Sowing Native Plant Seeds

How and When to Sow Native Seeds

Shortest answers:
How?  Sprinkle directly on soil.
When? 
Now, right through the end of January for best germination. 

But we know you have more questions than that :)

First, what to choose?

You need to know what conditions the species likes- how much sun do they require?  How much soil moisture?  Often species we carry will be tolerant of many soil types (clayey, loamy (loose and organic) or sandy/rocky or some range of these.  If they need a specific type we will have it noted in the listing. If it isn’t otherwise highlighted, general clayey Indiana soils will do. 

Use our listings and/or the “Growing Requirements” pdf on our website to choose species that are compatible with the areas you have to plant. Seeds from us will also include basic sowing instructions either inside or printed on the packet.

Prepare the soil.

If you need to prepare an entirely new bed, it can still be done this year! You can peel up sod, pull, or dig herbaceous plants. The internet is full of suggestions about how to accomplish this. Choose which methods seem best for you, and your space.

Spraying plants or cutting and painting stumps with herbicide is best done in spring and summer, when sap is flowing freely. (While it should always be used conservatively, herbicide is a viable way to clear areas that would otherwise be untenable. Different kinds of herbicide require different amounts of time for the soil to become safe again for planting- do your research!) The smothering method, covering existing grass or plants with cardboard boxes (tape and stickers removed) and topped with mulch, is also best done a full warm season in advance, e.g. April to October, to give the boxes time to decompose. This ensures new plants can put down roots in the soil below the boxes.

If you have an existing bed, just find some bare spots between other plants! Native plants don’t mind getting cozy! If you like, cover lightly with some garden bracken like old leaves, stems and bits from your other plants.

Honestly, you don’t need to do a lot. Once the ground is prepared, just sprinkle and wait. Fall and winter sowing are great because they require no more work on your part until spring! You don’t need to water, or weed until spring! When seeds sprout, only weed for dandelions and species you can identify. Young plants can be hard to ID, any you don’t want to pull your seedlings! If you’re not sure, be patient. Time will tell. Extended dry spells in the spring and summer will likely require watering, but plants grown by seed are often more tolerant of short dry periods than live transplants. Keep an eye on them, and you’ll learn how often you’ll need to water in your conditions!

Remember- these are native plants.

They aren’t domesticated, and only need scattering in a likely spot to do their thing. Think about how seeds are spread in nature. They can be dispersed by wind, water (we won’t be carrying any seeds of this sort) or moved around by animals, both intentionally and unintentionally. In most cases, seeds aren’t buried deep, but usually alight on a bare bit of ground or get washed down through other plants and debris by rain. To mimic this, we sow directly onto bare ground. If you are concerned about erosion, use a *sprinkling* of mulch or straw to help hold them in place. Add your seeds, then press that lightly into the soil (put down a large collapsed box and walk on top of it to spread out your weight). Mulched leaves can be good for this, but not too many. Avoid creating a mat above the soil. Seeds need to be able reach the soil, and new shoots need to be able to push through in the spring.

Header Photo: NPU HQ Parkway Planting From Sowing to Maturity. 2019-2022.

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NPU Interview: Turf Lawn Replacements

We sometimes are approached by students to participate in a project. This year, Margo Lambert, a student at Anderson University, had some questions for us about making the change to native plants, with a focus on turf grass replacements. We get a lot of these same questions from customers too. So, with Margo's kind permission, we are sharing her questions and our answers with you!

How long has your family been working with native plants and how do you educate people about the benefits of native plants?

We’ve been learning about native plants fairly intensively since 2006, when Karin started working for Hamilton County Parks. We bought NPU in Sept, 2020.

We engage customers via email subscription, social media (FB & Insta), events like Spark!Fishers, Audubon Society’s Hummingbird Migration Celebration, collaborations with adjacent companies like Wild Birds Unlimited to help them fulfill their mission statement goals, NPU HQ open house, and spring garden shows in several central Indiana counties. And of course through speaking directly with customers via our seasonal sales.

Do you see many people who are looking to replace some of their garden or lawn with a more natural and sustainable look?

Loads of people looking to make sustainable and eco-friendly land use choices!  Thank goodness!  Our business is growing every year. This past July (2022), with the help of Indiana Native Plant Society, we hosted an "open yard" at our home to show people our own native plantings. About 200 people attended! We were gobsmacked! 

Most of the turf grasses used for lawns in the US are non-native and may not thrive considering all the different climates across the state. For the climate of Indiana, are the grasses used for lawns supported by the environment?

Few are, although some people and businesses are beginning to look for alternatives like Eco-Lawn blends, buffalo grass, various sedges and so forth.  Each have pros and cons. But across the board, non-native turf lawns require a tremendous expenditure of chemicals, potable water, gasoline, personal effort, and MONEY. Our mission is to enable people to spend less money, help wildlife and truly enjoy time spent in the yard. 

The type of lawns we have today are basically deserts and don’t support the rich, diverse life needed for a healthy ecosystem. What is a sign of a healthy ecosystem?

In one short term: Species Diversity. Not just the plants but the insects, birds, reptiles and mammals that frequent the space and are supported by it. Greater diversity and amount of native plants = greater diversity of wildlife. This extends to the microflora and fauna in the soil as well!

And can a front or back lawn be turned into one using native plants?

We certainly hope so since that’s what we’ve been building on our own property for 17 years! We started by eradicating the non-native species to allow space for native plants to return on their own -- which they have! But we’ve also been selectively reducing the amount of various trees that were over-represented (like cottonwood and honey locust) to increase diversity in the wooded areas. In the front yard we’re always in the process of adding herbaceous plants and shrubs, and expanding the beds to reduce the amount of turf area and mowing that we do.

What are some of the benefits of natives and how are native plants and non-native plants different?

Native plants evolved in concert with each other, and native fauna. Non-native plants do not usually contribute positively to the ecosystem. They are at best taking up room a native plant could be using to support native wildlife. Native plants provide wildlife support through sap, blooms, pollen, leaves, and seeds/fruits/nuts and maintenance of healthy soils including supportive microbes in the soil. Even in death non-native plants don’t make the best habitat for small mammals and insects as they break down. Native plants on the other hand, provide exactly the proper nutrition that native wildlife requires, and the sorts of habitats that wildlife needs, whether the native plant is thriving, dying or already dead. Any support non-native plants provide native wildlife is incidental. It has recently been noted that they provide an avenue for the spread of non-native insects and diseases. That can have a devastating effect on native flora, and ultimately native fauna. For instance, the current spread of spotted lanternfly seems to be associated with the presence of Tree of Heaven, Ailanthus altissima, the lanternfly’s preferred host plant in its own native range. Lanternfly infestations can seriously damage and kill many native tree species.

In Indiana, are there native grass species that could potentially replace regular turf lawns and be
1) more beneficial to the surrounding environment?
2) require less maintenance and still look appealing?


This is a wide open field of inquiry. Not much research has been done with native grasses as to how they respond to mowing and foot traffic. As previously mentioned various alternatives include buffalo grass which is shorter than traditional turf grass, but is hardy and requires little water or chemical input, and Eco-Grass blends that aren’t native but also don’t require as much artificial input like mowing, added water, and chemical herbicides/pesticides. Various sedges can be used in areas that get little foot traffic, but they are taller than turf and have a different look.

The goal is to challenge and change long-held associations between success/respectability/wealth and formal gardens/turf lawns. We need to alter people’s cultural concepts of what constitutes beauty.

When thinking about grass lawn alternatives, are there sensible options for ground covers that could potentially replace lawns but still provide the traditional green look? How do ground covers work and are they low maintenance? Could herbs be used as a form of ground covers such as thyme and oregano?

Thyme and oregano are non-native. Much like garlic mustard escaped the confines of Eurasian herb gardens to become the invasive pest we know in woodland edges today, we don’t want to intentionally spread ANY non-native that may reproduce in untended areas. Non-native mints and basil are already a threat in our own yard!
[See above for discussion of green lawn alternatives that are “turf-like”.] As to ground covers, we do have native options but they often work better as “green mulch” than they do as a turf grass replacement for the simple fact that they can’t be walked on very much without damage. We find that wild strawberry is happily spreading over our mulch and providing wildlife support at the same time. It also conserves water and reduces surface temperatures, while capturing carbon. Many other ground covers do the same, like wild yarrow, Allegheny pachysandra, rose verbena, wild stonecrop, and small skullcap. Short sedges and grasses like side-oats grama and oak sedge can also fulfill this purpose.

In the world of lawn maintenance, weeds are thought to be a terrible plague for homeowners and gardeners alike. Are some of these plants we call ‘weeds’ actually beneficial plants? How do weeds help protect and restore the soil and the overall ecosystem?

“Weed” is anything that people don’t want in a space. Many if not most plants we call weeds like broadleaf plantain, dandelions, dead nettle, creeping charlie, mock strawberry, European field garlic (that we all grow up calling ‘wild onions’) and so forth are not helpful and should be considered invasive. Honey bees (also NON-NATIVE) get some value from these plants but that should not be confused with value to native bees and other native pollinators that do more for supporting native plants.

Of course, native plants are often also considered weeds. Any replacement of turf or weeds to “improve” soil, restore habitats and ecosystems needs to be accomplished SOLELY with wildtype native species. Keep in mind that many plants now considered to be highly invasive like Amur honeysuckle, multi-flora rose, Russian (autumn) olive, and so many more were actually intentionally introduced by state departments of natural resources and transportation! During and after the Great Depression and again after World War II, there was a huge push to modernize and create access to rural areas and natural resources via road projects like our interstate highway system, and massive campaigns to dam rivers for the purpose of reducing flooding, creating water storage for large cities, and providing electricity. These non-native plants were introduced to stabilize slopes, reduce erosion and “beautify” road margins. Why they were chosen over native plants is too long a tale to tell here. The point is: We don’t want to make the same mistakes all over again by trying to fix the "lawn problem" with more non-native plants.

Remember: Native plants all have the capacity to improve soil health, reduce stormwater runoff/erosion, reintroduce and support microbiomes, and rebuild topsoil, all while they are providing habitat, reducing surface temperatures, and sequestering carbon above and below ground.

The ‘traditional’ yard is one that has successfully eliminated as many humming, buzzing, and crawling things as possible. Many bugs have a bad reputation but are actually beneficial to a healthy, thriving ecosystem. What ‘pests’ can we encourage to make a home in our yards? How can landowners use their land to help promote the bee population?

What can a homeowner do?

STOP USING GRUB CONTROL/PESTICIDES. Many “Weed and Feed” products actually contain pesticides so be mindful of the small print!
~ Leave the leaves! (And twigs, and logs/deadfall) They can be moved, but don't shred or throw them away! Wood and brush piles are great habitat. Drilling holes into the end of cut wood in a woodpile will provide nesting habitat for native bees.
~ Plant native plants so bees and other pollinators have food!

The “pest” that has surprised and impressed us most are the WASPS!  Wasps are beautiful, have diverse and amazing life ways, and there are so many different kinds! We’re all used to various hornet species we often call "paper wasps" or "ground wasps/bees"… we don’t notice them until they get all up in our business taking bits of our picnic food or stinging us. But the truth is almost no wasp species are known to sting. This is an example of “observation bias”. That is, we assume they all sting based on our interactions with two or three species when there are actually many dozens of species right here in Indiana.
All this goes for bees too, but people like bumblebees usually and are much more forgiving of bees in general. Even ants and flies are actually quite beautiful and it’s incredible to observe the amount of pollinating and free pest control they do in a native garden. We’ve observed a dozen species at a time on boneset, goldenrod and spotted bee balm right here in our yard. (Don't bee-lieve us? See our Instagram)

What advice would you give to someone who has a tightly manicured lawn, but wants to support a more natural landscape with local biodiversity? 

Start small. Begin with a space that is not visible from the street if you're nervous. Most people begin in their back yards and beds. That’s FINE! Start with easy, “beginner” plants that need little care and like a wide variety of conditions. Initial successes with plants like purple coneflowers, wild bee balm, and black-eyed susans, give people the confidence to add in other species and spread their native gardener wings. People often tell us they don't have a green thumb and all their plants die.  
Maybe their green thumbs are fine, but the plants have been wrong! All native plants need is an opportunity and a nudge!
Another initial entryway into native plants is to replace one or more shrubs in foundation beds or add shrubs along property edges that are currently in turf lawn. These are easy changes to make. As people see the life return to their yard, as they see insects and birds return to their spaces, they change their opinions pretty quickly. Being a steward to your own little patch of ecosystem is its own encouragement! 

[Other simple ways to help increase soil health and biodiversity fast: Reduce or eliminate herbicides/pesticides, leave your leaves and twigs in habitat piles in unobtrusive corners of the yard! See previous answer!]

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Why should you insist on wildtype native plants?

Native, introduced, invasive, cultivar, nativar…  what do all these words mean anyway?


There is an enormous amount of confusion around these terms. We’re going to go through them here briefly: how NPU understands them, uses them, what we recommend, and why. The explanation behind the observations can be complicated, so we’re not going to delve into that at this time. First, the terms.

Native - a plant that existed in North America prior to Eurasian settlement.

Introduced, or non-native - any plants that was brought to North America either by accident or intentionally. This includes agricultural species- grains, fruits, vegetables, and herbs. This concept applies to insects and other animals as well.

Invasive - An *introduced* plant species that spreads prolifically and chokes out other plants, severely reducing diversity in an area.*  

*This is NOT the same as a native plant that spreads prolifically in garden beds.  Native plants often create stands of one species where space allows and, while this is normal to a certain extent, it’s made more dramatic by human disturbance of the soil.  Some plants thrive in disturbed areas, others are slow to establish, and still others will die out. It depends on their structure, life cycle, and role in the ecosystem they have evolved to fill. Regardless, a large stand of one native species isn’t a particular problem, and usually resolves itself over time, as the area undergoes succession.

Cultivar/nativar - a “cultivated variety” of a species that has undergone alteration by humans in order to exaggerate some desired characteristic, such as flower size/color, leaf color, lack of seeds/thorns, etc. This is usually done through selective breeding (including hybridization) but cultivars are occasionally made via GMO methods. “Cultivar” refers to any altered species, and is regulated to the point that a variety of cultivar can be trademarked. Nativar is an adaptation of the word turned marketing device- it’s a cultivar bred from a native species. As an entirely unregulated term, a nativar may be derived from species native to the continent but not the region, or may be a native species hybridized with one (or more) non-native species.

Wildtype - an individual of any species that is genetically indistinguishable from wild individuals in that species’ native range. This includes species variation and mutations that are naturally occurring. 

Ecotype - a population of a species from a specific area. Generally used to refer to a population that has adaptations to local conditions that are not common or are absent from other populations of the same species. Where these differences are obvious, they may be indicated by var. (name) following the scientific name. Ex: Rudbeckia fulgida var. deamii is an ecotype of black-eyed susan (Rudbeckia fulgida) originating in Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. However, this can also be as simple as a population of plants growing in a valley that is more tolerant of water than a nearby population growing on a ridge. 

We exclusively sell native ecotypes of wildtype plants. 

We support banning the sale and trade of plants that tend to escape from lawns and gardens into untended areas. Unfortunately, various introduced species become invasive in different regions or after a change in their conditions. For instance, we had never seen hostas reseed in woodlands until 2017, but we believe this is becoming a problem due to changing weather conditions. NPU does sell a few species native to surrounding states, particularly those to the south and west, as we are anticipating plant communities from those regions spreading here naturally due to climate change, as several already have.

Why should you insist on wildtype native plants? 

Because they are, as a rule, both hardier and more valuable to wildlife than any other option. We are losing species, genetic diversity, and ecosystem resilience and functionality at an alarming and unprecedented pace. Ecosystem restoration begins with soil regeneration—which is inseparable from reintroducing native vegetation. This leads to improvements in water retention, rebounding insect and animal life, and carbon sequestration—which eventually leads to reducing global temperatures and cleansing fresh and salt water sources.  

So what’s in it for you? 

-A diversity of native plants provide immediate benefits like shade, reducing runoff/standing water, savings of time and money by reducing artificial inputs (like herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers), and planting of annuals. 

-One topic we don’t often talk about is annuals. Much energy, chemicals, unrecyclable plastic, and water goes into their production, distribution, and maintenance, yet they offer essentially no wildlife support. The goal is to reduce the amount you buy, by planting a diversity of native plants so that there’s always something blooming, colorful and intriguing going on in your garden beds! The first time you see a hummingbird moth all up in your bee balm is MAGIC! We believe most people naturally transition away from annuals, as their native gardens mature and expand.

-Children LOVE learning in the outdoors with insects and wildlife. Providing a wildlife haven and a native food garden can be a gratifying way to engage with the land and with family! 

-Last, but not least, there are positive and incalculable mental health benefits. Who would have guessed being surrounded by beauty and life could be so uplifting?

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'22 Fall Sale

Welcome to all our new customers!

We are here to assist you in choosing the best plants for your spaces and learning about native plant ecology, but we know our sales may not be like other sales you’ve experienced! So here's a bit about what to expect when you preorder and/or attend the public sale.

REMEMBER:
NPU is a very small family business. Our sales are hosted by Geist Nursery, another (separate, different, please don't call them looking for us) small family business. We purchase from small to mid-sized regional growers, most also family owned.

We do not grow our own plants, and WE DO NOT SHIP PLANTS.

Plants are living things. Our growers try to standardize sizes and shapes, but plants do what they want and are affected by many environmental factors.

We do not offer guarantees because the plants are subject to too many variables after they leave our care. Our promise is to be sure the plants we sell are healthy and vigorous. If we end up with a sad one, we’ll let you know and you can decide for yourself whether to take the chance on it.

PREORDERS:
Because we do not have our own property, we rely heavily on preorders for our seasonal sales. This helps us get estimate how many plants we need for the season so that we don’t purchase too many.

You are NEVER obligated to purchase a plant from us. If you need to cancel a preorder, you may do so no questions asked. If you pick up your preorder and a plant isn’t what you expected, please let us know and we can refund you.

WHY preorder? Preorders guarantee that what you want will be available when you come to the sale. In addition, preorder customers choose a time slot in which to pick up their order. During that time they can ask us questions and shop at a less busy time, as well as get first selection of the species that are ONLY at the public sale.

PUBLIC SALE:
We do our best with online listings, but there’s nothing like seeing a plant in person to know what you’re getting. That’s why, after preorders are picked up, we offer a public sale period. The lengths of the sales may vary. We don’t carry near as many species at the public sale, BUT some species are ONLY available at the public sale due to uncertainty of supply.

CUSTOMER SUPPORT:
We welcome questions! We want your efforts to succeed and we are here to help as best we can. Email, text, or call- we’ll do our best.
In addition, the listings includes a lot of information such as growing conditions, and special considerations for each species. An abbreviated version of that info is available all the time online in the form of a “cheat sheet” PDF for easy reference.

POT RETURNS:
We take back pots and trays to the growers for reuse which is wonderful, and we’re more than happy to do that-  *BUT ONLY THE ONES THAT COME FROM OUR SALES*. Please follow the instructions on other pots as to if/how they can be recycled.

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Getting Started- Planting Native Species

Planting native species is your typical planting experience, but, for beginners or those who want to brush up, here are helpful diagrams and step-by-step instructions on how to get native plants started off right!

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Getting Started- Protecting Plants From Deer & Rabbits

To fence, or not to fence? That is… almost never the question, unfortunately. Here’s how to make deer and rabbit fencing/cages that keep your plants safe.

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Native Plants Unlimited's First Blog Post!

We're a few weeks into the new year, and we want to take the time to recap how things have changed for Native Plants Unlimited over the last year and what you can expect in 2022.  So, please join us for...

THE STATE OF NATIVE PLANTS UNLIMITED ADDRESS

2021 was our (Karin, Hollyn, and Eamonn) first full year running NPU, and what a journey!  It all started with pre-orders for the spring sale- the overwhelming response had us scrambling!  Spring had more pre-orders than the company had ever seen.  No minimum order threshold, longer pre-order period, and a shiny new website allowed and encouraged about 3x as many of you to reserve the plants you needed, which, in turn, was crucial to our preparation for the public sale.

Speaking of the public sale, just "WOW!"  As many pre-orders as there were, we knew our opening weekend would be busy, but nothing could have prepared us for the turnout we had.  More plants were sold during that first weekend than the company would usually sell during its entire public sale.  We had to do a lot of running around to keep up and had to fight the wind as it attempted to snatch our tents, but we made it through!  Even with that brilliant opening, we were still able to provide a wide selection of native plant species over the rest of the month, ensuring that those of you driving a long distance wouldn't be disappointed.

Then we did something a bit different: during June, after the public sale, we took some of our remaining stock on the road, partnering with Wild Birds Unlimited and the Brownsburg Farmers Market to do some pop-up sales in locations the business hadn't been to before.  While we were doing that, we also put our remaining inventory up on our website for people to order and schedule pick-ups at one of our pop-ups or at Geist Nursery.  These couple of weeks after our sale were probably the most experimental we got all year, and we're very proud of how we were able to push the business into new territory.  

After a small break, we held pre-orders in August for our second annual Fall Tree and Shrub (and Vine) sale!  Unlike the first Fall sale in 2020, we were able to plan this one out and tell you all about it during the spring, which lead to many more of you finding our collection of woody species.  Those of you who came out to Geist Nursery during our fall sale may have noticed a new tech upgrade: a barcode scanner!  Though not necessarily the most flashy upgrade (pun intended), we're excited to feel a bit more like a "real" retail experience.  On the customer side, using a barcode allowed us to give itemized receipts, which can be helpful for all sorts of reasons.  

The barcode let us keep an accurate inventory, which brings us to our post-Fall-Sale efforts.  Since we already had inventory numbers available in our system, we were able to piggy-back off of the June pick-up order experiment by putting our remaining fall inventory straight onto our website.  No more sending 20 emails back and forth trying to figure out what you can get, just the live-updating simplicity of online ordering.  

And then, as if all the rest wasn't enough, we decided to hold an online winter sale in November and December.  Through our online store, we offered digital gift cards and books about native plants and the wildlife they support.  We were happy to provide some holiday gifts and treats for you all! 

What's the plan for 2022?

The backbone of our year is staying the same: we'll still be holding our Spring Sale and Fall Sale at Geist Nursery with pre-order periods before each.  But within that structure, we're looking at bringing lots of changes! 

Since the early garden shows will hopefully be able to open safely this year, we'll be at a few of them. We're expanding our seed offerings quite a bit with single species seed packs (14 species) and 5 different custom mixes! We're planning on having seeds, books, soil knives available at these shows, along with our scintillating conversation of course ;) 

For spring, we're retooling how pre-orders will be picked up, but we're not quite ready to talk about specifics yet.  Details will be announced before pre-orders go live on Valentine's Day though, as we want you to know what your order means and how/where to pick up.  During the Spring sale, we'll be using our bar-code system that debuted in the fall for transactions.  Check out might take slightly longer, we believe being able to email or text you a list of plants you purchased will be worth it. 

As education is key to our mission, we will have books and literature available at all the sales this year, although probably a more limited selection. Rest assured, these will always be provided at extremely competitive pricing. We are also working at writing semi-regular blogposts to make information easily accessible for our customers, and at preparing educational presentations so we can bring the info on the road!

On a grander scale, we are looking into how we want the business to progress over the next few years.  Our Spring Sale in 2021 was enormous in terms of both product and foot-traffic, and we know that if we keep growing, we'll eventually need a home of our own.  The search has already begun for a location where we can have the room we need to display, care for, and store our plants.  We're not looking to move far geographically, but it turns out that the sort of plot we need is hard to come by!

So we want to start the new year in gratitude to you, our customers, for making our expansion, education efforts, and donations (to 14+ organizations in 2021!) possible.  We'd be remiss as well, if we didn't thank the good folks at Geist Nursery for hosting the sale, and George and Madelyn Peregrim for holding our hands through the first year.  It takes a lot of good people working toward a goal to make good things happen!  You're all the BEST! We hope 2022 brings you all joy!

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