OK, feel free to lambast me for being silly with this question...
Why do I have to stratify my tree seeds now to plant them in the spring to simulate winter, when I can plant them now when it IS winter? Is it just easier to plant them after stratification in the spring vs during winter? Or is there a benefit to not just sticking them in the ground now and not expecting them to come up until they find it appropriate come spring time.
I'm sure I'm missing the point, and I want to plant about 1000 seeds I have correctly, so let me know please!
The main benefit I see to stratifying seeds is that you can get a super long first growing season compared to just planting them in the ground. For example, imagine I eat a peach right off the tree in early September. If I just plant the seed in the ground right away it will stratify all winter and then come spring it will start to germinate. Instead, if I stratify it in my refrigerator I can have it germinate in December, have it grow indoors throughout the winter, and transplant a foot tall tree into the ground after the last frost date.
Seed stratification outside works fine in some climates I suppose.
The main issue is that frozen seeds do not stratify, think of it as a timer. The seed at 32-40 degrees has a running timer, when it freezes or gets warmer than that it stops running.
Stratifying indoors also allows you to control for varmints eating seed, pests, fungus, mold, rot due to water, drying out due to lack of water, etc.
If you can swing it direct seeding outdoors is certainly easier, it's just not practical for some of us in freezing climates. Also for expensive or precious seeds it's not as controlled.
Where are you and what are you looking to plant?
You do not need to cold stratify your seeds if you have a winter climate cold enough to do it for you.
However, the seeds planted in fall might have to face squirrels, birds, or being washed away by heavy rains or heavy snow melt, to name a few possible problems.
Cold stratifying them vs letting nature do so, is simply a way to stack the odds more in your favor. I have often planted seeds out in late fall that required stratification. Usually it worked well, while other times (paw paw trees in particular) letting the seeds overwinter in the soil failed. If I know it's a finicky seed, I usually use the refrigerator.
it really depends on the varieties you are planting, what is best and what you can get away with is very individual characteristic of a particular plant/tree.
some things dont need stratification but will sprout after the cold strat, some wont sprout without it. some like to be stratified, but will be severely damaged by a hard freeze. the cold strat temps should be more like 35-40 degrees, not frozen.
apparently this is the case with pecan and chestnuts, i have read. they need to be cold stratified, but not to fall below 28F or so. if you naturally cold stratify by planting outdoors in late fall --> mid winter the temperature under the ground doesnt get to be very cold, keeping a constant temperature far deep underground, but also on the surface or just under, keeping it warmer through the grounds insulation.
but if you plant in pots, its a whole different thing. planting in pots gives huge fluctuations of temperature, the pot is exposed to sun and can get too warm, and is more affected by air temperatures, not having the grounds insulation....and can freeze solid. i often build up mulch and dirt into a mound, and put the pots into it, submerged into the mulch, to help keep a better more constant temperature.
here in northern california, the sun has been telling me its almost spring! and it can be tricky to try to cold stratify outside in pots, because we hardly never know when we will get our winter temps, if it will get suddenly warm for a bit like in jan, or feb --this often happens. then again suddenly it can just get super cold, again, though i think for this year we re done with the extreme here, which only gets down to the 20's.anyway this makes figuring out when and how to cold stratify, very tricky, and the fridge can be the best way because its reliable.
planting straight into the ground, direct sow, is the very best for many things, except then all your nuts gets swiped by hungry squirrels and what not!!! as happened to me this year. they didnt get all the nuts i direct sowed, so thats good, i spread out the nuts all along the edges of the land here, and a least a few of the places havent been disturbed.
also most things that need stratification to break dormancy, need 2-3 month solid of cold temps. so thats the direct answer to your question, theres not enough winter left to get a solid 3 months. however some things are not as dependent on the cold strat, and may start anyway...without very much time at cold temps.
most trees that need the cold strat are usually tough enough to handle all year round without getting funky. so if you plant now and they dont come up cause they didnt get stratified, theres a good chance they will come up next spring, after all year and then next winter.
If it is a species that requires stratification, two things need to be taken into consideration: the natural habitat of the species, and your particular climate.
If you live within the species' native range, then it should stratify itself planted in the soil over the entire winter. Right now, it is getting too late for many/most species to go through a normal winter. If your winter was colder/longer than normal, most of the wildlife is getting pretty hungry right about now. Not a good scenario for setting yummy seeds into the soil.
If you live outside of the native range, there is a good chance that the seed will not get optimum stratification in the wild. The farther away from 'normal' that you live, the more important it is to give an artificial stratification in order to mimic the natural cycle.
You have not included your location (or zone), so it is difficult for us to guess what kind of stratification a seed would get in your location. Many zones will not get enough chill now to accomplish stratification. A warm spell in the next few weeks could cause the seed to go back into hibernation until next spring.
In nature, probably less than 1% of the seeds will ever survive & sprout. As gardeners, we are disappointed if we get less than 80-90% germination. This is why we try to pamper each seed under ideal conditions. The more costly (or rarer) the seeds are, the more that we try to maximize success in our favor.
I've attempted to germinate lots of seeds with cold-stratification in the fridge vs natural cold-stratification. I have never gotten better results doing it in the fridge than doing it outdoors during winter. I don't have a clue what conditions most seeds need to germinate. I don't have any reason to believe that the constant temperatures in a fridge or freezer meets those needs. So these days, I only do cold-stratification outdoors under natural conditions. I might do it in an unheated greenhouse, and I often use weed free soil, but other than that it's natural conditions only. If it's 9 months till winter when I receive the seeds, I wait the 9 months.
Last time I sprouted hazelnut seeds, most of them didn't germinate until after the second winter. I'd hate to have my fridge cluttered up for that long.
I am in the Louisville Ky area. Zone 6.
I am looking to plant my antonovka Apple seeds and crabapple seeds in a field that used to have horses but is now not utilized. It is a sloping hill with plenty of area. I don't run my cattle or pigs there, but deer do come through.
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