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  • Ian Thompson

Harvesting the Bounty of the Fall Prairie

Fall is an especially beautiful time of year on the surviving tallgrass prairie patches. The golden stocks of Indian grass move in unison as waves in the cool breeze. The burgundy Little Bluestem adds vibrance to the hillsides. With their colorful stocks and prolific white tufts, the Bushy Bluestem (pictured above) and Splitbeard Bluestem grasses emit an otherworldly beauty in the fall sunset.

This fall, we're trying something new; hand-gathering seeds from particular species from the tallgrass prairie in order to plant them on our land. It's been a fun learning experience. The first step is getting to know the different prairie grasses. They are diverse, beautiful, and have some pretty impressive adaptations that help them survive and thrive in harsh conditions. Some of individual native grass plants can live for 25 years. Some of them, even as seedlings, can survive dry winds and temperatures in excess of 150 degrees. Some of the prairie plants have roots that grow half an inch per day and produce dense, living mats that extend many feet under the soil. In fact, two thirds of the prairie exists underground. Roots draw moisture and protect the soil from erosion, but they also maintain life-supporting relationships with microorganisms that anchor the entire ecosystem, relationships which science can't even fully explain. Thanks to these roots, tallgrass prairie soils contain 120 tons of organic matter per acre, compared to 70 tons for forested lands. Revitalizing these prairies can pull a huge amount of CO2 out of the air, fighting global warming.

For readers who might be interested in learning more about the prairie, we've recently come across a treasure trove of knowledge in the form of the collective works of two prolific researchers who have spent their long careers studying the native plants of the tallgrass prairie:

Right now in our corner of southeastern Oklahoma, the two most important native forage grasses, Big Bluestem and Little Bluestem, have a ton of seed. Lingering seeds can even still be found in a few seed heads among the clumps of Sand Dropseed and Virginia Wild Rye.

It's been fun to walk through Tallgrass prairie remnants collecting these seeds. It provides an opportunity to see how the plants challenge each other in a competition that makes the land incredibly resilient. In touching these plants, pulling the seeds from the different species, it is hard not to wonder about some of the most incredible things that each grass species has "witnessed" over the thousands of years and over the millions of acres that it has lived in the American heartland.

After our grass seeds are harvested, they are dried and then frozen to await spring planting. We realize we can't hand-collect even a fraction of the seeds that it would take to cover all of the degraded areas on our farm. Instead, the plan is to collect enough native seeds of the right species to introduce to our pastures in order to speed the transition to native grasses along. If only a few dozen of these seeds germinate and mature in each pasture, within a few years under the right management conditions, they'll be producing thousands of seeds each season. Even if none of the seeds we plant this year should come up, all that it has cost us is a few hours spent in beautiful places interacting with an amazing part of creation.

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