HOW TO GROW native perennials from seed, or deal with woodchucks in the garden, or harden off seedlings: I call them Urgent Garden Questions, and apparently you’ve got plenty of them, which have been arriving in blog comments, on Facebook, in emails and during webinars I’ve been hosting, too.

I’ve rounded up some of the best to tackle in the monthly Q&A segment with help from my friend Ken Druse. Ken, an award-winning garden photographer and author of more books than I can count, including “The New Shade Garden” and “Making More Plants,” produced his own “Real Dirt” podcast for 10 years, all available on KenDruse dot com (and still available on iTunes, too).

Read along as you listen to the March 6, 2017 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below (or at this link). This is the second segment of the March Q&A program–find the first segment at this link (including Q&As on rejuvenation-pruning tactics, battling slugs, and discouraging animals in the compost heap).

Want to ask a question for a future show? Scroll down to the box on how to do that, at the bottom of the page.

the march q&a continued, with ken druse

stink bug and squash bug recap

Q. I have been so confused with the up-and-down weather, as we were saying at the beginning of the first segment. It’s kind of like: What day is it? What time is it? What’s going on?

Before we take a caller I wanted to just ask you a question: I know we talked about stink bugs last month on the show.

Ken. Ew!

Q. They’re stinky. [Laughter.] I had mentioned that there are squash bugs that also stink, by the way, if you squish them or touch them, as well as stink bugs. And there is the brown marmorated stink bug–an imported pest–and there are native stink bugs. Oh my goodness, all of this diversity. [Laughter.] Stinky bugs. Did you go look and photograph yours after the show to try to figure out exactly what you had in your house? I know I did.

Ken. I thought I had a really nice, local native stink bug, and I did some photographs and a video of it walking around my hand, and if I had known that it wasn’t actually the native one and was the brown marmorated one I might not have been playing with it so much. But I didn’t get stunk, or whatever you say. [Ken’s brown marmorated stink bug photo on his hand, above, compared to online reference photo.]

Q. Maybe it liked you, or maybe it was just exhausted from waking up inside and not having nourishment or whatever. After ID’ing them using BugGuide dot net (which I adore), it turns out I have the marmorated stink but and the helmeted squash bug–a different one than I get on my squash outside sometimes, which is Anasa tristis. But the helmeted squash bug is what I have in my house, so I am up to neck in stinky bugs, apparently, and ladybugs. [Laughter.]

how to grow native perennials from seed

Q. Let’s get Shari on the line. Is that you, Shari?

Shari. I’m here.

Q. Yay–we did it; technical success.

Ken. Incredible.

Q. We’re 3-for-3 today, Shari; last month we had a few technical malfunctions. Where are you calling from?

Shari. Washington, DC. Ken was just there, in Silver Spring.

Q. So you have a question for us?

Shari. I do. In terms of seed starting, I’m wondering if there are any perennials that are native to the East Coast that are easier to start from seed than others?

Q. So there are three aspects to this question: perennials from seed, natives, and specifically Eastern. Ken wrote this great book called “Making More Plants,” a propagation book, so he has propagated a lot more things than I have, and I want to ask him to get us started, and I’s going to butt in every now and then.

Ken. I’m sure you are. [Laughter.]

Q. Should I butt in now? [Laughter.]

Ken. Are we talking in the sun or in the shade?

Shari. Both, I would be interested in.

Ken. I think the easiest native plants to grow from seed would be members of the daisy family–the Asteraceae–things that look like daisies or sunflowers. You’re talking about local plants, which I really like to hear. You’re not talking about “North American” plants, so we won’t talk about cosmos and zinnias, even though they are native to North America, but not to where you are.

Q. Not to the mid-Atlantic.

Ken. I like that you are going to have some local native plants. I’ll talk about those easy ones in a moment, that you’re basically just going to sow. Then there are the woodland plants, and that’s really a totally different story and some are kind of hard to grow.

But if you do research on these different plants and their seeds, in scientific books, it will say things like they need warm-moist for three weeks, then cold-moist for four weeks, and then cold-dry for eight weeks, and then freezer for two weeks…

Q. [Laughter.] Have you had a nervous breakdown yet, Shari?

Shari. Oh, my.

Ken. I’m going to help you with this, but it does say things like that, because what you are doing is mimicking the environment that they naturally sprout in, they germinate in What I do with almost all the hardy perennial seeds I start, is I put them in my 3 1/2 -inch pots, which is what I start most everything in, and topdress it with either horticultural sand (the big sand) or chicken grit–and we talked about that a couple of weeks ago.

And then I put them in a plastic flat, and then I cover that flat with another flat. You know the kind that have sort of a grid on the bottom and are kind of open for drainage? If you have one of those, those are great. Or you could make a wooden box and put some screen or hardware cloth over it. And then I set that–the two flats, one with the pots in it and the other inverted over it, and then weighted down with bricks–I put it outdoors, in a place that’s kind of protected but where the seeds and the medium will get moist and maybe even snow.

If you’re going to do it this year, you have to do it as soon as possible. Then I just let nature have warm moist, and cold moist and warm moist–I let the weather take care of them. The reason you cover them is you don’t want the birds eating the seeds, or any other critters getting them.

Q. Or even pounding rain washing them away.

Ken. And I put it kind of under the eaves or some sort of protected spot–but you don’t want it to dry out; you do need moisture. Under a tree, maybe.

Q. So you’re kind of simulating in a protected little propagating unit, letting nature take its course but in a controlled way.

Ken. You could do it an open coldframe too with a screen top.

Q. So that’s what you do for the ones that have multiple conditioning requirements.

Ken. And that’s a lot of them, other than those daisy family relatives, those sunflowers; things that come up pretty easily. They might just need some moisture and go under lights and they will come up.

Usually there are some directions and instructions on the back of every seed packet if you buy them that way.

For the other seeds, of like the woodland–some are very difficult, and some aren’t. A lot of them are in moist fruits, for example the Jack-in-the-pulpits have like berries [above, native Arisaema triphyllum in flower; image from Wikipedia]. Every plant has a method to keep it from sprouting in the wrong place at the wrong time. Either insects will carry the seeds away and eat the fruit, or the weather will just degrade the fruit with the freezes and thaws and then the seed are laid naked in the spring at the proper time and they sprout.

So those seeds that you get from your own plants, you can wash off the fruit (any juicy bits) and sow them right away and they will come up. If you buy seeds that came from moist fruits, they have been cleaned and dried, and you have to rehydrate them.

Am I talking too much, Margaret?

Q. I was going to say that one of the things you said–and for instance with Trillium, which makes like a fruit with seeds inside it. And in fact, you could sow those seeds, but they might not make seedlings for two years. This is where it gets tricky, Shari, so it’s good to look at lists and decide on some of the easier ones first.

There is a great guide to this online at the Prairie Moon Nursery–a purveyor of native plants and seeds for the Eastern part of the nation. They do this thing that organizes what Ken was just saying–a page that categorizes and codes all the different plants that they sell into categories from like A to S or something.

The A’s don’t require any special treatment; the B’s require one cool period, the C’s…(and I’m making this up, because I haven’t memorized it because there are so many categories). I love that page on their website, because it tells you: Here’s the group, a list, of ones that don’t require special treatment–like Ken was saying at the beginning, like asters, and even allium, and bee balm [photo above, from Mt. Cuba Center research, of Monarda ‘Judith’s Fancy Fuchsia.’]

They don’t really require too much, and something like butterfly weeds just require one period of moist cold stratification–like faking one winter, like Ken does, or putting them in a Baggie with some moist potting soil in the refrigerator. There are ways to fake it.

So sticking to those easier categories, as opposed to C D E F G H I J K L M N OP P Q R S [laughter], which I think maybe is too much…

Ken. I don’t know, I think Shari might become an expert.

Shari. [Laughter.] I don’t know, but this is very helpful, and actually Margaret you mentioned some of my favorites. It’s good to know bee balm is in the easier category.

Q. You’re going to like that list. And then under Group A you click the link and say, “Wow, there’s a lot here to start with to hone my skills of propagation.” Any others that were easy that you want to mention, Ken?

Ken. Well, I wanted to say be sure to write “do not eat” on those bags in the refrigerator. [Laughter.] I do a lot of Jack-in-the-pulpits, and I know it sounds like it’s a little hard, but if you wash the fruit off the seed and pot them up right away, they’re up within three weeks. If you don’t wash them off, it can take a really long time to come up. So I consider them among the easiest ones of all the ones I do.

Shari. Very good, OK.

woodchucks in the garden

Q. We have a question that came in on Facebook from Debby, in Pennsylvania. She’s looking for, “a non-toxic way…”

Ken. Oh.

Q. Uh-oh, non-toxic…[laughter].

Ken. I know what’s coming! [Laughter.]

Q. She’s looking for “a non-toxic way to get rid of the four different groundhog underground lodges across my property.” She has tried smoking them out, then filling in the holes–but that has never worked. She thinks she’s host to the entire clan of this extended family, and wants to know what we do about woodchucks. I call them woodchucks; she calls them groundhogs.

Ken. Where is she located?

Q. Pennsylvania.

Ken. Well, hah, Pennsylvania–woodchucks. [Laughter.]

Q. Right: Punxsutawney Phil. For a lot of the Eastern states there’s this really great website called Wildlife Help dot org, which you fill in the animal you are having trouble with, and the state that you are in, and it filters according to the laws and guidelines for that state, as well as the tactics to deter that animal, or trap them–and whether that’s legal. Pennsylvania is included, so I’d tell her to look there.

It’s really important wit h this subject in general not only to be ethical, but most important to follow the laws–to be humane toward the animal and also be safe. That’s why the laws are in place. In my state (New York) you can trap an animal, but you cannot move it to another location. I believe where Debby is they can, but it may be county by county there–and you need to know that.

And you also need to know, if you were trapping an animal in a humane way following the guidelines on a site like that–even if you were to do that, are you really prepared for what comes next?

Ken. To dispatch it.

Q. Yes, and there are safety concerns, and of being humane. Maybe you don’t want to tell me what you do. I do trap in partnership with a licensed nuisance wildlife handler when I have a bad woodchuck problem. I am able to trap them by the strictest guidelines he has taught me, and then he is licensed by the DEC to move them, and I pay him to do that.

I always call before I set my traps to ask if he will be in my area that day, because I don’t want an animal in a trap for an extended period of time. I never leave traps in the baking sun; I shade them. Woodchucks are very heat sensitive.

You must also never leave that size trap open at night, because you will get skunks, raccoons, and maybe even opossums.

These are the things you must consider-which is why I am saying: You need to know the law, and the humane treatment of animals, but you also need to know are you prepared to follow all the steps, or not? And if not, you call a licensed nuisance wildlife handler, licensed in your state, for help.

Ken. I know you are famous in your area for your ability to trap.

Q. [Laughter.]

Ken. I wondered what you do with them after, and I am right next to a river but I can’t do anything like that.

Q. No.

Ken. But I will tell you that the solution here is the dog.

Q. So the dog is a great deterrent for you? [Above, Ken’s painting of his dog, Pippa; see other art by Ken.]

Ken. Yes. Deterrent, right–because actually there haven’t been that many interactions. There were in the beginning, but now she’s 9 years old. Woodchucks used to be the worst problem here–they are worse than deer; they’re just horrible.

Q. It is a very tough animal on the garden.

Ken. But they left.

Q. You’re right; a dog is a great deterrent. And by the way, shall I just say: cantaloupe. My trick is cantaloupe.

Ken. [Laughter.]

Q. Again, I was trained by a state-licensed professional who is extremely respectful of the animals despite what he is doing, and follow the rules. Animals-that’s another of the little details of gardening. And I did an interview with a wonderful wildlife expert from Ohio State, and we talked a lot about whether repellents or barriers work.

If I have a vegetable garden in woodchuck country, I am going to make sure I have a serious fence both above ground and also below. You can’t expect the animals not to eat your peas and beans; they can’t respect the boundary if there is no boundary.

Ken. I wonder if you could make a lure garden–like we talked about that for the squash bugs…

Q. To distract them.

Ken. You could make a lure garden like in Ohio to keep them away from your garden.

Q. [Laughter.] From my garden in New York?

hardening off seedlings

Broccoli seedlingsQ. I have one other Facebook question, about seedlings–everybody is thinking about seed right now. Helen asks: “Any tips on hardening off seedlings? Have you used a cold frame for hardening off seedlings, or what other process?”

What about you, Ken?

Ken. Well yes, and yes.

Q. Ok, well that’s the end of the show folks: “Yes, and yes.” [Laughter.]

Ken. You read in the books that it says, “Take the seedlings out for one hour the first day, and two hours the next day, and four hours the next day.” I can’t do that.

So what I do with most of my seedlings, when the danger of frost is pretty much gone, I take the seedlings in their pots or flats outdoors to a protected spot with shade with maybe an hour of sun, with very bright light. A place that’s not in the wind. They seem to harden themselves pretty well, and after about a week and a half, I’ll move them to a sunnier spot that might have more of a breeze–again, after danger of frost.

As far as coldframes, I have done that, too, but you have to open the coldframe.

Q. Boy, you sure do, or those babies cook.

Ken. They’ll cook, yes; and you have to close the frame at night. If there was a danger of frost, when I used to use a coldframe, I used bubble wrap as a sort of insulator. In the worst cases I would put a 25-watt incandescent bulb on, inside the coldframe, which warmed it up just enough to keep the little bit of frost away, because they really couldn’t take it, these seedlings.

But pretty much now, I just use that shady protected spot method. What about you?

Q. Sort of the opposite, because I actually grow my seedlings outside on fair days. I take them from under lights and bring them outside to a protected bright spot–like my back porch. Somewhere out of the wind. But my seedlings grow outside on all the fair days all their young lives, so they are sort of already conditioned at transplant time. So I get around it by the way I grow them.

They’re all on plastic trays, with handles, and I carry them out each day: my little marching troop. “It’s time to go out, everybody!”

Ken. How many [laughter]…how many of these trays do you have?

Q. Only four or five trays at any one time, but I have a protected bright spot right outside the shed I use for propagating, where I have my lights and heat mats set up, and a little bit of heat in the room. So it’s really just lifting them out the door; not a big deal.

Ken. Do you ever use a fan indoors on them?

Q. To make them stronger, yes, I have, on low. [More on growing strong seedlings.]

  • Did you miss Part 1 of this month’s Q&A, about animals in the compost heap, rejuvenation pruning and slug control? That’s at this link.

WANT TO ASK a question for a later show? You can do so in two ways: on Facebook.com/awaytogarden, or use the little link at the bottom of any page on this website that says “contact,” which goes to a little contact form. Very easy. If your question is selected, we’ll email you to set up a taping time on the show.

MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, begins its eighth year in March 2017. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the March 6, 2017 show right here, and also use the buttons below to subscribe to future shows, free.

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