Scythes vs. dog-strangling vine

by Sandy Garland

Tuesday-in-the-woods day and my trusty crew of Catrina, Mirko, and Kate arrived right on time. Unfortunately, it looked like rain, so we stayed around the centre for a while watering (the plants that don’t get rained on) and potting up more seedlings: Gray Goldenrod and Upland White Goldenrod.

As the sky cleared a bit, we sharpened the scythes and set off for the field north of the woods to do battle with dog-strangling vine (DSV). This week, DSV was over two feet tall and mostly blooming. (Remember, the goal is not to let it set seed.)

Mirko and Catrina cutting DSV along the road north of the Old Woodlot

Mirko and Catrina cutting DSV along the road north of the Old Woodlot

We worked around the damp Red Osier Dogwood/Tamarack field, cutting around large clumps of goldenrod and along the narrow grassy area between the shrubs and the road (photo above). We’ve found that goldenrod competes with DSV somewhat, so we try to give this native species an advantage by damaging its competition (photo below).

Catrina scythed DSV around these clumps of goldenrods, while I pulled any DSV plants left at the edges and the few plants in the middle.

Catrina scythed DSV around these clumps of goldenrods, while I pulled any DSV plants left at the edges and the few plants in the middle.

Tiny Common Milkweed sprouts; hopefully we'll have a field full by the time Monarch butterflies arrive later this month.

Tiny milkweed sprouts; hopefully we’ll have a field full by the time Monarch butterflies arrive later this month.

In the milkweed field (still north of the woods but east of the centre trail), we again cut DSV along the road. In that field, a group of amazing high school students dug up a large area of DSV several weeks ago and planted Common Milkweed seeds, which are now sprouting. They turned the turf upside down on top of more DSV to double the damage and put down a tarpaulin south of the milkweed patch, in hopes of killing DSV there as well.

Questions we hope to answer

How many times do we have to cut DSV in various areas to keep it from setting seed? Will grass grow back faster than DSV, shading it and making it weaker? How effective is digging up the layer of sod that contains DSV roots? How effective is it to put down a thick layer of mulch after cutting DSV – a possible solution around shrubs?

Names of plants

False Solomon's Seal

False Solomon’s Seal

The woods are looking very lush this week as spring wildflowers take their turn adding splashes of colour to the shades of green. False Solomon’s Seal is still in bloom, as are wild Red Columbines and persistent pink ones that arrived many years ago in someone’s fall leaves.

Red Columbine

Red Columbine

Starry Solomon's Seal (right), just finished blooming and Canada Anemone just starting

Starry Solomon’s Seal (right), just finished blooming and Canada Anemone just starting

Interesting sightings
Dozens of Red Admiral caterpillars are eating their way through the nettles in the woods (below left). And Mirko found this tiny (2 cm diameter) mushroom growing in some mouldy wood chips (right).

Growing native plants from seed : cold stratification

A damp vermiculite-filled baggie awaiting seed.

In late October, although we’re still waiting for some seeds to mature before we can collect them, others are ready for their winter treatment.

So what is cold stratification? Essentially, it’s a temperature and moisture treatment used to break a seed’s dormancy and encourage germination. In nature, seeds fall to the ground, where they are covered by leaves and other pieces of decomposing vegetation. Snow falls, covering the seeds with a blanket and insulating them from extreme temperatures and drying wind. In spring, as the snow melts and the sun gradually warms the soil, the seeds germinate and begin to grow!

The need for this cold period to break dormancy is an adaptation to winter. Imagine if seeds germinated almost as soon as they fell off a plant; most plants would die as soon as the cold hit, as they would be too small to have sufficient root mass to survive.

Because we start plants for our annual June sale early, we need to be able to control when they go to sleep and wake up. This is surprisingly easy. All you need are small sealable baggies (we use the snack size), a bowl, a spoon, vermiculite, tepid water, and labels.

Note: The following instructions are for cold, moist stratification, needed by most seeds in our area. However, please check a suitable reference, such as the New England Wildflower Society’s  Growing and Propagating Wildflowers, to find out which species need moisture, which should be stored dry, and which need no treatment at all.

1. Prepare damp vermiculite
Pour some vermiculite into the bowl and add just enough water to wet it. Wait a few minutes as the water is absorbed, then add more water until the vermiculite is damp to the touch. There should not be any standing water in the bottom of your bowl, but the flakes of vermiculite should look and feel moist. Stir with the spoon to distribute the moisture. Vermiculite is a mineral that holds a lot of water, making it ideal to keep the seed environment moist over a long period.

Removing fluff from a milkweed species. Fluff gets everywhere!

Removing fluff from a milkweed species. Fluff gets everywhere!

2. Prepare seeds
Remove seed cases and as much debris from the seeds as possible to reduce the likelihood of rot. Some casings contain germination inhibitors, so making sure the seeds are “clean” can be important.

We remove the silk parachutes from milkweed and open all seed pods to release the actual seeds. But we don’t try to pull the fluff off clematis, prairie smoke, goldenrod, or aster seeds.

3. Prepare baggies
Put about three spoonfuls of damp vermiculite into a baggie. Add just enough seeds that every one has lots of contact with the vermiculite. As a rough guide, the volume of vermiculite should be about twice that of the seeds.

We like to shake and then pat down the baggie to maximize contact. Gently push out most of the air, and seal the baggie. You now have a fairly flat, cool to the touch, and moist seed baggie ready for placing in the refrigerator. Don’t forget to label it! We use business labels, because they can be peeled off in spring and attached to our germination containers.

4. Store in a cold place
We have a mini-fridge dedicated to seeds, so moisture levels and temperature are constant (unless someone accidentally knocks the dial). However, your home refrigerator should be just fine, if you place your seeds near the back and away from where moisture tends to collect.

Labeling seed properly is essential. Here you can see our box full of seed baggies!

Now you can forget about your horde until late January or early February!

In early February, remove the baggies from the refrigerator and dump the entire contents into clear sandwich containers. Anything with a clear lid and no holes will work. Label each container so you know what is inside. Again, consult a good reference book to find out which species need light to germinate and which germinate in the dark.

Some seeds germinate almost immediately; others require considerable patience. Keep an eye on moisture levels – keep the vermiculite moist, but not wet. Once the sprouts have at least a couple of mini leaves (they look just like the edible sprouts you buy in stores at this stage) you can begin the next phase which is planting them into a seed starting soil mixture. But that is the subject for another post!

Growing common milkweed from seed – easy steps for beginners

Text and photos by L Heroux │FWG Volunteer

The monarch migration is truly one of the world’s greatest natural wonders, yet it is threatened by habitat loss. . . The need for host plants for larvae and energy sources for adults applies to all monarch and butterfly populations around the world. — MonarchWatch (

Common milkweed | Asclepias syriaca by C. Hanrahan

If you’ve never grown anything from seed, growing milkweed is a great way to start. You will develop skills applicable to starting other types of plants, and you could become part of a cross-continental chain of waystations dedicated to sustaining the entire lifecycle of monarch butterflies. The FWG is a registered Monarch Waystation. Your garden could be too! Continue reading