293-Winter Sowing Native Seeds-Encore Presentation

| Plant, Podcast

Winter sowing native seeds is an easy process that requires no special equipment, and the best part of propagating native plants from seeds is that it promotes genetic diversity for a more resilient ecosystem. To share her methods for simple winter sowing, my guest for this encore presentation is Heather McCargo, the executive director of the Wild Seed Project.

A Maine resident today, Heather grew up in Western Pennsylvania, where her mother was an organic gardener and naturalist. Heather spent her time outdoors playing in the woods, fields, wetlands and stream sides and is a self-described “child of nature.” She studied plant ecology in college and did several horticultural internships, getting hands-on experience. She apprenticed under Jack Alexander, the propagator at the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University in Boston, who taught her the many methods used to encourage seeds to germinate.


propagation techniques

Heather McCargo of the Wild Seed Project with pots sown with various native seeds. (Photo Courtesy of Heather McCargo)


Depending on the variety of seed, filing the seed coat or exposing it to a lit match or boiling water will aid germination, though Heather says Jack Alexander taught her that the simplest, most effective method of all is to just throw the seeds outside. Freezing and thawing between winter and spring will trigger germination in the seeds with no human intervention needed.

Heather says propagating native plants is economical and rewarding. What is time-consuming is collecting, cleaning and processing wild seeds, but, she says, conveniently, a lot of fun. She started the Wild Seed Project, a nonprofit organization, to gather a team of volunteers to do this important work.

For a comprehensive recap of my conversation with Heather, including her instructions for starting native seeds, you can check out the show notes from the original airing.

While you’re here, I want to take a second to remind you that I have a new book out, “The Vegetable Gardening Book: Your complete guide to growing an edible organic garden from seed to harvest.” It’s chock full of insider tips and new-to-you information that will help you step up your gardening game and tackle challenges. 

And on tap for 2023 is my new Online Gardening Academy premium course, Organic Vegetable Gardening. Sign up for the waitlist here.


Geranium maculatum

Seeds on wild geranium, which is native to eastern North America. (Photo Courtesy of Heather McCargo)


Native Seeds Are Easier to Work With

Heather endeavored to mimic natural, outdoor germination. She says sowing native seeds is much easier than raising domesticated and cultivated plants, which require compost, manure and weeding to thrive. Because native plants are adapted to our native soils, they don’t need the extra fertility that cultivated plants do. Native plants are much more resilient and vigorous. 

Various native plants have their own soil requirements — some like dry, sandy, gravelly soil, some like hot, baking clay, and others prefer wet or medium moisture soil — but they are overall less fussy than cultivated plants.


Swamp milkweed

Native plants require less of us than cultivated plants do to thrive. (Photo Courtesy of Heather McCargo)


Why Native Seeds Should Be Sown in Pots

Heather says in New England seed sowing is an activity for over the winter holidays, when other outdoor gardening jobs are finished. In warmer climates, the timetable is different but the steps are the same. Rather than just tossing seeds out into the landscape, she suggests sowing them in pots. This greatly increases the seeds’ chance of germinating and growing into adult plants.

“Everybody wants to just toss the seeds out into the landscape, but what that doesn’t take into account is the dangerous life of a seed,” Heather says. One plant can produce millions of seeds over its lifetime, she points out, but most will be eaten by birds and mice. 

A small pinch of native seeds sown in pots will have a much greater chance of surviving to germinate. Clay pots work best because they are porous, while plastic pots hold water and don’t breathe and fiber pots that are designed to decompose are not a good choice because the plants grow slowly.


Winter seed sowing

A small pinch of native seeds sown in pots will have a much greater chance of surviving to germinate than seeds that are directly sown. (Photo Courtesy of Heather McCargo)


Preservation of Genetic Diversity

The native seed movement is designed to broaden the genetic diversity of native plants. Seeds are the result of two or more plants being cross-pollinated, so each seed is a unique individual. The genetics are the raw material that allows plants to adapt.

Heather says seed sowing was a missing link in the native plant movement, according to Heather. Nurseries typically clone plants, which means they propagate genetically identical plants by rooting cuttings, and they select the plants that they deem to be superior. But she explains that while those selections may look nicer to us, they are often not superior in providing ecosystem services to insects, birds and other creatures. 

Plants with interesting colors and larger or doubled flowers are more appealing to humans but they are often sexually dysfunctional, which means they provide no nectar, pollen and seed, Heather says.  


Spotted bee balm

(Photo Courtesy of Heather McCargo)


I hope you enjoyed my conversation with Heather McCargo and learned something new about winter sowing. If you haven’t listened yet, you can do so now by scrolling to the top of the page and clicking the Play icon in the green bar under the page title. 

What seeds have you germinated successfully via winter sowing? Let us know in the comments below.

Links & Resources

Some product links in this guide are affiliate links. See full disclosure below.

Episode 015: Life Lessons on Gardening and Design with Margaret Roach

Episode 037: Starting Seeds Indoors: The Non-Negotiables for Success, Pt. 1

Episode 072: Creating an Eco-friendly Garden & Landscape: 7 Key Tenets

Episode 094: How to Start and Care for Seedlings Indoors: My Steps for Success

Episode 103: How to Create a Backyard Meadow: Simple Steps for Success No Matter the Space

Episode 130: Winter Sowing: A Simple Way To Successfully Start Seeds Outdoors

Episode 180: Growing and Using Ornamental Grasses in the Landscape, with Brie Arthur

Episode 197: The Many Benefits of Building a Naturalistic Garden, with Kelly Norris

Episode 201: Understanding Regenerative Agriculture and Permaculture, with Dr. Jake Mowrer

Episode 234: Converting Lawn into Meadow

Episode 235: The Easiest Way to Start and Grow Native Seeds in Winter: No Special Equipment Required

joegardener blog: The Best Soil Temperature for Seed Germination

joegardenerTV YouTube: How to Create a Wildlife-Friendly Habitat in Your Garden or Landscape

joegardenerTV YouTube: Seed Germination – Easy Tricks for More Success

joegardenerTV YouTube: How to Know if Seeds Are Still Good

joegardenerTV YouTube: How to Plant Seeds for Indoor Seed-Starting

joegardener Online Gardening Academy™: Popular courses on gardening fundamentals; managing pests, diseases & weeds; seed starting and more.

joegardener Online Gardening Academy Organic Vegetable Gardening: My new premium online course membership opens in 2023. Sign up for the waitlist here.

joegardener Online Gardening Academy Beginning Gardener Fundamentals: Essential principles to know to create a thriving garden.

joegardener Online Gardening Academy Growing Epic Tomatoes: Learn how to grow epic tomatoes with Joe Lamp’l and Craig LeHoullier. 

joegardener Online Gardening Academy Master Pests, Diseases & Weeds: Learn the proactive steps to take to manage pests, diseases and weeds for a more successful garden with a lot less frustration. Just $47 for lifetime access!

joegardener Online Gardening Academy Perfect Soil Recipe Master Class: Learn how to create the perfect soil environment for thriving plants.

Earthbound Expeditions: Great Gardens of Italy & France with Joe Lamp’l

joegardener Newsletter

joegardener Facebook

joegardener Facebook Group

joegardener Instagram

joegardener Pinterest

joegardener Twitter

joegardenerTV YouTube

Growing a Greener World®  

GGWTV YouTube   

GGW Episode 418: Garden with Margaret Roach

GGW Episode 1011: Creating a Meadow Garden, Anywhere Around Your Yard

Wild Seed Project

Native Trees for Northeast Landscapes: A Wild Seed Project Guide” by Heather McCargo and Anna Fialkoff

Native Plants for Roadside Restoration” by Heather McCargo

Wild Seed Magazine

Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University

Garden in the Woods

Native Plant Trust

Disclosure: Some product links in this guide are affiliate links, which means we get a commission if you purchase. However, none of the prices of these resources have been increased to compensate us, and compensation is not an influencing factor on their inclusion here. The selection of all items featured in this post and podcast were based solely on merit and in no way influenced by any affiliate or financial incentive, or contractual relationship. At the time of this writing, Joe Lamp’l has professional relationships with the following companies who may have products included in this post and podcast: Rain Bird, Corona Tools, AeroGarden, Milorganite, Soil3, Greenhouse Megastore, PittMoss, Territorial Seed Company, Earth’s Ally, National Wildlife Federation and TerraThrive. These companies are either Brand Partners of and/or advertise on our website. However, we receive no additional compensation from the sales or promotion of their product through this guide. The inclusion of any products mentioned within this post is entirely independent and exclusive of any relationship.

About Joe Lamp'l

Joe Lamp’l is the creator and “joe” behind joe gardener®. His lifetime passion and devotion to all things horticulture has led him to a long-time career as one of the country’s most recognized and trusted personalities in organic gardening and sustainability. That is most evident in his role as host and creator of Emmy Award-winning Growing a Greener World®, a national green-living lifestyle series on PBS currently broadcasting in its tenth season. When he’s not working in his large, raised bed vegetable garden, he’s likely planting or digging something up, or spending time with his family on their organic farm just north of Atlanta, GA.

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