It’s hard to describe the varied emotions involved in cleaning and mixing big piles of prairie seed. There is incredible optimism embedded in those tiny packages. After all, each seed has the potential to become a plant; maybe even the first of an entire colony of plants. On the other hand, most of them will fail to produce anything other than a little food for some animal or microbe.
Yesterday was seed mixing day at our Platte River Prairies. We dumped bags and buckets of harvested seed into piles to be mixed and taken out to planting sites. In recent years, we’ve shifted our seed harvest focus; instead of aiming for the highest possible diversity of prairie species (150-200) to convert crop fields into prairie habitat, we’re now focusing on 30-40 wildflower species that are largely missing from some of our more degraded native prairies. Those degraded prairies had years of of chronic overgrazing and/or broadcast herbicide use before we obtained them, and haven’t really increased much in plant diversity, despite over 20 years of the best management we could give them. By increasing the number of plant species in those prairies via overseeding, we hope to increase the quality of pollinator and wildlife habitat, as well as the overall ecological resilience of the prairie community.
To be clear, when I say “we”, I’m mostly talking about the Platte River Prairies staff and volunteers who are actually doing the work these days. For many happy years harvesting seed, but that torch has now been largely passed to others. I still harvest a modest amount of seed on my own time, mostly during evenings and weekends, for use at our family prairie, but I’m just an advisor for the bulk of the restoration work going on at the Platte River Prairies. Regardless, it was immensely gratifying to help out yesterday. It felt great to run those seeds through my fingers and inhale a little seed dust into my lungs (though we wear masks to minimize the dust inhalation).
While I like thinking about each seed as a potential plant, I also recognize how few of them will actually make it that far. Even in cropfield restoration work, when we’re broadcasting seeds onto bare soil with no preestablished competition from other plants, only a small percentage of seeds really end up as plants. Some are eaten by animals before they get a chance to germinate. Others don’t land in a place where they get the light and moisture they need. Still others germinate, but are then outcompeted by neighboring plants, eaten by something, or don’t get rain at the right time to sustain them.
When we’re overseeding an existing prairie, the number of planted seeds that turn into plants is far lower still. We burn ahead of time to create bare soil, and graze to reduce competition, but there are still very few spots where a seed can land and have a good chance to thrive. That means that the vast majority of those wonderful little seeds of promise just die. Though, as we discussed yesterday while we worked, even the ones that die are feeding something – birds, mammals, insects, fungi, etc. – so it’s not that they’re really wasted. It’s just that we didn’t really spend all that time harvesting seeds just to feed fungi.
Instead of focusing on how many of those seeds will become fungus fodder, though, I’d prefer to think about the good that will come from those that survive. By harvesting and broadcasting those seeds, we’re transforming prairies with very few summer wildflowers into prairies with enough floristic diversity that they will support a more robust pollinator population and provide better habitat structure to a number of wildlife species. Even if one tenth of one percent of the seeds we plant germinate, we’ll be making a big difference.
Soon, we’ll be releasing those seeds into the wild to take their chances in the world. Most of our planting these days is done by machine, which helps us cover a lot of ground quickly, with fairly even distribution of seeds. That’s all well and good, but I sure get a lot of joy from hand-tossing seeds at our family prairie. Not only can I aim the seeds for areas I think (though I’m totally guessing) they might survive best, I can also give them a little good luck wish as they leave my hand. Later in the season, when I return to look for seedlings, I can congratulate both the seed and myself on our success whenever I find a new plant. With enough of those successes, we’ll slowly rebuild the diversity and resilience that will carry these prairies well into the future.