Harvesting Seeds for Native Prairie Restoration
Marie Stolte, Master Gardener
Dakota County Parks and Recreation is restoring the county’s native prairies. The goal is to grow the same types of plants that have successfully supported local insects, mammals, and birds for thousands of years. Prairie restoration rebuilds prairies by planting prairie seeds in areas that have changed to another land use. This article explains the how and why of native prairie restoration through the experience of Master Gardeners in Dakota County. Learn how you, too, can help wildlife and the environment by developing your own “pocket prairie” garden.
Dakota County Parks and Recreation is attempting to restore the county’s native prairies. The goal is to grow the same types of plants that have successfully supported local insects, mammals, and birds for thousands of years. Prairie restoration rebuilds prairies by planting prairie seeds in areas that have changed to another land use. The science of prairie restoration has evolved over the last century as more is learned about how to do so effectively.
Why should we be interested in prairie restoration? This excerpt from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources explains why:
[It] buffers and creates connections between isolated native prairie remnants, thereby making the larger prairie landscape more resilient to changing environmental conditions including climate change, pesticides, and invasive species
[Helps to “sequester carbon,” (stabilizing carbon in the ground rather than in the atmosphere]
Promotes water infiltration and storage (recharges groundwater, flood control, reduces erosion and nutrient runoff)
Provides places for people to explore and learn about prairies
Provides habitat for a variety of animals, from deer to damselflies
Connects people—physically, intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually—with prairie's past, present, and future
In Dakota County, prairie restoration is done by collecting and using native seeds from its own “remnant prairies” (true native prairies) (or the seeds of those plants’ descendants) or buys native seeds from within 150 miles of Dakota County. “Restored native prairies” are prairies that have been restored with seeds from true native prairies or those plants’ descendants.
Recently, Sam Talbot, a University of Minnesota Extension Educator, met with Dakota County Master Gardener Volunteers (DCMGVs) to collect native plant seeds from “restored prairies.” One group met at Lebanon Hills Regional Park and the other, at Whitetail Woods Regional Park. Note - seed collectors should always have permission before collecting seeds from any site. The purpose of this particular outing was to collect seed for various uses by the DCMGV. The seeds from these older restored prairies are not used as a source for new restorations so DCMGV was allowed to collect them.
Some of the gathered seeds would be cleaned and packaged, then placed in the free Seed Library at Farmington Library for any county resident to grow. The rest of the seeds will be grown in individual DCMGV homes over the winter and sold at the group’s May Plant Sale. Proceeds from the sale support 30 of DCMGV’s programs, including children’s and community gardens throughout the county; raingardens created in conjunction with the City of Mendota Heights; and a new vegetable garden grown cooperatively with the County Juvenile Detention Facility in Hastings.
In the fall, it is much more difficult to identify plants, especially after the flowers (and sometimes, the leaves) have faded and dried. And when many species of plants fill a prairie, it helps to know how high to look and what to look for. On this day, Sam had arrived earlier and cut stems to show the seed-bearing structures with leaves and seed heads. Each stem stood in its own bucket, along with an envelope with the species name. He answered questions about plant height and where they might be found in the vast prairie, then explained that no more than one third of the seeds on each plant should be gathered. The rest would feed wildlife over winter or fall and potentially reseed.
Seed shapes and sizes differ wildly. Cup Plant’s seeds are roughly triangular and black with a brown ring around the edge; they are about an eighth of the size of a dime. Prairie Cinquefoil’s are tiny as sesame seeds and white, with multiple capsules per stem. Wild Bergamot’s almost invisible brown seeds sit loosely in hollow tubes that are packed together on a single seed head, just waiting for the wind to rustle and spread them. With a better understanding of what they were looking for, the DCMGVs headed out into the prairie. Each volunteer gathered one type of seed in a bucket, then took a different bucket to collect.
At the end of the evening, buckets were emptied into the envelopes. Sam brought all of the seeds to Lebanon Hills to dry. In winter, he will host another DCMGV event to clean those seeds, removing chaff, leaving only the seeds for planting. “These events were such a great way to connect the Master Gardeners with the County’s natural resources,” Sam said, “and to explore our restored prairies through a completely different lens. I’m excited to continue our native plant conversations this winter as we discuss the next steps in the propagation process.”
You also have a role to play in restoring native prairies and improving our environment. You can plant a "pocket prairie" in your yard. Even small prairie gardens can provide habitat for pollinators and other wildlife and give you the joy of a beautiful natural landscape. Each month, this publication has been and will continue to feature native plants that you can grow in your garden. To learn more about native prairies and native gardening, go the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources site noted above.
Photo credits: Robert Hatlevig (1, 2, 3)