Seeding Ensures the Future of Forest Park
At a time of year when most of us are sledding on Art Hill or skating at Steinberg, Forest Park Forever’s Nature Reserve staff are planting seeds in the Park’s 180-acre Nature Reserve.
The annual planting is the culmination of a year-round process of collecting, storing, processing, mixing and planting seeds — and being a part of it will increase anyone’s enjoyment and appreciation of the outdoors.
“Most people are familiar with planting flowers from pots or containers in a yard, and the reward from that is immediate,” says Forest Park Forever’s Park Ecologist Amy Witt. “But when you plant seeds, you think and learn more about the site, the soil, the plants, the insects, the birds — and you have to be more patient.”
However, the benefits of planting seed — in Forest Park or your own yard — are substantial.
“Our goal is to restore and maintain Forest Park’s Nature Reserve for the health and diversity of the flora and fauna that live there,” Witt says. “Seeds allow us to add a greater diversity of plants at a much lower cost, especially when we can collect the seeds on site.”
Let’s take a closer look at each of the steps of the year-round process.
Forest Park Forever staff and volunteers collect seed from April to October. Witt says it becomes more satisfying each year as larger quantities of seed and species diversity can be collected within the Park because of Forest Park Forever’s continued restoration efforts.
“Five or six years ago, we didn’t collect much seed in the Nature Reserve,” Witt says. “We had to collect it off-site, at Shaw Nature Reserve, in the County parks, on Missouri Department of Conservation property or Cuivre River State Park.”
Those collection methods have disadvantages. First, staff and volunteers have to be transported to them. In addition, many seeds are site-specific, having adapted to the particular conditions where they are found. Some seeds are available for purchase, but that can be expensive, especially for forest or woodland plants.
“It’s extremely exciting to see our sites are progressing because we can now get a lot more seeds from the Park, especially with the early succession species, like grasses,” Witt explains. “More conservative species can take two to five years to start producing seeds.”
Once collected, most seeds are dried and put in bags for storage until the next step. Some seeds, however, such as spring ephemerals, require immediate sowing or to be kept in the refrigerator.
This is where Forest Park Forever’s volunteers really step up — sometimes literally. On rainy fall days, they can be found sitting in a circle (as seen below), visiting and talking as they pick at dried flowers, hand-peel plant matter or even stomp on seed pods to separate the precious seeds from the surrounding plant material.
It’s hard work. Some of the seeds are so small they are virtually indistinguishable from dirt. Plus, there are as many ways to extract seeds as there are seeds themselves. Often, equipment comes to the rescue.
“Knowing the right way to do it is experience and creativity based,” says Witt. “Some seed may need to go into a blender to be broken up. Some go into a small limb chipper with a drum to slice up the seed pods. It all depends on the kind of plant it is.”
Freed from their husks, pods and flowers, the seeds are finally ready to be mixed with other species according to recipes carefully prepared by the Park’s Nature Reserve team. It’s both a science and an art, with Witt reviewing each recipe to make sure it is appropriate for each site.
“This year we have around 32 different seed mixes, and we may use multiple mixes on a single site,” Witt says. “Each site can have different conditions within it. For example, we are seeding now in a part of the Steinberg woodland that has both shady areas and areas in full sun.”
On a cold January morning earlier this year, Nature Reserve Steward Josh Wibbenmeyer scattered a mix of 70+ different species of seed on the frozen ground in the Steinberg woodland area (pictured below).
Because the area Wibbenmeyer was working in is a mix of sunny/shady and moister/dryer conditions, the mix included grassland-type species like big bluestem and little bluestem, as well as woodland species like woodland brome. A substrate — often sawdust recycled from the non-chemically treated wood used in Forest Park Forever’s shop — made it easier to see where the seed had been spread.
“On this site about 100 volunteers worked to kill honeysuckle and then clear off all the leaf layer so that we have bare ground,” Wibbenmeyer says. “The seeds then have that seed-to-soil contact so they’ll actually germinate and get established. When the ground is frozen, we can bring our track loader in and haul away the piles of debris our volunteers have cleared without disturbing the soil.”
Witt says there is another reason they plant in the winter.
“A lot of native seeds need specific cycles of cold-moist, cold-dry or warm-moist to stratify so that they can germinate,” she explains. “If we have our seed down by January, winter typically takes care of the stratification process naturally.”
“Hopefully we’ll get a good snowfall in a day or two to help the seed work into the soil and start stratifying,” Wibbenmeyer adds. “If it doesn’t get that, it won’t germinate.”
But for Wibbenmeyer, Witt and the other Forest Park Forever staff and volunteers, the most important quality is patience.
“It’s a slow process,” Wibbenmeyer says. “It will take a year or two for this area to be fully established. Once it is, we’ll move to the next site for restoration.”
Apply the principles of Forest Park’s seeding experts to your yard with these tips from Amy Witt:
Know the species you’re collecting: If you collect the wrong species, your plants may get out of control or be non-native.
Collect ethically: Don’t collect more than 50% of the seed of a strong perennial species’ population or 10% of the seed of an annual species. Do not collect rare, threatened, or endangered species.
Stratify your seed naturally: Put it outside before February, or store it in the refrigerator. If you’re buying seed, make sure you know it has already been stratified.
Support your seed once it germinates: Keep the area cut to about 6"-8" tall for the first year to reduce competition and allow the seedling ample sunlight.