Best Practices for Native Seed Establishment

First and foremost, eradicate fescue, clover, bermuda grass, and any turfing non-native grass.

Soil amendments

Lime is generally a good amendment for establishing native grasses. A soil test will tell you how much lime is needed, and you should apply lime according to these results. Note that lime effects soil pH slowly over time, so application a few months before seeding is ideal, though often not practical.

Synthetic fertilizer (an N-P-K mix) tends to favor weeds over the desirable natives, so it is not recommended as a soil amendment. Native grasses don't need as much nitrogen as most landscapers are accustomed to using for lawn/turf grass. However, on very poor soils, you may apply the minimum amount indicated by a soil test - but no more than that.

For natives, the more important factors are organic matter and seed-to-soil contact. Before sewing seed, a one- to two-inch top dressing of well decomposed organic matter, worked in lightly, is ideal for enhancing germination.

Application

Native seeds need adequate moisture and a soil temperature of at least 50 degrees to germinate. Spring is optimal seeding time - late March through May; but late September through November is also a good time. Avoid hot, dry Summer months.

An application rate of 20lbs per acre is sufficient for native seed mixes. On steep slopes, we recommend 35 to 40lbs/acre and light matting. A light application of straw mulch is optional on other grades, but it will help hold moisture and keep seed from washing during a rain event.

Hydro-seeding is a recommended method for establishing natives. We can recommend contractors with hydroseeding capabilities. If you are hand broadcasting your native seed mix, you can mix it with sand before broadcasting to distribute the seed evenly. Walking on the seed after you have broadcast it is enough to ensure good soil contact.

Maintenance

Water will be most important. As the seeds germinate, you'll get best results if the seedlings have access to moisture until well rooted. This is often hard to manage; that's why early Spring is the best time to plant, Fall is also good, mid-Summer is not optimal (unless the site is irrigated).

Controlling invasive weeds is also important. Plenty of lime and holding off on the fertilizer (N) will favor the natives. Top dressing with organics at the beginning of the growing season will also help. Competition from Fescue is probably the single biggest deterrent to establishing natives. Be sure it is eradicated before seeding with natives!

Natives should not be mowed regularly. Once or twice per growing season is good. Mowing in August - September can help disperse additional seed.

Some Points on Native Grass Seed Mixes:

It's important to note that native grass mixes establish differently than lawn/turf grasses. The seeds do not germinate all at once - you won't see that nice satisfying flush of green shortly after seeding. The seeds germinate gradually throughout the growing season, some even into the next year.

Because of the varied germination rates of native seed, you can add a "nurse crop" or cover crop species to the mix, which will germinate quickly to hold soil and moisture in place, as well as provide shelter for the natives. Select a cover crop species that will not interfere with the natives. The best cover crop will vary with season: Winter wheat, Cereal rye, Millet, and Hard fescue are some good options (see below). We do not recommend annual rye grass as a cover crop because it outcompetes native seed for water and nutrients.

Cover/Companion Crops for Native Seed Mixes

Common

Species

Use for planting in:

Mix

Notes:

Hard fescue

Festuca brevipila

Fall, Winter

(any time)

3-5 lbs/a;

20%

Weak competitors; do not interfere with native grasses. Shade tolerant.

Sheep fescue

Festuca ovina

Fall, Winter

(any time)

3-5 lbs/a;

20%

Cereal rye,

Winter rye

Secale cereale

Early Spring

or Fall

30 lbs/a

Grows 3-4' tall, but weaker competitor than annual rye grass; better choice despite height. High salt tolerance.

Perennial rye

Lolium perenne

Spring - Summer

20-50%

Shorter rye; lasts about 2 years, then dies out.

Millet (foxtail

or German)

Setaria italica

Spring - Summer

20-50%

Good germination; dies off with frost; does not tolerate mowing.