leaves are fatter than clarkia’s, reminiscent of miniature sunflower cotyledons. With oil-rich seeds that fed indigenous Kalapuya people historically and flocks of goldfinches currently, the robust little sprout makes sense. It fits what I already know about this drought-resilient, summer-long bloomer.
The one corkscrewing out from seeds as small as dust is Collinsia grandiflora or blue-eyed Mary. I read earlier this morning how Collinsia is a favorite of another PNW gardener, but she’s new to me. I’m as eager to know her as she is to sprout.
I check the other tags to remind myself of who’s yet to come: Claytonia sibirica, Limnanthes douglasii, Heracleum maximum, Lomatium nudicaule, and Lomatium utriculatum, Prosartes hookeri, Gillia capitata, and Phacelia nemoralis. Flattened carrot family seeds and small pebbles of others are visible and swollen above the soil in some pots. In others, I pat the wet fluff of the potting medium, whispering encouragement.
These are all native plants I’ve sewn and many are annuals—growing anew each year from fresh seeds. And the season is Fall. The season of wild seeds dropping from stalk to ground and rain returning to drought-parched earth, dampening wildfires and dripping from eaves and leaves. Spring is the season of new life in all its emergence and unfurling and fresh green growth. And yet, looking closely, I always see the opposite season showing in the current one. Sewing seeds this month makes that interconnected cycling tangible.
Fall sewing is not for all climates, nor for all seeds. Not for tomatoes or cucumbers, no. Not those classics of the kitchen garden. Even cool-loving brassicas are best sewn in late summer before the temperatures drop. But so very many of our best native wildflowers naturally germinate now. Douglas meadow foam, Limanathes douglasii was the first species I tried years ago in Alida’s garden. One small $3 packet of hard little seeds was enough to sew here and there directly in her garden, accompanying Douglas Iris (two Dougalses are better than one, and there are so many with the Scotsman’s name. David Douglas was a botanizing fanatic. Until he met his death in a wild bull pit in Hawaii). I covered the little grouping of five or nine or so seeds with some left over decomposed granite. A light layer provided thin cover and helped mark the location of the seeds so they wouldn’t be mistaken for weeds. They thrived! Even with the heavy deer traffic browsing through Alida’s garden, their fried egg, yellow-centered, white flowers bloom in profusion in spring through summer attracting beneficial pollinators like the hover flies whose larvae eat aphids. Yellow pools beneath spears of iris and their vari-colored purple, lavender, white blooms is a delicious sight!
When you walk in gardens and wild places this month, start seeing sprouts. The insufferable dust of our extended droughty summer has quickly been healed by rain showers and the following magic of unlocked seed coats. November is for new life, for wildflowers germinating, for the opportunity to add one more layer of diversity to your planting. Let seedlings green your garden ground and offer connection to the overlapping cycles of seasons.