Winter Overseed

by Dee Hudson Photography and Jay Stacy

My alarm blares before sunrise and I quickly pull on my five layers of clothing for my upper body, my two pairs of socks, my face mask, my thermal underwear and jeans, and my North Face boots. I am now prepared to help overseed a prairie planting on this cool winter morning!

Dressed in layers for the winter when I photograph or work in prairie restoration.

Dressed in layers for the winter when I photograph or work in prairie restoration.

There is a slight cloud cover this morning and the temperatures are in the upper twenties — perfect conditions for what we need to do. I meet Jay Stacy, a land steward for Nachusa, at the Headquarters at 8 am. Jay is all prepared to overseed a 16-acre restoration that he first planted in the Fall of 2012. He has mixed 270 pounds of collected seeds* and placed them in eight 40–gallon barrels, already strapped into the back of a truck bed.

Bill Kleiman (Preserve Director) and Jay review the Kubota tractor operation and safety precautions before we depart. To do my part in keeping safe, I must make sure that I never stand behind or in front of the wheels when I help Jay. Getting squashed under a tractor tire is not on my agenda for the day, so I will follow this advice!

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Jay Stacy overseeds his 2012 prairie restoration.

My job is to transport the seed out to the field, while Jay drives the tractor. To overseed with the tractor, rather than hand–seeding the entire field, Jay waited until the weather conditions were just right. The ground needed to be frozen to drive the tractor across the surface, as to not damage this beautiful restoration planting. So, Jay planned this overseed to follow four nights sub zero weather, on a day when the temperatures would then reach the low 30’s (so he did not freeze to death on the tractor!). The two inches of snow cover across the field just added a nice cushion.

Jay Stacy, with the first load of seed in the pendulum seed spreader.

Jay Stacy with the first load of seed in the pendulum seed spreader.

The Seed Mixture
This is the 2nd winter overseed for this planting, the 1st occurring in the 2013 winter. For this overseed, Jay prepared three separate mixes, gauged to the soil type and drainage of the various parts of the restoration. The mixes contain forbs, sedges, non–dominant grasses and 40 pounds of Little Bluestem grass. Generous amounts of Leadplant (Amorpha canescens) and Northern Prairie Dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis) were in all three mixes.

Three 40–gallon barrels of overseed sit next to a restored prairie.

40–gallon barrels hold the prairie seed.

Mix 1
This mix targets gravel soils and contains species like: Downy Yellow Painted Cup (Castilleja sessiliflora), Purple Prairie Clover (Petalostemum (Dalea) purpureum), and Pale Purple Coneflower (Echinacea pallida).

Purple Prairie Clover in bloom

Purple Prairie Clover

Mix 2
One area in the planting turns out to be wetter than first thought in 2012, so plants that like the wetter side of mesic** were added to this mix. Some of the moisture–loving plants included are Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum), Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea), Rattlesnake Master (Eryngium yuccifolium) Gayfeather (Liatris Pycnostachya), and Tall Coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris).

Gayfeather flowers with a stormy sky in the background.

Gayfeather

Mix 3
One area in the 16–acre planting has sandy soil, so Jay created an overseed mix with some of these plants: Prairie Coreopsis (Coreopsis palmata), Western Sunflower, (Helianthus occidentalis) and White Aster (Aster ptarmicoides).

Leadplant and Prairie Coreopsis blooming together.

Leadplant and Prairie Coreopsis

Pulling a pendulum spreader behind the tractor, the overseed planting was finished in early afternoon with a good seed distribution across all three areas. Jay accomplished all the overseed work while I provided him with coffee, lunch, a warm truck and some comic relief.

Seeds rest on top of snow from an overseed for prairie restoration.

The newly spread seeds dot the snow.

Seed Collection
While Jay collected the majority of seed, his efforts were greatly enhanced with the assistance of Tim Sherck, Jeff Cologna, Sheryl Honig, Tim Know, and yours truly. I cannot speak for the others, but I find seed collecting to be fun and relaxing, especially as we collect together. Also, seed collection is very rewarding, for when I see the new restorations in bloom, with butterflies, birds and bison savoring my efforts, I know I have done my part to restore the land back to its native state.

If you want to volunteer at Nachusa Grasslands, check the website for opportunites and the Saturday workday schedule.

* All forb seed weights represent the weight of a processed product, thus seed head & stem weight are included in the weight. All grasses (like Side–oats Grama, Little Bluestem, and Northern Prairie Dropseed) are pure seed weights.
**Mesic is a type of habitat that has a moderate level of moisture, midway between dry and wet.

 

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Porcupines in the Prairie

by Dee Hudson Photography

Porcupines in the prairie? When it comes to prairies, I am of course speaking about the Porcupine Grass (Stipa spartea).

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The porcupine grass creates an elegant silhouette.

The seed from this grass is one of my favorites because it is so unique–looking compared to other seeds I have seen. The tip of this seed is rather furry and comes to a very sharp point, like a porcupine quill. Even though I was careful while planting these seeds, I still bled from pricking my fingers with the sharp tips.

 The furry and sharp tip of the porcupine seed.

The furry and sharp tip of the porcupine seed.

To plant the porcupine grass I actually jabbed the seed downward, burying the pointed tip into the ground. I would squat to the ground (to get a work–out while I planted!!) and then sink five seeds into the ground in a circle around me. Then I would stand up and toss out another five seeds to self–plant and then I would walk eight to ten feet and repeat the whole process again. As you can imagine, this planting process is very labor–intensive.

The candy cane twisted seed tail.

The candy cane twisted seed tail.

The seed tails are very fascinating. There are two different colored strands that twist around each other, looking rather candy cane–like to me. Apparently these two strands twist at different rates depending on the humidity in the air. So, when the air is dry, the tapered tail end will coil and fishtail to one side or the other and then when there is more moisture in the air the tail will fishtail the other way. Over time, the humidity changes  will allow this seed to literally screw itself down into the ground. It is pretty amazing how nature works!

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As the seed dries, the end coils.

 

To give an idea of the seed size, I photographed three porcupine seeds before planting them in the prairie.

To give an idea of the seed size, I photographed three porcupine seeds before planting them in the prairie at Nachusa Grasslands.

 

Planting Seeds in Winter?

by Dee Hudson Photography

Yes, when you’re planting prairie seeds, December can be a great time to sow them!! Native seeds actually need many freezes and thaws to soften up their hard seed coats so they are ready to germinate in the spring.

On the morning of December 4th, I helped Jay Stacy, a land steward at Nachusa Grasslands, hand–sow seeds onto a problem area in his prairie field.

A hand holding prairie seeds

Over the past seven months, Jay (with my help also!) has hand–collected seeds from all over Nachusa’s restored prairie fields, to use for this ‘Mullein Hill’ planting. The seed mix we sowed contained over 40 different species, many species that are rare in plantings (conservative species) and many species that will colonize quickly and then give way as the rare species become established.

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I asked Jay what was in his seed mix and he said, “Leadplant, dropseed, cream wild indigo, pale purple coneflower, western sunflower, coreopsis palmata, yellow coneflower, shooting stars, prairie violets, silky aster and many other species.”

The 16 acres surrounding this hill were planted into prairie in 2012, but Jay left this small fifth of an acre unplanted due to all the brush and tree limbs laying across the slope. Jay cleared the hill of stumps and branches in 2013, but in the meantime, mullein, an invasive non–native species, took over!! Boy, did these plants ever take over! See all the green rosette–shaped plants covering the hill and slope as far as you can see? There are hundreds and hundreds of these non–native plants in just this small area._MG_8465

Mullein grows well in sandy, dry areas and this hill was a perfect place for it to thrive. To keep this biennial from making seeds, Jay mowed the mullein down three separate times this past summer (2014). Now, Jay and I are planting some competition for the mullein and once these seeds sprout in the spring, the mullein won’t have a chance at survival.

This mullein hill is shaped irregularly, so Jay used an inventive planting method (known as the Schmadeke Techniqueto insure that we did not miss any spots as we scattered out the seeds. First we ringed the outside perimeter with bright colored flags. Then we stood next to a starting flag and spaced ourselves about five feet apart. We began to spread our seeds while walking towards the next flag. When we arrived at the second flag, Jay pulled it out and handed it to me, and I plunked it in the ground to my left, thus creating a tighter circle to follow the next sweep around the hill.

I’m excited to visit ‘Mullein Hill’ next spring and see what has sprouted. We will probably need to give the hill a new name!