2011 Gardening Part I: Project Ironwood

Snow bud

Snow on a Magnolia bud at MMU near Warde Hall, March 5.

I sometimes collect and try to use some “wild” seed, in particular, tree seeds. My kids have many memories of me attempting to start cottonwood trees by collecting and planting seeds—all a complete failure, as far as I can tell, although I eventually did manage to get a transplanted cottonwood started in my backyard.

Anyway, today I did a bit of gardening using some seeds from MMU.

It was winter this March 5th in Iowa. March changes quickly between winter and spring. The month began with a fairly nice, cool sunny Tuesday. Clouds rolled in by Thursday and Friday was cold and wet—not winter cold, early spring cold, which is almost worse. The snows of winter don’t penetrate the soul and feel as bone-chilling as a March 35-degree rain—the cold wet drops too warm to freeze, but certainly frigid enough to feel freezing on the face as you trudge across campus.

Well. Snow was falling this morning. Winter back for what we all hope isn’t a long visit.

March snow is never as much fun as October snow, even if it’s similar in that it usually melts quickly (October is before winter sets in and a snowpack can last weeks or months, March snow is typically when the snowpack is almost gone).  Snow is new and exciting in October; by March, even those of us who don’t mind snow are a bit tired of the white stuff.

So, to lift my mood, it was sowing time.

I plan to start some perennial flowers—some morning glories and moonflowers—for my gardens indoors, but I have a trip coming up and won’t be around to tend flower sprouts, so I’ll not get the those going until the end of the month. In the meantime, I’ve planted a few Ironwood seeds in my office.


Mama (and papa, too, I suppose) Ironwood tree, Warde Hall, MMU.

“Ironwood” is one of those tree names that are loosely applied. There is a kind of Ironwood that is native to the Sonoran Desert, for example. Naturally, I don’t have access to that tree. In Iowa, “Ironwood” is a name commonly applied to a small understory tree, sometimes also called a Hornbeam. The small, shade-tolerating tree apparently has tough wood useful for tool handles, hence the Ironwood moniker.

There is an Ironwood growing by the back door of Warde Hall at Mount Mercy University. In fall, I collected a few of its seeds. Some I took out of the pods and stored in an envelope, others I left in the pods and put in a baggie in my mini fridge.

Today, I snuggled them into some damp soil in a pot. Tree seeds don’t typically germinate quickly, so I’m gambling that any resulting tiny trees won’t dry out during my trip.

I scratched some of the seeds with a knife, so I actually planted 3 kinds of seeds—those in pods, as if they had simply fallen on the ground, those stripped of pods and those striped of pods and scored.

Which will germinate? Maybe none, maybe some, we’ll see. I planted a whole bunch (maybe around 30) Catalpa tree seeds last winter (the seeds were liberated from pods overhanging a fence along the C Avenue sidewalk in my neighborhood)—and, on my plant-scientist son-in-law Matt’s advice, boiled a few and scored a few and left a few unmolested. Only 4 sprouted, and two of those died before transplanting.

It remains to be seen if the two resulting young Catalpas of 2010 come back this spring.

This year, my personal tree seed project is Ironwood. A more appropriate tree for me to try, since I have a shady yard with limited tree space remaining, so a smaller, shade-tolerant understory tree that I can plant at the base of the rock retaining wall in my backyard makes a lot more sense than a sun-loving Catalpa tree.

Ironwood trees look a bit like dwarf elms—they seem to me to be a very pleasant tree. Unlike elms, they aren’t sun loving enough or big enough to be main shade trees in yards, but I don’t mind further diversity in my corner of the world, and I do have a soft-spot for native trees.

Garden gnomes, work your magic. Grow little Ironwoods, grow and warm the winter-tired heart of a guerilla gardener getting geared up for a new spring!

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