Usually, winter’s confinement gives me time to ponder my coming garden. I flip through the arriving seed catalogs, marking pages while revising my shopping list at a leisurely pace.

We are now, apparently, facing a seed shortage: This year demands swifter action. Good gardening relies, in part, on good timing. The ongoing COVID-19 chaos is colliding with Mother Nature — seed producers, having endured months of diminished capacity, now have limited inventory to offer.

If you are ready to try something new this season check out conservation groups distributing heirloom and native plant seeds. Members of the Blue Ridge Chapter of the NC Native Plant Society are working hard to distribute free native plant seeds. Through their new seed library box program at the Daniel Boone Native Garden in Boone, NC the group has distributed over 150 free seed packets from 50 species that thrive in the High Country.

Incorporating native plants into your landscape offers a fun challenge for gardeners who enjoy experimenting and want to tune into the rhythms of nature. But it’s not for everyone.

Annkatrin Rose, Associate Biology Professor at Appalachian State University and Chair of the Blue Ridge chapter, says, “You have to know a bit more about these plants because they aren’t as easy to grow as the seed packets you buy from the store.” That’s because our mass-produced garden plants have to succeed in very different conditions.

Most of our garden plants have been bred to fulfill human needs — long-lasting blooms, compact shapes, disease resistance and so much more. But they also need traits that allow commercial growers to produce a plant they can sell: one that not only grows quickly but is also sturdy enough to endure transportation while retaining its enchanting beauty for its retail debut.

Not all plants succeed in those conditions, which is why you see the same plants over and over again across your neighbors’ landscapes. Expanding your palate to include native plants not only helps support the local food web, it adds local flavor to your landscape.

Rose points out that people choose their plants for lots of different reasons.

“Sometimes when people learn about a plant they get really interested in their story, they get excited and want to include these plants in their garden,” said Rose.

Want to try inviting native plants into your garden this season? Rose offered some suggestions for plants that are easy to start from seeds.

  • Coreopsis (tickseeds)
  • Gaillardia (blanket flower, annual)
  • Helenium (sneezeweeds)
  • Heliopsis helianthoides (false sunflower)
  • Lobelia cardinalis and L. siphilitica (cardinal flower and blue lobelia)
  • Monarda (beebalms)
  • Oenothera (evening primrose and sundrops)
  • Penstemon (beard-tongues)
  • Pycnanthemum (mountain mints)
  • Rudbeckia (black-eyed Susan and relatives)

If you don’t have the patience for seeds, you can often find the plants on Rose’s list at garden centers and big box stores.

However, Rose warns, “I’ve found native plants at lots of places, but they aren’t always labeled as native plants.”

She suggests keeping a “wish list” with you when you go shopping. Keep in mind native plants cultivated for sale, sometimes referred to as nativars, often are marketed under their cultivar name. Plant cultivar and common names can be confusing, so include the botanical name on your list to help with identification.

Seed Savers Exchange and Prairie Moon Nursery are two vendors who, while outside of North Carolina, do a wonderful job of offering heirloom and native plants and seeds through their catalogs and websites.

Closer to home you may want to consider, the North Carolina Native Plant Society. They maintain a list of nurseries on their website that specialize in native plants. You can find it at ncwildflower.org/native-plant-nurseries/.

I’m a member of the North Carolina Botanical Garden and enjoy their seed distribution program. They provide seeds to their members along with information about the plant and how to propagate it. They will be releasing information about their 2021 program soon. You can find out more about their program at ncbg.unc.edu/plants/native-seed-distribution/.

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: info@absentee-gardener.com

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