This spring, we're experimenting with a fun way to plant seeds, using something called "seed bombs". In this post, we'll share the story of why we've decided to try them out in our land restoration effort this spring. We also provide a simple recipe for making the bombs, which can be used on a wide variety of landscapes, ranging from small prairie restorations to bringing wildflowers to your backyard.
As the land on the farm has started to rebound from years of overgrazing, native plants are making a comeback. So far, we've documented nearly two dozen different species of native grasses on the land. Most of them come from the old tallgrass prairie. We are only just beginning to learn to
identify more of the forbs and wild flowers. Despite so many native species being present, many of them are currently only growing in small areas of the land. This brings up an interesting question.
Species diversity was is a defining characteristic of the native prairie. It is definitely something that we want to foster on the farm. The advantages include better soil health, better habitat for a wide range of animals, and more resiliency. Early on, we talked with landscape managers, who have more knowledge than we do, about the possibility of planting seeds for more native species on the land. Their advice was to wait and see what kinds of plants came up on their own under our new grazing strategy. After three years, we've basically seen three types of responses from the plants.
First, are plants like purple top (a native tallgrass). Under the new grazing management strategy, purple top is retaking big chunks of real estate. This grass thrives on degraded soils, but still manages to produce a quality forage for grazing animals, like bison. The thick stands of purple top that started emerging this year also provide habitat for small animals and out-compete the annoying sandburs. Purple top is a great plant, but we don't want this one grass to become so dominant that we lose diversity.
A second response to the new grazing system is represented by big bluestem. Big bluestem is one of the four horsemen (most dominant native grasses) of the tallgrass prairie. This plant is good for the soil and it produces a superior forage for grazing animals. It has been grazed into oblivion in our region. A couple of years ago, we excitedly posted when our first big bluestem plant emerged from dormant seeds in the soil. Fast forward two years, and there are still only 10 big bluestem plants on the land. Even fresh big bluestem seeds have low viability rates, and with only one plant for every 16 acres of our farm, under current conditions it will be a long time before this keystone grass begins making any measurable impact on the land.
The third response is represented by sunflowers. Several species of sunflower are native to the tallgrass prairie, and their contribution is vitally important. They support pollinators and provide lots of food for birds and mammals. Particularly resistant to drought, sunflowers fill in during years that the grass grows poorly, and can provide important forage for the buffalo. Sadly, they mostly get poisoned out by pasture managers. Swamp sunflowers hang out on the bottomlands on the farm, but we don't have any sunflowers growing in the uplands. They were once a dominant plant in the region, and they thrive on damaged soil. After three years with none reappearing, it seems that sunflowers are simply gone from our farm.
With these observations, there are several different paths that we could take. The first would be to let nature and land management continue to take their course. Whatever wants to grow on the land eventually will. In a way, we like this logic, but it means being willing to lose out on years of higher productivity while waiting for a bird or animal to randomly re-plant the missing pieces of the ecosystem on the land. Given our goals, this is not the right option. At the other end of the spectrum, many prairie restorations begin by plowing and spraying everything in order to start over from scratch. That's not really an option for us either, because we would lose all of the local native plants that have managed to survive. A better option is to conduct a range fire, and then use a no-till drill to inter-plant seeds from desirable prairie plants. Such an option is way, way outside of our price range. Instead, we've tried some other approaches.
We're sharing our results here because we wish that there had been more experiences with these methods available online when we began to experiment with them. Last year, one of our schemes involved purchasing a two pound bag of Indian blanket seeds. This beautiful, native wildflower (Amy's favorite), is absent from our farm. The seeds are so tiny, they say you can just put them on top of the bare ground, pack them in, and let the rain plant them. Last spring, we scattered hundreds of thousands of these seeds in different settings around the property. Not a single one came up (although they still could this year). In another effort, we hand-gathered grass seeds from a local prairie and spread them on the ground last winter, where we were going to feed the buffalo hay. The idea was that their feet would plant the seeds, and their manure would fertilize them. To date, not a single one of these seeds has come up either, although invasive grass seeds contained in the hay certainly did. Next, we tried mixing hard, dried eastern gamma grass seeds into the buffalo food, and letting the animals plant them. A few of those plants came up, but they didn't survive long. Finally, we hand-gathered seeds from some of the under-represented plants growing in little corners on the farm, and replanted them in different pastures by pushing them 1/4 inch into the ground using our fingers. In essence, this method is a human-powered version of the no-till drill. So far, about a dozen of these seeds (exclusively from little bluestem), have come up.
This brings us to seed bombs, the method we're experimenting with this year. It seems like it may have a better chance of success than the methods that we have tried so far. The seed bomb recipe that we followed is reported to have a 90% germination rate. For it, you simply pour in one part clay with 5 parts compost soil, put in the seeds, and mix (we used compost from our bin, hand-dug clay from Farris, a mixture of grass seeds gathered from two nearby prairies, and purchased seeds from three species of sunflower harvested within our region). To make the bombs, you role this crumbly mixture into quarter-sized balls and let them dry hard. To plant, you push the bombs down halfway into the soil. When it rains, the matrix softens and gives the seeds a head start with nutrients and microbes. Two weeks ago, we planted about 250 of these seed bombs in strategic locations. Since then, we've made 750 more of them to plant this weekend. If even half come up, it will be a big boost in our landscape restoration efforts. We'll share the results in a future post.