Seeds of a Certain Sort
In addition to adding site-specific soil amendments, firms are using increasingly narrowly defined “native” seeds.
More each day, plants that “could do the job” are not; a perennial grass that might stop a site’s erosion in one season won’t be used if it’s not native to the area. Increasing use of native plants—the definition narrowing down from “regional” to “sub-county”—offers challenges for those who sow the seeds, and opportunities for those who reap them.
Making Former Mines Shine
Portions of West Virginia are coal country, and that means a good deal of mine reclamation work for Man, WV–based Evergreen Reclamation. “We’ve been working this area since 1984,” says operations manager David Cochran. “We started out hydroseeding with one machine. Now we have five. In 1994, we added heavy equipment. Sometimes we have to put the soil back; sometimes mining companies do it themselves.”
When it comes to seeding a former mine site, strict guidelines must be followed. “The USEPA has seed plans that the coal companies, and we, have to follow. Some sites are designated for pasture and grazing, some are set aside for trees, some require temporary growth. Then, if the West Virginia Department of Highways has a road running through the site, they also have a say in what’s put down. I’ll get seed blend specifications from the mining permit, then I call Caudill Seed.”
Louisville, KY’s Caudill Seed offers several different mine mixes. “We have been involved with mine reclamation for nearly 65 years, and we offer a number of reclamation seed blends, cognizant that various sites have differing seed variety requirements,” says Caudill’s Joseph Lyons. “We are a full-service provider of reclamation and erosion control products. Lately, a governing regulatory authority, be it federal, state, or local, will provide site-specific blends, and we specialize in blending to those requisites. Our chief focus is appropriate erosion control for the tenure of a project, as well as providing products for the eventual use of the reclaimed area. A positive side effect of the mixes promotes re-establishment of wildlife to the area. Recently, we’ve created seed mixes for establishing wildflower honeybee meadows in response to an Eastern Kentucky University project, which is part of the Appalachian Reforestation Initiative. To help bolster bee populations and to emphasize pollinator habitats, we have employed erosion controlling wildflowers in lieu of grasses on their behalf.”
Cochran explains his seeding process. “Caudill will blend what I need in a 50-pound bag. I usually seed 50 pounds per acre; usually, if I don’t use a long hose, I can cover 2 acres with a tankful. The mix is mainly perennial grass seeds. The average April seeding would be No. 1 Mine Mix: fawn fescue, red top, annual rye, yellow sweet clover, white clover, and a winter rye cover crop.
“Seed companies have to test the seeds’ purity. I’ve always bought the highest quality for germination, 90%—you never want to go back to redo a site, so you get the best germination rate so you don’t have to. I don’t water a site again after I spray seed; once you do that,
you have to continue to, so you don’t want to do that. Moisture retention is the cover crop’s purpose; for example, if you put down grass seed, you put down straw, which is supposed to hold the soil moisture. Cover crops shade other seedlings in summer, while in winter they protect other plants from cold weather. If you’re putting down a summer cover crop, that usually has a huge seed head on it, for shade, but it doesn’t reseed.” Cochran’s mix includes plants with a variety of life spans, just for that purpose. “There are annuals, which live their entire life in one year; perennials, which last several years, perhaps much longer; and seasonal grasses, which last just three to four months.”
As would be expected, Cochran adds fertilizer to his hydroseeding mix, along with cellulose mulch, and the traditional green dye. “The dye’s there so, if you miss a place, it will show up. A lot of these boys we hire, I like to send them back to the site in the fall, to let them see for themselves what they’ve done, how nice it looks. It’s just a like growing a garden; it makes you feel good, knowing you’ve done a good job.”
The most recent winter was a challenge for his company. “2010/2011 was a horrible winter—cold, and if it wasn’t snowing, it was raining. But we were hydroseeding as early as February for the Patriot Coal Co. and Apogee Coal. Coal companies can’t get behind in their reclamation; while they’re digging at one end of the site, we’ll be seeding elsewhere.” The terrain is also a challenge. “It’s very rocky down here in south West Virginia. Many sites are difficult to reach, so lots of times we have to use as much 1,500 feet of hose.”
Coalmines can be dug from 30 to 150 feet in depth. “Coal has multiple seams; miners will core-drill it to see where the seams are. The coal companies have flattened some hills so much that airports are on them, but a lot of the former mines have gone to forestry.
“We seed annual and perennial grasses at the same time,” Cochran goes on. “In warm weather, we’ll put in foxtail millet; in mid-November we’ll switch to winter rye or winter wheat, which lasts one season, a protection crop. Usually we only go to a certain area of a site once. What is planted depends upon the type of permit; different trees will be planted if the site is designated for forestry. Logger laws are different from mining laws. Mining takes out all the roads and fences when they’re done; loggers don’t.”
What becomes of the former mining sites? “Around here, most of the properties are owned by land companies. Small private airports and jails have gone onto some sites. In Mingo County, part of the King Coal Highway, US Route 52, was a surface mine at one time; now it’s a four-lane road.
“On older sites, now nature has taken over,” he concludes. “These former surface mines over the years, once they’re seeded, become really pretty. In addition to grasses, we’ve put in some water trees—birch, sycamore, any type of bush with berries, autumn olive trees. They provide lots of food for the animals, and good hiding places for them. Some sites have ponds, so we put in cattails for the ducks, as well as grasses they like to eat. When I was a kid, you never saw bears or deer around here. Now you do—sometimes even elk.”
|Photo: S&S SEEDS
Foothill needlegrass (Nassella lepida), a California native that’s drought tolerant and deer resistant
When the Product Is Plants
Beemats LLC of New Smyrna Beach, FL, produces “floating wetlands”—plastic mats filled with plants that absorb nutrients from stormwater. “In the Midwest they use seed a lot for bank stabilization, but in the south we usually don’t send out a lot of seed,” explains president Steve Beeman. “In the 1990s we used mosses and a Hydro-Sprigger for reclamation projects, but didn’t have a lot of success with it, so we sold the machine to a company that’s trying to reestablish meadows.
“When we make a plantable island, we really care how it looks, so we plant specific species,” he goes on. “Plants we use don’t make viable seeds—maybe only 2% of them do. If they do make seeds, they’re so expensive it’s not cost-effective to sow them on a landscape where they can get lost or perhaps not germinate. No one here in Florida is doing seed production as is done in say, Oregon, where there’s big tracts of land.”
Beeman also does some non-floating landscape business; for that, plants are grown from seed in a greenhouse with overhead irrigation. “Everything we grow has to be hardened off when we put it in the field—and by ‘hardened,’ I mean plants can deal with weeds and drought and lots of sunlight, not frigid weather,” he chuckles. “For our floating island systems, we grow a lot of plants hydroponically. We have two distinct operations: native plants and grasses. We also grow some shrubs and trees, for land-planting only.”
What happens to the island plants when they’ve done their work? “We sell our Beemats mostly for stormwater purposes, but also for agriculture and horticulture or nursery runoff. For stormwater applications, pulling out and replanting cells is seen as just a cost, but agriculture and horticulture purchasers can likely sell plants from the islands. We’re talking to nurseries now about putting the former plants in landscapes. As we’ve sold our islands to farmers, to clean up their ponds, we’re talking to them about putting vegetables in the islands, such as romaine and butterhead lettuce. We’ve had no success with kale, although we’re trying different colored basil and different lettuces. We already know tomatoes won’t work; the plants are heavily [fed upon] by birds.”
Seeds Quick to Grow, Plants Slow to Burn
HydroPlant of San Diego, CA, has been around since 1978, seeding for native wetlands, mitigation projects, residential areas, roadsides, and mine reclamation. “We also do golf courses, big turf areas, schools, and parks, and the seed mix we use varies,” says president Rob McGann. “But the seed company doesn’t. For at least the past quarter century, we’ve used S&S Seeds.”
S&S Seeds in Carpinteria, CA, offers varieties for reclamation and erosion control, native and turf grasses, ground covers, and pastures. Looking for a specific plant? The company’s database allows searches by scientific or common name, as well as searches based on one or more specific plant characteristics. Users can search for plant selections based on height, inflorescence size, flower size, flower color, flower type, bloom time, growth type, life cycle, California natives, ranges within California, water requirements, salt tolerance, and low-fuel/ fire resistance.
“Seventy percent of what we do is native seed—but, defining that? There are seven or eight categories; it depends on who’s writing the specs and the application,” McGann says. “For example, the roughs on golf courses might be different than highway roadside plantings. Then, too, California has many different ecosystems—from coast to inland valleys to mountains to desert—and all have different plant communities. Lots of jobs we bid on, specifically those calling for ‘coastal sagebrush mix,’ require seed collected within 25 miles of San Diego.”
McGann says the numbers of different mixes he uses are “easily in the dozens. On a golf course, we might apply two or three mixes, perhaps eight or nine mixes. On a large mitigation site, we might have seven or eight different mixes to apply. The site designer puts seed specs on the plans, and crews put out flags—or they might chalk or paint out the areas—showing us where which seed mix goes. And sometimes a site is so sensitive, special supervisors are on hand. On many Caltrans projects, everything needed for hydroseeding comes to the job site unmixed, and the supervisor watches us mix it. Sometimes a biologist wants to watch us mix it there, as well.”
HydroPlant also works in other states. “You go over the hill to Arizona, and the seed mix changes drastically. It uses nurse crops or pioneer plants, which come up very quickly. Shrubs and so forth come in later and are the permanent vegetation, which are also in the mix. Native shrubs can take up to five years to grow.”
Standard, as well as site-specific, amendments are added to the hydroseeding mix. “We use 100% wood-fiber mulch and colored green dye. If a soil test indicates a need, we’ll add fertilizer to adjust the N-P-K ratio, or add gypsum to bring down soil pH.” McGann’s firm also does much temporary seeding on construction sites. “Places being graded, due to stormwater regulations, must receive temporary seeding. As some areas are hard to get to—our work varies in remoteness of sites. Sometimes we have to drag 1,500 feet of hose. A continuous flow pump keeps up the pressure so we can get the job done.
“Speaking of remoteness,” he continues, “on a recent job for a big electric utility, several work sites were located in the back country. I spent nine hours riding around in the truck, looking at the sites. We could do only one or two sites a day, because each was so remote; it took more time to get to the site than work on it. The sites themselves were very small, and each had different ecosystems. On this job, we took our big truck for use as a water tank, then pulled smaller, 600-gallon hydro-trailers behind a tractor to get to the site. We needed the power of a tractor to get up and down the hills.”
What’s the biggest change he’s seen in the industry?
“In the past few years, it’s been the change to natives,” McGann concludes. “The issue of water and drought is crucial here. We’re using more natives because they’re usually drought tolerant. We also need to heed the list of plants prohibited by fire districts; there’s no sense in planting things that burn easily.”
“Our name comes from our industry,” says Sherman Smith, general manager of Belton, MO’s Critical Site Products. “Once a site is deemed beyond control, or beyond helping itself, the EPA calls it a ‘critical site.’ That’s what we cater to, offering products to make sure those sites get restored. We sell filters, silt fences; we have a nursery division that grows plants. A lot of our seeds are local ecotypes, and we have hand collectors from adjacent counties. Now in our sixteenth year, we’ve been using and selling Gro-Power products since the late 1990s.”
Gro-Power Inc. of Chino, CA, produces a variety of soil conditioners and fertilizers. Its Gro-Power 5-3-1 contains 70% humus, 15% humic acids, micronutrients, and soil enhancers. Gro-Power Plus, designed for highly compacted soils or areas that have extremely high levels of salt, sodium boron, or pH problems, is also available with added sulfur. Controlled release, liquid, and tablet fertilizers are also available, as is the company’s Grolife, a mycorrhizal inoculum and soil conditioner.
“With Gro-Power’s wide product range, we can offer customers a formula best suited for their projects,” Smith says. “If customers are unsure, we extend the courtesy of suggesting to our customers what has worked for other clients. We’re in this business to stay in this business—we want customers to be able to save the site.” Critical Site Products mainly serves a four-state area. “Missouri, Kansas, Illinois, Oklahoma—whatever works logistically,” Smith reports. “We also have clients as far as Texas, although Missouri and Kansas are 80% of our business.”
Smith’s firm also sells native seeds. “As for a definition, seed origins will be broken down by state, but we try to keep it as close to a county as we can. We try to sell seeds within a 150 mile radius of where the seed was collected. Of course, it all depends on the species. In the past years, the ‘native’ definition is tightening up; just because a species grows someplace doesn’t means it comes from there.” He chuckles, “When farmers visit our nursery division, they say, ‘You’re growing stuff we’ve been fighting all our lives!’—like butterfly milkweed. But these are natives that projects want.”
If needed, Critical Site Products also advises its clients on invasive plants. “There’s a published list for each state of weeds, invasive plants. We make sure, when our seed is tested, none of those are in there. But if invasives are in the ground anyway—seeds or existing plants—they will come up. Most reclamation projects stipulate a two-year maintenance plan after planting—mainly for crews to return to take out the unwanted plants.”
Local Seeds, Locally Grown
As the definition of “native seeds” gets more precise, more seed producers will be needed. Throughout the nation, new programs are springing up that are designed to supply this growing market. In southern Texas, Texas A&M University–Kingsville and the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute are working with local farmers to develop new seed sources.
“As the definition of native seeds gets narrower, there are some big tradeoffs,” says Forrest S. Smith, director of the project, which goes by the name South Texas Natives. “What we consider the best source for native seeds is whatever grew up in the same ecosystem where you’re working. Plants can vary from state to state and county to county. Take an animal example: white-tailed deer. Those that evolved here in south Texas are, in scientific standard, the same species as the Minnesota animal, but the Minnesota deer withstands more winter, has a thicker coat, and so on—traits that make it adapted for a different environment.
“Plants are the same way. Those that grow here in the Lower Rio Grande Valley have a much lower need for water. They’re also quicker to reproduce, and maybe reproduce at a different time than those in other parts of the state. Maybe one 300 miles away has different adaptations, although it might have the same genetic traits. We typically don’t recommend people buy seeds from, let’s say, Austin; it’s a different ecotype. On the same line, our seeds from south Texas aren’t generally well adapted to Austin.”
But this adaptation isn’t a steadfast rule for every plant species. “This varies from plant to plant,” Smith says. “Some plant species have very wide adaptations and can grow well across a broad area. Other species have narrower adaptations. The only way to know is to plant and evaluate performance, often for multiple years, so that you can evaluate the broad range of climatic factors that occur at a given location. Often, it’s the extremes in cold or drought that really determine adaptation. For example, many of our south Texas grasses can be killed by extreme cold that occurs north of our south Texas project area. Usually, this lack of winter hardiness is one of the reasons why our material can’t be used successfully much farther north than central Texas.”
South Texas Natives, which was established in 2001, seeks to develop local seed sources for various reclamation uses in the area. “Our goal is to develop native seed sources for south Texas and establish native seed production here. We also educate the public about the value of natives and the restoration of areas. To accomplish our main goal, we encourage farmers in the area to plant native seed crops for harvesting.
“The idea of small farms or farmers producing native seeds is pretty widely suggested across the nation. However, it’s not a good fit for a lot of people, and it is very different from regular row crop farming. But it is a niche opportunity for a farmer interested in high-input, but high-net-income, product. Our best success has been with established range, wildlife, and pasture seed producers and companies who know how to grow and market these kinds of seeds. As far as participating in our program, one would need to have a big enough land mass to grow seeds to make it viable. We’re interested in the producer who can help meet the big seed needs—such as for NRCS [Natural Resources Conservation Service] conservation programs like CRP or WHIP, our state highway department, or the big restoration projects that occur in our region on government-owned properties and large ranches. Also, production at a larger scale typically results in a lower-cost seed product, something everyone appreciates.”
How is the program progressing? “We’ve had a couple entrepreneurial types of farms do this,
those established in certain types of agriculture, where they have similar equipment as that needed for native seed production. Examples would be a turf producer, vegetable grower, or a seed corn producer. Our preference is to go with established producers of native seed. They understand the process already and have the equipment needed to get the job done. We have to balance the risk versus the chance of successfully producing the new seed release. Obviously, risk is lowest with the grower who has a track record with similar crops. Some vegetable growers might also have an easier time of this, as they usually also have a large labor force—and the hardest thing is to get the labor to get it done. Many of the species we work with are easiest to establish for seed production by transplanting. Since many vegetable crops are grown this way, producing some of the native seeds is a decent fit.”
But that doesn’t necessarily mean someone else couldn’t “make a go” of native seeds. “For niche producers looking to diversify, growing native seeds is maybe something to tide them over in lean times. I don’t think the market for native seed fluctuates as much as it does for other crops and seeds. An exception would be a large CRP sign-up of something, which can make demand skyrocket. The demand sector is very broad though, and in our region includes everyone from the oil and gas industry to government agencies to private landowners, so there is nearly always someone in the market for seed,” Smith explains.
Although native plants often seem to take care of themselves, growing them for seed requires dedication. “‘Casually committed’ producers don’t stay with the program,” Smith says. “When their main crop goes up in price, the native seeds go to the wayside. To do this and be profitable, a grower needs to make a long-term commitment—beyond a single growing season, for most natives.
“With native grasses, during the first year, you’re mainly trying to get the plants going. By about the second year, you have plants established and weeds controlled. These stands of native plants, especially grasses, are realistically very productive for four to seven years after planting, if managed right. Often the first year won’t produce much seed, the second year just pays for the planting and establishment expenses, and it’s probably not until later years the profits are really made.
“Currently, we know of at least one producer working with a seed company who is doing a fantastic job,” Smith continues. “He’s the type of farmer who has the cleanest fields around, is a real innovator as far as equipment and techniques, has great irrigation infrastructure, and also has very good farm country. That’s the type of farm that will be successful growing native seed.”
Yet, even successful farmers may be challenged by growing native seeds. Seeding and harvesting can be labor intensive, especially since some seeds can be miniscule. “Often herbicides for use with native plants aren’t known, and some native species compete poorly with introduced weeds. Getting stands established can be tough, and hand-hoeing is often the only viable weed control option in the early stages. And, when you have a certain plant with a pin-head-size seed? The reality is, planting that might only be one-quarter pound per acre. That’s one of the challenges of it. Some species need thousands of pounds of seed produced, and others need only have a few hundred pounds produced. The seeding rate of any species for the end user is a relative thing, based on seed size, quality, and the amount of the plant desired in the restored community.
|Photo: SOUTH TEXAS NATIVES
On this ecological region map of southern Texas, a large portion is designated “Rio Grande Plains,” but six other ecoregions are also present, each with its own special seed needs.
“Tiny seeds encased in a flower stalk, for example, like culinary basil—one could pull off the entire flower and seed head, send it to a miller, and the miller would screen out the actual seeds. Unfortunately such facilities are fairly limited; there are maybe two or three of them in a broad region. To produce seeds on a large scale, a grower would have to make relationship or contract with a seed-cleaning firm. Without working with an established seed company that already has this equipment, a producer would have to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in cleaning and processing equipment.”
South Texas Natives isn’t unique. “Throughout the nation, seed source initiatives like ours have sprung up in the last 10 to 15 years, although they may be different kinds, with different scales of opportunities. Some take the approach of trying to provide extremely local ecotypic seed sources, such as for the National Park Service, which wants to use seed that originated from each individual park in each individual park. It’s a great concept, but may not be necessarily realistic, or for that matter absolutely necessary to be ecologically correct. Too many people look at plant populations as static on the landscape. In reality, many plants, especially grasses, are somewhat adapted to long-distance dispersal by animals, wind, and so on. Unless there are physical or geographic barriers to seed dispersal, often plants throughout a fairly large-size area within an ecosystem are genetically similar. Some of our partners have done work on a grass widespread in south Texas; despite occurring on a wide variety of soil types, all the populations were genetically very similar. This could be because the plant at one time occurred across a relatively unfragmented prairie or savannah landscape. Seeds naturally moved around a lot, and today the result is a population that is pretty uniform. This kind of genetic work doesn’t really support the necessity of using only seed sources from very nearby. In reality, one from most anywhere else in the same ecosystem, for this species anyway, is pretty much the same.”
However, to be on the safe side, seeds are sold with geographic limitations. “We typically only suggest our seeds for areas for where we’ve tested them. Our brochures note where we’ve tested the seeds, where they have shown good performance. But not every spot within a given region might work, depending on the soil. Typically, our sources are tested and known to be adapted in our region, and maybe one or two adjacent regions. Generally though, the farther you get away from that plant’s origin, the worse the performance.
“One fairly good guide comes from the NRCS. It recommends seed sources originate no more than 200 miles north of the planting site, 300 miles to south, 100 miles east, or 200 miles west. An ecosystem map is also a good guideline—such as USDA major land resource maps. State conservation departments can also advise you on native seeds. When you buy native seed, ask the producer where the seed originated. If he can’t tell you, I’d recommend you look for another provider. To be successful, you need to know if the seed is likely to be adapted to your planting site.”
While Smith’s organization is working on the supply side of native seeds, attention must also be paid to the demand side. “We’d like our members to produce thousands of pounds of seeds per year
in sufficient quantities to meet the annual needs of thousands of reclamation acres. But, the bottom line is, if a seed source doesn’t have a decent potential use area and specific demands, it’s going to be hard to get a commercial grower to invest in production of it. There are obvious tradeoffs with this, and though many of us in the restoration world would like to see each and every plant and ecotype produced and seed made available, it just isn’t economically feasible. If the source works only over a few thousand acres area, or works only in a few limited soil types, it will be a tough sell to the commercial industry.
“But there’s also room for someone who produces a seed that has a small niche, something that might only constitute 1% of a seed mix. Milkweed, for example, isn’t a naturally dominant plant community member but does play an important role. No one will ever want to plant a pure stand of milkweed here, but including 1% of it in a restoration seed mix, with a goal of helping provide migration habitat for monarch butterflies, is a worthwhile goal.”
Since one person’s native plant is another’s weed, are there any complaints from neighboring farms about seed drift? “Most of the native plants we work with do not make problems with sending seeds into someone else’s yard. What helps is that a lot of the folks doing this, such as farmers and ranchers, who can also be hunters, understand the natural needs. Our area is big on appreciation of native plants because it’s an economic force tied directly to wildlife, livestock, and the ranching industry. Native plants and native rangelands are the primary forage base for cattle, and are, of course, essential to wildlife populations.
“We have tremendous problems with invasive introduced (exotic) grasses in our region. Formerly, these were planted for cattle forage and erosion control; however, the unintended consequence of these species is that they are very aggressive and spread beyond where they were planted and, in many cases, outcompete and exclude native plants. Wildlife suffers when this happens. Today, many ranches in south Texas are primarily interested in providing high-quality wildlife habitat. The use of native seed for erosion control complements that goal, whereas exotic grasses don’t.”
South Texas Natives members typically grow grasses, some forbs, and sometimes a few shrubs. “Our area is known as brush country. Shrubs usually don’t come back on their own, or are already present. Seed production in a commercial setting is near impossible for most shrubs as well. Forbs are harder to grow seeds from. They can be even more habitat- or soil-specific in adaptation than grasses; it’s hard to get them to grow, or to find selections that perform well sold over a large enough area to get producers interested in them.”
But the need for seed is there. “One of the largest supporters for this project is Texas DOT. We work with the department on perennial native grasses that meet its erosion control needs, have to be mowed less, and support biodiversity and the ecological function of the roadsides. We’ve released 17 varieties of seed to date and project to do that many more in the future. We would like to provide consumers and restorationists with an eventual seed mix of 25 to 30 species for any given site in our region. The bigger variety in a seed mix, the better the chance of success. Here in south Texas, one can easily find 100 species of plants in a plot the size of a room! We think our restoration efforts need to strive to recreate a semblance of that diversity as well to be truly beneficial to the ecosystem and wildlife.”
Author's Bio: Janis Keating is a frequent contributor to Forester Media, Inc. publications.