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Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Spring Planting in Woods and Prairie

All else being equal, we’d prefer to plant in the fall. We plant most of our seed then.

But a number of special cases give us the old-fashioned pleasure of spring planting. This post is about restoring quality to degraded remnants or older plantings (not new plantings on plowed ground).

Seeds in woodland – when, where and why

In spring we sow seeds mostly in the woodlands. We want to plant after a burn, and this year the burn had to be in spring. We sometimes try to get the early-ripening seeds on the ground by October, before the leaves fall. But in the oak woods where we work, the unburned leaves are so thick that very few seedlings come up through them without a burn. We keep the seeds cold over the winter and get them into the cold wet ground as early after a burn as possible.

Soon after the burn we broadcast many mixes of roughly processed seed. Shown here
are bags of WMC (wet-mesic closed) and the emotionally named WOW (wet open woods). 

We broadcast diverse mixes, including many rare, conservative species. 

If we don’t get a burn but need to start planting in a newly thinned woods, we rake leaves away from patches where the seeded species can get established. They then will begin to spread their own seed year after year. Orders of magnitude more seed will then be everywhere to find every opportunity to find a niche, especially after future burns.
On inclines, we rake narrow lines perpendicular to the slope. Any other approach could result in unacceptable amounts of erosion. 

We plant most all our prairie seed in the fall. Most species we plant by seed only. Seeds take longer, but the ecosystem results, for most species, are so much better – because we can spread seeds so much more diversely over so much larger an area.

Plugs in grassland and woodland – when, where and why?

In spring, most of our planting work is with plugs. Some species that are common (and essential?) in high quality ecosystems are very hard to restore from seed. That may be because the seed is difficult or impossible for us to get (because seed of a given species ripens near the ground and is hard to find under all the other vegetation … or because it pops as soon as ripe ... or because the species is now very rare outside protected areas ... or because animals run off with most of it … or because of other nature).

Also, some species merit plugs because, although we can get seed, for some reason planting seed results in few or no plants. For us “bastard toadflax” is the prime example. Why it doesn’t seem to come from seed we don’t know. But we do know that it spreads readily (underground by roots) when we plant dormant roots.

At Spring Creek, with hundreds of acres to plant, we install plugs at flags stretching in long lines. The rare plants may be start at fewer than one per acre. More would be better. But with hundreds of species to plant, and limited resources, we do what we can. A few individual plants can reproduce by the thousands, if conditions are right, though it may take decades. 

We have two major concerns with plugs. The first is that the voles dig them up. In the fall, meadow voles are legion, hungry, and curious. We have seen whole plantings dug up by them. The easiest solution for us is to install plugs after a burn, when all the voles have been driven from an area by lack of cover and predators. We also like spring for plugs because we don’t have to worry about them frost-heaving out over the winter.

We started years ago
with trays of hundreds of plugs
grown for us from our local seed
by the Chicago Botanic Garden.

Now volunteer Rob Sulski grows thousands
each year in his back yard.
By hook and by crook,
by gosh and by golly,
we are ramping up.

Plug planting requires skill 
and caring. 
We become nurses 
or surgeons to the ecosystem. 
It's educational, 
visceral, and rewarding. 

With early spring planting, the bulbs, corms, “carrots,” and other energy-storing roots give a plant the opportunity to start their new lives by putting out the fine rootlets that hold them in the soil. When planted while dormant, they only put up as many leaves as the developing roots can support. Thus we don’t need to water them. We just enjoy a spring and summer happy that our babies are in balance and looking forward to great futures.

1 comment:

  1. “Throughout the centuries there were men who took first steps down new roads armed with nothing but their own vision. Their goals differed, but they all had this in common: that the step was first, the road new, the vision unborrowed, and the response they received — hatred. The great creators — the thinkers, the artists, the scientists, the inventors — stood alone against the men of their time. Every great new thought was opposed. Every great new invention was denounced. The first motor was considered foolish. The airplane was considered impossible. The power loom was considered vicious. Anesthesia was considered sinful. But the men of unborrowed vision went ahead. They fought, they suffered and they paid. But they won.”
    ― Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead

    The pathway to restoring ecosystems is still being discovered. Sure we can grow hundreds of seedling, plant them, and then watch as they fade into oblivion. The plugs we plant that succeed are categorically the species which would have done well from simple direct seeding.

    Discovery is an iterative process. You fail then you try something else. After trial and error you find what works and keep doing it.

    If this means planting divisions of species that cannot be established any other way then I would call this a great success.