Innovations and Inventions in Prairie Restoration

One of the great things about people who work on restoring (reconstructing) prairies is that they tend to be good at making things up as they go.  Some say prairie restoration is more art than science.  I actually think there’s plenty of science in restoration, but there’s no denying there’s a lot of art as well.  My favorite examples of restoration art are the fantastic machines and techniques people have come up with to harvest, clean, and plant prairie seeds. 

Prairie seed comes in all kinds of sizes and shapes.  That variety makes seeds fascinating to look at and study, but can create all kinds of issues for people trying to get those seeds from plant to the ground in order to make new prairies.  We’ve certainly had some humbling experiences here – including the comedy of errors that was our failed attempt to modify an old John Deere combine so that its augers would move fluffy prairie grass seed from the head to the hopper.  (We eventually sold the remains of the combine for scrap.)

Although our John Deer combine experience didn't work out so well, we've had better luck with our mobile grass seed dryer. This plywood box has a big electric fan hooked up to a 12" perforated pipe that runs along the bottom of the box. We haul the trailer out to the combine and load freshly-harvested seed into it. Then we back it into the shop and plug it in. The seed usually dries overnight. One side of the box then unbolts and makes it easy to unload. This was a team effort, designed by our staff and a local farmer - then built by a boy scout for his Eagle project.

Failures can be educational, but successes are even better.  I’ve been lucky to have some smart people to help me come up with ways to make our restoration work much more efficient and effective.  I’ve also had the opportunity to visit many other restoration sites around the U.S. and have been amazed at the variety of innovative and individual ways others have solved the challenges we all face. 

I learned the trick of burning the silks off of milkweed seeds from friends in Indiana. I've heard it might reduce germination - and we're testing that this year in the greenhouse - but I'm hoping if we spread them thinly enough before burning that it'll work. I hope so - it's fun! (Keep your face away from the heat)

I’d like to celebrate the innovative aspect of prairie restoration by highlighting some of the best tools and techniques that have been developed, but I need your help.  Over the next several weeks or so, I hope to gather up photos and descriptions of some of the unique, beautiful, and intricate ways people have addressed prairie restoration challenges.  Then I’ll put together a post (or maybe several) that showcases the best of what I find.  Hopefully, the result will be both useful and entertaining.

Please send me your favorite examples of tools, machines, and techniques that you’ve invented or modified in order to more effectively harvest, clean, or plant prairie seeds.  Failures and successes are both welcome – as long as they’re interesting.  Email 1-2 photos of each example, along with a paragraph or two of description to prairieinventions@yahoo.com.  Please keep photo file sizes under 2MB.  No guarantees, but I’ll try to use as many of your photos and descriptions as I can.

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About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is an ecologist and Eastern Nebraska Program Director for The Nature Conservancy. He supervises the management and restoration of approximately 4,000 acres of land in central and eastern Nebraska - primarily along the central Platte River. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press.
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7 Responses to Innovations and Inventions in Prairie Restoration

  1. Trent says:

    Has anyone used a heat gun on milkweed?

  2. Not sure from whom you might have heard about the milkweed seed thing but we did a little experiment here with Asclepias tuberosa:
    - Same batch of seeds
    —– part of which had the fluff flashed off, very much as in your picture
    —– and the other half mechanically separated from the fluff.
    - 50 seeds from each treatment sowed in separate, labelled seedling flats with the same soil mix
    - No germination in the burned batch
    - Over half germinated in the mechanically processed batch.
    This is suggestive, but not replicated, nor tested with other species, so more to be done . . .

  3. James McGee says:

    Ever considered inviting those pumpkin cannon people to help shoot some seed over your restorations? That would be something worth seeing.

    James

  4. Dwight says:

    The pyrotechnique looks like a non-starter to me, but I’ve personally generated too many fiascos to criticize other people’s seed stunts.

    The best way to separate the seeds from Asclepias tuberosa is to face the fluff before it grows fluffy. Timing is everything. Pick the pods as they just begin to split. I leave ripe, unopened pods in a windowsill until they dry further. Widen the split carefully and press your thumb down on the silk. Partially peel back the husk and strip the seeds with a fingernail dragged across the silk surface. If done correctly, the seeds separate easily and very little silk will escape.

    Even so, I work outdoors to avoid complaints from the rest of the family. Before our technique was refined, my kids and I once stripped a batch in the booth of a restaurant in southern Michigan and we nearly got ourselves bounced. I have this enduring memory of my conversation with an unhappy manager as the escaped silk drifted around us. We left a generous tip and fled.

    The best way to cultivate Common milkweed is to remain at home and open a beer. This plant seems to appear without our assistance at most restorations and thrive nicely.

  5. D & D says:

    We prefer and use Dwight’s (excellent) method. But for times when we don’t do so well on the timing, we burn the silks off of milkweed (or similar) seed by using a homemade hardware cloth tray. The sides of the tray are made out of (4) 1″ thick by 4″ wide by 36” long lumber pieces screwed together at 90-degree angles end-to-end to make a 3-foot by 3-foot by 4″ high wooden frame. Then staple a 3-foot by 3-foot piece of 1/2″ mesh hardware cloth to the bottom edge of the wooden frame to make a 4” high wooden tray with a hardware cloth bottom. You can (then) add 4” high legs to each corner of the tray by screwing leftover pieces of 1” thick lumber to each corner. This will allow the bottom of the tray to be 4” higher on whatever surface you set it on.

    Load the tray with about 2” depth of loosely-packed seed and fluff without the pod husks. Ignite the seed/fluff by starting on one corner of the tray. This will cause the flame to work across the entire tray in a line and will keep the flame endurance and length as short as possible. The seed will drop out of the burning fluff mix through the ½” mesh hardware cloth bottom, which will (also) minimize exposure to the heat. If you tap the tray on whatever surface you’re using while the flame is burning, it will aid the seed to drop through the bottom as soon as possible. Do this in a well-ventilated area and keep a fire extinguisher handy…just in case!

    Sorry, we don’t have any photos.

  6. Pingback: Testing Assumptions – The Milkweed Seed Fiasco | The Prairie Ecologist

  7. Glenn Pollock says:

    I put milkweed seeds with fluff on them in a paper grocery store size bag. Leave the top open and choose a windy day about 10 to 15 MPH grab the side of the bag and sake vigorous. Hint stand with your back to the wind. You may loose a few seeds out of top of bag but most will wind up on bottom of bag and fluff will blow out of top of sack, Some fluff may find their way to your face.

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