Even through these icy months, restoration progress continues at the USDA Forest Service’s Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. Seed preparation – including seed sorting, cleaning and mixing – is happening now as volunteers and staff with Midewin and The Wetlands Initiative get ready to plant in strategically selected spots in the Prairie Glacial Plains over the winter months.
In 2016, the 1,000-acre Prairie Glacial Plains area was marked for accelerated restoration over seven years in partnership with the USDA Forest Service, the National Forest Foundation and The Wetlands Initiative. The area is on the west side of Highway 53. Making the project especially significant, the Prairie Glacial Plains is made up of an array of ecosystems, including mesic, wet, sand and gravel prairie; as well as savanna, sedge meadow, marsh and seep areas.
More than 160 species of native Illinois plants will be planted in the Prairie Glacial Plains, including little bluestem, prairie petunia, rattlesnake master and more. A carefully curated list of species is included in the Midewin Prairie Plan: “Desired Plant Species List for Restored Native Vegetation.” This list reflects the historic ecology and distribution of those species at Midewin and in surrounding counties.
“We get as many species as we can in order to maximize the diversity of the wetlands and prairie,” said Anna Braum, an ecologist with The Wetlands Initiative.
For the past two weeks crews have been blending the seeds into well-planned mixes so that different blends can be planted in judiciously targeted areas.
“We create the mixes, or ‘seeding recipes,’ based on the quantity of seed and the types of habitats in which each species occurs,” Braum said.
To determine the right mix of seed in each blend, ecologists look at a variety of factors, including hydrology, soil type, slope and light availability. Additionally, grasses, sedges and forbs are included into each of the mixes at the appropriate seeding rates.
This year, new habitat was created in the Prairie Glacial Plains when whole lines of 100-year-old below-ground clay drain tiles were removed. The tiles were used for irrigation when the land was used for farming years ago. The tile lines are usually difficult to find, but this year heavy rains helped expose them. Trevor Edmonson, Midewin project manager with The Wetlands Initiative, was out in the rain many times to look for exposed tile lines. In some areas, removing tiles allowed water to flow into areas where it hadn’t flowed in 100 years, creating new ecosystems.
“New habitats have been created that will support more diversity,” Edmonson said.
In just one example, on the west side of the Iron Bridge on Highway 53 there is now an area of marshy sedge meadow. A blend of seed is being mixed especially for this area. The mix will include 39 different species of native Illinois prairie plants, including sneezeweed, blue monkey flower, New England aster and many more.
Midewin volunteers also are sorting and cleaning seeds that were harvested throughout 2019. The seeds are aerated using machines and hand-held tools.
The award-winning Midewin Volunteer program is managed in a partnership agreement with the USDA Forest Service and The Nature Conservancy.