How to Sow Your Seed


February 25, 2020

Big Bluestem, Indiangrass, and Little Bluestem are three of the four tall grasses of the Great Plains. The fourth, not pictured, is Switchgrass.

In open areas with sufficient soils, native grasses are the foundation of healthy vegetation. In addition to providing valuable forage and cover for livestock and wildlife, grasses cover the ground surface and enhance infiltration of water into the soil while improving the health of your soil. For these reasons, grasses are very effective at limiting erosion and runoff and increasing the water-holding capacity of your land.

Timing is one of the most critical factors in any seeding project. In the past, it was commonly recommended that seeding occur in the spring. However, due to shifting climate patterns and longer, drier summers, many range specialists now recommend planting between January and March, or between mid-August and early-September with the latter being more commonly recommended for the planting of forbs and wildflowers.

Before you Seed

Photograph by David Hillis at Double Helix Ranch.

Before investing in seed, first consider whether it is truly necessary or wise. In the area where you are proposing to seed, was brush recently removed, and are healthy stands of native grasses nearby? If so, the existing seed bank may be as good or better than any seed you could purchase. Has the area always been barren, for instance with thin rocky (i.e., caliche) soils and grasses spaced far apart? Soil organic matter, water-holding capacity, or drainage may be critical limiting factors, rather than seed. If so, it may be that the limitations of those soils or that area just need to be accepted, or that (brace yourself) allowing cedar to grow there may be the most effective method for building soil and preventing erosion. Or, maybe adding organic material or bringing in livestock to “fertilize” and disturb the soil via hoof action might have a greater impact than adding seed. The lesson here is to first establish that shortcomings of the site are based on a lack of seed, rather than other factors.

If seed truly is a limiting factor, carefully consider your goals. Are you managing that area for livestock, wildlife, scenery, or all the above? If you are managing for wildlife, which wildlife? Managing for specific types of wildlife is beyond the scope of this article, but it bears mentioning that each has different requirements. However, they are not necessarily opposed. For instance, quail and dove are especially fond of feeding on “weeds” such as forbs, but also require bunchgrasses and brush for nesting and escape cover. Their needs are different from those of deer and turkey. Before selecting where to seed and what seed to use, determine the highest and best use(s) of that patch of land.

Selecting your Seed

Now, you are ready to select your seed. There are a number of good, local options for native seed produced in Texas. Among them are Native American Seed, Turner Seed Co, and Bamert Seed Co. Each of these vendors can make custom mixes for you.

Photograph by David Hillis at Double Helix Ranch.

Native American Seed is a great choice for mixes made up of a wide variety of local “ecotypes” native to a particular area. They are doing critical work to promote biodiversity and appreciation of our unique native flora and fauna. There are numerous choices to match most any objective and site.

Turner and Bamert each have some good, basic economic options. Keep in mind that some of their mixes contain non-native seed that may be at odds with your goals. Also, note that mixes labeled as “Texas” or “Texas wildlife” mixes are not necessarily made up of native and non-invasive seed. With those considerations in mind, both vendors can provide a great mix for your needs. Do your homework, and try to learn a bit about each species in the mix before you spend your hard-earned money.

Success in Seeding

Following are a few pointers on how to promote success with your seeding project. Inevitably, unless you have the benefit of irrigation you will be at the whims of the weather, but there are a few factors you can try to control. Among the most critical are getting your seed where you want it, and promoting seed-to-soil contact. To avoid having valuable seed blow away in the wind, mix it with a carrier or two. A mix of compost and sand can be very effective when hand broadcasting. If using a mechanical or electric seed spreader, check with the manufacturer on their recommended carrier.

Once mixed, determine how to distribute your seed. For small areas hand broadcasting will suffice, but larger areas may require a hand-held or chest-mounted broadcaster, available at most feed stores. Ensure that the broadcaster will work for native grass seeds. If seeding is a regular practice, and you have a tractor or ATV, consider investing in a seed drill that is calibrated for native seed but, keep in mind that seed drills may not be a wise choice for especially rocky areas or areas with cut stumps left in the ground.

If you are not using a seed drill, you’ll need to first prepare the seedbed. This first involves reducing standing vegetation to provide seeds access to bare soil. This should be followed by smoothing and slightly compacting the seed bed so that small native seeds don’t get buried too deeply. A light discing can be useful for removing vegetation, while a drag-behind harrow has two sides, which when used in sequence, can help with both objectives. A cultipacker is especially helpful for packing the planting area.

Once a smooth and packed seedbed has been established, distribute seed and press the seed into the soil. A rake or the press of a foot works great for small areas but is impractical on larger areas. This is where lightweight equipment, such as an ATV, or a tractor, can come in handy. You may simply drive over the site repeatedly. Dragging spare tires or even a length of fence, if done carefully, can help. For a bit more money, cultipackers work especially well for these purposes. You might be able to come up with a more creative solution.

Of course, some sites won’t lend themselves well to some of the planting methods described above, perhaps due to especially rocky conditions or an abundance of brush. In these cases, it is wise to carefully consider the prospective benefit of planting in comparison to the cost of seed.  

Finally, because every seeding project involves some risk, hedge your bets. For example, you might determine a reasonable area you want to improve over, say, the next five years. Divide it up into five areas, and seed one area each year. This will prevent major losses when the rain doesn’t come. After five years, you are almost sure to have notable success. And, don’t forget to pray for rain!

Hopefully, this article will help you with your efforts to improve your little patch of Hill Country Heaven. Please feel free to contact Hill Country Conservancy with questions on your range enhancement project. If we don’t have the answers, we will gladly direct you to someone who does. We’re your partners in caring for the land.

About the Author

Frank Davis

Frank Davis grew up in Texas and came to Austin in 1997, where he fell in love with the parks and natural areas of the Texas Hill Country. He is the Director of Land Conservation at Hill Country Conservancy and recently completed a six-year tenure as a board member for the Texas Land Trust Council. Frank has a Bachelor’s degree in geography from the University of Texas at Austin and a Master’s in wildlife ecology from Texas State University, where his thesis work analyzed the effects of growing season fire on the exotic invasive grass, King Ranch Bluestem. Frank and his wife Jenny care for the water and wildlife at their family place in Mason County.

Comments

  1. When is the best month to mow natural grasses? I would like to keep them managed around our home for fire prevention.

    1. Author

      It’s best to avoid mowing from March 1 – September 1 to allow any ground-nesting species to be successful and allow native warm-season grasses to seed out over summer.

  2. Great information! I have a question pertaining to establishing lawn and native grasses on semi rocky soil of less than 3 acres. I removed juniper with skid and left the oak. There are nice expanses that have good soil but too much rock sizing from baseball to football size. I was planning on grinding/ crushing the rock without removing the vegetation, figuring it would get mulched during the process and help prevent erosion. I did not want want to use weed killers or herbicides prior to planting seed. Are herbicides recommended or not?

    1. Hi Gary,

      I can see your dilemma as the rocky ground will make it very difficult to do planting with equipment. This is where site-specific planning is so important. Are there thick stands of grasses growing in similar areas nearby? Or, are similar sites mostly rocky and covered in cedar (Ashe juniper) and other woody species? If the latter, it may be that the trees are actually better suited to that site, as they can build the needed organic material over time by dropping leaves (and yes, even evergreen cedars do this very effectively).

      That said, you now have a cleared site and need to establish native ground cover as effectively as possible. Consider this an experiment… You might try the grinding/crushing you are considering in a smaller area to see what results it yields. Then you can scale up to a larger area if it works well. Or, if it doesn’t work as well as you had hoped, you can take a more conservative approach in the remainder of the area, perhaps simply by broadcasting your seed at the appropriate rate.

      I would be interested in knowing how it plays out. We are all learning together!

      Frank

  3. This is great. We recently cleared a ton of Juniper Cedars from our 5 acre lot in Burnet (without mulching it all.) We’re exploring the quickest path to growing grass for landscaping as well as chicken grazing. Should I wait to seed or start at it pretty soon? It’s pretty rocky soil unfortunately. What’s the path of least resistance?

  4. Hi Stephen,

    Be sure to see my response to the previous question by Garry…

    I’m not sure exactly what is best for chicken feed on a site like yours, but I imagine there are some cool season native grasses and forbs that would be worth considering for a prompt planting early in the fall, followed by a warm season planting in the early part of next year as described in this article. These could be planted in the fall. I suggest you contact one of the seed vendors noted in this article to see what they recommend. You might also ask them about the use of cover crops.

    Best of luck!
    Frank

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