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The Ultimate Guide to Planting Midwest Native Wildflowers & Grass Seed

by | Jan 22, 2024 | Information, Installation/Planting, Site Prep, Soil Health | 0 comments

The Ultimate Guide to Planting Midwest Native Wildflowers & Grass Seed

Creating a lush and vibrant garden full of native wildflowers and prairie grasses in the Midwest is beneficial for both your landscape and the environment. One of the key factors for success is knowing precisely when and how to spread these seeds. In this comprehensive planting guide, we’ll uncover the best practices on when to plant native wildflower and grass seeds in the Midwest.

Keep reading to learn more about when is the perfect time to plant wildflowers and grass seed, which seeding technique to choose, and other important considerations to keep in mind to grow a DIY native garden at home.

Feel free to skip ahead sections if you have a specific question you need answered!

  1. When to Spread Native Wildflower & Prairie Grass Seeds
  2. Late Fall/Winter Native Seed Sowing (AKA Frost Seeding): Advantages & Disadvantages
  3. When To Plant Native Seeds In Missouri
  4. How To Sow Native Plants For Home Gardeners
  5. Broadcast Planting
  6. Milk Jug Planting: Wildlife-Proof Planting
  7. Cold/Moist Stratification
  8. Advanced Sowing Options: Native Seeding For Farmers And Large Property Owners
  9. Mechanical Broadcasting Using The 5-Gallon Calibration Method
  10. No-Till Drill Calibration Method
  11. Choosing the Right Native Seeds: Don’t Skip This Step

When to Spread Native Wildflower & Prairie Grass Seeds

To maximize the success of your native wildflower and grass seed planting, it’s crucial to get the timing just right. The Midwest experiences a diverse range of climates and temperatures, so pinpointing the ideal planting window is essential.

Overall, native plants are hardy since they’re used to surviving in this landscape without any human intervention. Over time, only the best of the best survived, so all native plants are used to cold, fluctuating Midwest temperatures in the winter and hot, humid springs and summers.

The amount of time seeds need for freezing and thawing varies quite a bit. A few species of wildflowers and most grasses don’t need the freezing (stratification) period and will germinate if sown on the ground in warm conditions. On the other hand, most wildflowers need anywhere from 10-90 days in freezing-thawing conditions to germinate. 

As a generalization, wildflowers and cool-season prairie grasses should be planted in the Fall/winter months and warm-season native grasses can be planted in late spring or early summer. 

There are two best times of year to plant native American seeds: The Fall/Winter and the Spring. 

You can tell when the best time to plant native wildflowers and grasses is through their germination codes. (Pure Air Natives is currently working on adding these to our site, though we include instructions on our seed packets.)

Here’s more information about each and which is the best option for your needs.

Late Fall/Winter Native Seed Sowing (AKA Frost Seeding): Advantages & Disadvantages

This time of year allows the seeds to establish themselves and experience a natural cold stratification process during the winter months, giving them a head start for a vibrant spring bloom.

Many native plant enthusiasts start planting in November – February for the most hands off and natural seeding option. In other words, wait until temperatures are consistently low enough to keep seeds from germinating.

If you miss the fall planting window or prefer to wait until spring, you’re in luck. Early spring, typically in March or April, is an excellent alternative time to sow native wildflower seeds. With longer daylight hours and rising temperatures, the seeds have the opportunity to thrive in the rejuvenating spring environment.

Depending on what requirements your native seed has, you can plant right on the ground in spring, just as you would in the fall. Depending on your native species, there’s a few other seeding options you can choose from.

When To Plant Native Seeds In Missouri

The best time to plant native wildflower seeds in Missouri is mid-November through mid-March while the best time to sow most native grass seed is April through mid-June. Though you can technically plant any time after the first fall frost, we’ve had the best sowing results at this time of year.

Keep reading below for a step-by-step guide on how to plant native seeds. Though wildflowers and native grass seeding instructions overlap, there are a few key differences to be aware of.

How To Sow Native Plants For Home Gardeners

There are 3 main seeding options available for those with smaller planting areas. 

1. Broadcast Planting

Broadcast planting native seeds is a natural and straightforward method for establishing native wildflowers and grasses in the Midwest. This method involves sowing the seeds directly onto the soil surface, mimicking the natural dispersal process observed in the wild. 

Here are the steps to ground plant: 

1. Prepare the Soil

Clear the selected area of weeds, unwanted vegetation, and debris. Ensure the soil is firm (but not compacted) and lightly rake it, promoting optimal contact for seed germination. 

2. Conduct a Soil Test (Optional, but recommended)

Before planting, consider conducting a soil test to assess nutrient levels and pH. Based on the results, determine if any amendments, such as compost, pelletized lime, or well-rotted manure, are necessary to improve soil fertility. 

3. Create Seed Beds

Rake the soil to create a smooth and level surface. If you prefer a monoculture of one species, consider separating the beds to allow for easier management and maintenance. If you’re planting a mix or don’t want to, then the wildflowers and grasses can grow in the same area.

4. Refer to Seed Packet Instructions

Follow the instructions on the seed packet or germination code for the specific native seeds you’re planting. Pay attention to recommended sowing depth, spacing, and any other guidelines provided by the seed supplier. The recommended plantain depth is always no more than double the width of the seed.

Pure Air Natives now includes individual native plant requirement information for each seed packet. It includes sun exposure preference, moisture level preference, and the number of days for cold/moist stratification (if needed) for each species!

5. Evenly Scatter Seeds

Sprinkle the native seeds evenly across the prepared soil surface. Ensure uniform distribution to prevent overcrowding and competition among the emerging plants. We recommend doing this before a big snow.

For wildflowers, be extra careful to sow lightly. Since wildflower seeds are often much smaller than native grass, spreading seed manually can cause large clusters of wildflowers to grow that can turn into a big plant that takes up a lot of space.

It’s much better to very lightly spread the seed and fill in with any extra once the space has been covered.

Here are 2 more tips about even scattering seeds:

  • Split the planting site and the seed into equal portions (often quarters but more or less depending on the area of the planting). This way, if someone does throw out the seed too heavy to start they can find that out quickly and adjust their seeding rate and still have seed for the rest of the area.
  • Also, if you’re planting a larger space, it can be helpful to focus on the perimeter and then the center so if you do run out and have bare spots. The plants will have an easier time filling in the space.

6. Press Seeds into Soil

Some seeds may require light to germinate. Lightly press the seeds into the soil surface with your hands or use a roller to ensure good seed-to-soil contact. Avoid burying the seeds too deep. The seeds must not get planted more than a ¼” deep.

You can also walk over the patch or roll over it to help increase the seed to soil contact.

7. Avoid Watering the Area

For most planting sites, watering is not necessary. Watering and fertilizer primarily helps the weeds instead of the plants. This does depend upon your soil type though.

8. Wait for Germination

After planting, wait for the seeds to germinate. Depending on the species, this may take some time. 

Annuals, biennials and other early successional species are likely to show up the first year. Many perennials will spend the first year working on root development and may have very little aboveground growth. 

There’s a saying about this: “First year prairie sleeps, second year prairie creeps, and third year the prairie leaps!”

9. Consider Mulching

As the plants begin to grow, consider adding a layer of mulch to help retain moisture and suppress weed growth. Mulching also contributes to soil health and provides additional support to the emerging seedlings.

Overall, planting native plants isn’t too time consuming and labor intensive. Many home gardeners have received positive results by simply seeding at the right time and then letting the seeds be until wildflowers or grass starts to germinate.

2. Milk Jug Planting: Wildlife-Proof Planting

Similar to the above: but with one twist! You start the seeds in a milk jug so that birds and other wildlife won’t eat your seeds. If your native seeds keep being scavenged by wildlife and birds, then this is the best planting method for you.

Here are the steps to plant seeds in milk jugs:

1. Gather Materials

Collect empty, clean milk jugs with lids. Other containers can be used too — essentially, you’ll be creating a greenhouse for your native seedlings to break their dormancy period in peace. Ensure you have potting soil and the native seeds you want to plant.

2. Prepare Milk Jugs

Cut the milk jug horizontally, leaving the handle intact. Create drainage holes in the bottom for proper water drainage.

3. Fill with Potting Soil

Add potting soil into the bottom half of the milk jug. Leave enough space at the top for the seeds and subsequent growth.

4. Sow Native Seeds

Sprinkle the native seeds evenly over the soil surface. Follow recommended spacing guidelines for the specific seeds.

5. Lightly Press Seeds

Press the seeds lightly into the soil surface for good contact. Avoid burying the seeds too deep.

6. Water the Seeds

Water the soil to ensure proper moisture. Use a gentle watering method to avoid displacing seeds.

7. Secure the Lid

Place the top half of the milk jug over the bottom, creating a mini greenhouse. Secure the lid to protect the seeds from wildlife.

8. Place in a Sheltered Location

Choose a sheltered location, such as a porch or protected area. Ensure the milk jugs receive enough sunlight for seed germination.

9. Monitor and Water

Regularly monitor the soil moisture. Water as needed to maintain optimal conditions for seed growth. Don’t overwater!

10. Transplant Seedlings

Once seedlings are established, transplant them into the garden or desired location. For seeds grown indoors, ensure a smooth transition by acclimating the seedlings to outdoor conditions. Wait until soil temperatures are consistently above 55F.  

By following these steps, Milk Jug Planting provides a protective environment for native seeds, preventing scavenging by wildlife and birds until the seedlings are ready to be transplanted elsewhere.

3. Cold/Moist Stratification

Freezer stratification is an effective method for preparing native seeds for germination by simulating the natural cold stratification process they would experience outdoors. This technique involves subjecting seeds to a period of cold temperatures within a freezer, breaking dormancy and enhancing the chances of successful germination. Particularly useful for seeds of plants that naturally undergo stratification during winter. Freezer stratification provides gardeners with greater control over the germination process. 

Here are the steps for this popular DIY method of stratification:

1. Seed Collection

Gather the native seeds you intend to stratify. Ensure they are clean and free from any debris.

2. Moisture Preparation

Dampen a paper towel or a piece of cheesecloth with water. Squeeze out excess moisture, leaving it slightly damp.

3. Seed Wrapping

Place the seeds on the damp paper towel or cheesecloth, ensuring they are evenly spaced. Fold the material over the seeds to create a compact bundle. 

4. Seal in a Plastic Bag

Transfer the wrapped seeds into a labeled plastic bag. Seal the bag to create a humid environment around the seeds. 

5. Freezing Period

Place the sealed bag with the wrapped seeds in the freezer. Allow the seeds to undergo a cold treatment for the recommended period, which varies depending on the plant species. This period typically ranges from a few weeks to several months. Check the dormancy period length for your native seed. 

6. Monitoring Moisture

Periodically check the moisture level within the bag. If the paper towel or cheesecloth becomes overly dry, add a small amount of water to maintain a slightly damp environment.

7. Thawing Process

After the recommended stratification period, remove the seeds from the freezer. Allow them to thaw at room temperature for a few hours.

8. Planting the Seeds

Once the seeds have thawed, they are ready for planting. Follow the specific planting guidelines for each type of seed, considering factors like depth and spacing.

9. Provide Ideal Growing Conditions

Plant the stratified seeds in a suitable location, considering sunlight, soil conditions, and water requirements. Monitor the growth of seedlings and provide care as needed.

By following these steps, you can utilize freezer stratification as a valuable technique to enhance the germination success of native seeds, mimicking the natural processes that many plants experience in winter climates.

Advanced Sowing Options: Native Seeding For Farmers And Large Property Owners

For those with larger plots, the seeding methods listed above are too time consuming to do by hand. There are advanced methods in prairie planting that have the precision you need and the efficiency to save you a lot of time. 

Two notable techniques for calibrated seeding are the 5-gallon calibration method and the no-till drill calibration method. Pure Air Natives offers both of these options under our Seed Installation Services & Environmental Stewardship services.

1. Mechanical Broadcasting Using The 5-Gallon Calibration Method

The 5-gallon calibration method is a simple approach to ensure accurate seed distribution over a designated area. This method is particularly useful for small to medium-scale prairie planting projects.

The goal is to convert weight per acre to volume per acre and spread over a measured area to determine the rate of output.

Steps:

1. Convert Weight Per Acre To Volume Per Acre

Locate the bulk lbs per acre and the bulk density on your quality tag. Divide the bulk lbs per acre by your bulk density to determine the volume per acre.

2. Determine the Width of Spread or Drill

Determine the Width of Spread or Drill: With a broadcast seeder determine how wide a spread the implement casts on a tarp or measure the width of the drill’s openers.

3. Determine Distance Traveled

Measure the circumference of the tire in feet, then multiply that by the width of spread to determine square footage covered.

4. Run the Seeder (For Calibration)

Operate the seeder over a set area to collect an output sample. Choose a representative test area within your prairie site for calibration.

5. Collect and Weigh Seeds

Collect seeds dispersed while operating seeder in a tarp or bucket and weigh.

6. Calculate Seeding Rate

Divide 43,560 sqft (acre) by the square footage the seeder dispersed over and multiply by the weight of the seed collected. This will give you bulk weight per acre. Use this information to adjust your seeder accordingly.

7. Begin Seeding!

Once you know the rate of seeding and your machine is calibrated, you’re ready to sow!

Advantages Of Using The 5-Gallon Calibration Method:

  • Provides a highly accurate seed distribution.
  • Allows fine-tuning of seeder settings.
  • Suitable for small-scale prairie projects.

Check out our how-to guide for the 5-gallon calibration method.

2. No-Till Drill Calibration Method

No-till drill calibration is an advanced technique often employed in larger prairie restoration projects. This method optimizes the efficiency of seed placement without disturbing the soil.

Steps:

1. Select Calibration Area

Identify a calibration area representative of the larger planting site.

2. Fill the Drill

Load the no-till drill with the specified seed quantity.

3. Calibrate Drill Settings

Adjust drill settings to achieve the desired seed rate per acre. This may involve altering seeding depth and spacing.

4. Plant Calibration Strips

Plant calibration strips across the calibration area using the calibrated drill settings.

5. Measure and Adjust

Measure the seed density in the calibration strips and adjust the drill settings accordingly for optimal seed distribution.

Advantages Of Using The No-Till Drill Calibration Method:

  • Minimizes soil disturbance, preserving existing vegetation and soil structure.
  • Ideal for large-scale prairie restoration projects.
  • Enhances efficiency in seed placement.

Before employing the no till drill calibration method, be sure to consult with a professional and use calibration tools provided by drill manufacturers for precise calibration.

Read our article about how to calculate weight per acre to volume in no till drill calibration. Implementing these advanced calibration methods ensures that your prairie planting efforts achieve the desired seed distribution, contributing to the success of your restoration project while preserving the integrity of the existing ecosystem.

Choosing the Right Native Seeds: Don’t Skip This Step

Though knowing when to plant native seeds has a lot of impact on your success, there is one more factor that has a bigger impact.

Selecting the best native wildflower and grass seeds for your Midwest garden is paramount. Choose seeds that are known to grow well with your plantings: soil type, sun exposure, and moisture precipitation level.

Pure Air Natives has been Midwest farmers’, home gardeners’, and contractors’ first choice when it comes to buying native seeds. As a PLS seed supplier, our individual varieties and seed mixes are guaranteed to germinate. 

Come browse our native seed collection. If you have any questions or need further guidance, please don’t hesitate to call us for native seed help, fill out this contact form, or take a look at our native gardening FAQs.

Happy seeding!