Native Seed Establishment Best Management Practices
Native Seed Establishment BMP
Native seed establishment can be a tricky business unless you know the correct steps. It can take 3-5 years to establish a natural area from native seed. We will lay out common steps for most upland prairie sites here. However, every site is different, some sights may require a different strategy with establishment and weed control strategy.
If you need additional help beyond this article please contact us about our consulting and contracting services to ensure your investment in our environment is successful.
Assess Your Site
What do you have? Do you have an agricultural field, a field fully of invasive weeds, or a site that contains remnant qualities and just needs a little seed and some TLC? What types of soils do you have, are they wet or dry, clayey or sandy? How large is your site? There are several tools that are free to help you calculate the size, our favorite is Google Earth Pro.
Before you begin you may want to read Ecosystem Restoration Considerations to understand certain factors that may influence your restoration approach. Again, if this is beyond your comfort level, an ecological consultation is well worth the time and investment.
Make sure you consider all of the costs that go into a native restoration project. Don't cheat, this step is important! A smaller project that establishes well is better than a site that does not receive the adequate seed or maintenance and it fails. Consider preparation, seed, plant, and maintenance costs. Also, consider putting your land into a conservation easement, it could save you taxes and enhance your ability to adequately maintain and preserve your site.
Know your capacity. Do not bite off more than you can chew at one time. Again, a smaller site that has received adequate seed and maintenance is much better than a site invaded with weeds and non-native plants. Many folks do not consider this when installing a natural area. Maintenance is necessary and will be needed into the foreseeable future, albeit it should continue to decrease over time.
Selecting Your Mix
Based on your research and observations above, now its time to select a mix. Our native seed mixes have been honed over time to provide a broad spectrum of conditions and habitat types (bird, pollinator, monarch, etc....) Select one that best fits your site's conditions. Is the site shady or sunny, wet or dry, do you want short stature or tall? Or does the site have multiple conditions going on? In many cases, multiple native seed mix will be necessary to fit diverse site conditions. One additional consideration is a Mycorrhizal Inoculum to rehabilitate the soil biome in urban, suburban, and agricultural soils that have been abused.
Correct preparation is the key and is the most important step to set the stage for a successful native seed installation.
Often the easiest conversion to native is when an agricultural field comes off production in the first year. Soybeans are the easiest of the bunch with corn being a close second. Why? Because the fields have been doused with glyphosate a plant-killing chemical for 20-30 years practically creating a clean slate for your native seed to germinate. This seems counter-intuitive that a field doused with a chemical is better for establishing native seedlings, but this completely eliminates any vegetation resulting in a clean seedbed, reduces weed competition, and gives the native seeds an easier environment to germinate and establish. Well, it may not be better for our environment to continuously treat areas with glyphosate, it does make it easier to establish native plants from seed. If this is your circumstance, your site is already likely prepared in regards to initial weed management.
Turf to Prairie
Often the second easiest native seed conversion is turf to prairie. Manicured lawn often suppresses many weeds so after removing the lawn weed pressure is lower and native establishment is easier. There are multiple ways to remove the lawn from smothering (typically recommended only on smaller sites), sod removal (also typically only recommended on small sites), to herbicide application.
Natural Communities, LLC. takes the use of herbicides very seriously. We do not advocate for the use of herbicides, however, we see the value of judicious applications as a tool for bringing nature back. Only consider herbicide use after looking at all other considerations. Also, realize the issue at hand, completely clearing the land of existing vegetation is an absolutely critical step. Each site is different and each owner is different in their capacity, pesticide licensing, knowledge, equipment, and stewardship ethic. It is a personal choice to select which weed control strategy fits for you and your property. We would be happy to discuss specific options for preparation for your native planting success at Natives@NaturalCommunities.net.
Fallow Field / Weed Removal
Fallow fields are chock full of invasive and weedy species that if not dealt with properly can make your native seed investment worthless. Fully removing this weedy competition prior to seeding is critical to getting your natural area established. There are multiple ways to get rid of weedy and invasive vegetation. Many times with a fallow field this could take an entire growing season to accomplish this goal. Weed removal can include smothering, tilling, mowing, possibly herbicide application, or all the above.
Again, Natural Communities, LLC. takes the use of herbicides very seriously. We do not advocate for the use of herbicides, however, we see the value of judicious applications as a tool for bringing nature back. Only consider herbicide use after looking at all other considerations. Also, realize the issue at hand, completely clearing the land of existing vegetation is an absolutely critical step. Each site is different and each owner is different in their capacity, pesticide licensing, knowledge, equipment, and stewardship ethic. It is a personal choice to select which weed control strategy fits for you and your property. We would be happy to discuss specific options for preparation for your native planting success at Natives@NaturalCommunities.net.
Erosion / Flooding Considerations
Please consider the potential for your site or the seed you will be installing to erode or float away from flooding. Look at your sites topography, do you have any swales with a concentrated stormwater flow or are you in a floodway or near a detention basin that has the potential for flooding. You may need to implement erosion control measures including erosion control blanket or seed oats, winter wheat, or both. You may also consider hydro mulching on steep slopes to ensure the seed sticks to reduce erosion and holds moisture for germination. Lastly, hay crimping is another viable method in relatively flat and low erosion risk areas.
Seed Installation Considerations
Several appropriate ways to install seed are currently being used to install native seed. In all circumstances, it is good to calibrate your equipment (or your hand for hand seeding) to ensure you get an even distribution of seed. Choose a smaller subsection of the site and subdivide the seed into the appropriate amount for that specific area. Practice calibrating the seeding rate on a test area prior to seeding the larger site. On large sited and for different seeding mixes, it is best to subdivide the site anyway to ensure the seed is divided evenly. You do not want to spend a ton of money on seed and time on preparation and have it go to waste in one tiny corner of the site. Another consideration is the mixing of the seed. We typically mix the large seed separate from the small seed to avoid small seed settling to the bottom and have it all fall out first and not lasting until the last areas have been completed. Consider seeding the small and large seed separately on two passes. Another technique to aid in seed distribution is adding a carrier such as seed oats, winter wheat, or even fine sawdust for the small seed.
Native No-Till Seed Drill
These are typically reserved for medium to large sites where it is important to get immediate seed to soil contact. These drills are best for "prepared" sites that are relatively level, with little debris (i.e. rocks, tree stumps, soil clods), or existing herbaceous vegetation (i.e. turf to prairie conversation) to cut through the duff and get that seed into the soil. Another perfect use of these drills is construction sites, detention basins, and construction sites. These are relatively slow and require some expertise to operate and calibrate to the correct seeding rate. Consider a carrier such as seed oats to ensure the seed flows and distributes evenly. Typically this would not require erosion blanket in undisturbed soils but may be required in high flow and in circumstances where the soil is loose and friable such as areas that have been tilled, graded, or farmed particularly with slopes.
Usually reserved for larger sites or sites that are largely "unprepared" with lots of debris that could damage a no-till seed drill. These require less expertise to operate and usually are much faster than a no-till seed drill. We also recommend using small and large separated seed mixes on two separate passes to ensure even coverage. Also, consider a carrier such as seed oats to ensure the seed flows and distributes evenly. A light surface scraping of the seeded area to better incorporate and hide the seed can be beneficial on most sites. Do not till the seed in or incorporate it deeply. You are really just trying to achieve seed to soil contact, not burying the seed within the soil.
Hand seedling is reserved for small sites, wetland areas, overseeding in small quantities or seeding in drifts. A light raking will be beneficial in achieving seed to soil contact. Again, do not incorporate the seed deeply into the soil. It is better to leave the seed on the surface untouched than to incorporate into the soil.
For wetland areas, hand seeding is typically the best methods as access is often very difficult. Seed only in areas where water is not standing. In areas where standing water is present, you will likely need to exclusively use plants because the native seed will tend to float downstream or to the water's edge wasting the seed. In areas with water, it is better to establish native plants in areas without standing water first, then let them work their way into standing water as nature sees fit. In areas where flooding is prevalent, consider seeding immediately follow by erosion blanket to keep the seed in place during flooding events.
Native seed should only be planted at certain times of the year, however certain circumstances such as construction deadlines may derail those best practices. We will cover those timing considerations here.
Best for grass only mixes. See native seed stratification below.
Worst time of the year to install native seed. Reserve this for "must do" projects such as one's ties to construction timelines. This is not recommended.
Best time of the year for flowers, sedges, and rushes. Generally, this is the best time of the year to install native seed.
Best time of the year for flowers, sedges, and rushes. Generally, this is the best time of the year to install native seed.
Native Seed Stratification
Native seed stratification is an interesting thing, which you need to understand if you are undertaking a native seed project. Please read more about Native Seed Stratification Here.
This is an area we excel in. The advice below can not cover every circumstance, we would be happy to consult on any help you need establishing your new natural area.
Mow, mow, and mow some more. Mowing is the single best establishment technique to establish your native seed. Mowing keeps the weeds short allowing precious light, water, and nutrients to you native seedlings. It also prevents those weeds from producing viable seed. Mow about 4- 6 times per year at about 12" tall each time. Keep an eye on perennial weeds, those may need to be treated if they get out of control preventing native seed from establishing.
Again Mow, mow, and mow some more. Year 2 is similar to year 1, the only difference is that you should now be able to identify certain native seedlings like Monarda fistulosa (Wild Bergamot / Bee Balm), Rudbeckia hirta (Black-eyed Susan), Elymus canadensis (Canada Wild Rye), or other early establishing native seedlings. If you can identify these species it is an indicator that your native seed is doing well and is moving in the correct direction. Again, mowing is the single best establishment technique to establish you native seed. Mowing keeps the weeds short allowing precious light, water, and nutrients to you native seedlings. Mow about 4- 6 times per year at about 12" tall each time. It also prevents those weeds from producing viable seed. Keep an eye on perennial weeds, those may need to be treated if they get out of control preventing native seed from establishing. Perennial weeds begin to take off in this second year so you will definitely need to monitor them.
Now you are moving into native plants becoming more mature, possibly even some early establishing species producing flowers. You will need to evaluate to see if weed pressure is low enough to allow you to spot mow weedy sections or even mowing altogether. If you converted turf or an agricultural field you are more likely to be in the spot mowing or moving away from mowing because natives are more easily established in those cases. If you were converting from a hay field or fallow field you are more likely to need to continue to mow. If you have enough fuel to carry a controlled burn and you have the expertise to conduct one, we would strongly consider implementing one at this point to help control woody species and to further the native species development. Because controlled burns can be extremely dangerous, we recommend the use of a professionally licensed, permitted, and insured contractor.
Year 4 and Beyond
Additional slower to establish native species will begin to show themselves. You should now begin to seed the native densities increase to nearly 80% dominance. Continue to spot mow with a tractor or even weed whips and in those difficult areas overseed. Again be monitoring for aggressive non-native and invasive perennial and persistent species. Those will need to be actively controlled followed by native seed augmentation. You may consider diversifying your area with native plugs to introduce species that do not easily establish from seed.
If you are not seeing these positive steps in any of the years we would suggest that you contact us for onsite consulting and contracting. The earlier you can get the project back on track the better so your investment is not lost. If you are on track, you and nature have many years of sustainable enjoyment to come :)