Porcupine Grass – Hesperostipa spartea

Porcupine grass and prairie ragwort

One of the most elegant grasses of the prairie is porcupine grass. Few plants animate wind and light conditions as well as this cool season native. But for all of its grace, few plants cause more pain to the non-observant passerby, particularly when the seed is ripe. Too heavy to be carried far by the wind, this seed spreads by hitching a ride on things in motion. The sharp tip of the seed will pierce and cling to pant legs, shoestrings, exposed socks, as well as the fur and feathers of other prairie users. Now you know the reason for it being called porcupine grass. I also think it is cached by rodents such as the thirteen lined ground squirrel and mice. For years there was a ground squirrel family that harvested the seed in our plots just before I could get to it.

Large, brown, pointed seed with long black awns that will slowly twist and screw the seed into the ground

Last year we were finally able to harvest a pound of seed from our plots. I don’t know where the ground squirrels went: owls? badgers? coyotes? better seed site? The grass shows up in areas where we didn’t plant it making me wonder if some former cache sites have germinated. Here are the particulars:

  • cool season bunch grass growing 1-2′ tall and as wide
  • very slender leaf blades that arch out from the growing point
  • stiff stems that hold the seed head above the plant, gradually drooping towards the ground as the seed ripens and becomes heavier
  • requires full sun to part shade in well-drained soils, will not tolerate wet sites
  • plant 3/4″ deep in the soil in early spring, preferably after 21 days of moist stratification, water if not, or sow fresh seed with the awns intact and the seed will plant itself! Be patient, the seed may not emerge until fall or the following spring.
  • Our seed is dormant, 4% germinated in 21 days of testing at a seed laboratory so it will benefit from cold moist stratification.
  • If you’d like to harvest your own, look for the seed in late June. I pull my hand up the stem and pull the seeds off. They come off easily when ripe. Then immediately cut or break off the long awns. Otherwise the seed will become a ball of tangled, twisting awns.



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2017 Native Seed Conference

We just returned from the National Native Seed Conference in Washington DC. The title is a bit of a misnomer. Most of the attendees were from the western US where federal agencies are the largest landowners and buy millions of pounds of seed for restoration after wildfires, drought and other natural disasters, and for rehabilitation of lands disturbed by mining, invasive species, and other human disturbances. All of the sessions this year related to the  National Seed Strategy released in 2015 and formulated to address the need for more and better native seed. Over the next month I’ll try to cover some topics in more detail but here were some of the issues and concepts presented at the conference that captured my attention.

Resilient plant communities will adapt to climate change and resist invasion by non-native species better than degraded ecosystems. But how do we increase resiliency? More diverse seed mixes that represent a variety of plant families: asters, legumes, grasses, sedges, and less common like roseacae.  Plant species with varied life cycles: warm season, cool season, annuals, perennials, even shrubs. Plant early successional species like annual sunflower or at a minimum don’t despair if they appear in abundance. Consider the root structure: fibrous, taproots, and rhizomatous.

The seed strategy stresses the importance of seed transfer zones which should help preserve the genetic diversity of individual species. I’m still trying to figure out how this might work in Nebraska. A logical starting point is to source seed by EPA ecoregions or the vegetation communities of Nebraska developed by Robert Kaul and Stephen Rolfsmeier. The vegetation units must be large enough to support several populations of a given species without varying too much in climate or soil conditions. This would be a good project for the Nebraska Native Plant Producers to pursue in cooperation with Game and Parks, USDA NRCS, Nebraska Crop Improvement, and other interested parties.

If genetic diversity is the goal, how do current testing and sampling methods based on commodity crops contribute to that end? Currently not well. No one wants to introduce an invasive weed like Palmer amaranth or cheat grass into a restoration but when an agency buys 1-2 million pounds of native seed some contaminants are probable. Cleaning and testing seed deserve a separate entry in this blog but I learned some crazy things at the conference. I should have known that noxious weed seeds are on a separate list from noxious weeds in each state and some restricted or noxious weed seeds are native like annual sunflower, smooth dock and horsenettle. These will not ruin a restoration or pollinator planting. Another surprise was the revelation that the standard viability test for dormant seed is not very accurate for some species. It underestimated the viability of some Carex (sedge species) by three to six times what actually germinated in a greenhouse study. Yikes!

All in all I enjoyed the conference and returned home with several new/renewed goals. Our niche will continue to be local ecotype seed but we need to expand our acreage and increase the number of wild populations we collect from to expand diversity in our seed plots. I would like to grow some more common but under-represented species like upland sedges and maybe some annuals like prairie ragwort or wild bean.

To be continued and probably edited…

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Paris Climate Agreement

Since the conclusion of the Paris Climate meeting, I have been thinking and reading about how the US will meet its obligation to lower CO2 emissions. A significant contribution could come from increasing the country’s forest canopy, especially in cities: Cities Need Trees. Numerous studies have documented the effects trees have on storing carbon, reducing pollution, ameliorating the urban heat island effect, and improving the well-being and health of people who live in cities. Trees must be considered part of an urban environment’s infrastructure, as essential as storm sewers, lighting, and sidewalks. Retrofits and future developments should include room for trees, accommodating their root and canopy needs when designing new parking lots, roads, and other developments. Growing the urban forest is an investment in community health and safety.

But we need to understand the context of our planting sites. As I discussed in one of my first blog posts (http://shoestringseed.com/blog3/2013/02/27/the-importance-of-knowing-where-you-are/) location and species selection are critical to success. My fear is that we will focus on the easy solution: “plant more trees!” to the detriment of less conspicuous species. Grassland birds are declining faster than any other category of avian species. This country has converted a greater percentage of prairie than any other native ecosystem. Shelterbelts planted adjacent to native grasslands may cause more harm than good especially if the species planted are aggressive or invasive as I have seen first hand. Prairies also sequester carbon especially in the soil. We are still discovering the life forms and nutrient cycles right under our feet. My hope is that agricultural policy will encourage the preservation of grasslands and potentially subsidize their restoration in areas poorly suited to cultivation. Forests and riparian areas also need to be restored not only to store carbon but also to buffer waterways from pollution, store floodwaters, and provide habitat in urban areas. Climate change presents an opportunity to restore ecosystems and build resilience back into our environment but it won’t be easy.


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Pollinator Mix 2014

This gallery contains 34 photos.

We will offer a pollinator mix later this year that should work in a range of conditions: compacted urban soils, hot spots in parking lots or boulevards, droughty sites with sandy or very well-drained soils, and even average garden soils.  … Continue reading

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Fire, some thoughts


I watched the fire run up to our production plots and thought “this epitomizes my farm career: I can’t keep up.”  Plums keep sprouting in new locations before the old thickets are brought under control.  A controlled burn (really) last spring stimulated the brome rather than suppressing it.  And now burning a small pile of brush turned into a six acre grassland fire as it raced through the lush brome and up into the plots, torching some cedar trees between them.  I wanted to burn the plots but not exactly in this unplanned, ragged way.  When the fire chief pulled up to me his first words were, “this is not what I expected when I gave you the permit.”  It was a harbinger of things to come in our dry, windy, snow-free state.  Grass fires have made the news every week including some that closed state roadways.  (http://www.kptm.com/story/24552588/firefighters-battle-large-grassfire-west-of-yutan )

Pile of ashes from burning brush

The white ash is what we intended to burn but the wind shifted out of the west and carried the blaze up to the plots.


Here are some things I know we learned (and discussed) after the fire got away from us:

  1. Listen to your spouse when he/she warns you that you are rushing through preparations and you really don’t have to burn the pile today.  To-do lists may be modified.
  2. Never burn anything without water and the means to apply it.
  3. Every fall mow out the area around the buildings and between the plots and the buildings.
  4. Mow around the brush piles or move them to an area that can be mowed/disked.
  5. Keep fire breaks maintained and expand the width of them.
  6. Cut down all of the cedars between the plots
  7. Wait for snow before burning brush piles – we may never get another permit.

And here is a list of what I wish to learn from the fire:

  1. How will it affect the cheat grass growing in the plots?
  2. How will it affect the seed I broadcast in the fall?
    1. Blue and hairy grama on the south side of the big field
    2. Little bluestem and big bluestem over seeded in the big field, and
    3. Switchgrass in the small field that was completely over run by the fire.
  3. How will the primrose rosettes that looked great last fall respond to fire?
  4. The brome?!

The benefits of our uncontrolled burn include removal of thatch that was building up in the big bluestem plots and now we have a burned patch for grazing this spring.  I’ll also be able to over-seed the south field with upland sedges.  We’ve opened up the ground for quite a bit of seeding.  Before then I’ll focus on harvesting rose hips and treating more plum thickets, no more brush fires, unless it snows.

aerial view of burn pattern

Here’s a rough approximation of the area that burned.

Burned about 6 acres.  Even the aerial looks dry!

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Cleaning milkweed seed

As concern for monarch populations grows, so does the need for milkweed seed.  I never thought we would harvest and clean common milkweed seed but there is a need that we can easily fill because it grows happily in our pasture.  This is how we do it:

  1. Harvest pods: I don’t even look at a milkweed plant until I see one of the pods fluffing out or opening.  We gently pry the pod open a bit to see if the seed is brown.  If so we pick it and let it dry in the open, on a tarp or in a shallow container.  If the pod hasn’t opened on its own the seed can easily mold if left in a closed container, even if it’s paper.


    Common milkweed seed drying on a tarp in the far back corner



Shucking? milkweed pods with a shop vac

2. After the milkweed has dried a week or so depending on your humidity, it should be ready to vacuum.  We use a 5.5 hp shop vac but that doesn’t mean it’s the only one that will work.  After vacuuming all the loose seed, I hold the pods of common milkweed and suck the seed out.  Depending on the species of milkweed being cleaned, the pods swirling in the drum may damage the seed.  It’s ok if a few pods fly up the hose but I don’t vacuum pods off the tarp.


Milkweed seed filaments attached to the vacuum filter and on top of seed in the bottom of the drum.

3. Depending on the vacuum’s capacity, it will need to be cleaned out when you hear the motor straining.  It also varies with the number of pods sucked into the drum.  The seed fluff will adhere to the filter and the seed will be in the bottom of the drum.

4. Always sweep or pull the filaments off the vacuum filter when emptying the drum.  We have an old fashioned whisk broom to clean our vacuum filters but there may be better tools.  Then I screen the seed to remove fluff and broken seed.

5. This may not be the best way to clean small lots of seed where you don’t want to damage any seed at all.  My assumption is that some seed is immature and disintegrates in the shop vac.  We have seed dedicated shop vacuums at the farm and at home because we have found they are very useful when cleaning seed attached to a pappus.  Many of the asters fall into this category.  It took about two hours to clean 15 gallons of pods from start to finish and we ended up with about a gallon of seed.


Swamp milkweed seed after vacuuming the pods, these do not damage the seed swirling inside the drum like common milkweed pods can.


screening seed after vacuuming: pods scalped off by coarse screen, broken bits fall through a fine screen


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More fodder for thoughts on plots

Aha! Found this article on Science Daily (see text below if the link dies):

I have suspected that forbs and grasses should and can grow together in our plots. The trick is figuring out which ones work together the best for ease of harvest, weed suppression, and enhanced productivity. This is another reason to tolerate volunteer species. Some of the volunteers have been profitable (goldenrod!) and support wildlife (common ragweed) such as ground nesting birds and quail.


Picture of multi-species seed plots

Looking at masses of vervain, black-eyed susan, and compass plant along with plenty of brome


fall view of seed plots: compass plant, side oats behind, and lots of miscellaneous volunteers: stiff goldenrod, false boneset, and vervain

“The experimental result from Marc William Cadotte confirms a prediction made by Charles Darwin in “On the Origin of Species”, first published in 1859. Darwin had said that a plot of land growing distantly related grasses would be more productive than a plot with a single species of grass.

Since then, many experiments have shown that multi-species plots are more productive. Cadotte’s experiment showed for the first time that species with the greatest evolutionary distance from one another have the greatest productivity gains.

“If you have two species that can access different resources or do things in different ways, then having those two species together can enhance species function. What I’ve done is account for those differences by accounting for their evolutionary history,” Cadotte says.

Cadotte grew 17 different plants in various combinations of one, two, or four species per plot. As in previous experiments, he found that multi-species plots produced more plant material. But when he analyzed the results he also found that combinations of plants that were distantly related to one another were more productive than combinations of plants that were closely related. So, for instance, a plot planted with goldenrod and the closely related black-eyed susan wasn’t as productive as a plot with goldenrod and the more distantly related bluestem grass.

What’s going on isn’t mysterious, Cadotte says. Distantly related plants are more likely to require different resources and to fill different environmental niches — one might need more nitrogen, the other more phosphorus; one might have shallow roots, the other deep roots. So rather than competing with one another they complement one another.

What’s interesting about his result is that evolutionary distance is all you need to know to predict productivity. The result suggests that as plant species disappear Earth will become less productive, and plants will draw even less carbon from the atmosphere, possibly increasing the rate of global warming.

On the other hand, the results could give a valuable tool to conservation efforts. Environmentalists trying to restore damaged habitats could use the information to help them pick which combinations of species to introduce.”

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Pasture Burn

“You won’t get a permit if we don’t get some moisture,” the Clearwater Volunteer Fire Chief flatly informed me.  It was the week before the seed conference, two weeks before we wanted to burn the pasture.

“I understand.” Heck, I agreed with him.  The drought of 2012 hit our area very hard.  The early 2013 spring rain and snow pelting Lincoln missed the farm – repeatedly.  I prepared a prescribed burn plan and mailed it to him just before we left for the 2013 Native Seed conference.  I guilted my sister into agreeing to help.  I solicited no one else because I didn’t really believe it would rain or snow in our absence and that I was merely relieving my inner nag by “at least trying” to get a permit.

It rained while we were out of town.  It rained enough that he asked how many ATV’s we would have onsite when we burned.  How much water would we have available should something go wrong.  Tentatively he gave his approval, but we would need the final say Friday from the assistant chief who also worked at the coop where we would get the water tanker we needed.

Condition of the pasture the evening before we started controlled burning

Condition of the pasture the evening before we started controlled burning

Carey and I stopped by the farm Thursday night and I took a picture of the SNOW on the ground.  Based on the weather forecast Friday and Saturday I revised the plan to take advantage of the weather: Friday winds 12-18 mph out of the NW meant we should back burn along east and south disked breaks, Saturday 13-20 mph out of the SE meant we should back burn north and west and set a head fire up the north slopes.  The assistant chief wasn’t too concerned about our plan.  He did want to make sure we had enough water and filled the 200 gallon tank we borrowed from Pheasants Forever.  We headed back to the farm loaded with tools and water.

I should probably mention that I have never conducted a prescribed burn before, though I have participated in a few. Carey has burned more brush piles than he can count but that isn’t quite the same thing.  We mixed fuel for the drip torch, filled the backpack water sprayer, positioned the tractor and truck in strategic locations and headed to the south side to start igniting dry grass.  The drip torch was new and took a little while to light.  We lit a dry cedar branch with needles to provide the constant flame a match could not sustain.  Off I went about 10′ off the disked fire break.  The fire crept west along the furrow and also north into the wind.

Creeping back fire along east side

Creeping back fire along east side

All day the fire edged slowly north and west (Carey dragged it with a rake) until we had to put it out around 7:30 pm.  I had hoped it would make it all the way across the south side but we put it out in the last draw below the western-most slope.

Meanwhile I was setting black line on the east side but as I moved closer to the north windbreak simultaneously falling further below the hill to the west, the air started to swirl.  I was almost at the end when I realized the creeping fire had jumped the draw and was headed up the slope.  I called Carey.  “I need help.” He stammered and mumbled.  “Move the tractor!” I said into the phone and ran over to the truck and drove it into position to hose down the escaping fire.  Trouble was I didn’t know how to start the pump so Carey had to come over and start it for me.  Then I couldn’t get enough hose off the reel to reach the ascending flames moving away from me.  Carey started disking the slope above the advancing flames (his way of moving the tractor) and I managed to smother the flames with the flapper as they hit the disked furrows.  The fire also spread north and nearly ignited a pine stump but I hosed that out.  We had it back under control in about 45 minutes and Carey returned to his fire on the south side.  I put out some stray flames that crossed the disked break into the plots.  It was a hectic hour.  I don’t know that it would have done any harm had we let it run, but it was no longer under our control nor moving according to plan.


Carey’s creeping fire along the south side

I joined Carey on his side of the pasture making sure no flames crossed the large draw that feeds our dry pond.  We agreed that we would put it out when the sun was just above the horizon.  Around 7:30 pm we decided to put it out and finish Saturday.  Around the same time a coyote howled nearby obviously displeased with the state of the pasture, almost a third of it black and smoking.

Smoldering prairie

Smoldering earth

Saturday did not start well.  My sister Kristin and her husband joined us and we replenished fuel for the drip torch (spilling some and sending my sister outside for fear we would blow up the building).  We headed to the NW corner. Snow began to fall.  I tried to set the back fire in the NW corner (wind out the SE).  The brome did not want to burn.  I kept going across the corner and then set off down the hill along the west side.  Finally it started burning.  No coincidence the wind picked up and the relative humidity dropped.  Carey again dragged flames along the north side but couldn’t keep it going.  Kristin and I headed south along the west side to the bottom of the draw and had a pretty good fire going.  Finally the snow stopped and I headed east along the north break.  Carey and Rob monitored the west side.  The fire always smouldered out in the plum thickets: too damp, too little fuel.


Kristin monitoring the south side fire break


By 1 pm we had burned the backfires but the wind had increased to around 20 mph.  We communicated by radio and decided to set a head fire halfway down the north side and let it run up the slope.

Head fire moving up north slope

Head fire moving up north slope

About an hour later Mom and the grandkids arrived.  I was a little nervous because I was going to light the last headfire to run up the north slope and made sure they stood “in the black” (an area already burned).  Away it went and we were left with mop up detail and photographing the kids.

Lighting headfire

Lighting headfire

Esme and Guy, future fire crew members?

Esme and Guy, future fire crew members?

During mopup we discovered a smoldering cedar that had died in the 2005 fire but was still standing during this 2013 burn.  It had been burning for a couple of hours I would guess when we took this picture:

Smoldering, dead cedar standing

Smoldering, dead cedar standing

The next day Carey and I burned a brush pile of thorny locust limbs and scraps from cutting trees down.  It took a while but we finally got it going and ignited a honey locust stump that burned through the night.

Carey managing the brush pile

Carey managing the brush pile

Burning stump

Burning stump

and one last shot of glowing embers.


We let the honey locust stump glow through the night because there was so little fuel left in the pasture.

I cannot express how happy and relieved I was after the burn was complete.  And the pasture has exploded with new growth.  Unfortunately much of it has been smooth brome.  I think we burned a little too early to damage it.  The Kentucky bluegrass has not rebounded as well.  We need to burn our seed plots and see if that will suppress the resurgent brome.

Here’s a little clip of video Rob took: firemovie


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Final Thoughts on the Native Seed Conference

During the drive home from Santa Fe I studied my notes of the conference and developed a list of things we will try and reflected on some issues we cannot resolve but should follow.  My favorite quip was “we need to think outside the crop” shared by Anita Hall, Executive Director of AOSCA (Association of Official Seed Certifying Agencies).  Seed testing developed with the increasing sophistication of agriculture and crop hybridization.  This harkens back to the inherent tension underlying the whole conference between big growers and restoration purists.  As I experimented with an aspirator Carey assembled based on a session we both attended, I remembered the suggestion by one ecologist that seeds of all sizes must be included in a harvest lot to preserve maximum genetic diversity.  But to do that you also end up with broken pieces of larger seeds, some insect injured seed, and even bits of stem when processing with standard equipment.  A seed test on such a lot would find low purity.  So should we be testing seed diversity rather than purity?  No.  It isn’t right to charge someone for particles that won’t germinate or grow like the damaged seed and chaff.  There’s also the challenge of planting non-uniform seed.  Standard seed drills tend to clog when native seed is run through them.  For storage in a seed bank, selecting lots with a greater range of seed size makes sense.  But then the geneticist posted a graphic (Andrea Kramer):


Each stage of the seed acquisition process can diminish genetic diversity.  So for the purpose of offering greatest diversity we should be seeding a broader range of seed and we should plant up and down the hill to maximize the hydrological range of growing conditions.  By only planting along a certain elevation we are selecting for seed that prefers to grow with that amount of moisture and solar exposure.  We also need to harvest our foundation seed from a larger population.  I’m reasonably certain we have accomplished this by harvesting from some singular large populations and supplementing with seed harvested from other locations with smaller numbers, e.g. along a county road adjacent to a remnant grassland.

My list of things to try:

  1. Conventional cover crops for weed suppression
  2. Native cover crops for weed suppression
  3. Sod scalping smooth brome to suppress it and reseed with native pioneer species
  4. Plots up and down slope
  5. Rotations
  6. Pre-emergent herbicide?
  7. Broaden foundation seed collection sources

All in all it was a very good conference, thought provoking.  I’ll add to this post as the memories recur.

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Inspiration – Gary Nabhan

I read Gary Nabhan’s book Coming Home to Eat in 2002 or so.  It inspired me to be a better gardener and forage for more than mushrooms in the wild.  For one year he ate only what he could grow, forage, hunt or fish within his 220 miles of his home.  I can’t remember the reason for the 220 mile boundary but it was a fascinating book that came out well before Barbara Kingsolver’s book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, another good read.  You can imagine how eagerly I awaited his keynote address at the Native Seed Conference this year.  He also authored The Forgotten Pollinators with Stephen Buchman in 1996, a little more strident but no less important, and has written several other books I need to read.

Currently he is working with a unique L3C profit/non-profit called the Borderlands Habitat Restoration Project.  They focus on three avenues of restoration: the physical environment, food chains, and reconnecting people with the land by engaging the public in restoration activities.  He believes that restoration succeeds from the bottom up: restore healthy soil, healthy waterways, and diverse vegetation communities.  Fill the floristic gaps for pollinators and the restoration of pollinators may improve the status of some endangered plants.  In pursuit of this goal they are working with the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education  Program (SARE) to establish bee friendly farms.  I came away from his address more determined to develop a season long pollinator mix and to not assume that the environment we live in cannot be improved.

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