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Start next year’s pollinator garden now — for free

The aisles of supermarket garden centers have cleared out and transitioned to holiday merchandise. Seed packs have been swapped out for cinnamon-scented pine cones as a fiercely fragrant reminder that Christmas is kind of, sort of, near.

That’s OK, because we don’t have to go store shopping when it comes to planning next year’s wildflower garden.

Northern Michigan’s native wildflowers that bloomed this summer have gone to seed and are ready to disperse themselves with the help of wind, wildlife, and enterprising humans interested in planting pollinator gardens. The great outdoors is our seed aisle, and there’s not a single spiced pine cone within smelling distance out here.

A pollinator garden is any assortment of native Michigan plants whose blossoms and nectar draw native honeybees, butterflies, beetles, and hummingbirds. Nonnative ornamental flowers and shrubs can also attract pollinators, but our endemic insects have evolved alongside native plants and they rely on one another to thrive. The monarch butterfly caterpillar, which is entirely dependent on milkweed, is one example of that relationship.

Lucky for us, milkweed is one of the easiest native wildflower seeds to identify this time of year. Its bulbous, teardrop-shaped seed pods are bursting with fluffy white hairs waiting to carry its seeds away on a breeze. Any meadow or ditch where you saw milkweed this summer should be loaded with seed pods right now, which can be collected whole or pulled apart for individual seeds.

One consideration — and this goes for all native wildflowers — is that seed pods must be mature when harvested. An immature seed pod will not hold viable seeds, so timing is key.

“The one thing I have learned over the years is to practice patience,” said Abby Ertel, a hobby gardener and community program lead for Huron Pines. “You can’t collect a seed head the minute it closes and forms. We just harvested some seeds from plants we’ve been watching all late summer and fall until the heads started to split open and the seeds were brown in color.”

Waiting too long is also no good. Birds and other wildlife seek out the seeds for their high calorie content and will beat you to the punch, so check your plants often and catch seed heads when they’re ready. Take only what you will use and leave the rest for wildlife.

Once gathered, most seeds will need to go through the process of stratification, a dormant phase they’d experience in their natural environment over winter. That can be simulated by sowing seeds in containers of damp sand, paper, or vermiculite and storing them covered in the refrigerator for up to three months. If you have some extra seeds, consider sprinkling some directly on the ground where your garden will be and let nature do its thing.

In Alpena, students at Besser Elementary School spent Oct. 16 exploring, conducting maintenance activities and collecting seeds from their own pollinator garden in front of the school. The seeds collected will be grown for use in the school garden and other natural areas.

“My students were thrilled to get outside and get their hands dirty,” said Allison Hartmeyer, a fifth-grade teacher at Besser. “The purpose of the garden is to promote native pollinator plants in northeast Michigan and serve as an outdoor classroom for all of our students and teachers at Besser Elementary. They can learn about native pollinators like butterflies, bees, hummingbirds, and more, and why it is important to help protect them and their native habitats.”

The Besser Elementary native pollinator garden is an ongoing project within the Northeast Michigan Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative and is supported by the NOAA B-WET grant program.

Collecting seeds is a family friendly activity that can be done on a whim — even a thoughtfully folded dollar bill can serve as a seed envelope in a pinch — and will pay dividends in the form of sweet blossoms crawling with all kinds of good, happy bugs.

Chris Engle is communications associate for Huron Pines, a nonprofit organization based in Gaylord and Alpena to conserve and enhance Northern Michigan’s natural resources to ensure healthy water, protected places and vibrant communities. Learn more at huronpines.org.

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