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I feel like every time I sow seed, the germination rate is really poor.

I live in an extremely challenging climate, with 7" of annual rain, dry and windy springs, scorching desert summers, freezing winters, and concrete-like bare earth that I'm desperately trying to cover in something. Here are the methods I've tried over the past three years:

  • Throw seeds on bare earth (0% germination, seeds wasted)
  • Throw seeds on bare earth, then cover with 1/2" of mulch (mulch blows away; 0% germination, seeds wasted)
  • Throw seeds on bare earth, then cover with 1" of mulch (maybe 1% germination; most shoots can't penetrate the kind of heavy wood mulch that won't blow away in high wind)
  • Throw seeds on top of purchased compost or topsoil (maybe 5% germination)
  • Throw seeds on bare earth, then cover to maybe 1/8" with purchased compost or topsoil (seems like maybe 20% germination)
  • Throw seeds on bare earth, then cover with a lot of topsoil (maybe 20% germination, and costs a lot of money in compost or topsoil)
  • Mix seeds into purchased compost or topsoil and spread that around (seems like > 25% germination, but extremely labor-intensive and expensive)

As for what I'm seeding, it's all climate-appropriate tough native plants or introduced drought-hardy plants. Examples include Western Wheatgrass, Siberian Wheatgrass, Blue Grama Grass, Curly Mesquite grass, Purslane, and American Vetch. Some of these are not cheap, so the low germination rate is disappointing. When I do manage to get them to grow, they perform as expected and need no irrigation once established.

I'm seeding in the spring or fall, and where I can, I water daily to keep the top inch or two moist while I'm trying to germinate them. Still, the results aren't great, especially in my very large backyard where I can't feasibly water. Is there some trick I'm missing?

Edit: my goal is not to grow a lawn or anything silly like that, but to return the land to its native state: a scrubby high desert rangeland that looks more or less like this:

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  • I find an overnight soak in 2grams per quart Potassium nitrate (20mm) very helpful in up the germination rate and speed of germination of a variety of seeds. -Prehydration leaves you less at the mercy of outside weather. – Wayfaring Stranger May 13 '17 at 14:39
  • Would you be able to advise the area (in ha / acres or appropriate) you're trying to sow? Would you also be able to describe the soil profile (dig a narrow trench about one foot deep and describe the "layers") and maybe even include a photo of soil profile? – andrewbuilder May 14 '17 at 11:54
  • 1/2 acre. Soil type is somewhere between "Sandy clay" and "Sandy clay loam" on a standard soil type pyramid. No topsoil or significant amount of organic material. – iLikeDirt May 14 '17 at 22:28
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You can germinate the seeds in a tray/box/container and when the seedlings are grown enough to be able to use their roots, plant them where desired. The downside of this method is that it requires more time and effort to transplant the seedlings than to sow them.

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    I am suggesting transplanting one at the time. I don't know if it's practical, it depends on how much time the OP has. It took me 4 hours to transplant 300 seedlings, but I'm a beginner. – Alina May 13 '17 at 8:48
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I just answered the question posted above your question. I would quit trying to grow a lawn and think about the gravel instead. Where you want plants you need to make raised beds by double digging your soil, planting in that instead of hard baked ground. The water will be able to penetrate and be absorbed by the soil, drain better and have more air that roots need to have to grow deep to go after the moisture as the top of the soil dries out. After plants are planted and watered deeply then you mulch a good 2 inches. Forget trying to grow anything via seed. Water the beds deeply only after the top 2 inches dries out. Do not water shallowly and everyday. That only encourages shallow roots that make the plants very sensitive to missing a watering. Allowing to dry out encourages the roots to grow deep so they are able to get the moisture that is still there (4-6" deep). Shallow watering also is wasteful in the desert. Heat will cause fast evaporation at the top of the soil causing you to constantly water. Deep watering working up to once per week or 1" water per week is a lot less water than what what you have been using.

Have you tried using sod? Are you in Arizona? Check the pictures I'll send you as well for an idea to consider. 3/8 minus gravel lawn with raised ornamental plant beds

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  • I'm not trying to grow a lawn. I'm trying to return drought-tolerant native plants to the area so that they will outcompete weeds and return organic matter to the soil. Gravel winds up being no less maintenance in the end because the spaces between rocks fill up with sand and weed seeds that blow in, and eventually you have a layer of rocky soil with plastic under it where only weeds will grow. – iLikeDirt May 13 '17 at 20:43
  • Well, yes but not necessarily. To return a land back into its normal state is simply leaving it alone and not touching it again. Is this your baby horse??? So are you telling me you want your paddock to have grass and scrub that used to be there? This is a whole nuther story but doable! The secret is to make a number of paddocks not have just one. At a certain point, the animals are put into another fenced off paddock to clean up and eat what is there and before that paddock looks like your original, WAY before it gets to that state you put them into a third paddock. – stormy May 13 '17 at 21:54
  • In this way you are able to reseed, water, fertilize the other two and allow the plants and soil some rest to recuperate. Depends on how much time it takes to regenerate, your crops, how many animals (one horse per acre is maximum for normal regeneration). Once a piece of land is obliterated to this point it will take 5 X more work and TIME to regenerate. Well, that is the number I've heard ranchers throw around. Called pasture rotation. Different animals; sheep versus cattle versus horses all have different management practices. Can you believe the worst of the three? Sheep. – stormy May 13 '17 at 21:59
  • What a precious little 'stud'? Oh my goodness. What is your animal load and how much acreage do you have? A paddock that you want in grass or edibles will take at least 4 months of rest, meaning no animals running around on that paddock soil. If you have 3 paddocks (depending on your animal load) that should get you thru the year. I think if your are able to grow all year long. You MUST be on a well, yes? Have you ever run dry? How many gallons per minute? What a wonderful spread you've got Ilikedirt!! Kudos to you!! – stormy May 13 '17 at 22:04
  • Great information! Though not my horse, lol. Those are just pictures I found online. I Wish my land looked like that! As soon as I complete my fence, I do plan to get a goat, though. Should help with the weeds! – iLikeDirt May 14 '17 at 22:31

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