Native Seed Production

A fall photo of two rows of seedbeds ready to be collected.

The Seedbeds

Although some types of wild seed are available from specialized native plant nurseries, many are not. That’s one major purpose of Midewin’s three native seed production gardens -- to produce seeds of native grasses and wildflowers that we cannot get from other sources.

Many of these plant species are not commercially available, or if available, not in the amounts we need to restore prairie to Midewin. Even with our own production of seed and plants, it will still take many decades to restore much of the native habitats to Midewin.

Seedbed Guides

Frequently Asked Questions About the Seedbeds

What is a seedbed?

A volunteer snips seedpods into a collection bag.

A seedbed, in this case, is a raised bed used to grow seedlings in a controlled environment before replanting them in areas we are working to restore. 

The seedbeds are planted in 7-foot-wide strips separated by mowed lanes, making it easier to see the distinctive growth form and flowers of each plant species. This arrangement also makes it easier to efficiently harvest all the seeds of each plant species.

Some beds contain companion plantings, where grass beds are interplanted with forbs.  The grasses help keep down competition from unwanted weeds, and also make it easier to manage the seed beds with prescribed fire.  Especially successful has been the combination of legumes or spring-flowering forbs with bunch grasses.

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Where are the seedbeds?

All three of Midewin’s seed production gardens are in areas open to the public.

  • Supervisor’s Office: These seedbeds are directly across the driveway from the Midewin Supervisor’s Office and Welcome Center and can be visited anytime the office is open.
  • Chicago Road: It will take a walk or bicycle ride to visit these seedbeds, located one mile south of the Hoff Road Trailhead. There is a nice walking trail around Turtle Pond here, too.
  • River Road: There is a parking area available near these seedbeds, located north of River Road along Boathouse Road.

The first two seed production beds, at the Supervisor’s Office and the ones at the intersection of Chicago Road and Road 1 North, were established on Midewin in 1996.

The wetland seed beds on River Road were developed with funding from Openlands Land Preservation (CorLands at that time) and were first planted in 2005. 

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Who planted and takes care of the seedbeds?

Volunteers have contributed their time and labor to help Midewin produce the full complement of native flora, and most of the initial plantings were done by volunteers. Our ability to incorporate botanical diversity into our plantings helps contribute to the success of native habitat restoration on Midewin. 

Employees also do a lot of work planting and, when ready, processing and cleaning the seeds.

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Where do the seeds come from?

The plants were from dormant rootstock and plug stock produced by the IDNR Mason State Nursery, with most of the material’s wild origin being from Goose Lake Prairie State Natural Area or prairie remnants on Des Plaines State Fish and Wildlife Area. 

Although Midewin’s seed production has included a wide range of prairie flora, we have focused on establishment and production of the “hard-to-find” species; those not available commercially or easy to propagate by standard horticultural techniques. 

As you walk through the seed beds keep an eye out for these often inconspicuous beauties:  Mead’s sedge, pussy-toes, rough white-lettuce, small skullcaps, low calamint, Sullivant’s milkweed, Ohio horsemint, Crawe’s sedge, red bulrush, pale-spike lobelia, white-blue-eyed grass, Riddell’s goldenrod, and stiff white aster. 

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How many species of plants are there?

Two volunteers smile at each other while handing off a plant for collection.

Over the years, there has been considerable expansion of new beds and renovation of older ones.  There are now more than 100 species of prairie plants growing in the seedbeds. 

Among the wetland species installed at the River Road seedbed are over 30 species of sedges, bulrushes, and wetland forbs.  Some of the showier wetland species are great angelica, blue monkey-flower, and wild blue iris.

Some beds contain companion plantings, where grass beds are interplanted with forbs.  The grasses help keep down competition from unwanted weeds, and also make it easier to manage the seed beds with prescribed fire.  Especially successful has been the combination of legumes or spring-flowering forbs with bunch grasses.

The initial plantings consisted of only 17 species, the beginning of a long road to the eventual goal, production of at least 350 native plant species found in prairie, wetlands, savannas, and oak woodlands.

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Have you lost any species?

We’ve lost a few species over the years to weedy competition, drought, flooding, insects (Japanese beetles) and field mice (voles). 

Among the “lost” species were rough blazing-star and marsh dragonhead; these and other lost species are now again in production.  Some of the older beds have declined, and visitors should expect to see areas killed with herbicide, then replanted with new plants.

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How do you collect the seeds and get them ready for planting?

Midewin processes and cleans much of the seed harvested here from the seedbeds and also from wild remnant areas. The seed processing and cleaning equipment is set up in the Horticulture Building behind the Midewin Supervisor’s Office.

The seed typically first goes through a gasoline-driven plot thresher outdoors before being brought in for fine processing indoors.  The plot thresher breaks out the seed from the seed head and separates out some of the stems.  The seed is then further separated from the seed heads or surrounding bracts by brush machines. 

The resulting output is then run through seed cleaners that use forced air and vibrating screens of various sizes to sort out the seed from debris.  It may take several runs through the screen machines with several changes of screen sizes to get most of the debris separated out from the seed. 

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Why not just collect seed and plants from remnant prairies?

There aren’t enough prairie remnants to provide sufficient seeds for Midewin’s restoration needs.  And continual harvesting of most native seed produced by small prairie preserves is likely to have negative effects on the wild plant populations and the wildlife that depends on these plants.

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Do the wildflowers and grasses need to be replanted every year?

Most prairie grasses and wildflowers are perennials.  They have a root system in the ground that survives year after year.  In the spring, new growth develops from the top of the root.  Many prairie plants are long-lived; clumps of prairie dropseed live for decades, perhaps even a century or more.  Other prairie plants, although perennial, live only for a decade at most.  

Some of the established seed production beds have been producing seed continuously for more than a decade with little care other than weeding and burning.  We burn off dead material during winter or early spring.  This stimulates growth and flowering in prairie grasses and wildflowers.  

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Don’t the birds eat a lot of the seeds you are growing?

A gloved hand holds a few dozen seeds stripped during collection.

Yes, the birds do eat small amounts of seed we are producing.  We usually time our harvests to collect seed before bird depredations are serious.  Because of the size of the seed production field, and the diversity of habitat around the field, there are many types of birds present -- grasshopper sparrow, savanna sparrow, eastern meadowlark, dickcissel, eastern kingbird, and Henslow’s sparrow in the open field. 

Around the edges, there are often indigo buntings, house wrens, rose-breasted grosbeaks, Baltimore orioles, eastern bluebirds, and American goldfinches.  Overhead, visitors might see a red-tailed hawk, a turkey vulture, or a great blue heron.

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Don’t the deer eat the plants?

Midewin’s native seedbeds turned out to be veritable salad bars for the deer.  Favorite greens include prairie dock, spiderwort, rosinweed, the prairie clovers, lobelia, and many others.  Some deer snacking was to be expected.  But the deer turned out to love asters and alumroot so much, that we weren’t able to harvest any seed from these plants in the seed beds. 

Losses of prairie plants and their seed grew to such levels that Midewin constructed a deer-exclusion fence at the River Road seedbeds in 2003 and the Chicago Road seedbeds in 2006 to protect the investment of thousands of dollars and staff and volunteer labor spent establishing this fundamental component of the habitat restoration process. The 8-foot-tall game fence is not perfect and deer do occasionally get inside; we periodically chase them out.

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Where can I see some restored prairie?

Walk north from the River Road seedbeds and parking lot on Boathouse Rd. When you come to the gate in the deer exclusion fence, turn left or right and walk to the pedestrian gates at the corners. After you go through the gates, continue north on Boathouse Rd. 

On your right (towards the east) is the South Patrol Road restoration project. There are over 400 acres of restored prairie and wetlands in this tract. Please walk out into restoration; as you get further from the edge, you will see more native plants and fewer weedy patches. There are large stands of native grasses and wildflowers throughout this area. 

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