It worked! (kind of)

I'm pretty sure we have some native seedlings!  I saw 3 little clumps of this plant at the very top of the hill.  I'm pretty sure that it is Monarda fistulosa - the native bee balm.  Let's hope that more will follow!

 

Monarda fisulosa, right? 

Monarda fisulosa, right? 

Winter update: The best laid plans....

Our pollinator habitat is effectively split into 3 parts: 1) The dry part that was planted last year, 2) the dry part that wasn't planted last year, because it was accidentally planted in corn, and 3) the wet part.   Parts 2 and 3 still need to get planted, and it is driving us nuts not having the seeds in the ground.  First, they can't grow if they aren't planted, and second, it is really unnerving having thousands of dollars of seeds in a freezer in your garage.  They have made it thus far, but I am not confident that the mice and moisture will be held at bay forever.   

We haven't been able to plant the part with corn, because the stubble is too thick - the seeds need to have good contact with the soil.  The plan is now to plow that in the spring, and then try to get the seeds in between April and June.  That section is really dry, so rain shouldn't be an issue.  

Too much corn stubble to spread seed through - one more disc/ soil prep before we spread the seeds in this section of the dry prairie site. 

Too much corn stubble to spread seed through - one more disc/ soil prep before we spread the seeds in this section of the dry prairie site. 

The wet site was all prepped, and we were waiting for the right conditions to do winter planting - we were going to spread the seed on frozen ground right before a snow, during in a cycle of freeze thaw.  We would drive when the ground was frozen, the snow would protect the seeds from foraging birds, and when it thawed/melted, the seeds would be drawn into the ground.  It would have worked just fine if it hadn't been a year where we got thunderstorms in February, rather than a nice snow with frozen ground.   There just wasn't a period where we could drive the tractor through the wet muck. The land became saturated, and a few acres have been fully underwater almost all winter. The ducks have been plentiful, and the dogs have loved running through the new 'ponds', but we can't plant into water.   The current plan is to get seed in around the wet areas, and plant where we can. The concern is that if we leave it all, and wait until it is dry to do the whole site, there will be too many weeds this year.   Then, as the water recedes, we will go back through and hand spread through the areas where there is standing water.   Why plant once, when you can plant 4 times?      

Our wetland is a little too wet right now.  Ducks love to land here, and the dogs love to race through it (note the crazed animals in the upper right).  

Spraying the wetland

A long warm fall has kept all the weeds green - hard on the bees, because they are still flying, but there is no food, but great for getting one more weed control measure in.   Most of the wetland area is not too bad in terms of weeds - a lot of mustards, dock, and other things that won't be competitive in the long run.  However, there are a few places, especially along the edges that have reed canary grass and canada thistle - two pretty worthy opponents.   We had been just working up the soil to keep weeds down, but since we had the time and the resources, we decided to break out the big guns.  I've worked in prairies before that have had reed canary grass and canada thistle, and they are really hard to rid of once they are established.   We are going to have a constant issue, since the property to the west of our restoration parcel is full of them, so I want to give everything the best chance that it has of getting established.   

 

Adding water to the tank - getting ready to face the reed canary grass.  It has been so warm that everything is still green and growing, into November. 

Adding water to the tank - getting ready to face the reed canary grass.  It has been so warm that everything is still green and growing, into November. 

The weeds are here - Time to brush hog

Finally, we have had rain.  It is hard to tell if there are any natives, but the weeds are sure loving it.   The dry weather kept them from growing until the rain from the last few weeks.  On our last walk we realized that the velvet leaf was tall enough that it would be shading out any baby prairie plants, and that the fox tail was about to go to seed.   We took the brush hog out and cut it down to about 8 inches.    We had to be really careful while driving - with the sand so fragile, there is a chance that we can bury or damage the seedlings when turning.   Hopefully we will all be okay, and they are still putting their little roots down.  

Wetland Seed Mix

We ordered the wetland seeds!   

We went with plants that either had to be in wet lands, or that could handle having their feet wet.  The land is still pretty wet, even with the dry summer that we have been having.  

Grasses/Sedges/Rushes - 68% of the mix

  • Carex comosa (Bearded Sedge)
  • Carex lurida (Shallow Sedge)
  • Carex tribuloides (Blunt Broom Sedge)
  • Carex vulpinoidea (Fox Sedge)
  • Juncus effusus (Soft Rush)
  • Leersia oryzoides (Rice Cut Grass)
  • Panicum virgatum (Switch Grass)
  • Scirpus atrovirens (Dark Green Bulrush)
  • Scirpus cyperinus (Woolgrass)
  • Scirpus validus (Softstem Bulrush)

Forbs - 32% of the mix

  • Asclepias incarnata (Swamp Milkweed)
  • Aster umbellatus (Flat-Top White Aster)
  • Eryngium yuccifolium (Rattlesnake Master)
  • Eupatorium perfoliatum (Common Boneset)
  • Eupatorium purpureum (Purple Joe Pye Weed)
  • Helenium autumnale (Common Sneezeweed)
  • Hibiscus palustris (Marsh Rose Mallow)
  • Lobelia siphilitica (Great Blue Lobelia)
  • Pycnanthemum virginianum (Common Mountain Mint)
  • Silphium perfoliaum (Cup Plant)
  • Solidago riddellii (Riddell's Goldenrod)
  • Verbna hastata (Blue Vervain)

We won't be able to plant until the ground is dry - probably will do a frost seeding, so the seeds will go into the chest freezer until it is ready.  

A whole lot of nothing

Right after we planted the first week of June, we had a lovely rain.   And that was the last moisture we were to see for weeks.  We went for a walk to check to see if anything had come up, and we saw a whole lot of.... Nothing.   Even the oats couldn't make it.   We called the seed company and the NRCS, and were told not to worry.   The native plants spend their first year or two putting energy into their roots, so it makes sense that we wouldn't really see anything.  It doesn't make it any less nerve wracking though!  At least the weeds are also held back...

Planting the Sand Hill

Planting Day!    We planted the sand hill with our dry land mix.   The whole process took the good portion of the day, but the seeds are officially in the ground.   Here is the process (thanks Julia Brokaw for the pictures): 

1. Cultipack - we drove over once with the cultipacker to make sure that the ground was firm.  One of the biggest risks to prairie seeds is that they are too deep, so we first packed the soil to make sure that they don't get driven in too deeply in the soft, sandy soil. 

View of the cultipacker through the tractor rear window. 

View of the cultipacker through the tractor rear window. 

$6000 of prairie seeds doesn't look that impressive....

$6000 of prairie seeds doesn't look that impressive....

Loading up the oats.  We just used bin oats, and calculated about a bushel / acre.   The oats are to hold the soil and act as cover while the prairie seeds put down roots. 

Loading up the oats.  We just used bin oats, and calculated about a bushel / acre.   The oats are to hold the soil and act as cover while the prairie seeds put down roots. 

Our dry site is just over 8 acres, but the farmer accidentally put a bit (about 2 acres) of it into corn (just kept driving out of habit).  It isn't a problem, because you can plant prairie seeds in the fall.  We held some back until the corn comes off.   It will probably be better to have some diverse planting plans anyway, because different plants will respond differently. 

Planting the oats using the spreader.   You can see just how sandy the soil is in this parcel.  The dogs, though enthusiastic, were not helpful during this process at all.  The wetland (not yet planted) is visible in the background. 

Planting the oats using the spreader.   You can see just how sandy the soil is in this parcel.  The dogs, though enthusiastic, were not helpful during this process at all.  The wetland (not yet planted) is visible in the background. 

Seed oats planted.   

Seed oats planted.   

We made one pass over everything with the oats, spreading them pretty thick.  We then added all the prairie seeds to the hopper, and re-calibrated it to account for the smaller seeds. 

Many different types and sizes of seeds. 

Many different types and sizes of seeds. 

We planted half of the seeds going north-south, mixed them in the hopper, and then spread them again going east west.   We wanted to make sure that all the heavy ones didn't end up in part of the field, and that the plants would be evenly spread.  

We planted half of the seeds going north-south, mixed them in the hopper, and then spread them again going east west.   We wanted to make sure that all the heavy ones didn't end up in part of the field, and that the plants would be evenly spread.  

Hooking up the cultipacker.  We ran it over the field again after we spread all the seeds.   We did it just to drive them just a bit into the ground so that they didn't blow away. 

Hooking up the cultipacker.  We ran it over the field again after we spread all the seeds.   We did it just to drive them just a bit into the ground so that they didn't blow away. 

Planting is done.  Time to play ball!

Planting is done.  Time to play ball!

So many flowers!

The seeds have been ordered for the dry site, and the flowers are on their way!   The process of picking out the plants for the restoration was a highlight of the project.  I worked with Earth Source and Heartland Restoration Services.   They are located in Fort Wayne, IN, and collect a lot of seed stock in MI.   I contacted many native plant producers - some never returned my calls/emails, some didn't sell seeds (only starts), some didn't have local genotypes.  Earth Source was the first company that fit all my criteria - have local genotypes, and indulge my need to discuss all the plant options and hand pick my pollinator mix.   There are a lot of pre-mixed 'pollinator habitat' seeds that are fine, but none fit my needs exactly.   Mainly, that some are collected from far away, and they were not designed for the incredibly dry, sandy soil of the Sand Hill. 

The NRCS gave me job sheets that had suggestions for species, but the requirements were really flexible.  Their top concerns were 1) there were at least 4 flower types, and 2) they were appropriate for the site.   I spoke with Dan Zay at NRCS, and friends who do restoration work, and put together a wish list.   I spent over an hour on the phone with Eric at Heartland Restoration - picking out a mix that would thrive in our sandy soil, and that would provide bloom all season long, and that was used by pollinators.  Here is the mix we finally decided on - 3lbs/ acre grass to keep it all together, and 2lbs/ acre of an amazing mix of flowers.   Because of the incredibly sandy soil of the dry site, we went for a short grass/ scrub prairie.  At $550/ acre, they were really expensive, but within the budget provided from NRCS.   I emailed the list to our NRCS office, and got the official stamp of approval, so the check has been written, and the seeds are on their way!   

Mesic - Dry Prairie Seed Mix

Pure Live Seed (PLS)/Acre: 18,000,000

Number of seeds/square foot (Native Seed): 42

Percent native grasses: 37.08%

Percent native forbs: 62.92%

Weight/acre Unit Price/LB Extension

Grasses

  • 1.0000 LB Bouteloua curtipendula Side-Oats Grama $24.00 $24.00
  • 2.0000 LB Schizachyrium scoparium Little Bluestem $27.00 $54.00

Totals   3.0000 LB $78.00

Forbs

  • 0.1250 LB Asclepias tuberosa Butterfly Weed $800.00 $100.00
  • 0.0625 LB Aster novae-angliae New England Aster $450.00 $28.13
  • 0.1250 LB Coreopsis lanceolata Sand Coreopsis $192.00 $24.00
  • 0.1250 LB Echinacea purpurea Purple Coneflower $105.00 $13.13
  • 0.1250 LB Helianthus mollis Downy Sunflower $160.00 $20.00
  • 0.1875 LB Lespedeza capitata Round-Head Bushclover $300.00 $56.25
  • 0.0625 LB Monarda fistulosa Wild Bergamot $150.00 $9.38
  • 0.1250 LB Petalostemum purpureum Purple Prairie Clover $192.00 $24.00
  • 0.1250 LB Ratibida pinnata Yellow Coneflower $105.00 $13.13
  • 0.1875 LB Rudbeckia hirta Black-Eyed Susan $80.00 $15.00
  • 0.1875 LB Silphium laciniatum Compass Plant $200.00 $37.50
  • 0.1250 LB Silphium integrifolium Rosin-Weed $110.00 $13.75
  • 0.0625 LB Solidago nemoralis Gray Goldenrod $528.00 $33.00
  • 0.1250 LB Solidago rigida Stiff Goldenrod $150.00 $18.75
  • 0.0625 LB Solidago speciosa Showy Goldenrod $480.00 $30.00
  • 0.1250 LB Zizia aurea Golden Alexander $270.00 $33.75

Totals 1.9375 LB $469.75

Grand Totals  4.9375 LB $547.75

The Pollinators are coming!

We haven't planted anything yet in our pollinator habitat - as we wait for permission from the NRCS to plant outside of their approved windows.   Even so, we were thrilled to see that bees had taken up residence in the sand hill.  Hundreds of native miner bees were digging little homes through the hill.   I'm thinking of blocking off their area to hand broadcast seed so as to not disturb the new inhabitants!

Feel the Burn

March 29th was a beautiful day for a burn!  We had a gentle north wind and low humidity, so we called the fire department and took the torches to the area around the pollinator planting site.   We got a nice burn through the tree line leading back to the sand hill - lots of burdock and brambles were cleared, keeping weeds down, but also clearing the way so we can get equipment back to clear it out (so we can get more equipment back to plant).   There is a tree island that is in the middle of the proposed restoration area (not technically part of the NRCS project, but it will get attention just the same.  We burned dried grasses around the edge of the wood lot, and targeted spots of reed canary grass that had crept in.   

 

End of the Year, Start of the Restoration

As 2015 winds down, we are hunkered indoors planning the 2016 season. This coming year will be dedicated to establishing a pollinator habitat of 24 acres including a marsh and an 8 acre sand hill--our namesake. 

As with any livestock, bees need food. Flowers are the only source of food for bees and many other pollinators.  It's becoming apparent to even the casual observer that our flowering right-of-ways and ditches, native prairies, and flowering trees are disappearing.  Many of the foods we depend on are possible by pollination, but it goes deeper than that. Providing habitat for pollinators has trickle down effects. A well established pollinator habitat can provide food for birds and beneficial insects, filter and clean water, and buffer against other agricultural or developed areas. It seems to us that pollinator habitats are just one more part of the large complex picture that makes up our agricultural and rural landscape. 

Throughout the year we will update and elucidate our project as we transform 24 acres from corn and bean ground to flowering plants for pollinators. From working with the NRCS to seed drills, we'll do what we can to show how we established pollinator habitat.