This Year’s Crop: Learning More in 2015 About the Best Time to Plant

Last year, Jack and I decided to try our hand at beekeeping.  As it turns out, being a successful beekeeper is a lot harder than we’d imagined.  Like quail and horned lizards, bees have a lot going against them, and figuring out how to best protect and take care of them can be very daunting to the beginner.  We’ve found it very helpful to attend a beekeeper’s group where veteran apiculturists generously share their experience and advice with inept newbies like us.  One of the leaders of this group frequently reminds us, that while there are many different opinions and recommendations on beekeeping, he is only going to share with us his way of keeping bees. He then urges us to find our own methods and philosophy to follow as we gain more experience. 

It’s in that same spirit that I offer the techniques and strategies we have employed over the last six years on our place in southwest Llano County.  I have yet to find the “secret sauce” that will guarantee the results we desire.  We are still in the process of discovery and learning, slowly gaining some insight on Nature’s patterns and processes.  If you can learn a better way on our nickel, then even our frequent failures will have some value.

2015 LIP Project Part 2

Fall of 2014 through winter and spring 2015 provided us with an opportunity to compare germination results from seed sown at different times.  We wanted to introduce native grass seed to over 15 burn pile sites generated by intensive brush clearing in disparate areas.  We followed the concept of “mosaic patterning” in which clearing opens space among remnant brush thickets that provide cover for wildlife. We removed considerable amounts of white brush, prickly pear, tasajillo, and persimmon, which we later burned when conditions were favorable.  After burning, the base of the pile was about 30 feet across, with the soil loosened and weed-free, resulting in a small but receptive seedbed.  Most literature I had consulted in the past suggested a sowing time of late February through May for warm season grasses, but adhering to that standard hadn’t produced the results we’d hoped for, so we decided to try something new.

We started burning the accumulated brush piles in late October of 2014 and continued through late January. As each area cooled, we followed soon after with broadcast sowing before the soil could crust over and other plants move in. I marked each site with a survey tag with the sowing date written on it.

It’s true that many native grass species set seed in the fall, and so it seems logical that fall sowing would be successful by mimicking natural rhythms.  Yet it’s also true that some seed requires after-ripening, and even a cold dormancy period to prepare the seed’s internal mechanisms for germination when conditions are right.  Less important is the concern that seed might germinate in late November and then be killed by frost.  What is most critical to successful germination and seedling establishment is the timely arrival of sufficient rainfall from late winter through early summer.  I don’t need to point out that our “regular” pattern of spring rains and scattered summer thundershowers has been changing, and mostly absent since we began trying to introduce more grass species diversity.  Looking for more suggestions on how to adapt to this changing climate reality, I read with interest the new Restoration Manual produced by the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute Texas A&M Kingsville (http://ckwri.tamuk.edu), which includes research showing that a September or October sowing time produces the best results.  This manual is directed for south Texas, but I thought it would be interesting to compare germination results in burn pile sites sown in late fall to those sown in winter.

Staggered sowing dates also reflect a practical reality.  It’s easier to gradually sow the various sites over multiple months, when time, soil moisture, and extra help are available.  It would have been difficult to try to sow them all at one time.

We also hoped to improve results by creating a custom seed mix (with help from veteran natural resource specialist Steve Nelle).  This year’s mix included:  Sand lovegrass ‘Bend’, Yellow Indian grass ‘Cheyenne’, Canada wildrye, “Mandam’, Green Sprangletop ‘Van Horn’, Little Bluestem ‘Cimmaron’, Sand dropseed “VNS’, Switchgrass ‘Blackwell’, and Sideoats grama ‘Haskell’.  As we have discussed before, many over-the-counter generic seed mixes are not successful because they are not site-specific, they lack sufficient diversity, and also lack the crucial “first responders” or early successional species that are best for colonizing bare ground.  Most seed vendors will help you develop your own mix. I suggest you insist on native species only, or your results may be disappointing as many “improved” exotic grasses could overwhelm the slower-growing natives.

Spring Results

As we all remember, spring of 2015 brought the long-awaited rains we’ve needed to break a four-year drought.  Most tanks were full, Marshcall creek jumped her banks, and  wildflowers and grasses were lush and abundant.  By late April, it was clear, as Steve Nelle had predicted, that the burn piles sown in January had the best results. Those sites were densely covered with the welcome fuzz of new seedlings. By June the green sprangletop was even in bloom.  In contrast, burn piles sown in October and November had only spotty coverage and significant bare areas.  Why was this?  It could be that broadcast sowing followed by raking and packing was not enough to protect the seed from predators.  We have many harvester ant colonies, a population surge of gophers, birds, mice, and other seed lovers who may have carried considerable amounts of the seed off before it could germinate.  We do know that it wasn’t due to lack of rainfall. 

Germination is only the beginning

After an unusually wet spring, the rains stopped entirely by the end of June.  We received no rain in July, and only a trace in August. Temperatures climbed to three digits by late July, and stayed there for several weeks. The tall grasses that covered the January burn piles turned to straw by early July.  Will some of their tiny roots survive?  We don’t know yet, but it seems doubtful.  We know climate change has caused temperatures to be higher than normal (2014 was the hottest year on record), but isn’t it true that these native grasses evolved under conditions that included summer drought and extended heat waves? Will this upward trend make it next to impossible to establish grasses in spring that can survive the summer? If that is true, what does that say about the land’s capacity for self-repair?  Many people claim that by removing grazing, the land will recover on it’s own. How do we know what residual grass seed remains in the ground? And if those remnant seeds fail to establish in several seasons, does the seedbank diminish beyond the point of recovery? On our place, we will have to wait until the fall when rains return to know for sure.  Some spring seedlings may rebound, and we also might have another round of germination before frost. 

 Lessons Learned

I think we got the message that January through February is a good target date for sowing native grass seeds in our area.  I also learned that my bright idea of including lemon balm or horse mint in the mix as a “marker” for these random sites backfired. Last year’s wet winter favored forbs, and piles sown two years ago were covered in this purple wildflower.  I like the flower: I don’t like that it shaded out many warm season grasses that may have been trying to germinate.  Those piles where the seed failed to germinate robustly will most likely fill in with grasses already growing in the surrounding area. These grasses include: plains bristle grass, sideoats grama, purple three-awn, and Canada wild rye. The results of our clearing the brush offered the most immediate reward.  By reducing the area covered by white brush, we triggered a profusion of pigeonberry whose bright red berries attracted flocks of painted buntings.  The buntings would dart in and out of the remaining thickets of white brush to feast on the berries.  For the time being, we will have to be satisfied that we set positive change in motion, and when conditions are right, Mother Nature puts on a show.  I hope that the prediction for a strong El Niño actually appears this fall.  When it does, we will be waiting and ready.

 

posted on 8/31/2015