Every Little Bit Helps

I’m getting excited about this upcoming field season.  For the first time in several years, we’re going to be attempting to harvest seed from as many prairie plant species as we can.  Between about 1997 and 2005, we spent much of each field season hand-picking seeds from a broad diversity of species – often ending up with over 200 species by the end of the season.  It was exciting and fulfilling, and we were often able to create up to a couple hundred acres of new prairie habitat each year.  Since that time, we’ve focused less on converting cropland to high-diversity prairie (we ran out of cropland!) and more on harvesting large amounts of fewer species to overseed degraded prairies.  I’m not sure we’ll be able to harvest as many as 200 species this summer – we’re pulled in many more directions now than we were in our “glory years” of seed harvesting – but making the attempt will be fun.

A clonal patch of bracted spiderwort (Tradescantia bracteata) in a 2002 prairie planting.

A clonal patch of bracted spiderwort (Tradescantia bracteata) in a 2002 prairie planting.  It isn’t hard to find these patches (when they’re blooming) despite the fact that we had only about 1 cup of seed spread over about 70 acres.

During those glory years, we worked hard to build the most diverse seed mixture possible.  We used to joke about how many seeds we had to get from a plant species before we could add it to that year’s harvest list.  It kind of felt like cheating when we’d only find a handful or two of seeds from a species but would add it to the list anyway.  However, we justified listing those species because of conversations with people who had much more experience than we did (especially Bill Whitney with Prairie Plains Resource Institute) who claimed that even a few seeds would usually be enough to establish a species in a new prairie.  Besides, we figured if the species was appropriate to the site, tiny populations would spread out over time.

Now that I’ve had up to 17 years to watch the establishment of plantings I personally harvested seed for, I can testify that Bill and others were right.  Sometimes, just a few seeds really are enough.  That knowledge is awfully good for morale when we’re on our hands and knees searching for violet or pale poppy mallow (Callirhoe alcoides) plants to harvest from.  Those are just two or many examples of plants that are short, have widely scattered populations in our prairies, and are difficult to find at seed harvest time because the surrounding vegetation has grown tall enough to obscure them from sight.   To make things worse, neither of those species produces many seeds per plant, so even when you find a plant, you might only get 20-50 seeds out of it.  Knowing that those 20-50 seeds are worth finding makes crawling on hands and knees seem much less tedious.  Ok, a LITTLE less tedious.

Violets are difficult to find after they are done blooming.  Even when you find them,  each plant produces few seeds (and you have to get them before the pods pop open and toss the seeds away...)

Violets are difficult to find after they are done blooming. Even when you find them, each plant produces few seeds (and you have to get them before the pods pop open and toss the seeds away…)

Last week, I finally found time to finish data entry from my 2014 plant community monitoring of some of our restored prairies.  Looking through the long-term data trends, it was gratifying to see hard evidence that small amounts of seed really do turn into robust plant populations.  Here are a few examples.  (Warning: this next portion of the post includes actual graphs of actual data.  If you are turned off by graphs or data, please skip to the last paragraph now.)


Data from a mesic restored prairie with sandy/loam soil and scattered sand ridges.


Data from an upland sandhills restored prairie.

In the above two graphs, similar trends can be seen for populations of stiff sunflower (Helianthus pauciflorus) and Missouri goldenrod (Solidago missouriensis).  These data were collected from approximately 100 1×1 m plots across each site, and the graphs show the % of plots within which each species was present.  The top site (mesic) was sampled annually and the bottom (sandhills) was sampled every other year.

It might look as if Missouri goldenrod is a rare plant in these prairies, but remember that in order to show up in more than a couple 1×1 m plots, it has to be fairly abundant.  Stiff sunflower, on the other hand really is ubiquitous.  Interestingly, only about 3 gallons of fluffy/stemmy Missouri goldenrod seed was in the mix for the  70 acre mesic site and 10 gallons for the 110 acre sandhill site.  About 5 gallons of sunflower seed (still in hulls, with some stems included) was planted in the sandhills and 3 gallons in the mesic site.  Both are fairly respectable amounts of seed given that they were hand harvested, but they were spread pretty thinly across 180 acres.



The second two graphs (above) show two perennial species, a grass named Scribner’s panicum (Panicum oligosanthes) and the short-beaked sedge (Carex brevior), as well as the annual grass six-weeks fescue (Vulpia octoflora).  The two perennials seem to be on a slow steady climb in abundance across both sites, which is excellent.  Meanwhile, the annual appears to be doing what annual plants should do, which is to flourish during periods when competition from surrounding plants is temporarily suppressed.  We had harvested very little seed for all three of these species that year, so it’s gratifying to see that they are becoming part of the established plant community.  Specifically, we had:

– only 7 cups (!) of seed for the short-beaked sedge across 180 acres (both sites combined).

– about 2 gallons of stemmy seed for Scribner’s panicum.

– 3 1/2 cups of six-weeks fescue (tiny seeds) for the sandhills and 1 cup for the mesic site.

I knew we hadn’t collected much seed for these species, but I was still surprised by how little we’d had when I went back to check the records.  There are many other examples I could share of species that established very nicely (and/or are increasing over time) despite small amounts of seed in the planting mixture.  Some of those species established fairly quickly, but most are slowly increasing in abundance, either through clonal (rhizomatous) growth or because each new generation of plants puts out more seed to spawn the next generation.

Fourpoint evening primrose (Oenothera rhombipetala) established well in the sandhills restoration despite only 2 cups of seed planted.  The biennial species is episodic in its abundance, but

Fourpoint evening primrose (Oenothera rhombipetala) established well in our sandhills restoration despite less than 2 cups of seed planted on 110 acres. The biennial species is episodic in its abundance – just as it should be.

The seed we harvest this coming season will be planted on about 50 acres – far fewer than the 150-200 acres we planted each year before we ran out of cropland to restore.  However, regardless of planting size, the major challenge is still to find and harvest seed from a diverse mixture of plant species.  We’ll be digging out our old lists of species, harvest times, and notes about where the best plant populations can be found.  Then we’ll strap buckets to our waists and start picking seeds.  It should be a fun year!

…and on those days when we’re laboriously searching for tiny plants hidden beneath tall grass, we’ll remember that with seed harvesting, every little bit helps!

Click here for more information on prairie restoration in Nebraska.



16 thoughts on “Every Little Bit Helps

  1. I’m a FFA volunteer working on soil projects for Ag Educators and FFA students. As prairie landscape acres are declining so do habitats for insects, plants and animals? Nebraska land is being converted to row crop monoculture ag. I’m working on monarch butterflies and their migrations annually from Mexico to Canada and back for the winter. Your thoughts related to monarch numbers across Nebraska prairielands during their migrations? Do you do counts and if so have the numbers changed over the years? Some think agricultural pesticides especially Roundup herbicide has destroyed milkweed populations that are feed for monarchs. Are there other plant food sources that sustain monarchs in prairie habitats?

  2. I measure the success of my seed collecting by the species of seeds I am able to collect which have not been collected by others. This is often the violets, sedges, puccoons, and phloxes of the world. I often have so few seeds that I count the actual number. Years later I return to look at the scattered plants that were introduced as plugs. I am hoping to see groupings develop around the individuals. This will likely take many more years. I’ll keep looking.

  3. I remember the year (2003?) you had me looking for sun sedge and I found a substantial patch. While collecting I noticed ants doing the same thing and hauling them back to their nest holes. An
    hour later you came along and caught me feeding the seeds I had collected to the ants. I never figured out if you were annoyed or amused or both :^)


    • I wish me knew how to make restorations more attractive to the ants which distribute seeds. I often wonder if the lack of ants means I won’t see seedling around the plugs I have planted.

  4. I’m curious about the pace of restoration on private lands. It seems like your successes with patch burn grazing might influence neighboring landowners and others to try to restore their own degraded range or convert crop land, given unpredictable rainfall and increasing pressure and expense of irrigation. Since you are running out of your own acres to restore, I’m wondering whether private landowners have approached you for seed and whether this is something you may pursue in the future….perhaps in exchange for some form of easement?

      • Hi Chris,
        Thank you very much. I appreciate it. When you do a Google search for that species of viola, Prairie Moon Nursery comes up. I ordered 12 bare roots to become part of my own mini-prairie of sorts. As I placed the order I shared how I came upon their site and first I described your blog and before I could say your name, the representative said “Oh, Chris Helzer?”

        I just wanted to share that with you.

        Take care!

  5. Chris,

    Very encouraging article. Good timing too since I’ve been putting together high diversity seed mix orders and lists of other species to buy individually and hand seed. We’ve not done near enough analysis of our diverse prairie reconstructions to know what is, or isn’t present, and I’ve often wondered whether some of the species seeded in trace amounts ever amount to much. I’ve just had the attitude that unless we put it there or it can blow in from a neighboring field, it has slim odds of becoming established. This gives me hope.

    Say, I got a call from a colleague at the Windom WMD yesterday concerning a combine he’s interested in for native seed harvest and we got to chatting about seed strippers/flail-vacs, so I looked up the article you posted last September on the one that was modified with the Shelbourne stripper. I too have had my frustrations with our pull behind brush stripper, especially with species like Echinacea and the sunflowers. I’ve thought about modifying ours with sickle mower teeth, not to the drum, but rather the leading edge of the floor. We have ours set up with hydraulics so I can adjust height, brush speed, and direction of spin on the fly. In the article you say you were pretty pleased with its performance, did you still feel this way at the end of the fall harvest? I was curious if this variation created more trash/inert material than the brush, and if so, was it so much that it presented challenges for handling the harvest?

    Even with the one we have now, it doesn’t really have an efficient mechanism for unloading the harvest. The floor drops out, but you need a tarp to dump it on, need at least two people to handle the tarp to get it into a trailer, and it can’t be very windy or it blows right off the tarp. So far for the most part we’ve just been hand scooping it into the bag attachment, which makes it slow and low volume, and leads to some loss of the light fluffy seed.

    Thanks in advance, JB

    • Hi JB. We do really like that new seed harvester. I would say we get a little more bulk with it than with the brush, but we also get a lot more seed that the brush would have missed, so I think it’s worthwhile. Also, some of the extra bulk comes from not having enough experience yet with what the ideal height of the harvester is for various plant species and heights. The worst bulk comes from very tall plants (7-8′ tall or higher) because the harvester hits them mid-stem and tears the whole stem off. Not sure what to do about that except try to harvest shorter plants or build the harvester so it goes WAY up in the sky. Again, it’s not an issue I’m really concerned about – we’re very happy. It unloads through a chute on the back, not through the floor, but I don’t find that to be a problem.


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