Over the past 20 years, The Nature Conservancy has restored more than 7,000 acres to native prairie and wetland habitat at Kankakee Sands. These restored acres serve as the connecting piece between Willow Slough Fish and Wildlife Area, Beaver Lake Nature Preserve, Conrad Savanna Nature Preserve and The Nature Conservancy’s Conrad Station Savanna.
Our current restoration efforts focus on a 98-acre piece of farmland adjacent to Conrad Station acquired in 2016. Last winter we planted the southern half of the ag field, and this winter, we will plant the remaining northern half with a wide variety of native plant seeds.
To prepare for the planting, for the last seven months we have been picking, drying, cleaning, and storing native plant seed. We had a goal of 282 native plant species to be harvested in the amount of 273 pounds to be planted on the retired agricultural ground. We hit those goals, spot on.
And so now that all the seeds are cleaned, sorted and carefully mixed into different batches based on soil moisture requirements, and with all data meticulously entered into the computer, it’s go time! It’s time to release the native plant seeds onto the snow covered frozen ground to settle in for the winter. The seeds will then get to the important business of breaking dormancy through freezing and thawing, and then will germinate to create our newest prairie at Kankakee Sands.
Planting prairie seeds can be done in a variety of fashions. And being the fashionable conservation folks that we are, we have used several different planting methods over the years. We have planted seeds by hand, such as in the case of rare species like Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis), using a GPS unit to locate the exact location so that we can come back and monitor the success of the planting.
We have planted using a no-till grain drill, going slowing over the site to be planted, dropping seeds in shallow furrows. This works well on slopes and challenging terrain. We have seeded using a fertilizer spreader with an 80-foot boom to disperse the seeds across a 500-acre field in just a few hours. And most recently, we have used the back of a truck and a leaf blower to distribute the seeds over a small prairie planting. Like most things in life, there is no one “best” way.
This year, due to the small acreage at Conrad Station Savanna, we will employ the truck and leaf blower method. The seed mixes, so carefully crafted and painstakingly organized into different mixes with at least 60 seeds for each square foot, will be dumped into the back of a truck and flung out onto the prairie through the force of a leaf blower.
Seem crazy? Not to us. We are just mimicking nature and dropping the seeds in a pattern across the ground. The other reason it doesn’t seem to crazy is that it works! We have successfully seeded hundreds of acres at Kankakee Sands using this method.
It’s a very gratifying time of the year. Unleashing all those tiny native plant seeds, nature’s little packets of prairie-plants-to-be, out onto the frozen ground…one can’t help but think ahead to the following spring and the greening up that is now on its way. Let the restoration begin!
The Nature Conservancy’s Kankakee Sands is an 8,300-acre prairie and savanna habitat in Northwest Indiana, open every day of the year for public enjoyment. For more information about Kankakee Sands, visit nature.org/KankakeeSands or call the office at 219-285-2184.