Although native plants have evolved to survive in our demanding climate, scattering seed in your yard and expecting nature to take over does not assure success. Nature scatters thousands of seeds for each that grows. Much is eaten by animals (harvester ants in the summer can take it all!), dries up from lack of water, is carried by the wind to germinate elsewhere. If you want your native seeds to grow at your place, you must cover them, water, weed and help them along for a season or two. Once established, native plants require little or no effort. But do the work to get them established.
When to Plant
In cold winter areas, sow annuals in spring after danger of frost has past, then water. You can also plant them in fall but don’t water and don’t expect germination ‘til the following spring. In warm winter areas, sow annuals anytime and water whenever you wish to help germination.
Warm season grasses germinate when the soil is warm. Plant then. If you plant when the soil is cold, cover carefully and water when the soil warms.
Cool season grasses grow in the spring and fall when it is cool, and go dormant in the heat of summer unless they receive extra water to keep them green. For best germination, plant them when the days and nights are cool.
Nature plants at all times. Seed springs up with the summer rains. Rain is the water that jump-starts growth!
Good soil is a great boon. It holds water and allows young roots to grow more easily. Start with a weed free area. Only rototill if your soil is hard packed like a parking lot. If you must till, wait before sowing your seed. Water and allow the first flush of weeds to appear. Remove those weeds, water and weed again. Now you can sow your seed.
In a small area hoe or hand weed to remove existing vegetation. Be sure to remove any and all roots of returning plants that you don’t want.
Compost gives nutrient-poor soils, typical of the southwest, a boost. Shovel it into your soil or use as a mulch.
Hand broadcast the seed over the area to be seeded. You may wish to mix seed with sand or organic material to increase the volume you are spreading. For best coverage, go over the area twice, North/South then East/West.
Rake to cover the seed with soil to a depth of 1/4 - 1/2 inch. Use top soil, or if your soil is low in organic matter, cover with a mixture of well composted manure or other compost and coarse sand. Covering the seed is critical so that it does not blow away, get eaten or dry out.
For slopes, stamp out contour lines to slow erosion, then sow.
If you can sow during the summer rains or other wet periods, nature will do the work better than we can.
Keep the seedbed damp. Water maybe 2 times a day for the first 3 weeks. This is not deep, expensive watering. It is lots of shallow watering. If the seedlings dry out, they die. Water maybe once a day for the next 3 weeks.
When seedlings are one inch up their roots can be 3 inches down. Now you can water less frequently and more deeply. After the initial 6 weeks, water deeply perhaps 2 times a week for a month, then once a week for another month, then once every other week. In a dry winter, water a time or two if the ground is not frozen.
When established, only water occasionally, during dry spells.
Many seeds are lightweight with built-in feathers which may land them miles away. Mulch helps keep your soil moist and can add nutrients.
Soil is the best mulch, but any organic matter is good. Native hay makes an excellent mulch, if it’s free of deep-rooted field crops which can take over, such as alfalfa. Other possibilities are leaves, weed-free straw, or aged sawdust.
Cloth, such as old sheets, and burlap holds moisture on the surface, and provide shade for emerging seedlings. Remove it after 2-3 weeks to prevent white, spindly seedlings underneath. Compacted straw can also inhibit seedling emergence.
Binder, finely ground plant material that gets sticky when moistened, will help keep your seed, soil and mulch in place, especially on steep slopes and in windy areas. Sprinkle the binder at a rate 1-2 lbs. per 1,000 square feet over the soil and the mulch. On steep slopes, more binder may be helpful. Wet the area after putting on binder so it can do its job of holding everything to the soil. Binder is effective for about a year, by then the sun and soil creatures have decomposed it.
When weeds appear, pull them out before they get too big. Otherwise, a seemingly small problem will take over your native planting. You are attempting to jump over years of successional weed growth to a more stable climax grassland or meadow in a season or two.
Once established, your lawn or meadow should require only minimal hand weeding.
Mowing stimulates tillering (vegetative growth) of grasses and helps control weeds by removing their seedheads before the seeds mature.
Short mowing can increase water needs.
Newly sown grasses (especially bunchgrasses) should never be cut shorter than 4 inches high.
Wait to mow wildflowers until after the flowers have all bloomed and set seed.
Making Seed Balls by Jim Bones
1 part seed (native to your area), 3 parts compost - Mix well - 5 parts red powdered clay - Mix well - 2 parts water (add gradually) - Mix well until texture of bread dough - Roll between hands into 1" to 2 " balls - Flatten slightly to keep balls from rolling downhill - Dry on a screen. Finished seed balls can be stored indefinitely in a cool dry place. Distribute approximately 1 seed ball per sq. ft.