THE ABSENTEE GARDENERS
By Kit Flynn and Lise Jenkins
I dream of native plants thriving in my suburban garden — I’m here to confess, reality doesn’t resemble my dreams.
My husband and I live on a tiny parcel of land, our house consumes most of our property, but the thin boarder of land surrounding our house provides enough gardening space for me. As most of my garden is visible, I don’t have a backstage for experiments, so my successes and failures are there for all to see.
Years ago, I began supporting the North Carolina Botanical Garden. Among its many benefits, the garden annually sends out packages of seeds gathered from their plant collection. Each year I would take that tiny treasure, pop those seeds into the ground, and anxiously wait for the plants to arrive. Alas, they weren’t impressed with their new surroundings as they consistently refused to germinate.
Meanwhile, seeds I purchased from the hardware store practically jumped out of their starter pots. I began to develop an attitude towards these hesitant native plants, calling them names, while lavishing my attention on those plants I could grow from seed.
Refusing to be bested, I recently took a class on propagating native plants from seed: It turns out I was doing it all wrong. I could have prevented the demise of all those seeds sent to me by the N.C. Botanical Garden if only I had stopped to pay attention to what was happening right outside my doorstep.
At the end of the growing season, plants pack up their children, launching them out into the world. Think of a plant seed as a baby in a box with a lunch — it’s a baby plant with nutrients to give it a start in life, all encased in a package to help the seeds travel to their new location.
Those traveling clothes are as diverse as their parent plant’s environment: wings to catch the wind, hard shells to roll along the ground, yummy coatings to entice critters or hooks to grab
ahold of passersby. The details vary but most journeys take time so most seeds must endure a period of dormancy.
Dormancy was my downfall.
Native plant gardeners learn how to break a seed’s dormant period by mimicking what the seed experiences in a natural setting. Temperature, moisture, physical or chemical treatments are used to recreate the journey a seed undergoes, sending the signal for it to settle down to begin its new life.
The seeds I typically buy have been domesticated to the point they’ve lost most of their wildness. Plant breeders work to develop plants with all sorts of traits gardeners want — size, bloom time, color, scent, disease resistances, the list goes on. Behind the scenes they also need to create plants that commercial growers value: those plants that are difficult or time-consuming to propagate don’t make the cut.
Armed with new knowledge I’m now trying to convince a recently arrived packet of native seeds that they are sleeping through their dormancy period by storing them for three months in an air-tight container in our refrigerator. Hopefully, they will awake from their nap ready to begin anew next spring.
Any triumphs will be happily reported in these pages come spring, while my failures will be quietly tossed out.
Absent from their gardens, Kit and Lise enjoy roaming our region exploring the intersection of horticulture and suburban living. More on Instagram @AbsenteeGardener or email: firstname.lastname@example.org