By: Audrey Rader, Program Manager Watershed and Habitat Restoration
The past few months saw socially distanced Borderlands Restoration Network crews in some breathtaking places. We traversed hills and drainages, camped in oak woodlands, meandered vast grasslands, and hiked along lakeshores all in pursuit of one goal, to collect seed. As we trekked, we carefully selected seeds that would accommodate nectar or food gaps in the landscape for pollinators and wildlife. The seeds we collected this fall will shortly be returned to the landscape with the coming year’s monsoonal rains to augment ongoing restoration efforts.
Most all of our projects center on enhancing degraded landscapes. In the case of our project with the Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management, this involves spending long days in the sun digging up the cantankerous rhizomes of Johnsongrass (Sorghum halepense), an invasive grass that chokes out native plants, alters the hydrology of the sites it infests, and increases fire risk.
In other cases, our restoration activities revolve around the abiotic side of things. For our ongoing collaboration with Southern Arizona Quail Forever, we are installing erosion control structures to slow and spread water across the landscape, retain sediment and mitigate erosion while supporting plant and animal life. For both of these projects, revegetation is an integral piece of the puzzle.
This is where the seed comes in. Using native, locally adapted seed for our restoration projects improves plant community resilience as these seeds are best equipped to handle local environmental conditions. They also offer vital habitat for the wildlife that calls this region home. Weaving together these invasive plant management, erosion control, and seeding activities boosts plant community diversity and abundance, serving to crowd out invasive plants, prevent erosion, and provide forage and habitat to our charismatic wildlife for years to come.
When collecting seed, we cater our technique to the plant. In the cases of plants such as the Agave, we place a tarp at the base of the plant and shake the stalk to gather seeds or lightly prune them with a telescoping pole. For grasses, we typically strip or shake grasses off the stem or clip the stem right below the spikelet. Some plants have seeds that explode out and require the entire inflorescence to be cut prior to maturity and allowed to dry in a paper bag. When it comes to shrub or forb seed, we hand pick it or lightly shake the plant, using a tarp to catch the falling seeds.
In all cases, we monitor the plants to ensure the seeds are mature before collection. After collecting, we bring the seed back to the BRN Seed Lab for inventory and cleaning. It’s important to remove the chaff from the seed as the chaff can harbor fungus, pests, and other pathogens. Then we store it in low relative humidity and cool temperatures to be used for our projects.
If any of these seed efforts piqued your interest, you can collect and store seed in your own back yard. For most of human history, saving seeds was not only necessary, but expected. The act of collecting the best seed from our gardens and storing them to plant in future years is a critical step to gaining food sovereignty. If you don’t grow your own food, you can collect seed from the native plants in your yard to sow a great pollinator garden next year, enhancing the amount of nectar and food for your winged visitors.
If you’re as curious or inspired by seed collection as we are, check out such groups such as The Indigenous Seed Keepers Network (ISKN) with the Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance, whose efforts center on providing educational resources and training for seed collection to a wide array of audiences, thus enhancing food sovereignty across North America.
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