Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Seed Germination & Old School Ideology vrs How Nature Actually Works

Plant Propagation, Seeds Germination
The art work here beautifully illustrates it all for us on just how a Plant's life begins as a seed.  You may most likely have seen this in some Elementary School Science Project when the teacher takes a large glass jar, creates a cylinder roll with a paper towel & lines it around the jars interior. He/She then proceeds to put a small amount of water in the bottom of the jar, maybe a couple of inches. Then you can watch the as the water moves upwards in the paper towel just as sap moves up a tree. Once the towel is saturated, the teacher then proceeded to  insert the seeds one by one in between the wet paper towel and glass. The all you had to do was watch it grow.
Paloverde seeds
I actually did this once, but rather with some Catsclaw Acacia and Blue Palo Verde seeds. At the time I was about 18 years old when I conducted that life changing experiment, but more on that later. These seeds are probably the best and easiest of the wild seeds to accomplish such an experiment and especially is it extremely illustrative and fun for your children if you are a parent. The old glass jar and paper towel trick are still excellent teaching tools for young people.

Now here's something from the "Science is the ever self-correct mechanism ever evolving ever improving animal" Department,  that I would have thought was figured out and completely understood a long time ago when it comes to seed germination. So is science really self correcting ????? emmmm, well sort of ! Quite often it's ideologically, politically, economically or even on rare occasions religiously driven, but that's another subject. One of the claims by those who have blind faith in the way Science is supposed to work, is that the advantage of scientific investigation is that if someone claims to have made a discovery of how to create cold-fussion energy, then that claim can be proven to be false or unwarranted by further research and scientific testing. This rosy picture of this science as an infallible enterprise suggests that scientific errors will be recognized and corrected, with false claims falling by the wayside during science’s inexorable march forward. There's one problem with this worshipful affirmation. The problem is that things never really work that way because life is far more complicated as a result of human imperfection and error. Like any other human endeavor, scientists & scientific inquiry can become stained or tainted by the same imperfect qualities of  stupidity, bias, negligence, lying and deceit that plague all other human beings. Still, one would hope that certain progress in some simple areas would have changed by now even after many decades.

This brings me to what is the best Nature-Based techniques for seed germination ? By nature based, I mean how does it work best in nature ? Surely many of the professional Plant Nurseries know what good propagation techniques are all about. Why they are in the business of caring about good result$, but then maybe some don't know after all. Maybe it's a numbers game for them too and they may play by the percentages game as well. Here's what I'm talking about. A few days ago I visited the San Diego Safari Park's website. I guess they've changed their name from San Diego Wild Animal Park, - whatever. I didn't realize it at the time, but their website has a blog section where articles from various departments within the Zoo are published with public comments allowed at the bottom.

San Diego Zoo - Institute for Conservarion Research

There was an article written by a Lauren Anderson who works for the Applied Plant Ecology Division at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research has partnered with the Nature Conservancy, the Bureau of Land Management, and the California Department of Fish and Game to preserve this unique species of Tecate Cypress. It basically it was a well written article educating the public about an important matter involving their local ecology. After all, these recent phenomena of Mega-Fires have threatened it with extinction in most of it's range. But in the comments section, there was a question posed by a commentor named,
Lee from Vancouver:
"An interesting blog Lauren. How do you get the cones you collected to open. I gather you used heat, but how is this done without burning the cones?"
Now the answer to this question didn't come from Lauren, but from I imagine her Supervisor named 
 Laurie Lippitt, Sr. Research Technician:
"Lee – Greetings. The Reforestation Center first soaked the cones in 92°C water for 24 hours. The cones were then surface-dried and placed into a drying chamber at 49°C for 4 hours. When the cones did not start to open , they used 52°C for about 8 hours and finally another day at 54°C. The cones that had partially opened received a final drying period at 52°C while the cones that had not opened went through another round of hot water soaking followed by drying at 52°C. So, you can see that the process was not just a single step. Once the cones were opened, they were tumbled to extract the seed and upgraded in an air separator to remove some empty seed. The finished seedlot had 42% germination, which is rather good for cypress seed."
Now I have to admit that this result and answer blew me away because I had always gotten almost 100% germination rate from this very same seed of Tecate Cypress, no matter what the geographical location I collected it. What threw me was that I had heard of these same low germination rates as far back as the later 1970s in textbooks, yet here they were still. But more on that later. Here is another account of low germination numbers from another cypress called Italian Cypress and the advice given by another expert who has worked in the forest industry, though this individual was a bit closer on the mark in his explanation.
Image - Penn State
Shifting gears toward another prime example on Cypress seed germination. However, the subject was now about Italian Cypress seed germination. So a novice gardener, I presume, wanted to ask an expert on the subject what ways he new as an expert, to successfully germinate Italian Cypress seed. The website is AllExperts.com and the particular page here is with the subject of Conifers. The Profile for this particular Expert's background is for a Jim Hyland:
Expertise Profile:
Registered Forester in the Southern US with 30 years experience in managing pines. Expert in pine forest health from management to control of pests to ID of species.
Here is the question he published followed by his expertise answer:
Question from reader:
"Hi Jim,
I have a cone collected from an Italian Cypress tree, not from the ground. The cone dried and opened up with seeds falling out of it. I’m not sure how long the cone had been growing and if it was time to harvest, but I collected it in spring. Could this seeds be germinated successfully? What is the best way to germinate them?
Jim's answer Answer:
"There is a chance that they will germinate but I would not expect a high rate say about 50% would be good but you will more than likely get around 25%. First they need to be stratified-cold-stratify (wet a paper towel, wring out, and put the seeds between the folds of the towel; seal in a plastic baggie and keep in fridge for a month). Before you do this they should have wings on the seed--rub the seeds in your hand and remove the seed from the wings."
"After a month in the fridge plant them in potting soil just barely under the soil. Seed - sow late winter in a cold frame and only just cover the seed. The seed usually germinates in 1 - 2 months at 20°c. The seedlings are very subject to damping off so should be watered with care and kept well-ventilated. When they are large enough to handle, prick the seedlings out into individual pots and grow them on in the greenhouse for at least their first winter. Plant them out into their permanent positions in late spring or early summer, after the last expected frosts. 
Now this is what amazes me. These numbers predicted to germinate are so low. Why ? If I can get almost 100% (okay 99.5% - .05 for error) then why can't they ? Or maybe it's technique from the old conventional school thinking of propagation method to potting. My problem here is once again I am a critical skeptic, but I was trained that way by one of my former instructors. I like science, but I'm also a science realist. A lot of Science has also helped destroy much of our planet because many & most of their technologies are based on making fast profit$ and the bosses of these researchers who work for most of these big corporations want results NOW, not when it's safe to be revealed. So as always, in my mind I'm thinking again, there must be a better way. 

Well, the first thing I wondered about when I was in my late teens, 'How does this work in nature?' When I went out in nature, what I most often saw after a fire swept through an area were the high numbers of seedling (100%?) on the ground, not the low (45%). But WHY ?? As I've written about previously when I went with my brother to a friends house for a Bar-B-Q on North Peak in the Cuyamaca Mountains just exactly one year after that horrible Cedar Fire in 2003, the ground was covered with millions upon millions of Incense Cedar Seedlings which were so thick and heavy at 3-4 inches high, I at first thought they were annual grasses growing up first before the other plants. Closer inspection proved otherwise.

Okay so back to the early 1980s. I made a special point of exploring regions where Tecate Cypress could be located. In fact I've always wanted to establish an example of a Tecate Cypress Forest woodland setting in an urban landscape as I attempted to do at my mother's home which I wrote about on my "Earth's Internet" blog. The title of the article was about the correct Soil and I used the Tecate Cypress as my example of what not to do. Trust me, Tecate Cypress needs specific structural requirements withing the soil to succeed. "Is the Plant in the Right Soil ?" One of the first things I meditated on was the way the seeds were dispersed. It was also without exception by a fast moving fire which was necessary to melt the resins which glued the cone compartments together. These seeds and cones can stay viable for decades on end. There were a number of other things that came to mind. 

The fire sterilizes the soils for the most part and that helps take care of any possible pathogen problems later on and also a common problem in nurseries, "Damping off " where the plant's root collar is attacked, rots and the tiny week/s old seedling falls over dead. So I reasoned fire will also take care of that pathogen issue, so great, some form of a fire component is necessary.  The other issue was weather and climate. What was/is it and how do I replicate it. At 3500' to 4500' elevation it is windy and bitterly cold and very wet in wintertime when these seeds would have been first influenced. So both wet and cold are a must at the same time. Now admittedly, the AllExperts guy Jim Hyland, did touch on some of these points, but he didn't fully go all the way or far enough. I believe because he was in a hurry for results & that's what the client asking the question wanted to hear.  He mentioned one month, and no doubt thereafter out planted into seeding trays. 

There is one other important thing of note here about seeds reaction to winter dormancy. They actually are not all that dormant. They are actually slowly working under the ground, though you may not see them doing this. I once did some experiments with both Coulter and Torrey Pine seeds by actually outplanting them directly into the ground in November with no extra help from me and I had locations marked off where they were located to later check on their progress. By late January most of these seedlings were pushing up through the snow at my property in Anza Ca and any further cold spells from then on seemed as water off a duck's back to them. They were un-effected. Just a side point understanding, but interesting to know. Something is always going on all that time, though slowly. 

Here's how it has always worked for me and anyone reading can replicate these results with any cypress seed. First thing I did was create a fire component scenario. I pulled out a sheet of Aluminum Tin Foil and laid this sheet on a Weber Bar-B-Q Grill. Underneath this grill I have already placed very small dry twigs and dried pine needles. I want a hot fast burning but not too long of a fire. The foil has holes in it to allow some fire & smoke in through the slits but not to much. I don't want the cones burnt up and cooked along with the seeds. Once 30-50 cones are piled in there on top of the tin foil, I light the fire which burns quickly hot and fast. Sure enough all of the cones popped open as a result of the heat melting processes. The smoke and heat under the slightly closed lid also destroy any pathogens that may have been on the outside cone shells as well. Now the seeds easily fall out onto a table as I work each cone clean. I have no need of a professional seed tumbler as a lot of that is for the science class as a visual in my opinion and is an unnecessary expense. There is absolutely no mess at all.

Now here's how to work the weather component. What I already knew about that area's climate is that it is cold and wet for at least 4-5 months up in the mountains at high elevations. It's not like down below along the coast. I find a small to medium sized clear glass jar and put all of the seeds in it. I next boil some water and pour this over the seeds and allow them to soak overnight. I call this Chitting Soaking. Chitting is a proven method of seed-starting which delivers maximum seed sprouting efficiency. Saves you time because you will only plant the viable seeds. Makes certain you will experience only gardening success even when spring has not yet sprung. I do this with all seeds of various chaparral and native trees, pre-soak even if the seeds are vegetable garden seeds. Next & this is import, unlike the mention of letting the seeds dry out - NEVER LET THEM DRY OUT!!! Just drain the water out when it has cooled. 

They suggested a wet paper towel holding the seeds in plastic zip-lock, but the jar works better for me. What I do the very next day is again just drain off the excess water in that same jar and close the lid tight, swish the seeds around inside the jar to where they are evenly dispersed around the inside coating glass walls where they easily stick, then place this jar of wet seeds on the bottom shelf of a Fridge and wait approximately 3 months exactly. I say three months because that is the length of time it takes for the seed to swell enough to where all the seeds are baring that small white germ where the taproot is about to pop through. I found this same thing worked when I outplanted Torrey Pine and Coulter Pine seeds out in my property in Anza with seeds in the ground. I've seen Torrey Pines up there at elevation 4,500' push through snow still on the ground. Another advantage of seed behaving this way is that while still young they are suseptible to damping off. Under cold conditions pathogens are not as active as late Spring and Summertime.

At this point it's time to plant in seed germination flats, but you first better have your potting media ready. This is another one those interesting life changing experiences of something you had as a student in school. I wanted something safer in potting preparation than the conventional chemical program offered in the textbooks. One Ag instructor of mine, Mr Robert Rutherford & James Dyer challenged me to figure it out logically if I disagreed with the book.  I did.
Nursery Potting Soil Preparation

I'll make this real easy. Go to your favourite garden outlet and get some bags of good potting soil. You are going to also need to purchase a large bag of Vermiculite which will look exactly as the material in the photo to the right here. This is nothing more than mica which heated up will have expanded like popcorn. These have air pockets and allow for good aeration of the potting soil to fight off pathogens spores   which mostly want a airless anaerobic environment, but that's not enough. I also used Food Grade  Hydrogen Peroxide (35%) which I cut with water down to 3%. This also helps further oxygenate and kill any leftover nasties that may want to eat your seedlings. I never water the seedlings with it. I only pre-treated the potting soil inside the germination flats which is itself mix 50%-50% Vermiculite - Potting soil. I also use a slight bit of wood ashes in this mix. I then place potting mix in the flats to the top and proceed to then water with the H2O2 mixture. I like to purchase the food grade Hydrogen Peroxide (35%) because it doesn't have the chemical stabilizers and preservatives that the pharmacy over the counter stuff has. In the past I have bought from Peaceful Valley Nursery Supplies up in Grass Valley California which deals in organic gardening, landscaping and Nursery supplies. It has no preservatives. But you probably could get away with the standard store bought also. I have. I don't really water continuously with this mixture, but simply use it as a disinfecting drench initially in the flat containers packed with potting soil before planting seed in the potting media.

North Carolina State University
This way the pathogens are eliminated before planting and more importantly done safely.  I have never again been plagued by "Damping Off" which in the past was always a huge and disappointing issue. How refreshing it was to find an alternative to most of the long held practice of conventional science-based poisonous technologies used out on the Horticultural market. On a special note, I don't believe the pathogens are bad or evil. Like other things in nature they just do what they are assigned to do. They provide a great service in natural balance for keeping the plant world in check. If every single seed became a success, we would have stunted trees and shrubs as a result of intense competition with one another. We would never again see the eventual old growth forest we have come to appreciate. Still, in the home garden and Nursery activities, we should always look to safer alternatives from what Science-based Chemical Companies have tried to indoctrinate us with.

Washing State University
Next I space each seed about one inch apart in all directions in the flats. All I need is for them to pop up and compete upwards for space and at about three or four inches I transplanted into 1 gallon containers with the same mix. I seriously have seen one seed germinate for every hole I've evenly spaced and planted (100% rate). I didn't like the manner in which they had the 40% rate at the SD Zoo. Seriously folks, I get 100% germination and it's the result of replicating what happens in Nature. Here is what their planting instruction calls for taken from their own page. Notice in the photo how all of their spaced holes with the already provided for containerized tubing has 4-6 seeds in each space ? They are expecting failure and will thin them if more than one comes up. In my method I never expect or plan for any failure. Ideally the ultimate result you are looking for as far as healthy transplants are like the examples of Italian Cypress seedlings below.

Italian Cypress Seedlings

Eventually your trees in pots will look something like this photo of Vietnamese Golden Cypress seedlings to the right. At this point you should let them develop just a little bit further, then plant them in those one gallon containers. I water and feed them with a mixture of seaweed extract and they'll also feed on whatever was in the potting soil mix you used. There should be enough nutrition  there to get them going until transplant into one gallon pots and then finally into the soil. Once the outplanting has proceeded, then inoculate the plant root area with a good blend of mycorrhizal inoculum applications later, which you really HAVE TO DO folks. 

At that point they will quickly get a foot high and I'd plant them then. They grow extremely fast so make sure you have a tough rocky soil. And as always, please purchase a great mycorrhizal inoculum and mix the powder into the planting holes so that colonization is quick and efficient. Don't think you can get away without using one. If you still don't understand the Fungi thing, then quickly find out and save your money on the science-based chemical junk. You don't need it and you can spend your hard earned money elsewhere.  Give them a huge healthy head start. There is no real extra work that goes into mixing a half teaspoon of mycorrhizal inoculent mix or less in the hole. The Search for Viable Seed Sources: In the photograph below, Gary Petersen, a Forest Service specialist, checks cones on a tecate cypress. The cones contain seeds. This is an area devastated by wildfire in the Santa Ana Mountains of Cleveland National Forest where a rare popuation of Tecate Cypress was almost obliterated. This are is more fire prone now as a result of human development than at any previous time in it's natural history.

Image - Orange County Register
I'm all for helping out nature in view of the multiple negative things working against it. I'm not really wanting to be overly critical of the San Diego Zoo Employees or this All-Expert Dude, but clearly there are better up to date nature-based applications which should be implemented over the old archiac conventional old school science-based failures. These newer methods I referenced above can be tried and experimented on with most native seeds. Even if climatic conditions or ecological environments are different in say Africa or India from these in southern California and the plants are of radically different species. Please, by all means watch, study and observe how nature really works where you live and accomplishes these tasks in the most effient way. Perhaps you are dealing with Umbrella Acacia (Acacia tortilis) , but may you know for a fact that the Elephants eat the bean pods and they run through this animals digestive tract with it's tough acids to break down the hard shelled seed coats and then proceed to germinate in a Elephant's Poop Pile. Then feed pods to your cattle or some other herbivore. Find ways to adapt and improvise. Below here is a further link to the Tecate Cypress recovery project in the Santa Ana Mountains.

Omage - Orange County Register
THE PLAN: “This is not rocket science,” said Gary Petersen, a silviculturist with the Forest Service. “You drop a few seeds, cover them up and walk a little farther – just like Johnny Appleseed.” Petersen is working to save rare tecate cypress trees that were damaged in a February wildfire in the Santa Ana Mountains.
 Orange County Register.com: "Forest Service helps tecate cypress after fire"
There are still numerous errors to be found in many many science text books within areas of Academia these days which have not been updated for years. Some of the same failed methods used back then should have been changed today with our newer understanding but they haven't. So what should a student do ? Be a thinker outside the conventional science box. Schools seem now days demand students follow unquestioning textbook studies, which provides high test scoes for textbook-based answers. They rarely encourage  ongoing growth of the thinking processes that utilize logical simple to understand practical applications found in nature. Be creative based on what you observe out there. Here are a couple of quotes from the San Diego Zoo - Conservation Research Institute about Tecate Cypress which are totally wrong, have been wrong for decades and for whatever reason they resisting any correcting on the part of the credentialed.
"Although adapted to fire with cones that only open and drop seed in intense heat"
This is absolutely untrue. Prior to reading the so-called Fire-Ecology Science literature after the year 2000, I had previously explored all main well know and numerous no so well known Tecate Cypress woodland communities. I've collected cones from all locations, but I always noticed there were always seedlings everywhere and fire was NEVER a requirement or factor in seedling presence. I'll provide a link below.
"Slow growing species like Tecate cypress benefit greatly from having their seed preserved in long-term storage."
This is another untruth, they are an extremely rapid growing species of tree. Especially in their youth. This can actually work against them if conditions are too favourable because they do not develop a deep and extensive enough rootsystem to hold the wait in a windstorm and the trees will usually fall over. This is why they need to grow in conjunction with chaparral shubs like Chamise seen here south of Julian at the Desert Viewpoint or overlook. This is actually another San Diego County native called Cuyamaca Cypress.
Photo is mine from 2015

Real science is NOT the Internet or some Lab, it's field observation as well and that more than anything else improves far greater learning ability that has been lost to many. I'm sorry that many of you students will not be able to observe a natural world in it's fully functional state as it was in the past. Nature has been reverse engineered by this world's Industrial Science Corporations the majority of mankind have put their faith in at the encouragment of your Professors. Hopefully with helpful suggestions from others in the Native Plant Nursery business who have gone through the hard knocks of industrial science only to realize how biomimicry is far superior to what was once considered the hallowed doctrine of Science, they will be able to provide further helpful assistance to you.
Resource Links:
Vermiculite & Food Grade Hydrogen Peroxide
Googled Hydrogen Peroxide and Plant Growth
Liquid Smoke and Seed Germination
Stimulation of Empress Tree Seed Germination by Liquid Smoke
Finally, here is an important Note on a post I wrote about the Fire Ecology of Tecate Cypress, which like other plants, the prevailing Science Experts insisted upon that the Tecate Cypress as needing fire to propagate is more fiction than reality. There are many other circumstances and natural anomalies that cause the cypress seed to germinate. You'll be amazed at how common sense this is.
What We Need Here is Wildfire to Propagate !!!
How Tecate Cypress has other Strategies for Germination other than that much Celebrated Evolutionary Religious Concept known as "Burn Baby Burn"
How do ecosystems regenerate when Fire is absent ? Aw, the possibilities!



  1. My view of science is that it is an attempt to figure out how things WORK, and often the reality is that in a complex universe and in our complex ecosystems here on Earth, things work in very complex ways. But we humans seem to like to make things even more complicated (and work less well) by ATTEMPTING to make things simpler (for us). Going with the flow of how organisms function naturally and how ecosystems work would in the end be so much better for humankind than trying to reinvent or "improve" everything with our high technology (to supposedly make our lives easier -- and a few greedy people rich).

  2. I guess I get frustrated by some outdated ideas, especially when it comes to how the natural world functions still being brought to the fore. I mean those particular seed percentages statements on that specific species of Cypress were around back in the 1970s and I've shared my ecperiences for years with some professional. You'd think this info would get around.

    I don't think what I observed and concluded was anything genius, but common sense. I truly hope the Zoos cypress program has great success. But I wish there were more researchers out there not shackled by superiors and had the guts to say what the truth on some matters are. Like the GMO controversy.



  3. Timeless, as a teacher, believe me, you are so right! Schools today (like mine...) don't even teach science! We are too busy teaching the kids how to read in 3rd grade! So, WHAT in tarnation are they doing in first and second grades? I haven't got a clue. I spent a day in a second grade classroom (before I became a 2/3 combo this year) and was amazed by the complete LACK of direct instruction. It was all "touchy feely"...NO science at all. We aren't allowed to teach science (mandated by state minutes for reading, writing, and math) until the END of the school year (after testing). And, yes, at that time, I got out the ziplock bags, the paper towels, and the lima bean seeds and we predicted how many days until the beans would sprout. I was also floored when I did a watercolor art project with my class. 75% of them had NEVER used watercolors before. WHAT is happening to our kids? Teaching to the test is what is happening...NO science, NO social studies, NO art...we are raising a generation of mindless idiots (just my personal opinion) who CANNOT think critically. Just what the government wants, right? The populace is easier to manipulate that way...sigh...I shudder when I think about these kids as voters.

    1. Well you should read that link on my other blog on the Mesquite Dune Experiment at Jct 78 & 86 near San Felipe Creek. I have many of the same points and some critical statements, though I don't blame the folks for trying. I have developed techniques just from understanding what the plants needs are from seed to adult. Anyway, follow the experiment I'm doing in my kitchen. It's been fun so far.

      Are there any more Mesquite Dune Habitats left in La Quinta ? I remember they had some of the most beautiful of all the areas. Of course it's sheltered from the winds there at the Rocky outcropping point just west of Simon Motors. It gave me ideas about natural windbreaks to dumping Tamarisk trees. The Desert Water Agency dumps millions of gallons of water on them and I'll bet most people there don't know this. Can you imagine the water savings ? Well anyway, here's the other site's post for today which relates to your area.

      Lessons From A Mesquite Dune Project




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