Harvest is on the Horizon

By Melanie Schmidt and Ryan Schmidt on August 22, 2023 in Blog

Two volunteers harvest prairie seed

Prairie Seed Ambassador volunteers assist with prairie seed collection during the summer at the Snyder Heritage Farm

For many, the end of summer sparks thoughts of going back to school, cooler temperatures, and a transitioning landscape. At Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, fall takes on an entirely different focus —prairie seed harvesting.

This is especially true for the land stewardship and volunteer programs when the changing season dictates the timing of this activity. As a statewide organization, this timing can vary from region to region, making it even more important to be observant of targeted prairie species to determine when it’s time to act. Volunteers, in partnership with INHF staff, are dedicating their free time to observing the prairie to determine when species are producing seed and hand collecting them when mature for future prairie plantings.

Every year, between mid-September and mid-October, our focus is dedicated to prairie seed harvesting. INHF volunteers play a huge role in the hand collection of prairie seeds during this short period of time. The Prairie Seed Ambassadors program, new to INHF in 2023, even gives volunteers the opportunity to assist in the collection of early-blooming prairie species (between June and September). In fact, in the past two years, our volunteers have had a hand in restoring 176 acres of prairie in Iowa. Fifteen new prairie plantings are now restoring the land to a habitat that can sustain and benefit our land, water and wildlife.

Map showing prairie reconstruction with seed collected by INHF volunteers.Map showing prairie reconstruction with seed collected by INHF volunteers.

Volunteers are not only critical in our mission to reconstruct diverse, native prairies on our protected lands, but they enjoy learning about plants as they transition from eye-catching blooms to a source of seed that can be added to our prairie mixes. Kristi Steil, Prairie Seed Ambassador, states, “Not only am I helping promote and preserve precious native species that would otherwise be lost for future generations, I get to experience the beauty and peacefulness of the prairie. It's like free therapy!”

A successful prairie planting is made up of a diverse set of plants that are blooming throughout the growing season, supporting pollinators and wildlife year-round. Thoughtful seed identification and sourcing, followed by diligent seed collection and practical seeding methods help us recreate the best prairies we can. INHF’s prairie reconstructions are consistently reaching 100+ species in the mix, which would not be possible without our volunteers. If the soil and site conditions allow, our volunteers have even helped us plant prairies with over 130 species — and even one planting totaling over 180 species!

Two images showing cropland before and after prairie reconstruction

A before and after view of Lanz Heritage Area that underwent prairie reconstruction.

As INHF continues to reconstruct prairies across Iowa, seeds provide hope for accomplishing our increasing goals. Without local and thoughtfully collected prairie seeds, our best laid plans would fall short. Whether volunteers join us for one of our many group events or collect seeds on their own as a Prairie Seed Ambassador, this effort is valuable in so many ways. Oftentimes, volunteers focus on collecting wildflower seeds, which increases the abundance of those species in our plantings. Other times, volunteers focus on specific species that would not otherwise be collected. Thanks to the efforts of our volunteers, these species now have a chance to grow in a newly planted reconstruction.

And the most exciting part about adding these seeds into our plantings is that they grow! Whether a small handful of seed was diligently collected by an individual or bags of wildflower seed were collected by a group, we have the opportunity to see the fruits of our labor play out over time. It is a true pleasure to see plants show up in the years following a planting knowing so many people had a hand in making it happen.

It’s no surprise that this activity is a favorite among INHF volunteers, as it is not only an opportunity to spend time in the prairie, learning about what makes it special to our landscape, but it’s making a lasting impact on the land for generations to come. This fall, we invite you to join us at a prairie seed harvest event, and if you're interested in becoming a Prairie Seed Ambassador email Volunteer Coordinator, Melanie Schmidt

Leaving a legacy can be as simple as setting aside a few hours in the prairie to collect the fragrant seed of the purple prairie clover. See you on the prairie soon!

Melanie Schmidt is INHF's Volunteer Coordinator. Ryan Schmidt is INHF's Central Iowa Land Stewardship Director